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A Clearer View Of Vista

With the next major release of Microsoft Windows on the horizon, businesses need to start planning now. Our survey shows what some business technology professionals have in mind--and why.
But it's a lag in developing the very security features Microsoft thinks will sell Vista that led to a delay in the product's consumer release until January. After Microsoft added a few weeks to its completion date for the code, retail PC makers such as HP needed more time to test the operating system with their hardware. The delay won't apply to the business version, and most companies take a year or more to test and deploy anyway. More taxing might be figuring out which of six editions of Vista is right for them (see story, The Vista Lineup).

The bottom-line price tag? The best Microsoft will say is the standard business edition of Vista will be priced similarly to Windows XP Professional. It's a big concern--58% of respondents to our survey worry that Vista's price will be too high, a concern that's second only to hardware compatibility, cited by 70%. Vista will need 512 Mbytes of RAM, a CPU like Intel's Pentium 4 or AMD's Athlon, and a graphics processor that supports DirectX 9, but Microsoft hasn't released the key minimum system requirements many customers use when ordering PCs.

Cost Savings And Collaboration
At Gates Corp., Vista is seen as the final piece in a series of Microsoft purchases the company has made over the past couple of years aimed at improving communications among worldwide teams. As Gates' customers, which include General Motors, John Deere, and Toyota, locate more sales and manufacturing in countries such as Brazil, China, and India, the pressure's on IT to make sure engineers and business managers can communicate around the clock. "We may have an engineering lead out of Germany working with a raw materials manager in Detroit working with a lead engineer designing a product for a customer in China," Vigil says. "We're trying to transition from an old model of getting everyone in one place to online meetings, instant messaging, and E-mail systems that can bring these roaming product teams back together." Workers use Microsoft products such as Office, Outlook, and Live Communication Server to see if a colleague is online, then launch a virtual meeting or Internet phone call from their in-box.

Then there's cost savings. Vigil says his team thinks Vista could cut IT support costs by providing a single version of Windows for every country Gates operates in, reducing by 20% to 50% the time spent patching and repairing systems hampered by malware and adding back lost hours of productivity that users spend looking for documents. Beta tests indicate Vista may knock down Gates' total cost of Windows ownership by 10% to 30%.

Microsoft manager Hassall puts Vista's installation cost at about $100 per PC--far less than Windows 2000--because of improvements in Vista's administration capabilities. For one thing, Microsoft has cut in half the number of Windows images IT shops need to create. Hassall says PCs can be upgraded in less than an hour. Gartner advises upgrading only if Vista costs less than $100 per machine and recommends using a software-distribution product from vendors such as HP, Landesk Software, Marimba, Symantec, or Microsoft. Most companies have only about a quarter of their apps packaged for automatic distribution, says Gartner analyst Michael Silver. Microsoft itself advises upgrading mobile workers first, then adopting Vista as part of a PC upgrade cycle. Our survey finds 67% plan to use Vista on new and existing PCs, while 22% plan only to license it with new machines.

What Else?
Microsoft is spending $500 million for ads promoting "people ready" business, and it seems it still has a lot of persuading to do. Vista includes a new user interface called Aero that catches Windows up to the Mac, and new ways to find and organize files on a PC aimed at making people more productive. A "documents explorer" window shows thumbnail images of documents and their contents, and "virtual folders" can organize files based on what's in them, who wrote them, and other parameters.

The system also should make it easier for mobile users to get connected. When Longhorn Server arrives sometime next year, companies running it will be able to give employees secure access to a corporate network without requiring a VPN, and Vista will support improved synchronization with PDAs and offline folders out of the box.

Ka-ching pie chartBut those aren't features most put a premium on. In our survey, 38% of those with Vista adoption plans cite its ability to support home office workers and traveling employees as a reason to upgrade, 23% cite enhanced desktop and Web searching, 23% look forward to pairing Vista with Longhorn Server, and 34% cite the combination of Vista and Office 2007, due later this year. Just 14% consider the release of Office 2007 "very important" to their Vista purchasing plans, while 56% say it isn't important.

Perhaps that's because a lot of what's needed to make this dream of workers a world away hashing up projects together isn't here yet. Vista's Windows Workflow Foundation subsystem and WinFX programming model will be needed to develop apps that let Office 2007 automatically route documents around a company and generate notifications to key employees. Microsoft late last month delayed the general release of its consumer Office 2007 suite until January to coincide with the Windows launch. And the technology for programming Vista still isn't mature--the next version of Visual Studio, code-named Orcas, is several years away, and that'll be Microsoft's primary development tool suite for exploiting Vista's WinFX programming model for graphics and workflow. The company is testing some of that technology today in early pre-beta releases.

The reality is that for companies that don't upgrade, life may get hard in a couple of years--mainstream tech support for Windows XP will end two years after Vista ships, and they'll have to pay for extended support, planned through 2013. Microsoft will have failed if that's the reason most companies take the Vista plunge. Its success might be better measured in terms of how many people pound on their IT departments' doors saying they need Vista to work the way they want to work. It could take a lot more than $500 million in ads to convince them of that.

Illustration by Dale Stephanos