Friday, June 1, 2007

Microsoft Vista: Necessary Upgrade or Marketing Mirage?

As a confirmed technogeek, I was always one of the first on my block to upgrade my personal computers to the latest operating system release from Microsoft. The very day that Bill Gates and company released retail versions of Windows, my friends and I would spend the next twenty-four hours installing the software into our computers. It was something we actually looked forward to, kind of like Christmas morning, Thanksgiving and a Fourth of July picnic, all rolled up into one.

Certainly there were drawbacks. It often took a month of fiddling to overcome the usual hardware and software incompatibilities, to implement configuration changes, and to finally figure out how Microsoft rearranged some of the icons and utilities. Even so, the benefits that accrued from the upgrade always exceeded any possible cost. New versions were always more reliable, easier to use and more technologically exciting and glitzy than the one before. Over the years, I upgraded software with every release, starting with MSDOS 6.22 proceeding right through Windows XP.

In 2007 though, for the first time in my career, I decided against upgrading my PCs to the latest operating system release. I ignored the release of Vista, and made the decision to postpone any action for at least another year. What would cause me to abandon eighteen years of tradition and postpone any upgrade?

First off, Vista contains the typical collection of security holes, bugs and code problems that always accompany a major Microsoft release. Whether it’s intentional or not, Microsoft relies upon its installed customer base to provide final quality control for the newly released product by tabulating reports of bugs, crashes and strange behavior collected from their users. This means that the Vista that you buy in January of 2008 will be much more reliable than the Vista purchased this year.

Second, Vista requires significant CPU horsepower, video card capability and memory resources to operate in an efficient manner. Microsoft claims that Vista will run on a motherboard with a 800 MHZ CPU and 512 meg of memory, but in reality, Vista demands a much faster microprocessor - something like an Intel Core 2 Duo 6700 and two gig of high-speed memory to run with any level of performance. As of today, a new motherboard with this kind of a CPU and a case will cost around $600, and two gig of memory will add another $420 to the exercise. Assuming that you add a $200 graphics card to the mix, you’re now looking at a $1200 supplemental cost on top of the $200 Vista package price. If you’re thinking of being frugal by re-using your old PC, I’d reconsider. Trying to run Vista on a three year old computer will disappoint even the most casual user.

Even if you decided to tolerate the sluggish performance, many older pieces of hardware and software that ran fine under Windows XP will not be so copasetic under Vista. The development efforts of hardware, software, peripheral and documentation companies are all lagging Microsoft’s release schedule, so finding functional versions of driver software, books or things like anti-virus programs might take weeks or even months after you take possession of the software. For example, while consumer copies of Vista hit the market in January of 2007, Mark Minasi’s reference book didn’t arrive until April1. Further, to reduce development costs, companies might decide against proving drivers for older pieces of hardware, thus forcing customers to upgrade those pieces of perfectly usable hardware along with the new software. These kinds of upgrades push the final cost of the project far beyond the original cost of the Vista purchase.

Microsoft’s decision to include anti-piracy and digital rights management at the behest of the entertainment industry makes it difficult for the end user to manipulate the video and multi-media content that Vista is purported to service. Further, concerns are circulating about the effect that these features might have on Windows reliability. Unnamed Microsoft sources are quite distressed about “having to spend time implementing large amounts of anti-functionality to prevent copyright infringement when it's already hard enough to get things running smoothly without the intentional crippling."

There are certainly some benefits to upgrading today. Vista offers enhanced graphical touches, extended search capabilities, and a whole host of security improvements. Even so, Microsoft’s security tour de force, User Account Control (better known as UAC), is sufficiently annoying that this feature prompted PCWorld readers to vote Vista as one of the ten most annoying tech products of 2007. Most people disable the feature soon after installing Vista, which interestingly enough, makes Vista less secure than Windows XP 2. In addition, all of the attractive cosmetic
enhancements mentioned by pro-Microsoft media reviewers exact a sizable performance penalty from most computer systems. As a result, most power users will likely disable these enhancements. You’re now left with a software package that looks and acts suspiciously like the Windows XP that you purchased five years ago.

I have to admit that most of these arguments wouldn’t kill an upgrade plan on their own. All Microsoft upgrades have offered up some of these drawbacks, and none of them stopped me from making the plunge. The biggest reason for postponing any Vista implementation is that Vista is boring – dreadfully boring. It’s like eating leftover macaroni and cheese for the third straight night. It contains no “knock your socks off” feature set, no applications that break new ground, and no enhancements that generate any excitement among anyone who follows the computer business. There are no cool games, no I-Phone-like accessories, and no utilities that have people lining up outside stores to reserve their copy. Knowing that Windows XP is sufficiently stable, secure and laden with features that it continues to provide yeoman service five years after its introduction, most users have essentially slept through the vaunted Vista introduction.

I’m not completely writing off this upgrade. I did install a copy of Vista Enterprise on one of the lab test computers, and probably spend a day or two a week nosing around the user interface as more of an educational exercise than anything else. Even so, I’m still running Windows XP Professional on any of my computers that matter, and am advising my customers to do the same, at least for the next year. If anything changes, I’ll email my customers accordingly.