The Flop That is Windows Vista

Thom posted an article on yesterday called Vista’s Mythical Cut Features. It got me thinking; I left a few comments on the article that really hit the heart of the matter, but Thom’s responses, and those of others, questioned whether or not the things I mentioned were cut features or not.

Longhorn, years ago, was presented as delivering on three pillars. The pillars were: WinFS, a metadata based, database-like file system; Avalon, a new .NET graphical subsystem; and Indigo, a new communications framework. WinFS is in beta now, but delivers in a far different way than originally posed. Avalon, renamed Windows Presentation Foundation or WPF was delivered with Windows Vista and is available on XP. Indigo, retitled Windows Communication Foundation, is available in Vista as well. Initially, this lends some credence to the editorial, which suggests that it’s virtually impossible to name individual “missing features” from Vista.

But upon further thought, it goes further than “which feature is missing?” Because there are loads of things that are “missing” in the sense that they ought to be included. Ultimately, where Vista fails on a large scale is delivering on the promise it made. Microsoft, not only via promo videos, but also via their insiders like Scoble, Mary Jo Foley, and Paul Thurott, started to lay the groundwork via conversations and ideas that promised a next generation operating system. A new OS, built almost entirely from scratch, almost entirely in managed code.

But they blew it. Big time.

In fact, they were so incapable of delivering that they infamously scrapped their work and rolled back to Windows 2003 SP1 in what would eventually be called the “Longhorn reset.”

Vista is an incremental change at best. This should come as little surprise, as Vista is pretty much, as described, XP enhanced twice over. Many of the changes that made it to the final version serve little purpose. The Aero interface is clunkier and less attractive than Apple’s. The Flip3D tool is cool, but ultimately, a toy. UAC is a disaster. WinFS isn’t there. Windows Mail received love under the hood, but is still second rate. The over-branding of every app and the un-customizable, dumbed-down UI is hatable. Pretty much everything about Vista is less appetizing than Windows XP, which is maturing really nicely.

Longhorn, on the other hand, was an idea. It was going to show us something new and exciting. It was going to be the best that incredibly talented engineers could come up with when they had unlimited budget, an amazing array of programmers, marketers, user interface experts, and powerful partners. But Microsoft collapsed under its own weight. They couldn’t commit to advancing things and making them work. Who could forget the Windows shudown crapfest article? This is likely a microcosm of the entire development of this OS: the lowest common denominator, the least offensive, the least problem causing thing won. And more often than not, it sucked.

This isn’t to say Redmond doesn’t count amongst its ranks, some of the best and brightest. It’s just that when you become that large, it’s hard to be nimble and stay on course. Microsoft’s newest utter failure is their foray into search — Microsoft has already lost search. I wonder if they will apply the same “we can do anything” attitude there.

The interesting thing is that Microsoft has pretty much admitted Windows Vista is a flop by feeding the press details about “Windows 7.” The very fact that they have already dumped Vista to focus on the next shining star is pretty telling.

Combine all of this with the dizzying number of “versions” of Vista, designed, as best as I can tell, to slowly extort money from you. There is no magic included with each version, you don’t get an extra disc, or more applications. You don’t get more at all, in fact, what you get is something simply less crippled. Microsoft intentionally sells versions of its own OS with features removed unless you pay more. This is the business behind the OS, and it is part and parcel of the problem – there is no respect for the client, either as a consumer or as a user. In short, they don’t deliver the best product they can, they deliver part of the product, and for more dollars, you can use some of what was there anyway. Since none of the version provide explicitly what I would want, I would need to buy the “ultimate” edition, which currently runs $329. That’s $200 more than Mac OS X Leopard.

So maybe I can’t name siginificant individual things left out of Vista besides WinFS. And perhaps the disappointment is not that the features are left out, but rather, that developers haven’t really leveraged them for fear that a Vista-only program is doomed before the first header file is included. But one thing is certain: Vista didn’t deliver on what most people expected, which was a new experience, a new OS, a new paradigm, a new adventure. Instead, they got a stinker that requires top-notch specs to perform half as well as XP. Microsoft may yet impress us with Windows 7. Perhaps their days ruling the roost of OSes have begun their long and painful wane. But one thing will remain forever clear when discussing Vista: what they “left out” was innovation and inspiration. And what we got is a flop.

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