By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 11:49 pm
Dear Windows Vista,
First of all, I’m sorry it took me so long to sit down and write this letter. You’ve been an unusually busy operating system lately, starting with the official (if less than utterly final) demise of your predecessor Windows XP at the end of June. Then you spent some time helping with a Microsoft marketing experiment by pretending to be a new version Windows code-named “Mojave.” This week, however, seems to be a relatively quiet one for you–and so I wanted to take the opportunity to bend your ear.
We haven’t talked, but I’ve been watching you from afar and feeling your pain as you’ve dealt with more than your fair share of challenges. Eighteen months after your debut, you simply don’t have an aura of success about you. Worse, your aging predecessor, Windows XP, has unexpectedly gained armies of devotees who refuse to give it up. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs–your original marketing tagline may have been “The Wow Starts Now,” but many people remain steadfastly unwowed.
The idea behind Microsoft’s Mojave Experiment was to suggest that those who spurn you do so out of ignorance. It’s true that some Vista doubters base their distaste on what they’ve heard about you rather than hands-on experience. But I don’t know of anyone outside of Redmond who’d maintain that long-term exposure to you turns the average computer user into a raving fan. Sure, you’re better than you were when you first showed up, thanks to Service Pack 1 and improved compatibility with applications and peripherals. But I’ve talked to lots of people who have used you for many months, and while some of them are pleased with you there are plenty whose feelings range from ennui to anger.
Even Microsoft admits that you have a reputation as being a disappointment. The Mojave campaign sure implies that, as does the Vista site’s references to “confusion and lingering misunderstandings” about you. How often does any manufacturer of anything acknowledge unhappy customers at all?
So are you a disappointment, or is it all a bum rap? That question has at least two answers, depending on whether it’s about your sales or your quality. Let’s consider sales first.
Microsoft recently said that it had sold more than 180 million copies of you. That’s not chicken feed. But any real analysis of that number would need to be a pretty tricky math problem comparing it to XP’s sales at the equivalent time in its history, taking into account the number of the PCs in the world today vs. 2003. I haven’t seen Microsoft or anyone else undertake this in recent months.
I do know that when I worked at PC World, the percentage of our site visitors who used you was around half of the percentage that had adopted XP at the same point in its life. That can’t be good–surely the folks who visit a site called PCWorld.com are more likely to buy you than the average Joe, not less so. And in Technologizer’s brief life, we’ve received visits from three XP users for every one person who’s been running you. (Actually, for what it’s worth, we’ve had more visitors using OS X than you.)
Then there’s the question of just how many of the people who buy your licenses actually use you. This story from an Australian site has some Aussie HP execs saying that most of the businesses there who pay for you choose to use XP instead. How many of your 180 million sales fall into that category?
The bottom line is that you’re the current version of the operating system used on the vast majority of the world’s computers. If you hadn’t sold 180 million copies a year and a half after introduction, I’d have been startled. But I think only Microsoft has all the data needed to assess how you’re doing in comparison with their expectations previous to your release, and they haven’t revealed it.
Let’s move onto quality. Are you a terrible operating system? A disappointing one? A pretty good one? A gem? Is the Mojave message that you’re better than your reputation a reasonable take on things?
First the good news: I don’t think you’re terrible–when people ask me if they should avoid you when buying a new Windows PC, I recommend against doing so. That may not be a ringing endorsement, but it falls well short of the harshest possible take on you.
Your single biggest problem is that you fall so short of what people expected you to be. For 25 years, Microsoft has had a reputation for over-hyping upcoming products early and often–they even did it with your great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Windows 1.0, which was announced at Comdex two years before it shipped. They sure overhyped you, first by touting features that you didn’t end up having, such as WinFS, and then by claiming that using you would leave people saying “Wow”–or maybe leave them just plain speechless. Microsoft also egged people on to buy PCs that weren’t well-suited to running you, by creating the misleading “Windows Vista Capable” program that ended up being the subject of a class-action lawsuit.
In other words, your maker needlessly set expectations for you far too high. If they’d stuck to previewing features you actually had, avoided absurd claims about you, discouraged people from running you on underpowered PCs, and maybe even shipped you closer to the original schedule, you might have gotten a better reception–even if you were precisely the same operating system you ended up being.
You still would have caught flack, though. It’s not that you’re lacking in advantages; it’s more that most of them seem to come with downsides.
A few examples:
–You’re more secure, and that’s an important benefit–but your User Access Control is such a persistent pain in the neck that when I use you, I feel safer but unhappier.
–You signature feature is your Aero interface, a new look which mostly boils down to your window frames being semi-transparent. I’m not even going to address whether that’s a big enough whoop to consider adopting you–I’ll just note that the $1000 “Vista Capable” computer I bought at the time of your release runs Aero…until it chokes on it and shuts it off without warning.
–While I like some of your new features and interface tweaks (such as your desktop search and non-cascading Start menu) you also have a fair amount of what seems to be change for change’s sake (like your approach to file navigation).