An Open Letter to Windows Vista

In which I offer a little honest feedback to a beleaguered operating system.

By  |  Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 11:49 pm

Microsoft-Apple comparisons can get old really fast, I know–and I understand why you might be sensitive to them, which is why I’ve avoided them until now. But it’s worth contrasting you with Leopard, the current version of OS X, and how Apple handled that rollout:

–it released Leopard just 2 1/2 years after its predecessor, Panther Tiger, (admittedly behind its original schedule); you, on the other hand, were released more than five years after Windows XP, so the suspense had been building for much longer and there was more riding on you.

–It didn’t tout any major features and then fail to deliver on them.

–it didn’t make any major changes to the Leopard user system that didn’t deliver clear benefit (OK, maybe one: the new Help system) or which were likely to drive users nuts (like your UAC).

–it managed to release an operating system that ran well on all modern Macs; there was no need to talk about “Leopard Capable Macs” and Leopard Ready Macs,” or warn owners of certain models to steer clear of certain features, except for the inherently ntel-only Boot Camp feature.

–it released one version of the OS at a reasonable $129, plus a five-user family pack for $199, making the upgrade simple and affordable. (You’re available in four major versions that I have trouble keeping track of, with your Ultimate edition costing as much for one user as Leopard costs for five.)

End result: Even though Leopard, like you, is far from a life-transforming upgrade, it lived up to expectations…and maybe even exceeded them.

Both you and Leopard must deal with one issue that’s not of your making: As desktop operating systems, you’re part of computing’s past more than its future. If you’re a little blah, it’s in part because Microsoft formulated plans for you early in this century, spent years developing you, and then had to press you onto optical discs, put you in boxes, and ship you to stores. It’s precisely the same process the company followed more than two decades ago for Windows 1.0. (Okay, except for the fact that 1.0 came on floppy disks.) When Microsoft wants to roll out changes to you, it must do so through patches and service packs which people may or may not bother to install. (Hey, some people actively avoid installing them, a strategy I understand–I still wince every time I remember the horrible things that Windows XP SP1 did to my notebook.)

During the lengthy period you were in development, our Web-centric world moved in fast-forward mode; as a traditional piece of desktop software, you were unable to respond. For instance, Microsoft likes to treat your tools for editing photos and videos as major selling points, but it’s painfully obvious that they originate from an era in which Flickr and YouTube didn’t even exist.

Compare that to Google: As a Web-based service, it can easily easily roll out new features more or less continuously, and every user is always on the current version, no service pack required. That explains in part why Google in 2008 is so much better, more ambitious, and up-to-date than Google circa 2001, while you’re often criticized for just not providing a radically better experience than Windows XP.

You’ve also suffered from a Microsoft habit that also stems from the desktop-centric age: The way the company tends to gobble up every kilohertz and kilobyte of power provided by new PCs without always delivering benefits that are in line with Windows’ ever-increasing system requirements. In the past, that tendency wasn’t a huge problem, since so many people were willing to buy powerful new PCs on a fairly regular basis. Today, though, more people are hanging onto systems longer, including ones that will never run you well. And how weird is it that the hottest new form factor in PC design is the one pioneered by Asus’s EEE PC–inexpensive, basic computers that run Windows XP just fine but are too underpowered to handle you well? That’s what has left Microsoft in the strange position of trying to jump on the ultra low-cost PC bandwagon, but having to do so by extending XP’s life.

Again, Google doesn’t have to deal with these issues, since almost everything it does runs equally well on an EEE PC, a high-end Alienware tower, a Mac, a Linux machine, or almost anything else with a browser and an Internet connection.

I don’t mean to keep bashing you for your original “The Wow Starts Now” ad campaign, especially since a new Vista media blitz that may be quite different is apparently imminent. But I think the whole message about you was off-key for this era. As Paul Boutin said when reviewing you back when you were released, operating systems shouldn’t be exciting. They should be reliable, easy to use, and basically unobtrusive except when you need them. Apologies for bringing up Apple again, but for all the surface glossiness of Leopard, it gets this: The major new feature in that OS is Time Machine, a utility devoted to the mundane but essential duty of keeping your data safe. Snow Leopard, Leopard’s upcoming successor, looks to be even more focused on getting the basics right.

I suspect none of what I’m saying is shocking to you. Heck, it’s even possible that you agree with some of it. Microsoft seems to agree with at least a few of my points: Its plans for Windows Seven and the post-Windows incubator project known as Midori sound like the company is taking issues like reliability, speed, simplicity, and Web savvy seriously. That’s encouraging, since all those factors have contributed to the drubbing you’ve received.

But Windows Seven isn’t due until 2010, and we’re talking Microsoft time here, so I expect it no earlier than early 2011. And it’s not even clear whether Midori will ever reach consumers as something discrete and real. So where does that leave you?

Here’s what I’d want Microsoft to do with me, if I were you:

–I’d hope that it would continue to improve me, not only by fixing problems but by adding meaningful new features. (Windows Service Pack SP2 certainly showed that it’s possible for a version of Windows to become significantly more appealing late in the game.)

–I’d be glad if Microsoft rationalized the relationship between me and the Windows Live services by turning them into true online extensions of the Windows experience–but I’d be equally pleased if it found ways to make me work better with third-party products and services, such as Firefox and Google.

–I’d encourage it to do everything in its power to encourage third-party developers to actively take advantage of my technical improvements, such as DirectX 10, so they’re not theoretical advantages but features which I’d get lots of credit for.

–I’d be okay with it extending the ability of people who hanker for Windows XP to buy it even though it’s been officially discontinued, since folks who feel like they’re been forced to use me are the ones least likely to become my champions.

–I’d be happiest with Vista advertising that was low on hype and high on explanation of my best features.

If all of that were to happen, the upside could be huge. And who knows? It’s entirely possible that by the time Windows Seven rolled around, some of the people who shun you now could become such loyal Windows Vista enthusiasts that they won’t want to give you up.

That’s all for now–thanks for listening, and if I have any further thoughts I’ll drop you another line.

Your Pal,




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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Simon Says:

    Hey, Harry. Let me be the first pedant to note that Leopard followed Tiger, not Panther!

  2. Ned Bright Says:

    It was hard enough to get drivers to work in XP. Why does Vista require all new drivers or new drivers for the devices that I finally got working on XP ? What regressive change in Vista is responsible?

  3. spanx0r Says:

    I think you are missing the primary reason why people dislike Vista. Everyone I know who upgraded (about a dozen) had at least one important loss — e.g. one device had no driver, one application stopped working, one OS feature missing, performance drop, etc. I have read about the new features, but no one seems to care about those. I haven’t heard anyone say they are glad they upgraded. The few who had the time and skill to downgrade, did so.

  4. Robert Says:

    Among the worst of things was the fact that hardware vendors were shipping out their products with just barely enough resources and capacity to run Vista(tm), let alone to run the OS and applications effectively with the end result of a lot of really, really angry consumers, many of whom purchased base configuration laptops and notebooks unawares their new machines would run slower than molasses on a cold Minnesota morning.

  5. Robin 'Roblimo' Miller Says:

    I bought a quad core Gateway with Vista for use as a video editing appliance. (I do everything else in Linux.)


    Even with all the cute-up and graphics (Aero) features turned off, it takes *longer* to open and display video clips and even Sony Vegas than my old P4/XP computer did.

    The new computer is fast on rendering. I’ll give it that. But the other Vista-based slowdowns take that speed right back.

    Vista is okay for things like word processing, but for video? A waste of time and money.

  6. JP Says:

    Im a contractor for the Department of Defense. We are being forced to upgrade to Vista, so I decided to get a Vista laptop at home. As a business operating system, I think it is a failure. The Aero interface, all the pretty UI changes: as a business user its just a distraction and a cause for confusion.

    I think Vista’s biggest problem is that it tries to compete with Mac in the coolness factor. M$ has made the same mistake with Office 2007, in my opinion. The thing is, if PC users cared about having a fancy desktop UI and big “fisher-price” style buttons and toolbars, they would have already migrated to Mac. And you are seeing people out-grade for this reason. Mac already does this better.

    Vista failed to do what Windows XP did well. It doesn’t even seem to come from the same lineage as Win2k and WinXP. I don’t like the gadgety feeling of Mac and Vista, not in my OS. Give me the ability to add gadgety applications, but only if I prefer them. Its like the author said, I want my OS to be reliable and efficient, I don’t really care if its pretty.

2 Trackbacks For This Post

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