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Making sense of Vista's first year

Beyond "the Mom test," CNET's Ina Fried looks at several factors to try to gauge Vista's impact. One of the most striking? How few Vista-specific programs there are.

Note: This is one in a series of blogs looking at the one-year anniversary of Windows Vista's consumer launch.

While many of you enjoyed "the Mom test," clearly there are lots more ways to look at how Windows Vista is doing. Here are three measures I typically use when trying to assess the impact of Vista.

• The "downgrade" / Stick with XP movement

The downgrade movement is an indicator of how the most disgruntled users feel about Vista. Most people buying a new PC will accept Vista because that's what nearly all computers come with at retail. So, the folks who are actively seeking out XP machines or downgrading their Vista machines represent a minority, to be sure. Still, it's a vocal and important minority worth some attention. What's more, this movement gained steam during the year, prompting Microsoft to make it easier for PC makers to include an XP disc in the box with Vista machines and extend Windows XP's stay on the market.

However, this effort is set to be further relegated to the fringes come June, when Microsoft plans to stop providing XP to large computer makers. Windows XP-based systems will still be available from smaller computer makers, known as system builders, and Microsoft has indicated the date might not be set in stone.

"No changes are planned at this point, but we continue to listen to our customers and partners about their needs," a Microsoft representative said in an e-mail interview.

Although computer makers will still be able to offer XP downgrades in the box, they'll have to buy those discs ahead of the June 30 deadline, according to the Microsoft rep.

Another option for those unhappy with Vista's performance, but not looking to make the dramatic step back to XP, is a little-known program called vLite, which strips out many of Vista's optional components. Microsoft, is of course making its own change to Vista, the Service Pack 1 release due out before the end of March.

• Sales numbers

There are three sales figures that matter: business adoption rates, new PC sales figures, and retail boxed sales of the operating system.

New PC sales and boxed copies are easy to track, but don't necessarily provide a direct indication about enthusiasm for the operating system.

Boxed copy sales have not shown nearly the jump seen with past new versions of Windows. Typically, enthusiasts snap up copies of the new version to upgrade older machines. Less than robust sales of boxed copies could be an indicator that hard-core enthusiasts are less jazzed about Vista, but there are other factors that probably are playing a role as large or larger.

One is the fact that both the absolute hardware requirements as well as the horsepower needed to really make Vista sing make an upgrade a poor choice for all but high-end or recently purchased machines. The second reason, which dovetails with this, is that PC prices are far lower than they were when XP debuted. A strong case can be made that if you have to upgrade the video card or memory of an old PC to run Vista, you are better off just buying a new PC.

PC sales have indeed been robust in the last year, allowing Microsoft to reach its much-touted 100 million mark for Vista licenses sold. Again, though, PC sales are not a true indicator of Vista demand.

It is hard to even guess at an estimate of what percentage of buyers for whom Vista was the reason, or even a primary reason, behind their purchase.

Shifting back to the realm of the anecdotal, in a year of writing about Vista, I have yet to have anyone tell me they bought a new PC because they wanted Vista.

Perhaps the most important indicator of true demand for a new operating system is how quickly businesses start using the product. There's no foolproof way to track this, with corporate surveys of deployment and intent to deploy probably offering the best indications.

Microsoft has said that Vista deployment has fallen short of its initial goal, an optimistic forecast that businesses would snap up Vista at twice the rate they had Windows XP.

• Software/hardware compatibility

Microsoft executives have conceded that software and hardware compatibility, while numerically higher than with XP, wasn't where it needed to be when Vista debuted. This story has improved as the year has gone on.

What strikes me, though, is that even with 100 million Vista licenses sold, there continue to be darn few applications written specifically for Windows Vista. Ahead of the launch, Microsoft was touting the fact that application developers were taking advantage of things like Vista's new presentation engine and other features to create Vista-specific software.

A year out, we haven't seen much of that. One of the initial applications, a Vista-specific version of Yahoo Messenger, took months longer than expected to arrive in test form, while there haven't been any marquee announcements in recent months. Asked to offer some counterevidence, the best Microsoft could point to was DxO Optics Pro, a high-end photography application that uses Windows Presentation Foundation to enhance the photo-editing program.

Microsoft also pointed to a handful of Web sites that take advantage of Vista's presentation engine, as well as games like Crysis that support DirectX 10, which is built into Vista. Crysis also runs on XP, but without taking advantage of DirectX 10.

I expected more at this point. A few key applications that really sing on Vista would really help Microsoft's sell with Vista. Their absence makes the move to Vista less than compelling for consumers who are happy with their PCs.