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The main problem with Windows Vista

XP is still the right decision for many Windows users--yet again, making the case for XP over Vista.

Michael Horowitz

Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.


Michael Horowitz
4 min read

The New York Times published an article on Friday about Windows Vista that included this: "The main problem with Vista, Microsoft said, was that given the delays, uncertainty and significant changes in the software, the rest of the industry was not ready when Vista finally arrived."

This is, of course, self-serving; companies rarely admit their mistakes. How convenient that the fault lies with the "rest of the industry."

In fact, Microsoft released Vista prematurely. One can only assume that there was pent-up pressure stemming from the delay in getting it out the door. But few Windows users care about the delay. What made an impression, to the non-techies of the world, were the initial problems people had using it.

In the quote above Microsoft was referring to the lack of hardware drivers. They have to shoulder some of the blame for this, both in terms of not working sufficiently with hardware vendors and for releasing Vista knowing full well that driver problems awaited early adopters. Then too, they signed off on calling under-powered computers "Vista capable".

On top of this, Vista wasn't fully baked when it was released. The huge number of articles that suggested waiting for the first service pack is a testament to that.

In fairness, the same can be said of Apple. Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) too, was far from fully baked when it was released. In this regard at least, Linux shines. There is no marketing department or sales department at Linux headquarters pushing the operating system out the door before the programmers say it's ready. In fact, there are no Linux headquarters at all.

Hassle factor

The Times article goes on to say: "By now, Microsoft insists that most of the frustrating technical problems with Vista...have been resolved--and many industry executives and analysts agree." Assuming, for argument's sake, that's true, the out-of-the-gate problems aren't the end of the story.

Vista has to be better than Windows XP. And the judgment of whether it's better or not varies with the audience. While techies may write blogs and articles, nerds are the minority--most Windows users are normal people with lives focused elsewhere. And for many normal people, Vista just ain't worth it.

For example, I can drive a car with an automatic transmission, but not a stick shift. Assuming, for argument's sake, that stick shifts offered an advantage (perhaps better mileage), I have to weigh the advantage against the cost and hassle of making the switch.

For many computer users, Windows XP works just fine. It's familiar, it's what they know, it's not a problem waiting to be solved. Some can barely use Windows XP and may not have the ability to adapt to anything new. Technical change is fun and easy for techies, but the same change is hard and/or distracting for others. I deal with many non-techies with jobs in other fields who could care less about operating systems. Their computer is a tool to get their work done and any change is a nuisance--perhaps one they don't have time for.

The keyboard on your computer uses a layout that was chosen for reasons that no longer apply. Yet, who knows how many better layouts have failed to take off because they couldn't overcome the hassle involved in changing. Once someone learns to type on an existing keyboard, the benefit has to be huge to switch to a new layout.

Against this background, Vista has to be better than Windows XP. Much better. Noticeably better.

I don't see it.

I don't see Vista offering sufficient benefit in the way of must-have features to make it worth the changeover hassle. On top of this, despite whatever strides Microsoft may cite, Windows XP will be more compatible with existing hardware and software for the immediate future. Thus, XP is still the right decision for many Windows users.

Businesses choose which version of Windows to use and most chose XP (see Intel and General Motors). Consumers, by and large, don't choose, they are force-fed Vista. That's a shame. In part, it has led to the resurgent interest in Macs (along with the commercials, of course) and may well lead to the rise of Linux on Netbook computers. We'll see.

Update September 7, 2008: I'm not a Mac person, so my analogy about Apple also releasing an OS before it was ready may have been off. A commenter below said: "You would be more correct in using OS X 10.0 as a parallel example, which was released way too quickly, and was full of bugs. OS X 10.1 (which had all the fixes) came out very quickly after that, and was distributed to all OS X users for free as a partial apology."

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.