Vista: It was 20 years ago today...

When Microsoft takes five years to upgrade its most important product, the very lynchpin of its global business, and tells us we're going to go "Wow!" when we see it, and then it entirely disappoints, there's a case to answer

Michael Parsons
4 min read

Have you heard? Microsoft has got a new operating system! It's called Windows Vista! It even has a new slogan! "The 'Wow' starts now!". CNET.com has just reviewed it! Oh, wait. They describe it as "essentially warmed over Windows XP", and say there's "no compelling reason to upgrade". The good news? "It's stable enough for every day use". And if that doesn't make you go "Wow!" I don't know what will...

Hmmm. What is going on here? US marketing hyperbole aside, surely we just want this software to do its thing, not break, not be too horrible, and that's that -- we're not looking for "Wow!" After all, we don't get excited when you learn that a new car has a spiffy braking system. In fact, does anything you can discuss on a family-friendly Web site really make you go "Wow"? Watching this year's New Year Eve fireworks? Catching Cirque Du Soleil's O in Las Vegas? Seeing the amazing new Spanish movie Pan's Labyrinth? Can we really have an issue with Microsoft for boring us with a product that is essentially boring by its very nature? Oh I think we can, and here's why.

When politicians talk about ending the war in Iraq, and then send in enough troops to look like they're doing something new but not enough to make any real difference, the gap between the high-falutin' talk and the reality on the ground is so great that something has to give. When Microsoft takes five years to upgrade its most important product, the very lynchpin of its global business, and tells us we're going to go "Wow!" when we see it, and then it entirely disappoints, there's a case to answer. CNET.com says, "After more than five years of development, there's a definite "Is that all?" feeling about Windows Vista. C’maan, you expect me to leave that alone?

The sad truth is that for people like me who work in front of a PC all day, changing the virtual world of my computer desktop will probably have as much or more impact on my daily life as changing my real desktop at home: I spend eight hours a day in front of the virtual desk, and three hours a week at the one at home, if I'm lucky. And the truth is for years now, and for many years to come, Bill Gates and his company have ensured that I spend hours of my life in front of computer software that is vulnerable to security attacks, patronising, awkward and stuck in some tedious 80s assumptions about who I am and how the world works that was abandoned by more innovative engineers decades ago. And it would be really, really nice if that experience got better. Not winning the pools nice. Not "Wow!" nice. But just nice.

The 'Is that all?' feeling around Vista is generated by the sense that maybe, just maybe, this was the time, after Herculean effort, and millions of dollars, that Microsoft would make a break with the past, jettison all that 1980s baggage and lumber into the future. Instead Vista takes us back to the future. It's 1985: Michael J. Fox is a time traveller in white sneakers, we're listening to a soundtrack USA for Africa singing We Are the World, swigging a New Coke and wondering why it tastes so weird. Good times, no doubt, but do we really want to relive them?

I know where I have to go if I want a real time machine. Apple has a long history of presenting its products as though they came from the future, and setting aside the actual merits of the products (as though Apple fanbois care about that), there's no question that Steve can at least create the pleasant perfume of futurity. The iPhone's design values make it seem much cooler and more impressive than it really is, so there's not much point explaining all the ways in which it's not the Second Coming. I'm more interested in how Apple's razzle-dazzle works: how does it package something to give it the impact and coolness, the sense of being taken into a smarter (and smugger) world, how does it offer that indefinable chutzpah which has always been absent from Microsoft products?

And yet...I don't know if you're bored of the Apple/Microsoft thing. Lord knows I am, which is why it would have been so great if Vista had closed the gap between Apple's boutique, expensive computers, which often have trouble integrating into corporate environments, and PCs which are part of Microsoft's enormous ecosystem of cheap and cheerless good-enough computers that for various historical reasons everyone has ended up having to use but no one particularly likes.

In fact, nothing has changed with Vista. My office still has Mac bigots and Windows bores, the basic dynamic hasn't changed in the last 20 years, and at this point Microsoft seems incapable of changing the rules of the game in a way that will makes its software more exciting. I use PCs running Microsoft software because I have to; in the same way I use the British transport system, with a heavy heart and a sense of foreboding. I'm beginning to wonder if this will ever change.