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Will update drive Vista use?

Microsoft is polishing Vista with a long-awaited service pack in hopes of greater adoption among businesses.

The first Vista service pack may serve dual purposes for Microsoft: fixing the operating system's rough edges while simultaneously indicating that it's ready for mass adoption.

Microsoft initially downplayed the importance of service packs in an era where patches are easily available online. Also, the company urged businesses not to wait for a service pack to start testing and rolling out Vista.

Nonetheless, in announcing its plans to release Service Pack 1 early next year, Microsoft is noting that the milestone remains an important signal for some businesses that the operating system has reached a level of maturity.

Many analysts have consistently advised companies to hold off on Vista deployments until the first service pack's arrival.

"There's always a portion of the market that has that M.O. (modus operandi)," said Shanen Boettcher, a general manager in the Windows unit.

By talking about SP1, Microsoft hopes to sway some businesses that have yet to move forward in any fashion to start at least testing the OS.

"I would expect that we will see a little bit of an increase," Boettcher said.

Microsoft has said it expects businesses to move to Vista at twice the rate that they did with XP over its first 12 months. However, Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC, said that businesses seem to be moving at generally the same pace as with previous releases. "From what we can see, the adoption curve is running much like past releases," he said.

In part, that's because so much goes into upgrading the OS, Gillen said. Companies have to test it against their custom and packaged software, do security reviews, make sure they have enough machines capable of running the new operating system, and then budget for the hardware, software training and support costs.

"Customers drag their feet," Gillen said.

A few exceptions
While most businesses have yet to start deploying Vista in significant numbers, Microsoft is touting a few large companies that have started putting the operating system onto a sizable number of desktops. Infosys, for example, has 4,000 PCs running Vista now, with plans for 20,000 by year's end. Citigroup, Charter Communications and Continental Airlines all have more than 2,000 machines on Vista and plan to have 10,000 machines running the operating system by year's end.

"Yeah, there are some early adopters and Microsoft always parades them forward," Gillen said. "They are really the exception and not the norm."

Boettcher said that the adoption rate so far among businesses "is about how we expected it to be."

As for the company's goal of doubling adoption, he said, "It's still early to declare victory...All the signs are we are doing well versus our goal."

Gillen said that the timing of the service pack probably hasn't made a huge impact on when businesses move to Vista.

"If they had brought SP1 out in the first three to six months after the release, I don't think that would have dramatically changed the adoption," he said.

What's unclear is whether Service Pack 1 will help to dispel the notion that the operating system still has too many glitches and hitches to justify the effort of migration. Even some who were initially bullish on the OS, have lately criticized its trouble spots.

Microsoft says it now has better driver support and compatibility with existing software than it did at Vista's launch, which could help businesses justify making the move.

The company openly admits that the stars didn't align for a big-bang Vista launch--reminiscent of Windows 95's debut--that it clearly hoped for. "Frankly, the world wasn't 100 percent ready for Windows Vista," Corporate Vice President Mike Sievert said in an interview at Microsoft's recent partner conference in Denver. "That has changed in a very material way in the past six months."

Gillen said it was good to see Microsoft also commit to a timetable for Windows XP Service Pack 3, which is due out in the first half of next year. "It's a nice indication that they are not trying to subtly coerce customers to move forward onto Windows Vista."