Countdown to Vista: Microsoft's Past and Future

Monday Nov 6th 2006 by Rob Enderle
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A look at Microsoft’s hits and misses puts Vista in perspective. How will this new OS fare?

If the stars align properly in a few days Microsoft will be releasing their next operating system to manufacturing, and it will both signal the end of one era and the beginning of another.

This is really the end of the product lines that began with Windows 95 and ended with Windows XP. It represents the beginning of a new crew overseeing operating systems at Microsoft as the company struggles to balance between an ever-increasing number of threats and opportunities. With the announcement of the broad partnership between Novell and Microsoft, clearly Microsoft has changed.

Let’s take this opportunity to look back and remember how we got here.

Windows 95: a Brave New World

From the naming methodology to the products themselves Windows has come a long way in the past decade. Recalling the Windows 95 launch, it was almost a magical event in which the clouds in the Redmond sky actually mirrored the artwork on the box and people stood in line for hours to be the first to get the new operating system.

The major news services covered the event constantly up to launch and the product was a rock star. Unfortunately, once it launched the problems that typically follow a new operating system took center stage. The massive wave that was expected failed to materialize and the roll out went much more slowly, with some users not moving until nearly the end of the decade.

These were the last days of OS/2, which had been surrounded by a massive support program from IBM but was collapsing under increasing IBM indifference. Still, OS/2 wasn’t going down easy and many people got their copy of OS/2 for free before IBM realized they still owed Microsoft a royalty payment regardless of how little they charged for the product.

But even free OS/2 simply couldn’t compete, even though it was closer to Windows 2000 than Windows 95 was. While many said this was due to Microsoft cheating, the real cause was outlined in IBM internal reports, which indicated IBM itself was at fault.

Much like today, competitors were screaming anti-competitive warnings and AOL was the most vocal. AOL actually said that Microsoft was going to put them out of business, while not so quietly another company, Netscape, was doing more to put AOL out of business than Microsoft ever could. Both Microsoft and AOL almost missed the birth of the modern Internet.

Windows 95 was marred by a lack of post launch execution and the fact that it stayed in service longer than it should have. As a result, many remember this faded Microsoft star poorly, but in its day there was no product that could match it. And there has been no technology product – not even the iPod – that has matched the star power of Windows 95 at launch.

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Windows NT: the Empire Strikes Itself

The next big product after Windows 95, Windows NT, was mostly a rework of OS/2, eliminating IBM’s intellectual property as the last step in that corporate divorce. A product well out of date at launch, it fell well short of the promises it made and destroyed a lot of Microsoft supporters in the process.

NT was, from my view, a horrible product designed for servers and workstations but positioned for the corporate desktop. It was incredibly difficult to install and manage in large numbers and virtually always broke budgets and milestones.

It showcased Microsoft at the peak of arrogance when the company felt they didn’t need to listen and – like IBM in the ‘80s – knew what was best for customers, even though they didn’t realize they had no clue what their customers were going through. This was what lit the initial big fire under Linux and Open Source as Microsoft, in a way, became the illegitimate father of that effort.

Next page: Windows 2000: Redmond Under Siege

Windows 2000: Redmond Under Siege

Windows 2000 was largely driven by Y2K and blended elements of both the 9x and NT bases successfully. Though it fixed the shortcomings of Windows ME and Windows NT, it was marred by the massive environmental change created by the Internet, as well as the massive focus by virus writers who wanted to showcase that Microsoft just didn’t understand security as well as the new Open Source community did.

Still, in comparison to both the Windows 9x and the Windows NT base products it was a solid improvement. Had it not been for the emergence of external threats it probably would have been more than adequate to the corporate task. It kind of ignored the consumer market that was starting to grow rapidly, however, and all eyes started shifting to a recovering Apple for direction in that market.

While the aging Windows 9x was clearly the product that was most successfully attacked during this time, it was Windows 2000 that took the hits as the current product in market. The end result was a massive change in Microsoft thinking similar to what happened when they discovered the Internet in 1995.

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Windows XP: Post Traumatic Response

Microsoft realized the threat, much like someone about to be run over by a Mac Truck, and Windows XP took the place of what was supposed to be the next major Microsoft OS. This was so that Microsoft could address those security exposures and it was largely successful. But Windows XP never really reached star status and Microsoft struggled with communicating the benefits of the product.

During this time Microsoft aggressively went after Linux, focusing their critics and given them both voice and direction – and boosting Linux more effectively than their own products as a result.

Microsoft truly struggled with marketing. Companies like Intel shared this struggle, focusing on brand recognition over demand generation; the combination helped contribute to the lackluster performance of the segment. Given that its old Windows XP is adequate for most users, the biggest problem for Microsoft in the coming months will be getting people – who are generally happy where they are – to make a change and move to the new OS.

Windows Vista: the New Face of Microsoft

Windows Vista: the New Face of Microsoft

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It’s kind of ironic but Windows Vista is hampered largely by three things. The first is that Windows XP is good enough for most and unlike previous versions of Windows, particularly NT, people aren’t really screaming for something different or new. The second is too much disclosure during the development phases, resulting in folks being more focused on what fell out of the product than what’s in it. And finally, Microsoft marketing remains relatively weak on demand generation, making it difficult for the firm to create the kind of wave that Apple, for instance, seems able to create without even trying too hard.

Strangely enough, Windows Vista is arguably the most important operating system from Microsoft ever. It's the platform that will lay the foundation for Microsoft’s move into the future of the desktop. It comes when many are questioning the relevance of desktop operating systems in the first place, the resurgence of Apple, and the emergence of Linux as a possible alternative.

We’ve been pounding on Vista for some time now and, in many ways, it is vastly improved over what came before. Often there are little things about a product that make it endearing and once you get over the annoying differences that come with any new operating system it just seems more fresh – things happen faster, and it appears (for good reason) to better protect you against threats.

This product has the most advanced built-in reporting mechanism to identify and correct (mostly without re-boot) emerging threats of any OS on the market today. And while it isn’t perfect it can better evolve to approach perfection.

It is the transition platform between 32- and 64-bit applications for the Windows desktop and server platforms (servers will go first). And it begins to represent a complete picture of how Windows products – and the users of those products – are secured.

Some things remind us of Windows 95 as competing companies scream that the product is anti-competitive. Yet most observers realize that the real problem these companies have is not Microsoft but, much like their predecessors, staying relevant in a changing world. Linux is free but actually has less desktop support than OS/2 did in 1995. The only material competitive difference is that Apple was withering in 1995 yet in 2007 they are clearly a power to be reckoned with.

The Internet is not only real, Google is the new Netscape and we are waiting to see if the search giant makes the same foolish mistakes. But even though many things seem similar, the world is vastly different than it was in 1995. This is this world that Vista and Microsoft must now face.

If Vista is the first thing on the road to Microsoft’s new future, it actually isn’t a bad start. Stay tuned.

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