The Problem with Windows Vista

Originally published in SPIDER Magazine on December 1, 2008.

Windows Vista has transformed into a poster child for epic failures. System administrators cringe at the very mention of its name, running for cover, fondling their XP CDs. But like so many preconceived notions, the idea that Vista is the bane of modern computers is ridiculous. Many would have you believe it is true, but it simply is not.

Yet despite the millions of dollars Microsoft has gallantly spent, trying to salvage its reputation with advertising campaigns featuring Jerry Seinfeld, the fact remains that Vista has failed. Microsoft realizes this, certainly, and that’s the reason why they’re scrambling to get Windows 7 out the door as soon as they can without making a mess of it again.

For fear of being called a Microsoft-basher, here is a disclaimer: I use Vista on my main computer all the time, and I love it. I’m using Vista right now and I’ve used Windows my whole life. Despite the coolness emanated from Macs, I am still loyal to Microsoft and what they’ve done for home computers.

When I say Vista has failed, I do not mean it is a terrible operating system – it certainly is not! Vista’s failure was that it could not deliver to its users as good as it could have; and after having failed in that respect, it failed to reclaim itself when it had fixed all the problems that had driven users away in the first place. Following is a concerned look at what exactly went wrong with Vista.

When Vista launched back in January 2007, the PC community wasn’t as awed as Microsoft would have hoped – Vista just couldn’t live up to the years of buildup and excitement (4 years to be exact). Adding to that were the missing or buggy hardware drivers that plagued enthusiastic early adopters and left them with hardware they couldn’t use.

Broken promises

At the PDC (Professional Developer’s Conference) held in 2003, Bill Gates delivered a keynote announcing Microsoft’s plans about Vista—back then, still known by its codename Longhorn—and stunned the crowd present. The features demonstrated, including a new file system to replace NTFS (called WinFS), virtual folders that negated the concept of lettered drives and a sidebar that would also serve as a system-wide notifications area, were all revolutionary steps in the way Windows worked. But as time flew by and development continued, many of these features were either stripped down or completely scrapped. Three years and a few missed milestones later, Vista still hadn’t shipped and much of the enthusiasm of the people waiting for it had subsided, not just because it was taking forever to release, but also because of the mild response from the betas.

However, there’s no denying Vista still is a significant change from previous versions. The kernel was rewritten and major changes in its structure were made. The most noticeable new feature, Windows Aero with its glass windows, is a delight to use. Under the hood, many changes were implemented that made Windows better – namely, security. The built-in firewall was souped up; the multi-user environment was improved; UAC (User Account Control) was implemented, making PC users realize it was safer to run as a limited user rather than an administrator all the time. Although UAC in its current form is certainly an annoyance, many claim it is necessary protection.

The sentiment of the people excited by Vista was that they had been let down, not because Vista didn’t work at all, but because they had been promised a ground-breaking new OS with features that would blow them away – instead what they got seemed to be just what they had known previously, but with a makeover.

Driver, driver, where art thou?

Even months after Vista’s public release hardware drivers were still hard to find. Big name companies like NVIDIA and Creative were still brushing up their unfinished drivers for public release, and even products labeled as “designed for Windows Vista” did not work with the new OS. Many companies did not even have betas out, and customers were left in the dark as to when they might be available.

The majority of Vista’s early stability problems can be placed with faulty graphics and printer drivers. In now publicly available internal memos from Microsoft, 28% of the logged Vista crashes (from an unspecified period of time in 2007) were attributed to NVIDIA. Microsoft themselves got 18% of the blame, with 17% due to unknown problems at the time – out of a total of 1,663,748.

Despite a long beta period, a lot of hardware as well as software were not compatible with Vista – this fact prevented the corporate sector from adopting the new OS, and many IT professionals chose to stick to the tried and tested XP SP2. Similarly, a majority of home users who were burned by the early incompatibility issues ‘downgraded’ back to XP; people considering the upgrade to Vista saw the ruckus and either scrapped the idea or decided to postpone their decision.

To this day, Vista receives flak because of device driver and incompatibility issues. However, with Vista Service Pack 1 released in February 2008, many of Vista’s early problems have been fixed. Startup times improved, operations like file copying take less time and overall system stability has improved a great deal. Add to the fact that hardware and software vendors had gotten more than a year of violent user feedback to improve their drivers and software, which they did, also improving performance.

I’m a Mac, I’m a PC

While PC users struggled with their Vista problems, the Apple fanboys and Mac enthusiasts snickered in the background. Apple’s advertising campaign featuring funny-men Justin Long and John Hodgman (“Get a Mac”) launched a payload of abuse at Microsoft and Vista, urging users to switch to the euphoric experience of using an Apple computer. For years, Microsoft had chosen to look the other way when it came to the Apple attack ads, with the idea that the Mac’s market share was too insignificant to bother responding to – Microsoft took the stance that if they responded to the ads, they would acknowledge Apple as a real competitor, which they did not want to accept.

Meanwhile, Apple successfully demonized Vista and implanted the impression that Windows is and always has been slow, boring, and hard to use. The ads show Hodgman as a PC running Windows wearing a suit and tie, uptight and obsessed with work, with Long as Mac (running Apple’s OS), laid back and cool wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Even this symbolic attire is enough to make you think PCs are stuffy pieces of junk, while Macs are fun and entertaining.

In a heroic attempt to salvage their honour, Microsoft recently launched an advertising campaign of their own; at first featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates himself, the first two of the series of ads were confusing and didn’t hold any real meaning, but they succeeded in capturing everyone’s attention. Then launched the “I’m a PC, and I’ve been stereotyped” campaign, wherein Microsoft made it clear that Windows truly is the market leader, and that Windows is and can be used by normal people.

Another ad campaign by Microsoft was the Mojave Experiment, which tried to show people that Vista isn’t as bad as they might have heard. The campaign focused on a panel of users who were at first asked what they thought of Vista; all of them said it was terrible, but had never used it themselves – all hearsay. They were then given some time with Vista, but told it was a ‘new version of Windows,’ not the OS they hated so much – unsurprisingly it turned out all of them loved it and wanted to use it.

Even though the campaign failed in the sense that it was unable to promote Vista very successfully, it brought attention to the very true fact that Vista’s main problem now is its terrible image in the eyes of the public. Fueled by clueless tech pundits, Apple’s advertisements and a small but vocal group of people who spit vitriol at everything Microsoft does, this perception has grown so much that everyone and their grandmother now thinks Vista is nothing short of evil.

Let’s move on, please

Microsoft corporate vice president Mike Nash admits they “learned a lot from Windows Vista,” and it’s clear that they are keeping that in mind with the next version of Windows, called simply Windows 7. Released as a pre-beta to a limited audience at PDC October 2008, Windows 7 is being touted as “Vista done right.” Certainly, it seems Microsoft has gone over all parts of the OS and tightened it down to improve performance and reliability. Taking advantage of the core development done with Vista, Microsoft is now able to focus more on improving the Windows experience.

From early benchmarks, it is evident that Windows 7 is also going to aim at the netbook market and run on much lower resources than Vista. Paul Thurrott, a technology journalist and news editor for Windows IT Pro Magazine writes, “It’s a better Windows than Vista. And that’s saying something, because despite all the Vista detractors and libelous Apple advertisements, Vista is actually quite good. But yes, Windows 7 is better.”

Vista’s failure is not a technical or technological one – it is undoubtedly a very good operating system, and just like every other modern OS (OS X included), has a certain hardware requirement that might seem too high for people used to running XP on 256MB RAM. In my opinion though, Vista has failed as a brand; partly due to its own shortcomings and partly due to outside influences (read: sloppy device drivers and attack ads from competitors).

As I wrote earlier, Vista failed to deliver what people had been expecting of it, but by the time it did, it was too late; the public perception had been made, and restoring it is about as difficult as running OS X on non-Apple hardware.

I think Microsoft has acknowledged this and are moving on, placing their bets on Windows 7 to salvage their honour in the operating system market. From the look of things, Windows 7 looks and feels like it might do just that and more.