Not just Vista: The operating system is dying, too

Okay, so I raised a bit of a stink with last Friday's Wide Angle Zoom. So to make sure my position on Vista, operating systems, Microsoft and the future of the technological world under President Barack Obama's leadership are completely understood, I wanted to address some of the more...ah, pointed perspectives from the Comments section. I've paraphrased the wordings to protect the innocent. Here goes:

Vista is a great operating system. There's nothing wrong with it.

Technically, this is correct. Never did -- or would -- I say that Vista sucked. If it did, I wouldn't be using it on my primary laptop.

Microsoft continues to sell it, and will continue to provide support for it per its widely known schedule. But beyond the numbers, in a somewhat more spiritual context, Microsoft has already cut Vista out of the will. Marketing strategies that worked in 1999 don't work today as new form factors and ubiquitous wireless and broadband access have completely rewritten the OS landscape. The good old days, when Microsoft's dominance of the desktop was absolute, are over. We don't exclusively use desktops anymore, and the OS as we know it won't exist in a few years.

It's Vista's lousy timing to be the OS on sale when this process began to accelerate, but it's more than a little unfair to blame the product for this. Sometimes, the world just changes and nothing you can bake into a new-and-improved product can change that reality.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)Microsoft messed up in releasing an OS that only ran properly on new PCs and ignored the needs of millions of existing customers.

By a show of hands, who runs out to the Best Buy at midnight and snaps up a shrink-wrapped box of a snazzy new OS? That may have been how we were introduced to Windows 95, but these days, we upgrade when we get new hardware.

I realize Betanews readers are infinitely more likely to have the technical chops to properly upgrade an existing machine. But the vast majority of the PC-buying consumers look more like my mother-in-law. They wouldn't know an OS from an S.O.S., and I'm going to guess you've never bumped into them in line at the big box store at midnight listening to the Rolling Stones croon "Start Me Up."

With the vast majority of operating systems delivered by OEM vendors on new machines, it's more than a bit silly to castigate Microsoft for ignoring its loyal base of millions of fans. Few of them really care that they're not running the latest and greatest version of Windows, and they'll be perfectly happy to upgrade when their existing computer gives up the ghost. When they go shopping, they're buying hardware, not operating systems. So forgive Microsoft for focusing its OS development efforts on something newer than a dust-covered Pentium II.

Microsoft is rushing Windows 7 out the door to recapture its OS leadership.

News flash: Microsoft still owns the OS market. Always has, and pretty much will for the next few years. As so many of you correctly pointed out, Vista was abnormally late to market. Microsoft usually follows a three-ish year cycle, and given Vista's abnormally long six-year gestation, Windows 7 more or less gets the company back on schedule. We can debate whether XP SP1 and SP2 merited "new OS" status until the cows come home, but the reality for Microsoft is we'll likely never see such big bang projects in OS-land again. Gradual evolution is the name of the game from here on out.

There are few other OS alternatives beyond Linux and Apple's Mac OS X.

Good point. One of the reasons why Windows has been as dominant as it is for as long as it has is because it combines a relatively easy-to-use UI with an ability to play nice with pretty much everyone's hardware. It's the biggest ecosystem out there, so developers and other third party vendors flock to it.

Is it technically better than anything else out there? We can debate that one until the cows leave home once again, but the answer is irrelevant. What matters is that it's good enough, and it has been good enough since Windows 3.1 finally relegated the command line-driven world of unfriendly DOS apps to the dustbin of history in 1992.

Vista isn't dead. It will live forever because some users just won't let go of it.

In a sense, every OS lives forever. In basements across the land, there are countless old machines running every form of DOS, Windows 3.X, 95, 98, and even Windows Me. The people who own these machines generally fall into two groups: enthusiasts who ardently love their old operating systems and can't bear to let them go, and regular folks like my mother-in-law who don't know the difference, and never saw the need to upgrade because it just worked. Generations of kids have grown up on supposedly obsolete hand-me-down PCs, and that won't change anytime soon.

But OS-huggers, mothers-in-law, and basement-dwelling kids don't make up the majority of the PC market. PC buyers do, and Microsoft, Apple, and every Linux vendor worth its salt will continue to focus on the folks with actual intentions of buying new hardware.

At the end of the day, most people just don't care about their OS. As long as it makes all the important things work reliably and invisibly, they're happy. And that's the thing with Vista: While the enthusiast community rages on about how great Vista is or how much it deserves to forever burn in effigy, the rest of the world has moved on. Barring evolutionary improvements, the OS as we know it is as good as it needs to get. Form factors are changing, new players (Google, anyone?) are hedging into Microsoft's turf, and it won't be long before the OS fades from its formerly starring role in your local electronics store.

But that's a discussion for another day, and a future column.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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