Taking the Long View on Vista

Microsoft's Windows Sidebar is part of the much-delayed Vista operating system, which is to be released to business customers tomorrow.
Microsoft's Windows Sidebar is part of the much-delayed Vista operating system, which is to be released to business customers tomorrow. (Microsoft Via Associated Press)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

After five years of development and repeated delays, Microsoft is releasing its Windows Vista operating system for sale to corporate customers tomorrow.

But don't expect drumrolls in the world of corporate computing, where technology managers are notoriously slow in upgrading their systems. Most businesses will proceed cautiously in testing and evaluating Microsoft's new flagship operating system, leading to a phase-in of Vista over one to two years, analysts and information technology managers say.

That's a different scenario from the one predicted for Vista's consumer release on Jan. 30, which analysts say will spark a surge in purchases of Vista-equipped home computers. Businesses have more complex computing needs -- and usually feel a need to justify upgrades.

"There isn't any single thing that's so compelling that the majority of users say I have to get on this right away," said Steve Kleynhans, vice president for client platforms at Gartner.

Instead, he added, Vista offers a variety of smaller features that make it attractive, such as improvements in security and reliability and the addition of a desktop search function. While businesses will welcome these enhancements, Kleynhans said, there is little pent-up demand to replace Vista's predecessor, Windows XP, because it runs well and most of its bugs have been identified and resolved.

But eventually, companies will want a newer operating system, Kleynhans said, and will feel comfortable rolling out Vista in about 15 to 18 months -- relatively fast for the adoption of an operating system.

Brad Goldberg, Microsoft's general manager of Windows product management, agreed businesses would roll out Vista gradually but predicted it would be adopted faster than any other business operating system.

"There is no need to wait," he said. "The sooner companies start deploying the product, the sooner they reap the benefits around productivity, security and cost savings."

In the past, fewer than 5 percent of businesses adopted Microsoft's operating systems within a year or two of their release, even as limited pilot projects, Goldberg said. But Microsoft learned from feedback on earlier Windows releases and is making Vista easier to deploy and less expensive to manage, he added.

In particular, Goldberg predicted technology managers would be drawn to Vista because it might help them better manage and protect the increasing amount of data their computers handle, while freeing up money now consumed by computer maintenance to be spent on innovation.

Microsoft executives had initially planned to release a new Windows operating system much earlier. But the massive upgrade repeatedly stumbled, and in 2004 the company scrapped its development effort, concluding it had become impossibly complicated, and restarted the project. Since then, Vista's release has been delayed several times, most recently in March when executives announced it would not be finished in time to get into the hands of home users before Christmas.

Part of Microsoft's problem arose from its commitment to making Vista compatible with existing computing hardware and all software running on previous versions of Windows. That means the company carries the baggage of its earlier editions of Windows and could not start from scratch by creating a stripped-down product.

Even after releasing Vista, Microsoft has said it will provide support for Windows XP, which was released in 2001. The company also continues to offer security patches for the operating system previous to XP, Windows 2000, but no longer ensures that it can run new software.

Microsoft's various Windows operating systems are installed on about 800 million computers worldwide, according to statistics compiled by Gartner. Slightly more than half are business customers, including at private companies, government agencies and educational institutions. Over the past year, Microsoft's revenue from sales of its Windows operating system was about $13 billion, which analysts predict will increase with Vista's release.

At the same time it introduces Vista tomorrow, the software behemoth also plans to release updated versions of its Microsoft Office productivity suite and Exchange Server e-mail package.

Before upgrading to Vista, corporate technology managers and analysts said companies will want to evaluate what new computers they need to run the new operating system and ensure that their own programs will continue to run properly. Microsoft designed Vista to run on most recently made computers, but machines still might require upgrading or replacement to run all of the software's new features. Computer support staff would also have to become comfortable with Vista before it is adopted company-wide, managers said.

"We want to make sure it's solid before we move to it as an enterprise solution for our whole company," said Forrest Lee of InterVideo, a Fremont, Calif., marketer of DVD software. "We're not going to go out there and put our company on the limb."

He said his company would wait for bugs to be fixed and enough experience to be accumulated that he could turn to others for help if a problem with Vista arose. For the sake of its own consumers, InterVideo has made sure that the WinDVD 8 software it sells is Vista-compatible, Lee said. But he doubted most companies would rush to adopt Vista.

"Most learned from mistakes in the past. If you upgrade too quickly, there still might be bugs," he said.

Mark Kleine, information technology manager for McCoy Tree Surgery of Norman, Okla., said his company would probably upgrade to Vista only when it purchased new computers with the operating system already installed. Most of the company's machines have a life cycle of three to five years, he said.

"I see it being phased in as new hardware gets rolled out. I don't see any rush to upgrade our machines just for the sake of upgrading," said Kleine, who is also executive vice president of the Association of Information Technology Professionals.

Researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company