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Let it be said that Windows Vista didn’t fail for a lack of trying.

Microsoft had declared the drop-dead end-of-life date for new installations of Window XP—the last generation of the operating system—would come Jan. 31, 2009. Now, under pressure from business consumers and system builders, it’s extending XP’s life once again. System builders can place orders for XP through distributors for deliveries as late as May 2009.

Extending the deadline is good news for PC solution providers and system builders, who have labored to deliver machines to customers loaded with Vista only to have them rejected out of hand. Microsoft’s decision may also signal the final act of contrition for the beleaguered operating system that, despite Microsoft’s repeated efforts, has failed to capture the imagination of business-technology consumers.

Microsoft will claim more than 300 million installations of Vista since its release, but most of those are consumer PCs sold through retailers and direct distributors. According to a recent survey by ITIC and Sunbelt Software of more than 700 senior corporate executives, only 10 percent had deployed Vista on their desktops, whereas 88 percent reported Windows XP as their primary client OS.



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Some analysts and industry observers say the latest reprieve will put more pressure on Microsoft to expedite the release of Windows 7, the next-generation operating system that’s based on the Vista framework but with a significantly smaller memory footprint. The reality, we may find, is that Vista is the last meaningful client-side Windows release. Here’s why.

More than five years in the making, Vista was heralded in 2006 by Microsoft as the most comprehensive rollout of an operating system in history. It promised the revolution of functionality, reliability and security users desired in an operating system without the fanfare that announced the birth of Windows 95 more than a decade earlier.

While Microsoft lauded its creation, many said features such as the multiscreen desktop and improved, integrated search were innovations long available in Apple’s operating system. Worse, the high-resolution graphics capabilities meant a lesser user experience on older machines. And, of course, users quickly discovered that the minimum 1GB RAM requirement was hardly enough to operate the bloated OS.

Two years on, Vista is nothing short of an incompressible failure. According to Net Applications, Microsoft’s iron grip on the desktop showed signs of weakness in 2008 as Windows market share slipped below 90 percent market share for the first time in more than a decade. More worrisome is Apple’s OS X—the preferred operating system for the Mac—increased to nearly 9 percent, unprecedented considering that it wasn’t that long ago that Apple needed a cash infusion from Microsoft to stay alive.

In preparation for Vista’s release, Microsoft conducted what it described as one of the most comprehensive beta testing periods ever. It released advanced copies of Vista to partners and independent software vendors to develop application drivers and test interoperability. Several Microsoft executives stated in the lead-up to Vista’s release that the operating system’s release would have the concurrent availability of thousands of applications, making it ready and usable out of the gate. Some speculated that Microsoft was actually trying to short-circuit the traditional 18-month adoption curve of any new operating system.

Reality check, nearly two years have passed and business users continue to avoid Vista like the plague. One report even stated that despite Microsoft’s client division increasing revenues by 14 percent in 2008, much of that gain came from corporate clients that paid for access to Vista but chose not to deploy it. No wonder solution providers, system builders and distributors hailed XP’s latest extension.

At last summer’s Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, a string of Microsoft executives took the stage with fiery speeches about how they would take the fight to competitors and show the world the benefits of Vista. They launched the miserable Jerry Seinfeld advertising campaign, which flamed out after just one dreadful spot. The company launched a new Web site to test applications for capability with Vista. And it released a series of reports and case studies that boasted Vista’s benefits. For the most part, these efforts have done little to reverse Vista’s over-the-cliff course.

Some may look to Windows 7 as the saving grace, but even it comes in late 2009—as some now project—it may be too little, too late. Even Microsoft has recognized that computing is moving to the cloud, and Bill Gates’ heir Ray Ozzie is making it his mission to move Microsoft into the cloud. Too bad that—like most efforts in Microsoft’s history—it comes after rivals are already at the destination. IBM announced that it’s pressing forward with plans for Linux-based thin clients. Wyse Technology is finding traction with its thin-client technologies. Netbooks and smartphones are rapidly becoming clients of choice for many mobile users. And Google’s Chrome browser is a thinly veiled beta of a cloud-based operating system.

Microsoft is sure to keep pressing its case for Vista until the bitter end. But no number of Mojave ads is going to save Vista from its inevitable end of going down as the Edsel and New Coke of the computing world. In the end, it may also mark the turning point when Microsoft lost the operating system as the cornerstone of its business.

Lawrence M. Walsh is vice president and group publisher of Channel Insider.