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When Microsoft launched Windows Vista, many analysts predicted modest adoption, but not this slow.

The operating system has failed every measure of success except one—the number of license shipments. At the close of Microsoft’s fiscal-2008 first quarter Sept. 30, Vista license shipments topped 88 million. But licenses shipped aren’t licenses deployed by enterprises or sold through the channel.

“As a business that does IT consulting for small businesses, I can tell you that the uptake on the small-business side is almost nonexistent,” said Nathan Taylor, an IT consultant with Denver-based RK Consulting.

No question, many businesses are evaluating Windows Vista, but “the numbers are low in terms of actual implementation,” said David Cottingham, CDW’s director of product and partner management, in Vernon Hills, Ill.

For a multitude of solution providers such as CDW and RK Consulting, Vista has been more of a conversation topic than a business driver. Customers have shown little or no inclination to adopt it for a number of reasons, including costly hardware demands and application incompatibilities. And although the prospect of services and support opportunities is very real once widespread deployment gets under way, many of the channel’s customers seem likely to stick with Vista’s predecessor, Windows XP, as long as they have a choice.

At the time of the operating system’s Nov. 30, 2006, launch, Gartner forecast that early Vista deployments would begin in earnest by the fourth quarter of 2007 and reach mainstream adoption by the second quarter of 2008. Now, mainstream enterprise adoption is tracking for early 2009, about the time Microsoft is supposed to be wrapping up Vista’s successor, code-named Windows 7.

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“Vista adoption in the enterprise has been really poor,” said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. “Enterprises are about a year behind where they told us they’d be a year ago.”

Recent analyst surveys paint a disturbing picture of Vista’s adoption progress. In November 2006, Forrester Research and King Research found stiff enterprise resistance to Vista. In a King Research survey, 53 percent of IT professionals said they had no Vista deployment plans. Forrester put the number at 38 percent.

Forrester found that only 2 percent of businesses had adopted Vista by November, while a mere 7 percent planned to start deployments by the end of 2007.

No one factor doomed Vista’s first year in the market, but the culprits combined are devastating. Based on interviews with analysts, channel partners and Microsoft customers, six themes emerge with respect to the sorry state of Vista adoption:

  • Hardware demands are too great.
  • There are too many application compatibility problems.
  • Windows XP is good enough.
  • Vista is too much trouble for the limited benefits over XP.
  • The operating system and supporting ecosystem aren’t ready.
  • Service Pack 1 is worth waiting for.

Vista demands too much

A December 2006 Softchoice study concluded that only 6 percent of North American business PCs were capable of running Windows Vista Home Premium. The situation meant that many businesses had to make hard decisions about upgrades—whether to beef up hardware or deploy Vista during their normal PC refresh cycles. Most businesses as of one year later have opted for the latter.

Every analyst contacted by eWeek Strategic Partner about Vista adoption reached the same conclusion: The operating system has had no perceptible impact on PC sales, even though there is a rapid migration to laptops from desktops. If anything, the migration has pulled along Vista sales, said Chris Swenson, an analyst with The NPD Group.

If Vista isn’t driving PC sales, what is? In-Stat forecasts annual PC sales will reach 300 million in just two years. In-Stat analyst Ian Lao said the factors driving sales are pretty much the same as they’ve been for some time. For the corporate market, Lao said, obsolescence is the No. 1 factor driving new PC sales.

Similarly, attrition is the main reason for consumers. “My PC is dying, and I’ve got to have new wheels,” Lao said. First-time buying by non­technical users is another PC sales driver but not a major contributor, he added.

If anything, hardware concerns have caused many organizations to delay planned Windows PC refreshes to accommodate Vista, according to a May 2007 In-Stat survey. And the delays are significant.

“Corporations were likely to delay the upgrade cycle a year or more,” Lao said when the report was released. “If planning to buy 1,000 machines, I’m still going to buy them, just a little later.”

OEMs could see new PC deployment delays among some corporations, as they adjust refresh cycles for Vista, according to In-Stat. But for some solution providers, there would be opportunity to bulk up sales of testing, deployment and training services. Steve Rubin, president of WorkITsafe, of Maspeth, N.Y., said he has seen slow but steady Vista adoption—at least related to refresh cycles. “Most of our clients upgrade on three-year cycles, and they’re coming up on the anniversary now,” Rubin said. “If the clients are ready to move forward, they’re going to move forward to Vista.”

The channel’s challenge is to make sure customers move far enough. There, Vista may demand too much.

“This is an operating system for new hardware,” said Michael Cherry, analyst for Directions on Microsoft. Cherry said that Microsoft gambled on what component prices would be and they really didn’t come down enough in price. Vista demands heftier hardware than the market delivers.

“Vista is a $1,000-plus operating system for new machines, but people don’t want to spend that much,” Cherry asserted.

RK Consulting’s Taylor said that Vista demands much more from hardware than XP does. “One of the main barriers to adoption is Vista’s lack of ability to run well on current hardware,” he said. “It is surprisingly slow even on computers with 1 gig of RAM and a Core 2 Duo processor. I recently ordered some business laptops for a client with Vista, and I was disappointed at how those brand-new laptops ran.”

It’s imperative that solution providers make sure they deploy Vista with sufficient hardware, particularly graphics, analysts say. Graphics capabilities affect Vista’s translucent Aero user interface or Windows Presentation Foundation, the operating system’s new graphical programming model.

“If the hardware’s there, Vista is extremely great,” Rubin said. “If you get a nice new machine and it’s configured correctly and Aero is there, it’s pretty cool. We recommend to clients that there is at least 256MB of [graphics memory].”

Vista doesn’t play nice

Application compatibility tops the complaints solution providers and enterprises have about Vista.

“Our company has not adopted Vista for many reasons, not the least of which is the laborious process and cost of testing all of our software for compatibility,” said Paul Neights, chief technology officer for Del-Jen, of Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.

Next Page: Compatibility barriers.

Lyf Wildenberg, president of Minneapolis-based Mytech Partners, agreed. “With our customers, the largest barrier to Vista adoption is compatibility with existing software,” Wildenberg said. “Most software vendors are Vista-ready. However, many times our customers are not at a version level that can run a Vista OS. Bringing one Vista machine onto the network can mean the organization needs to make bigger decisions regarding their line of business applications.”

Some IT organizations have 1,000 or more applications to test against Vista. Testing often turns up applications that won’t work right under the new operating system—even a year after release.

CDW’s Cottingham identified application incompatibility as the top area of IT concern when evaluating Vista. Architectural changes in the operating system, particularly reduced user privileges, are to blame for much of the compatibility problems, Cottingham said. These security changes also negatively impact hardware drivers.

Lee Nicholls, global solutions director for IT services provider Getronics, in Seattle, agreed with Cottingham, cautioning that Microsoft’s claims of big Vista license shipments don’t reflect real-world deployments. “Most of the licenses are sitting around on the factory floor—OEM licenses on new PCs,” Nicholls said. “We’re still not expecting significant uptake for a few months.”

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“App support is really the biggest issue people have had, with the lack of a compelling reason to migrate following close behind,” Gartner’s Silver said.

Taylor of RK Consulting lamented, “Application compatibility is a hit-or-miss prospect. Many small businesses don’t upgrade their software on a regular basis, so some things like Act or QuickBooks have to be upgraded in order to be compatible. Some of our clients’ other applications, such as accounting software packages, are still awaiting Vista-compatible versions.”

Not only is Microsoft aware of the situation, but application compatibility problems were anticipated, said Mike Nash, the vendor’s corporate vice president of Windows product management. “We knew we had hard-core architectural things to do [with Vista,]” Nash said. “We knew that XP SP2 was an improvement, but it wasn’t sufficient. More architectural changes, particularly around security, came in Vista.”

Nash acknowledged: “We knew it was going to cause application compatibility problems.” He said that Microsoft had to weigh security changes, such as user privileges, against backward-compatibility concerns. “What we have with Vista is a balance with the important things around security and the importance of compatibility,” Nash said.

Windows XP is too popular

Another factor affecting Vista adoption is the success of XP, which may be the most popular version of Windows that Microsoft will ever release. XP stayed in the market for an unusually long time, compared with previous Windows systems. Unless Microsoft grants another extension for OEM pre­installs, come summer 2008 the software will have been available on new PCs for just shy of seven years.

The XP ecosystem of applications, hardware, services and support is substantial. For many IT organizations, XP is a tried-and-true product—a trusted and known constant. Some of XP’s most compelling attributes—such as hardware support and application compatibility—are major Vista shortcomings.

Many IT organizations are intolerant of change that disrupts the workflow. Vista is a disruptive force. By contrast, XP is familiar and, for many, feels safer. As such, solution providers are moving what customers want, and demand for XP remains strong. “[In the United States,] 25 percent of all PCs sold in the month of September had Vista installed in the VAR channel,” Swenson said.

RK Consulting’s Taylor said, “We don’t expect Vista adoption in the small-business market to gain a lot of momentum until XP is no longer available through the OEMs. Because XP is so mature, stable and runs so fast on current hardware, I think it is Vista’s biggest competitor.”

Dell, for one, is letting customers decide. The vendor offers Vista and XP options on many SKUs, with Dell’s Web site boldly proclaiming: “The choice is yours. Windows Vista or Windows XP, you decide.”

Next Page: Troublemaker

Vista is a troublemaker

Another barrier to adoption, but one where solution providers can deliver lucrative services, is usability. Most analysts, channel partners and Microsoft customers interviewed by eWeek Strategic Partner complained about Vista’s increased complexity compared with XP.

“The User Account Control [UAC] is intrusive and a nuisance—and some of the menus and wizards are also frustrating,” said Taylor. “The problems with UAC are disappointing because, in my book, better security is one of the main selling points of Vista. But most people end up turning off UAC, which takes away much of the security improvements.”

UAC consistently tops the list of usability complaints about Vista. The new security feature is part of a re-engineering of user rights. By default, all users, including administrators, run with lower privileges. Vista pops up UAC warnings whenever the operating system needs to raise rights, such as when installing software. But the UAC prompts are too frequent for some users.

While bad news for enterprises, usability issues can be good for solution providers that offer extra testing and deployment services, particularly training. In addition, there is an opportunity to offer extra help desk services during the early stages of deployments, as employees grapple with usability issues.

Many businesses also will need proactive guidance administering new rights and privileges and supporting employees who can no longer change the time at will or attach USB drives—assuming, of course, these are areas that the IT organization decides to lock down.

Was Vista really ready?

If there is a smoking gun for Vista’s problems, it is preparedness. Something about Vista’s two launches—late 2006 for enterprises and early 2007 for everybody else—was ill-timed, with Microsoft out of step with the marketplace. Who launches a business operating system during the holidays when few IT organizations would really want to begin compatibility testing or new deployments? What consumer would want to buy new Windows PCs more than a month after Christmas and days before the Super Bowl? But that’s what Microsoft asked of its customers, analysts said.

Logistically, Microsoft could have waited another three months to ship Vista. Why did Microsoft release Vista at bad times for both enterprise and consumer markets? Cherry of Directions on Microsoft said he believes Microsoft shipped Vista to meet the “promised ship date,” which was 2006, but perhaps “sooner” than it should have.

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Based on eWEEK testing, the typical Vista installation requires about 35 updates to reach the current version, a fairly large number for a Microsoft operating system widely available for less than a year. The number of updates, which doesn’t include hardware drivers, indicates an operating system in a continuing state of refinement.

The refinements, while good for application compatibility and hardware support, raise questions about whether in the end, with Vista delayed so often, Microsoft rushed it to market too soon. If nothing else, hardware manufacturers and software developers weren’t ready for it; the number of compatibility problems is clear enough evidence. The channel and enterprises weren’t ready, and consumers couldn’t get ready because Vista missed the holiday season of 2006.

A year later, Vista’s readiness poses quandaries for enterprises and their supporting solution providers. What organization wants to deploy 30 or more updates on top of the gold release?

“There is this inclination among enterprises to wait for the first service pack,” Cherry said. That popular convention really wasn’t true for Windows 2000 or XP, he said. Waiting is typically folklore. But popular convention may be right, for once. No service pack may be more necessary than the first for Vista.

“This time, it’s really the one you want to wait for,” Cherry asserted. He made this declaration based on the list of changes Microsoft plans for SP1. “There is no really massive change in the service pack,” he said. “It really is a collection of refinements.” Microsoft has downplayed the need to wait for SP1, in part because of the many Vista improvements made using Windows Update. Cherry disagrees. “SP1 really does look like it’s fixing things that slipped through the release,” he said. “A lot of people had a feeling it was a date-driven release.”

The fixes, such as basic file copy, are surprising. “I’m just stunned they weren’t caught during beta testing,” Cherry said. “The beta testing for this thing was huge.”

Cherry said an example of a fundamental shortcoming in Vista is how it copies files, a process that is decidedly faster under XP. One of Cherry’s Vista computers has two hard drives attached to a single controller. Copying 70GB of data from one drive to another takes about 24 hours, he said. “That’s just not acceptable.”

Silver said he believes that the update could be a turning point for Vista. “SP1 will help, but time passing helps, too, as more ISVs support their apps on Vista,” he said. There, the SP1 and better application support share intertwined fates.

The reasons for waiting—sitting tight for the release of Vista SP1—are compelling, particularly as businesses grapple with in-house application compatibility problems. The update isn’t expected until at least the first quarter of 2008. Test versions are available now through the Microsoft Developer Network.

With SP1, Vista’s market readiness is a two-punch delay: first, the original launch and the problems that followed, and second, businesses holding out for the update’s release. For some solution providers and their partners, SP1 will mean a new round of compatibility testing and could set back some early deployment plans.

If there’s a silver lining for the channel, it’s that the worst may be over in early 2008. The year of waiting on Vista deployments will be the past, while a mass migration to Vista will be the future. If nothing else, SP1 may remove real barriers and psychological ones holding back deployments.

“In many ways, Service Pack 1 is going to address a lot of people’s concerns and be the release they wanted last year,” Cherry said. “It will lower resistance to the product. We’ll almost look back to SP1 as the launch date. It will steadily grow from here on out.”