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A major product transition is an opportunity for technology suppliers to send a message to partners and the installed base of users. It can be something on the order of “we care” to something less than warm and cuddly. And then there’s Vista.

While Microsoft’s approach to the 2007 launch of Windows Vista is only now coming into focus, it looks as if the Vista experience will stand in sharp contrast to the way Apple pitched the Mac community on its OS X transition.

On August 29, began taking preorders for Vista, with a similar pricing structure to that of Windows XP.

The prices range from the $199 Home Basic version to the $399 Vista Ultimate. Of course, there’s quite a list of SKUs and different prices for upgrades.

Based on the response to a recent column on Vista’s hardware requirements and performance, it looks as if many readers will be taking a wait-and-see attitude to the upgrade. Most didn’t see much value in moving from Windows XP.

Even resellers expressed concerns over the upgrade situation for hardware. And this was before the Windows SKUs and prices were revealed.

“The cost of these systems that will run this Vista is going to be out of reach for most consumers,” wrote Greg Hartman, a Wisconsin-based VAR.

“My primary business comes from the average home user and I know the price tag will be out of reach for them. Besides, why does the average user need such a machine?”

“Honestly, I can’t believe corporate America will be able to afford all the upgrades that will make this operating system run. Why can’t [Microsoft] just finish making XP a better system?” he concluded.

What is the business case for making the switch to Windows Vista? Click here to read more.

However, on January 30, or some date in the first quarter of 2007, a new PC desktop or notebook will come with Windows Vista, whether the customer wants it or not. Enterprise customers will still be able to get XP preinstalled.

However, most small business users and of course, consumers, will be migrated by fiat. These are the very customers who have forgotten (or never understood, more like it) the terms of license for the OS on their machines.

Worse, this group believes they will be able to pop in the install discs for XP on their new machine and everything will be as it was. Not.

Windows Vista supports a number of flash memory-enabled speed boosts. Click here to read more about Microsoft’s ReadyBoost and Intel’s Robson flash technologies.

So, how is the Vista situation different than the migration of Mac users to Mac OS X?

The first numbered version of Mac OS X was released on March 24, 2001. It cost $129. By the way, that’s still the price today.

Called Cheetah, the Mac OS X v.10.0 version was initially available only as a shrink-wrap retail package. A couple of months later, it shipped on a Macintosh.

There were beefs with the initial release, such as occasional slowness on some machines (a not-so-Cheetah-ish behavior), a difficult printing experience, and other major and minor troubles, depending on one’s workflow. And it sported a different interface than the traditional Mac OS, which had been refined for years and to which users were accustomed.

Read an eWEEK Labs review of Vista Build 5536 here.

Resellers told me at the time that they were steering customers away from Cheetah—partially because they themselves were inexperienced with the new OS and worried about providing support, but also because there were many important applications that had no OS X-native version, such as Microsoft Word and the major content-creation platform apps.

However, note that Mac OS X was a secondary operating system on Apple hardware. The default boot was into Mac OS 9.1.

Next Page: Apple makes OS transition easier.

Several months after the Cheetah, I attended a San Francisco Mac user group meeting, a place where one might expect to find brave hearts. But only a few of the 50 attendees said they were living 24/7 in Cheetah.

In the fall of 2001, Apple released Puma (v10.1), a maintenance upgrade. Yet, it proved stable enough to let the company ship Macs with OS X as the default boot in January 2002.

Still, all of Apple’s new and faster Mac models came with Mac OS 9 preloaded and as the primary OS. Users had a choice: Stay with the familiar look-and-feel of OS 9 programs for their workflows, or find improved memory and stability in an unfamiliar interface that required updated versions of applications.

Developers also offered entirely new applications to fill niches uncovered by the changed environment.

At the same time, starting with the initial Cheetah release, Apple provided customers an emulation environment called Classic that could run OS 9 applications.

So, users in OS X could be sure of access to their familiar applications, even if there wasn’t memory protection and other benefits.

At the spring 2002 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple warned its software partners that the end to Mac OS 9.x support was on the horizon. Steve Jobs opened his keynote with a eulogy to Mac OS 9, saying the OS “was a friend to us all.” A coffin rose from the floor of the stage to the strains of J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”

Mac OS 9 “isn’t dead for your customers, yet,” Jobs told the crowd. “But it’s dead to you.”

He pointed developers to features in OS X Jaguar (v10.2), which was released about 5 months later. This was the version with the bugs really shaken out and missing features from OS 9 mostly restored.

Starting with Mac models introduced in 2003, Macs could only boot into Mac OS X Jaguar (and Linux if you wished, but that’s a different story); booting into Mac OS 9 was not allowed. Of course, the old Mac OS 9 applications could still be run in the Classic environment.

(Apple provides an interesting historical list of what Mac models can boot what version of the Mac OS. It can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated because of Apple’s cryptic habit of making serious changes in hardware configurations without noting the change in the name of the series or models in question.)

Will the Windows Vista vs. Mac OS X Leopard feature fight come down to a few interface elements? The current scrap is over Vista’s Flip3D and Apple’s Expose. Click here to read more.

Unlike the situation with Vista, Mac users had plenty of time—more than a year and a half—to ignore the new OS if they chose to do so. Customers could make up their minds about OS X in their own time frame and still have the security of knowing their existing workflows would be maintained while upgrading hardware.

In fact, support for the Classic environment was only stopped with the release of Intel-based Macs.

By my reckoning, Microsoft is sending the opposite message with its Vista rollout: You will be grateful for the “Windows Vista Experience”—Period!

Oh, and here’s an item for those who harp on the price of Macs. Take a look at the reported savings on “additional” licenses for Vista owners. You will save between $10 and $40 off the price of each additional license when you upgrade or buy Vista new.

Apple offers a “family” 5-pack license, with each seat costing $40 each. That’s real savings.

What do you think? Should Microsoft look to Apple’s playbook for the Vista rollout next year? Let us know here.

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