Why Windows Wins

Windows Vista: The kinda boring, soon to be globally dominant operating system.

General availability for Microsoft Windows Vista went live this week to reserved applause. The reviews seem to think it’s a decent upgrade to the OS but not something you need to camp out overnight at Best Buy for.

What fascinates me most about the Vista launch is the limited number of computers in the world that are capable of running the software today. How many companies can spend $6 billion on a product that can only be deployed on an estimated 15% of the world’s computers? It’s like building one billion cars and there being only 5 roads to drive them on. It’s seems a bit reckless in one sense. But it’s also rather brilliant.

Windows Vista isn’t so much a new operating system as it is demand generation for new hardware. It’s a strategy that ultimately will prove successful because it enlists the support of everyone selling hardware.

No Room for Change

Microsoft is in bit of an awkward position for a software company. They can’t really produce a revolutionary computing experience that deviates too far from the Windows of previous releases. It’s not for lack of talent or manpower but because with such a large install base, introducing anything that’s too foreign, regardless if it’s better or not, would throw users into a tailspin.

Look at it this way, if everyone that was running Windows suddenly switched, at the same time, to the Mac you’d have 90% of the world’s computer users spending the next 30 days just trying to find their files. Anyone that’s had to answer the question, “Linux… that can get eBay, right?” will know this to be true.

That’s not a comment on the intelligence of your average computer user but an observation that most users can only tolerate change in very small doses. And it’s this wave computing inertia that Microsoft is able to ride and Desktop Linux struggles to stay afloat in.

So, if you’re Microsoft and you can’t create something so new that in and of itself it’s inherently compelling, what are your options? Oddly enough the best option seems to be to create something that most people can’t use.

Built for the Computers of 2009!

Let’s quickly compare the hardware requirements of Windows Vista and the most recent commercial desktop available, Novell SUSE Enterprise Linux Desktop 10. Figures pulled from the respective vendor’s websites:

  Windows Vista Premium Ready SLED 10
Processor 1 GHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor Intel Pentium III 500 MHz or higher processor
System Memory 1 GB 512 MB
GPU Windows Aero Capable

DirectX 9-class GPU that supports:

  • A WDDM Driver
  • Pixel Shader 2.0 in hardware
  • 32 bits per pixel
  • Adequate graphics memory
Graphics Memory 128 MB n/a
HDD 40 GB n/a
HDD Free Space >15 GB 2.5 GB
Optical Drive DVD-ROM Drive n/a

Truth be told, I’ve got an ancient IBM ThinkPad 600 lying around here somewhere that would probably run SLED 10 well enough — that’s the great thing about Linux, it’s light enough to run on just about anything. But if you are a hardware manufacturer, which column above you get more excited?

Windows Vista will help PC vendors sell more desktops than Linux will. Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer told Reuters, “We will see an uptick (in PC sales). Sales will be stronger than they otherwise would have been.”

If you’re cost-conscious or your department has a tight IT budget, you might disagree, but Ballmer is correct. And not only that, but PC vendors will drive the majority of new Vista sales. While Microsoft won’t spin down the marketing engine anytime soon, in a sense, their work was over once they released Vista because it created so much incentive for hardware vendors to sell Vista for them.

People Like to Buy Stuff

Regardless if it’s a home user or a enterprise department of 1,000, people like to buy things. The only thing they perhaps like more than buying things is the justification to make a purchase. If you’ve been holding off on upgrading a computer, Vista just gave you, without a doubt, the answer to every question related to “Why do we need to buy a new PC?”

For someone like myself that has purchased exactly three computers in the last 10 years, it seems a little foolish, but it’s how the majority of the PC buying patterns work.

On top of buying habits, Microsoft will add some additional incentive in the form of discontinuing free support for XP in 2008 to draw in the hold-outs, but in general, the trend will follow that if you’re running the previous OS from Microsoft, you’ll soon be running the latest. I can see no reason why this should suddenly change.

Linux on the Desktop

Linux on the desktop needs strong support from groups outside the Linux community and I’m not sure that exists yet. Those who have already sampled the Kool-Aid have drank deeply. I think the biggest question is whether the commercial Linux distributions can prove to the PC vendors that it is in their best interest to support Linux on the desktop. I for one used the same Linux laptop for five years before switching to the Mac. No PC vendor wants to hear that. Then again, no Linux user wants to hear that their favorite distro is a suddenly a giant piece of bloat-ware.

It’s a fine line but one that needs to be walked. Otherwise Linux on the desktop will continue to sit somewhere South of Apple’s 4-5% market share.

That’s Apple Inc., mind you, who recently changed their name from Apple Computer having realized that in most cases the world beats a path to your door when you build a better mousetrap. But maybe not for a better desktop.

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