The hostility toward Vista is almost palpable now. Support representatives sigh deeply when customers say they’re running Vista. Computer magazines and tech web sites proudly trash it as the worst product of the year. The word of mouth that I overhear is dreadful.

A blogger picked up on something that reflects the shameful role that Microsoft has played that led to this position. Let me give you some background.

After studying Vista and using it exclusively for more than a year and setting clients and friends and family up with it, I think Vista is a wonderful operating system. Most importantly, it deserves praise for implementing so many needed security improvements in as transparent a way as possible.

Many things have led to its poor reputation; I keep coming back to four.

  1. It’s difficult for people to change. People who grew accustomed to Windows XP would just as soon stay with what they know. That makes perfect sense but it would have been possible to overcome that if the other problems had been handled better.
  2. Software and hardware vendors set back the entire industry when they were slow to support Vista. They made it difficult for people to set up Vista by not developing drivers in a timely way, by not updating their software to meet Vista’s security requirements, and by charging unfairly for new versions when they finally stepped up. It was already difficult to set up a new computer but the manufacturers made it seem as if Vista made it even more difficult. Consumers hunting in frustration for drivers or being asked to pay for program upgrades are only aware of the hassle; the manufacturers looked resentful instead of trying to convey that good things were coming from the improvements to the security and consistency of their products.
  3. Too many manufacturers and developers and web sites are making really crappy stuff. When something doesn’t work on a Vista computer, it’s easy to blame Vista. The overwhelming flood of poor products for Windows XP and Vista is the single biggest thing driving people away from PCs to Macs, where everyone hopes the grass is greener. (It’s not.)
  4. And finally, Microsoft did an atrocious job of marketing to consumers this year. I don’t recall anything aimed at consumers that generated any buzz or looked genuinely creative. Instead there were dull advertisements, terrible naming schemes that muddled product lines, too many confusing choices (for Vista and others), and embarrassing bugs. The actual products were frequently quite good but the message was lost. Bill Gates outlined Microsoft’s plans for 2008 at CES recently; he had little to say and got no press coverage. A few days later Steve Jobs introduced an ultrathin Mac notebook – nice but a bit of a yawn – and was on the front page of every paper.

ultimate1Vista should have been marketed in one or two versions that were more or less complete; instead it was broken down into seven products with artificial and confusing distinctions between them. Vista Ultimate, the most expensive version, is the only version that includes both business components (domain membership, additional backup choices, encryption options) and consumer components (e.g., media software). It’s overpriced but there could have been a reasonable sales pitch built around the desire to have all features available.

Microsoft never made that pitch. Instead, it marketed Vista Ultimate as the product that would model its best ideas and newest technology. Vista Ultimate Extras were going to be “cutting-edge programs,” “innovative services,” and “unique publications,” made available only to Vista Ultimate owners.

Imagine a year where Microsoft rolled out extra after extra, demonstrating Vista’s strengths and its own creativity, making the case that Vista opens up new possibilities for exciting technology.

The opportunity was blown. I wrote about the Vista Ultimate debacle here, and nothing has changed since then.

Microsoft has been caught trying to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Vista Service Pack 1 will be released soon, probably on February 15, and some sharp-eyed bloggers caught one change in a splash screen that tells you everything you need to know.

The screen describing Vista Ultimate Extras in the original release of Vista, above, contains hype about the services that will make your computer experience “more powerful, productive, and personal,” with promises of “premium content that focuses on your digital lifestyle.”

The same screen is reduced to a single sentence after installing Service Pack 1 – no icons, no highlighted text, no promotional buzz words, just a bland sentence and a lot of white space.

Microsoft continues to make money – a lot of money, increasing earnings and projected earnings at a time when Apple and others have to rein in their estimates despite all the hype. But Microsoft has let us down in an important way. Vista is the best operating system ever released for a PC and I hate feeling defensive about it.

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