Windows 7, or Vista Second Edition?

As an early adopter, I’m a bit used to being burned by my purchases. Formats die, product availability and support are usually low, and the next revision always does twice as much for half the price. Those assumptions aside, I still feel a bit disappointed with my purchase of Windows Vista, particularly with the recent details of Windows 7 and the strong possibility of it being only a year away.

I paid over $250 for my copy of Windows Vista Ultimate Upgrade in February 2007, which puts me at about the 18-month mark of daily Vista use. The first year was certainly not a fun experience, but SP1 came along and did away with many of the initial bugs. Drivers have finally gotten most of their kinks out, too, and software support is growing at a noticeable rate. Yet I’m still left waiting for the revolutionary user experience akin to Windows 95 that was promised to me. So far, the only real benefit Vista has brought me is support for my eight gigs of RAM. If not for that, I’d probably be just as content back on Windows XP. I should qualify that statement by describing my usage habits, though, since Vista does bring a great new search function, an enhanced Media Center, a 3D-accelerated interface, and enhanced security. Simply put, Windows Vista is my gaming OS, and I rely on a MacBook to fulfill my other computing needs.

For those wondering, I paid more for Vista Ultimate because I wanted Media Center Extender functionality for my Xbox 360, the ability to Remote Desktop into the machine, and 64-bit installation media included in the box. I ended up shunning Windows XP x64 Edition because, while Vista did have problematic driver support for the first year or so, it still supported my hardware better than XP x64. Beyond that, I have a hard time buying OEM operating systems due to how often I change hardware. I’ve been told that a quick call to Microsoft will resolve any activation issues that could arise, but from what I can tell by looking at the license agreement, constantly changing hardware and OEM licenses don’t mix. For my usage habits at least, Vista was the better choice.

Regardless, I now find myself reading about this great new operating system. Its UI changes should improve productivity and ease of use, and it could deliver better performance for both new and old systems. This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for! There’s only one problem: it’s Windows 7, not Windows Vista SP2.

I really didn’t buy into the “Windows Vista = Windows ME” talk when Vista launched. Although I still have problems with the analogy, Vista really is starting to feel a lot like Microsoft’s previous ugly duckling. To be fair, it’s not the broken, unsupported mess that ME was, but it already seems poised to receive similar treatment from Microsoft. Rather than continue to upgrade and enhance the OS as it did with Windows 98 and XP, Microsoft seems content to fast-track a replacement. Just two weeks ago, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that “Windows 7 will be Vista, but a lot better.” So what was Vista, a practice run? Microsoft is addressing the problems it introduced with Vista (like UAC), but rather than offer free fixes, it’ll offer to sell us Windows 7. When asked why new users should now make the upgrade to Vista, Mr. Ballmer almost seemed dismissive of the current flagship OS, saying that “if people want to wait they really can.” From the perspective of a Vista user, that almost sounds like abandonment of the platform.

Perhaps Windows XP gave me an unrealistic sense of what to expect from an operating system. After all, it had an unusually long life-cycle for a Microsoft product, lasting over five years and receiving two service packs before finally being supplanted by Windows Vista. Since then, XP has received its third service pack, and only recently has Microsoft started phasing it out of the pre-built PC market. Those service packs not only fixed bugs and security exploits, but they also added a multitude of user interface and functionality enhancements like improved Wi-Fi support, Data Execution Prevention, and a much better integrated firewall, just to name a few. When I see the changes Windows 7 is bringing to the table, particularly with regard to performance, I find myself wondering: why isn’t this coming in Vista Service Pack 2?

At the end of the day, the answer is very simple. It’s a PR move. Windows 7 could very easily be Windows Vista Second Edition, but there’s one word in the name that just can’t stay. “Vista” has become such a taboo word in the PC market that even my computer-illiterate friends are determined to avoid the OS just based on the FUD that’s been spread around. Windows 7’s short development schedule could well be Microsoft’s response to the Vista public relations failure. Thank Apple commercials. Thank evening news programs. And of course, thank Microsoft itself, since it failed to handle Vista’s launch in a responsible manner. At this point, the company just wants to be rid of the whole darn thing, and I really can’t blame it. This may well be the right move for Windows customers, too, particularly the large number that are still on Windows XP. While Vista users might feel like Microsoft is double-dipping with Windows 7, the XP users I’ve talked to are genuinely excited for Windows 7—if only because it’s not Vista.

Speaking of Apple, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the much shorter Mac OS X release cycles, which Microsoft could end up mirroring with its future OS updates. Do I have a problem with that? No. The key difference is that Apple’s operating system upgrades cost $129. You don’t have to worry about what edition to buy, and the full-featured retail version doesn’t have a $399 MSRP. I’ll happily withdraw my complaints if Microsoft can match the competition with Windows 7’s pricing scheme. Otherwise, I’ll count the days until I need to give Microsoft more cash to deliver on the promises of an OS that’s already cost me $259.

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