Last week, I asked Windows IT Pro UPDATE readers how they felt about Windows Vista, the upcoming major Windows release that will succeed Windows XP in late 2006. Predictably, few of you are all that excited. However, since writing last week's commentary, I've had a chance to evaluate Vista Beta 1, which Microsoft released last Wednesday. And Microsoft revealed more of its future plans last week at its annual Financial Analyst Meeting. Both of these developments provide fodder for this week's discussion.
Although my Vista Beta 1 review is available on the SuperSite for Windows (see the URL below), let me summarize the features I think will be important to you. Vista Beta 1 includes three key improvements for IT pros. First, the image-based deployment and setup tools will make rolling out the OS much simpler. Second, the new security infrastructure, which includes User Account Protection (UAP), new Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0 security features, and other functionality, will make Vista more secure than XP can ever be. And third, new document searching and organization features in the shell will make your employees more efficient.
I examine two of these features--security and document searching and organization--in my Vista Beta 1 review and related documents on the SuperSite. The third, image-based deployment and setup, requires further study because beta 1 is the first public release of Vista to include such technology, although Microsoft has been talking about it for years. And Microsoft didn't release the deployment kit until several days after beta 1 shipped. I'm reviewing that technology now.
There is, however, a fourth reason to evaluate Vista Beta 1--a reason near and dear to the hearts of many IT pros: application compatibility. Although Microsoft will no doubt quickly figure out which mainstream applications install and run correctly in Vista, you'll need to test your custom applications yourself. And there's no time like the present: Any feedback you can give Microsoft about incompatibilities in the applications that the company won't be able to test is vital to ensuring that the final version of Vista isn't a compatibility nightmare for businesses. Furthermore, you should become familiar with some of Vista's basic features now and think about how you might use them in the future.
As for the future, Microsoft has plans for you. The plans involve you opening your pocketbooks and redoing your Software Assurance (SA) and Enterprise Agreement (EA) volume-licensing contracts. Last week, Microsoft provided a few details about the new scheme, previously tried by the Microsoft Office team, to expand product lines and create new product versions that attack every possible market opportunity. On the high end, Microsoft will create premium versions of its most popular products that will include features not found in the more traditional versions.
"We've \[done this\] to a very limited degree with \[Windows XP\] Media Center Edition \[MCE\] and Tablet PC Edition," Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said during last week's meeting. "As those two things are catching on and becoming mainstream in the market, depending on how we do the \[product version\] assortment, the capabilities associated with those will not be in the lowest price \[product versions\] ... We have some more enterprise-oriented features that we can do some \[product version\] work around \[in Windows Vista\] ... We'll be adding some richness in the slightly increased price area."
Microsoft will also dramatically increase its Office product line with the next major Office version, currently code-named Office 12 and due to ship simultaneously with Windows Vista. Office 12 will include several new Office server products, although Microsoft is being vague about what those might be. (Microsoft representatives told me that the company would publicly divulge its Office 12 server and product versions strategy in early 2006.) But the company will offer a premium CAL that includes both Windows and Office rights. "It's premium value at a premium price," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said. "We're of course going to keep the current product set around, and we're going to have to prove to our customers that they want the premium value." Ballmer noted that the premium product versions of Windows and Office will likely be one of the largest growth areas for Microsoft over the next several years.
I feel strongly that Microsoft's customers would be better served by fewer product versions; it would be simpler and not cause the choice overload that we now face in far too many parts of our lives. Studies show that people faced with too many choices often don't choose at all; they stick with what they already have or, in the case of buying a new version of something--be it salad dressing, cars, or software--simply buy the latest version of what they already have. The software's value should be apparent in any new version. You shouldn't be required to buy a better version to get certain valuable new features.
That said, I suspect none of us will be able to convince Microsoft to scale back its plans. Our only tactic at this point will be to closely monitor what these product versions are, then see how they're licensed. If premium Windows and Office versions become a key benefit of SA and EA licensing agreements, Microsoft might have found a way to maximize revenues without alienating existing customers. Let's not even consider the alternative.
Windows Vista Beta 1 Review (SuperSite for Windows)