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Is Windows Vista Ready?

There's been a lot of speculation and opinion about Windows Vista lately. Many claim that Microsoft's next generation operating system isn't ready and can't be made ready in time for the software giant's self-imposed October 2006 Release to Manufacturing (RTM) deadline.

Who are these people? And what are they really worried about?

Some have said that Microsoft should wait until sometime in mid-2007 to ship Vista, because businesses aren't lining up to deploy the new operating system any time soon. Heads up, guys: Businesses have never lined up to install a new Microsoft operating system. They always install new Windows versions gingerly and years after the fact. We're all familiar with the "wait for Service Pack 1 (SP1)" mantra that many enterprises extol.

Others have said that Microsoft should add a Beta 3 release between Beta 2 (which, yes, was lousy) and Release Candidate 1 (RC1), which presumably will ship by late August or early September. But that's just arguing semantics. Who cares what the next milestone is named? What we should worry about is that the next milestone be more representative of the final product than was the previous milestone. Based on my experience with the last two interim builds, that will definitely be the case.

Many beta testers tell me and their fellow testers that Windows Vista isn't ready. But beta testers never think any Windows version is ready: If we left the ship decision to testers, we'd still be testing Windows XP. (OK, that one is an exaggeration, but one with a point behind it. Many beta testers simply like their exclusive little clique to continue as long as possible. Only they, after all, are qualified to determine when Windows is ready.)

And then there are the online pundits, many of whom are barely old enough to legally buy alcohol. These guys are classic. Let's just say that a lack of experience and a strongly worded opinion don't result in the most coherent of arguments and leave it at that.

So what's left?

I can't speak for any of these people, but I do listen to what they have to say. I even agree with some of it. But I've been working with Windows Vista for a long, long time, and I've seen how it's evolved. Heck, I've been working with Microsoft OS betas for over 12 years now, and while it's very clear that Vista hasn't exactly followed a trajectory that's at all similar to any of the other betas, it's also true that each OS beta has its own vibe. We might call Windows Vista a "train wreck" for simplicity's sake. But it's getting better. Seriously.

Is Windows Vista ready?

No. God, no. Today's Windows Vista builds are a study in frustration, and trust me, I use the darn thing day in and day out, and I've seen what happens when you subject yourself to it wholeheartedly. I think I've mentioned the phrase "I could hear the screams" on the SuperSite before. My wife said that to me one day, and she was referring to the sound of me barking some primeval curse at my desktop PC as it succumbed to Vista's stupid slowdowns, crashes, and hang ups for the umpteenth time. She, more than anyone, knows the frustration I've experienced because of Windows Vista. But even she doesn't know the details. They would bore her, frankly. She's normal like that.

Here are some examples. I'm navigating around in Explorer and suddenly realize I need to access a file on a network share. In XP, this is easy as My Network Places is also available from the Task Pane. In Windows Vista, there's no Task Pane, and there's no link to Network in the new Favorite Links pane (though you can, admittedly, add one if you want, or add links to any network shortcuts). So you open Network from the Start Menu and wait ... and wait... and wait... while the damn thing finds all your networked PCs and servers. In XP, this process is instantaneous.

Here's a more insidious one. In Windows Vista Beta 2, Adobe Photoshop Elements 4 would install but issue a warning when you ran it, noting that it was incompatible with Vista. You could ignore the warning and everything worked fine. However, in the subsequent two interim builds, Photoshop Elements 4 has literally gotten worse over time. Now, some key functionality simply doesn't work or, oddly, only partially works. Save for Web, for example, now only saves in GIF format. I have no idea why. But because I use this product every single day, it's impacted me in a big way. It's annoying.

Or take IE 7. Please. I use IE for one thing and one thing only: The magazine's Web portal requires IE to post articles, and because I post WinInfo articles every day, I need to use IE. Every day. In IE 7, the rich edit control that forms the basis of the third party ActiveX control we used to post article bodies not only doesn't work, it is actually deprecated in Vista so that it will never work, even if you manually install it. That means I will have to use an older version of IE, in a virtual machine, to post WinInfo articles for the foreseeable future. Stupid.

And then there's that wonderful "Recent Items" entry on the Start Menu. I can't tell how it decides to cache stuff, but I can tell that it does not--ever--list the actual documents I most recently use. It's infuriating.

And why does the screen have to "pop" so violently when it switches between Aero and Windows Standard ("Windows Stupid," as I've grown to call it) because I need to run an application that, for some reason, won't let Aero continue running? (That application, by the way, is Virtual PC, which is required because of the IE issue mentioned previously. Auuuuugghhhhhh! It's a re-entrant annoyance!)

Why did I just waste four years making nice album art for music folders and custom folder art for photos? Microsoft changed folders completely in Windows Vista, and all that work just got flushed down the virtual toilet. (Microsoft calls this toilet the "Recycle Bin " as opposed to Apple's toilet, which was called "Mac OS 9.")

I like the way the Start Menu complains about no email application being set as the default every time I use the Search Box. I also like the way my machines jump to the logon screen every ten minutes despite the fact that I've configured Power Management not to do that. I especially like the way I can't delete certain items from the desktop (randomly, it seems, like a game) unless I either reboot my machine or manually crash Explorer.exe. But my favorite Windows Vista behavior--and believe you me, this was a tough contest--has to be the weird COM object errors I get while cutting and pasting between Paint and Word 2007. (And yes, frankly, this could be an Office 2007 bug. But let's face it, Office 2007 and Vista are "Better Together" as Microsoft likes to point out.)

Let's recap. Paul uses Vista every day as his only OS on each of his desktop and notebook machines. Paul has begun screaming a lot and it's not because he's taken up an anger management form of yoga. (That's what Kabbalah really is, right?) Why is Paul now referring to himself in the third person? I can't remember.

Will Vista be ready in time?

Honestly, who cares? After five years of delays, another six months isn't going to make a difference. But just for the sake of argument, let's say I have a stake in this and am being forced to render an opinion about Vista's ship readiness for October. Will it be ready in time?

Actually, I think it could be. I think that Microsoft will actually make this date, and as I write these words I'm acutely aware that Microsoft will announce another delay within minutes of its publication if only to discredit me. I can live with that because, as I said, I don't really care. It's just an opinion. Everyone has one.

Do I think that Microsoft will finalize Windows Vista by the end of October 25? Yes, but I also believe they will release a massive series of patches between October 2006 and January 2007 if they do arbitrarily hit their latest release promise because of issues that crop up after Vista gets shipped out to all those businesses that won't be installing it anyway. (Which brings me to a side issue: Why ship Vista to enterprises with volume license agreements before shipping it to consumers? Businesses are not going to install Vista anyway. Why waste the effort?)

Windows Vista is huge and complex and a major change from Windows XP despite some high-level similarities between the two operating systems. Users are going to freak when their hardware and software doesn't work right. They're going to lose it when they can't do things that were easy in XP but impossible in Vista. On the other hand, some things have improved enough to trigger instantaneous smiles. Microsoft should ship Vista when those smiles outnumber the screams. It's simple math. Even a Pentium could do it correctly.

The real question: When will Microsoft figure out what's important?

Here's the thing. Microsoft was fooled into announcing a ship date because it felt that its customers were losing faith in the company's ability to deliver. What Microsoft didn't realize is that the way to win back customers' hearts isn't to make bold proclamations; it's to actually do the right thing. (Reference: The Bush administration.)

In other words, Microsoft should have simply pulled an Id Software and said they'd ship Windows Vista when it was ready. Period. They should have then begun actively educating people about all the wonderful stuff they've released between Windows XP and Windows Vista and pointed out that all those wonderful freebies (which naturally require Windows Genuine Advantage) are still coming as we speak. And look, can't you see how Vista is getting better and better with each beta milestone?

I don't know how long Microsoft will need to finalize Windows Vista. Ultimately, I just want them to get it right. But if that means January, May, or even August 2007, so be it. But really, who cares what I think? At the end of the day, I'm just an online pundit/beta tester who likes technology a bit more than is healthy. And I really need to work on the screaming.

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