It's a low rumble here, there, like a thunderstorm barely heard because it's so far over the horizon that only the cloud tops can be seen, but the words "Windows 8 is Vista" are starting to leave lips and paint pixels.
And that has to scare the you-know-what out of Microsoft.
Because to Microsoft, Vista is the bastard child of the Windows family, the one who lost friends' savings in a Ponzi scheme, then fled to Bhutan and its mountains, beyond reach by extradition.
If Windows XP could be called the elderly uncle who worked most his life in the foundry to put his kids through college, if Windows 95 is a fondly-remembered grandmother who once danced with the Rockettes, if Windows 7 is the nephew with a shot at middle management, then Vista is the kin no one wants to talk about.
So to equate Windows 8, the newest member of the clan, with Vista, well, that makes Windows 8 junk, because Vista is the flop that even its closest competitor in the boner sweepstakes, the turn-of-the-century Windows Millennium Edition (shortened by some marketing genius to ME), can sneer at.
The causes of Vista's bad reputation are legion, some unfair. But once a reputation's made, it's almost impossible to rehabilitate. See: Nixon.
Even Microsoft ignores Vista. Search the company's press release archives and you have to go back to April 2008 -- 18 months before its successor showed up -- to find one with the word"Vista" in its title. And that release? About Service Pack 1, a mulligan for the OS.
Windows XP, more than five years older than Vista, has been treated more graciously, garnering a headline as recently as April 2013.
Vista was a failure for Microsoft -- it topped out at a 19% user share in October 2009 by Net Applications' reckoning -- less than a fourth of XP's at its height, just 40% of where the still-growing Windows 7 stands today. The failure is relative: Apple CEO Tim Cook would gladly break bread with investment pest Carl Icahn for a month of Sundays to have OS X at 19%. Still, relative matters.
How did it come to this?
Vista had all kinds of problems, not least that it was late. Originally slated to ship in 2004, three years after XP, it didn't hit retail until Jan. 30, 2007, seven years ago this week. Then there were the device driver issues and ballyhoo over User Account Control (UAC) due to Microsoft's re-architecting the former and trying to stem malware with the latter. It was even the focus of an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit that alleged Microsoft duped consumers into buying "Vista Capable"-labeled PCs that could run only the lowest-level edition, Vista Home Basic, which did not include several key features that Microsoft heavily promoted.
The blame game
To get a feel for what Microsoft thinks of Vista, simply recall that it was the one regret that outbound CEO Steve Ballmer picked from "a lot of mistakes" during a kind of exit interview last August with long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet.
"I would say probably the thing I regret most is the, what shall I call it, the loopedy-loo that we did that was sort of Longhorn to Vista," Ballmer told Foley. "I would say that's probably the thing I regret most. And, you know, there are side effects of that when you tie up a big team to do something that doesn't prove out to be as valuable."
With those words, especially his last sentence, Ballmer laid a lot of Microsoft's current problems on Vista's doorstep, implying that the company would not be where it is now -- behind in mobile, staring at a historic slump in personal computers -- if not for Vista, its long development and restart, and ultimately, its failure to deliver what Microsoft promised.
Those kinds of counterfactuals are entertaining to contemplate, but impossible to prove or, of course, disprove. If Vista had not been delayed, not been painted with the botched brush, and if Microsoft had not been distracted by its failure, Ballmer insinuated, Microsoft would be in a much stronger position now.
If Vista had shipped in 2004 and been an incremental advancement of Windows XP, that would have put Windows 7 -- or whatever Microsoft named it -- in customers' hands by 2007 with the company's three-year development cycle of the time. Windows 8 would have come out in 2010, the same year as the iPad, too late for massive changes, even if Microsoft had recognized the threat from tablets.
That wouldn't have helped Microsoft.
By all appearances, Microsoft management didn't light a fire under a Windows suitable for tablets until after Apple launched the iPad in 2010. Microsoft has said it jumped on tablets well before it saw the iPad -- stating it started Windows 8 development before the release of Windows 7 in 2009 -- but that, like a lot of corporate claims, must be taken with some salt. While Microsoft pitched stylus-based slates long before Apple dreamed up the touch-based iPad, it was the latter company that showed everyone that touch and apps appealed to customers, that tablets were not just cool but worthy companions, even substitutes, for PCs.
There's no reason to expect that Microsoft would have gotten there first, and along the way stuck a knife in the personal computer business, no matter what Vista's timeline. That would have meant Windows 9, shipping in 2013, would have been Microsoft's first try at touch.
Learning Vista's lesson
Ballmer's admission that Vista was his greatest regret confirmed what everyone had already known: Microsoft put Vista in its rear-view as quickly as it could, returning to numbers rather than names, and getting a nice bonus to boot. The word "Windows," and thus the brand, was repetitively used by the media, since using "7" for shorthand just didn't work as it had for "Vista" or "XP."
There's talk now that Microsoft will hurry along Windows 9 to put Windows 8 behind it, a logical conclusion assuming the company does see the latter as a failure. Not that it would ever admit as much, just as it never owned up to the Vista fiasco,. It simply pressed on to the next OS, hoping that one that would be accepted. Which it was.
Microsoft sounds like it will take a similar tack with Windows 8's successor: a tweak here, a fix there, but no overhaul. Much of the chatter has focused on a re-emphasis of the desktop by, for instance, restoring a Start menu and making it possible to run "Metro" apps in sizable windows on that desktop. That may not be enough, but it's probably all it can do with the time available.
Microsoft has committed to a faster release cadence, compressing the timeline it had for Windows 7 -- which could be the genesis of an April 2015 launch of Windows 9 instead of in October -- but it may simply not have the resources to do more, or with Windows 8 panned, feel it can wait.
Some have argued that Microsoft cannot rescue Windows' reputation by small steps, as it did with Windows 7. Steve Wildstrom, who writes on Techpinions, summarized the dilemma when he pointed out that while the duality of Windows 8 was the biggest barrier for customers, "It would be a major shock if Microsoft announces that Windows 9 will change the fundamental dual nature of Windows."
The difference in Microsoft's situation, as Wildstrom noted, is the technology landscape. Although customers simply waited out Vista because there was no choice for a general computing OS -- other than a heretical shift to OS X, which only a few took -- today Windows is on the defensive, not the automatic choice of consumers who increasingly choose Android and iOS for PC substitutes.
Enterprises don't have that luxury -- they're too committed to Microsoft's powerful business software to think of leaving Windows -- but they can do what they did before. Wait.
David Smith, a Gartner analyst who follows Microsoft, thinks that's exactly what they will do. "We don't see much interest in Windows 8 in the enterprise, but there's nothing else either," Smith said in a recent interview, even as he cited evidence of increased acceptance of Apple's iOS and OS X. "[Migration] cycles are long in the enterprise, and their next Windows is not going to be 8, and if Microsoft continues its course, as it appears it will, it's not going to be 9 either."
Corporations can theoretically wait out Microsoft until January 2020, when the company will pull the support plug for Windows 7, but in practical terms they would have to move earlier, perhaps by 2017, to have time for a sensible migration. Or if they're fortunate, Microsoft will offer them something less like Windows 8 and more like Windows 7 as a replacement.
"Microsoft's strength in the enterprise is Windows 7, and it's here to stay for a long time," said Smith.
Rock, meet hard place
The solution to Vista was straight-forward: Backtrack on those elements that raised the most ire -- UAC, for example -- and wait while hardware, both the PC and peripherals, caught up.
That does not seem possible this time. With Windows 8 yoked to the Metro-Classic Desktop two-horsed cart, Microsoft faces unpleasant choices no matter what it does. Every move points to additional delays in stressing mobile.
If it salves the wounds some customers say have been inflicted on the desktop, it weakens the radical strategy behind Windows 8, which was to force touch, force Metro, on every customer in the hope that they would see the benefits, then take to new touch-enabled PCs, and -- if Microsoft was lucky -- gravitate to its tablets as demand pushed developers into quickly creating a massive app market.
A reversal like that would not be a defeat, but it would hamper the drive toward touch and mobile -- which in Microsoft's mind are not one and the same -- and put it even further behind in the contest for tablet hearts and minds because customers would perceive Windows 9 as a sop to the past.
It could wait it out, as it did before, until touch-enabled PCs are more widely available at prices customers will pay, or hybrids and 2-in-1s actually sell, then accept that Windows remains king of a no-growth future and hope that the 300 million or so PCs expected to sell each year actually sell.
It could do what some have urged it for years to do, split Windows between consumer and commercial, since the two markets are increasingly divergent anyway. That might mean removing the desktop from what's now known as Windows 8.1, relying on something akin to today's Windows RT, and spinning off the desktop to an enterprise or professional edition that still relies on mouse, keyboard and finer motor skills.
Or ideally, Microsoft, which is filled with smart people, would devise a solution no one on the outside has thought of or advocated as something the company must do.
Which path to take? The third runs counter to the company's continued assertion that consumer and commercial are too intertwined to separate. The fourth is a wildcard. So that leaves the first two, which seem the most likely because companies, like people, have habits.
Perhaps it's a decision that will be left to the new CEO.
"I think Microsoft will continue to tweak the Windows 8 offering," said Gartner's Smith. "There are lots of areas of concern, and Microsoft is nowhere near unassailable, if it ever was. But it's a very strong company in a lot of ways, with talent and resources."
And it has that bastard child, Vista, to use as an example.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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This story, "If Windows 8 = Vista, what's Microsoft's next move?" was originally published by Computerworld.