Jul 062012
Vista, or Longhorn, was a failure by Microsoft

Microsoft Vista was the company’s despised stepchild – released way past schedule, clunky, slow and disdained so much by the market that PC manufacturers started offering “downgrades” to Windows XP to attract customers.

Despite the embarrassment, Microsoft retained its position as the world’s leading software company and does so today. But Vista certainly did hurt Microsoft and today’s marketplace shows the deep, long term effects of that damage.

Research website Asymco earlier this week looked at the ratio of Windows PCs sold to the sales of Apple Macs over the last 30 years. The ratio peaked at 56 to 1 in 2004.

Today that ratio is 18 and when phone and tablet sales are added in, the ratio is approaching 1:1. Apple has caught up.

It’s no accident 2004 is the peak of the Windows-Apple ratio. In 2004 Windows XP had matured after three years on the market, the older computers running Windows 98 or ME (another hated operating system) were being retired and a new version of Windows – codenamed Longhorn – taking advantage of newer technologies and with improved security was due to be released.

On August 27, 2004 things started to change with Microsoft’s announcement Longhorn would be delayed two years. This effectively broke the product roadmap that underpinned the business models of Microsoft and their partners.

To make matters worse, Apple were back in the game with their OSX operating system well established and a steady stream of well designed new products coming onto the market.

For consumers and businesses one of the advantages Windows systems had over Apple was the cost difference. The “Apple Tax” started to be eroded by the company’s move to Intel CPUs which delivered economies of scale coupled an aggressive program of tying up the supply chain with key manufacturers.

Then Longhorn – now known as Microsoft Vista – was released.

Despite the cheerleading of the Microsoft friendly parts of the technology media, consumers weren’t fooled. The product was slow and buggy with a new interface that confused users. Making matters worse was Microsoft’s ongoing obsession with multiple versions offering different features, something mocked by Steve Jobs,  which further confused the marketplace.

Vista languished, customers decided to stick with Windows XP or to look at the faster and better designed Apple computers, and Microsoft’s market share started to slowly erode.

By the time Windows 7 was released Apple had clawed back their market position, launched the iPhone and caught the shift from personal computers to smartphones.

Probably the biggest embarrassment of all to Microsoft was the launch of the iPad, the market had been gagging for good tablet computer since the late 1990s and Microsoft’s partners had failed to deliver, partly because Windows XP, Vista and 7 didn’t perform as well as Apple’s iOS on the tablet form factor.

Microsoft’s completely blowing a decade’s lead in the tablet market is almost certainly due to the misguided priorities and feature creep that dogged Vista’s development. This is now costing the company dearly.

Asymco’s conclusion of Microsoft’s new market position is stunning and accurate.

The consequences are dire for Microsoft. The wiping out of any platform advantage around Windows will render it vulnerable to direct competition. This is not something it had to worry about before. Windows will have to compete not only for users, but for developer talent, investment by enterprises and the implicit goodwill it has had for more than a decade.

It will, most importantly, have a psychological effect. Realizing that Windows is not a hegemony will unleash market forces that nobody can predict.

Vista’s cost to Microsoft was great, it meant the company missed the smartphone surge, the rise of tablets and – possibly most dangerous of all to Microsoft – the move to cloud computing.

A lot hangs on Microsoft’s next operating system, Windows 8. Another Vista could kill the company.

  One Response to “How much did Vista really cost Microsoft?”

  1. this article should dissuade those calling for the return of bill gates as a replacement for steve ballmer

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