Windows Vista Deployment -- Playing the Waiting Game

When Microsoft releases Windows Vista sometime in the second half of this year, two huge stars will be lining up.

The first full release of a new Microsoft operating system in five years will be arriving to at least a couple of years worth of pent up demand among users. At the same time, new PCs running with dual-core processors running under the hood will be plentiful, though still a bit pricey.

Windows Vista will feature an updated user interface called Aero Glass; much more effective and integrated desktop search; fundamentally new ways of organizing files and folders; another security overhaul; and deep changes to the way developers interact with the operating system.

That leaves a big question: What should you do?

The answer to that the consensus seems to be to test and plan and budget, but most of all -- wait.

“Windows 2000 users should plan to begin migrations beginning in early 2008 and most Windows XP users should pursue a strategy of managed diversity, bringing in Windows Vista on new machines starting in 2008,” advises a recent Gartner research note.

Why? Because, say users, analysts and industry observers, many or most corporate customers plan to do their own evaluations, planning, and budgeting -- after Vista is released commercially.

“It will take many organizations about 18 months from the time Windows Vista ships to test applications, get independent software vendors (ISVs) to support applications, build images and run pilots,” the Gartner research note continues.

“It looks like the upgrade cycle is going to start, at the earliest, in late 2007 or early 2008,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at The Enderle Group.

Other observers agree.

“I’m sure [corporate deployment of Vista] will be just like Windows 2000,” says Bruce Handley, president of the Rocky Mountain Windows Technology User Group as well as president of consultancy Handley Computer Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. “People will sit on it . . . [except for] some of the bigger customers that absolutely have to have it due to the new features,” Handley says adding, “Here we don’t put anything up until the first service pack is released.”

That sentiment is echoed by other customers and user representatives.

“The impression we get [from our members] is that . . . they will probably adopt it but not very quickly after its release, [similar to] the adoption of Active Directory,” says Jim Michael, board secretary for SHARE, the enterprise IBM user group, which has more than 2,200 member companies.

Michael adds: “I think the issues are such that it will be easy [for enterprise customers] to wait for the first service pack. Why not let others get the experience first?”

Indeed, many analysts agree that while, some early adopter companies will hop on the bandwagon soon after Vista ships, most of the early uptake of the new OS will be among consumers. That, of course, is likely to spur some end users to want the same system at work as at home – especially with so many U.S. firms that now expect their employees to at least work part-time from home. One way or the other, that is bound to generate support needs that may be unanticipated, say some users and analysts.

Additionally, over the years, the typical buying patterns following a new release have evolved. Today, the number of upgrade copies that corporate customers purchase to retrofit existing PCs has fallen off dramatically. One major cause is that the hardware requirements to run each new release always rise. Vista is no exception.

As with past releases, Microsoft is still being somewhat cagey about how much horsepower and memory Vista will require. The company says that the beta will run on a minimum of a 400-Mhz Pentium II with 512 Mbytes of memory.

If the past is any guide, however, few knowledgeable observers would try. Much better to go with Microsoft’s “recommended” configuration of a 1-Ghz CPU and at least 1 GB of RAM.

“Some folks who have experience with it [the Vista Community Technology Preview] say that, with a 1.6-Ghz [single-core] processor and a gigabyte of RAM, it wasn’t a stellar performance [but] on the other hand, if you run it on a dual-core processor in the 2-Ghz range and 2 GB of memory, it seems to run fine,” says SHARE’s Michael.

He adds though, that there may still be extra test code in current builds that push the system’s requirements above what it may be when the so-called “debug” code is removed and the operating system is released to manufacturing. “If the requirements are as they are right now [with the CTP], a lot of companies don’t have that hardware today. That means a longer replacement cycle.”

Part of the hardware equation will be whether corporate customers decide that they have to have top-of-the line Vista graphics, called Aero Glass, or whether their employees will be just as productive using the less capable standard Aero graphics technology. The standard Aero interface misses many of the advanced niceties that Aero Glass has, such as the translucent windows.

According to statements Microsoft makes on its TechNet developers’ site: “To run Aero Glass, your graphics card must have a Longhorn Display Driver Model (LDDM). To get the full Vista experience, the graphics card needs a lot of memory (64MB minimum, 128MB recommended) and must support the complete DirectX 9 API.”

There are other hardware issues as well. By the time Vista ships, multi-core CPUs will be common, which will provide more of an early impetus to migrate.

“The big wave won’t happen until the second half of 2007. [By then], I think we’ll see the majority of hardware systems in the midrange of the market with multi-core processors [and] corporate customers tend to buy in the midrange. Any currently shipping processor – from now going forwards – will be fine,” Enderle says.

But don’t feel sorry for Microsoft just yet. The company is bound to be wringing its hands, worrying about Vista uptake rates – all the way to the bank.

Indeed, as many as 500 million new PCs will ship in the first 24 months after the OS is release, although not all of them will come with Vista preloaded, G. Michael Sievert, Microsoft corporate vice president of Windows product management and marketing told attendees at the Merrill Lynch IT Services & Software Conference in early February.

Of course, if a new PC doesn’t ship with Vista, however, a version of Windows (XP SP2) will still be delivered on most of those other PCs sold. And all of this is happening as the OEM channel becomes an increasingly important link in Microsoft’s value chain.

In fact, company executives told financial analysts on its third fiscal quarter earnings call in January that currently 85 percent of Windows revenue comes from OEM sales of new PCs. They expect that figure will remain around 80 percent even after Vista ships.

“That 85 percent is potential gold for Microsoft partners and competitors. More than ever, Windows is a potentially powerful platform for distributing software and services through OEM channels,” said JupiterResearch senior analyst Joe Wilcox on his blog. “It's not exactly a new phenomenon that lots of customers buy Windows on new PCs.”

One conundrum for IT staff still exists. What to do with Windows XP machines that they acquired while waiting for Vista. Gartner recommends that those PCs be rotated out last – that is, as part of most companies’ regular three-year lifecycle – planned obsolescence.