Vista Reaches for the Crown

It failed to catch on in the enterprise in 2007, and it still faces hurdles to acceptance. But partners say that it's too early to call Windows Vista a failure in the enterprise. This could be the year that the beleaguered prince of Microsoft operating systems begins its ascent to the throne.

It was like the Super Bowl, or at least like a lot of Super Bowls played in recent years. There was an almost suffocating atmosphere of hype, anticipation and high expectations surrounding its arrival; the press hung on its every detail and speculated as to how it might turn out. Would it be a blockbuster, the best ever -- or another clunker, like a few of its predecessors?

When it did finally arrive after long delays -- had it been a Super Bowl, it would have likely taken place in August rather than in February -- Windows Vista, just as the big game often does, left most observers feeling a little flat. It required a lot of hardware resources, and critical applications in many vertical industries, especially finance and health care, wouldn't work with it. Businesses balked at it. Partners shied away from it. Rival Apple Inc. made fun of it in a brilliant series of television commercials.

Like the Super Bowl, Vista generated lots of money: Microsoft reported its fastest first-quarter revenue growth in eight years for the fiscal quarter that ended on Sept. 30, 2007. Redmond's $13.8 billion in revenues represented a 27 percent increase over the same quarter the year before. The company credited that showing partly to what it called strong demand for Vista. But for many Microsoft partners, Vista was actually something of a non-event.

Vista's predecessor, Windows XP, remains popular and, in terms of market share, dominant. In November, analyst firm Forrester Research Inc. reported that a robust 84 percent of enterprise PCs in the United States and Europe still run on XP, while another 11 percent run on Windows 2000. That doesn't leave much room for Vista.

However, that ratio might be about to change in Vista's favor, partners say. In its second year of existence, with the imminent delivery of SP1 and customer companies looking to upgrade their hardware, Vista has a chance to finally start living up to its hype.

Set up to Fail
By now, even most casual observers know the main reasons why Vista failed to wow the enterprise in its first year. Application compatibility and the need for bulked-up hardware resources to run the OS remain huge hurdles to adoption, partners say, but they add that Vista's struggles go deeper than those issues.

"There's not a lot of business justification to specifically go buy Vista," says Doug Mantha, president of Netegrity Solutions, a Petoskey, Mich.-based Registered Member. "There are so many application vendors out there that say, 'Don't even think about running our applications on Vista.' If I see a business reason to recommend something, I will. There's no reason to install [Vista]."

Lee Nicholls, solutions director for Microsoft technologies at Gold Certified Partner Getronics NV, might disagree. His Amsterdam-based company hatched a strategy called Migrate to Office, Vista and Exchange (MOVE), which encourages companies to move to the latest releases of Microsoft's products. Nevertheless, he contends that Microsoft has failed to communicate a strong business case for moving to Vista, an oversight that has created both problems and opportunities for his company. Microsoft's leadership apparently expected that companies would move to Vista when it launched simply because it was the next version of Windows, he says. "The product suddenly came out the door with all of us saying, 'Where's the conversation with the business decision maker?'" Nicholls says. "[Microsoft] could have changed people's perceptions if they had been a little more sensitive and a little less arrogant."

Redmond also underestimated the size of the investments that companies would have to make in new hardware to run Vista, Nicholls says. "Not enough effort was made to say, 'What does the world's hardware actually look like?'" he says. "I don't think anybody should be surprised by where the product is right now. [Hardware upgrades] are carefully mapped on a budget. They fundamentally affect a company's share price. It takes a big deal to bring something forward like that. I don't think Microsoft did enough to start prepping and priming the market."

So, in Nicholls' view, it's up to partners to communicate Vista's business value. In that sense, he adds, Microsoft's failure to provide a business case for Vista gives partners a chance to step into the breach and act as trusted advisers for clients. "We have to thank Microsoft-they made us really valuable to the enterprise," he says. "We want to put the business case in the hands of the IT director inside our customers. We want them to get the cash they need [to upgrade]."

The Myths and the Message
And Vista does have some business value, Nicholls says. He cites massive demand for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 -- "the uptake on that product is gigantic" -- and notes that while SharePoint Server works well with XP, it works even better with Vista. And, he adds, Vista allows for greater management capabilities than XP when combined with Microsoft's Systems Center management suite.

However, Nicholls says that SharePoint and Systems Center aren't yet driving Vista adoption, in part because corporate executives have heard -- and, in some cases, experienced -- horror stories related to Vista deployments. Some executives have rejected Vista's presence in their companies based on bad experiences with the OS at home, he says, creating a negative perception of Vista that has found its way into the enterprise.

Nicholls says that partners need to communicate to customers that consumer and enterprise deployments are two entirely different animals -- and that enterprise deployments are likely to go much more smoothly. "Nothing arrives on the desktop [in the enterprise] until it's spent a few weeks in engineering," he says.

One company trying to change both the perceptions and the realities of Vista is BeyondTrust Corp., a Gold Certified Partner based in Portsmouth, N.H. BeyondTrust Privilege Manager lets users install applications in Vista and other Microsoft operating systems without having administrator rights, thereby increasing security and easing IT management.

BeyondTrust CEO John Moyer says that Vista Service Pack 1, due early this year, will help spur adoption of the OS, primarily because updated Microsoft products tend to be more attractive than first versions to both IT managers and their bosses.

"That's a factor for folks," Moyer says of the service pack, which he believes will be helpful -- but not necessarily critical -- from a technology perspective. "I think it's more psychological. I think it has more to do with [IT] job security."

Drivers for 2008
SP1 will likely play an important role in sparking Vista adoption, but it's not the only factor that will have corporate IT professionals and executives taking a fresh look at the OS. Netegrity's Mantha says that application compatibility will still be the key to Vista adoption for his customers after SP1's release.

"Most small businesses, if they're running the usual suspects in terms of applications, will be more receptive at that point," Mantha says. However, those running specific line-of-business applications will have to "take the pulse" of Vista to find out whether their particular applications will work with the OS, he says.

Mantha also expects interest in Vista to pick up as Microsoft and third parties increase the number of device drivers for the OS and improve customer support. "It's just a matter of time to get to that point," Mantha says. "It's the whole learning-curve issue from a sales and support view."

BeyondTrust's Moyer, who attributes about 25 percent of Privilege Manager's sales to Vista, cites the falling cost of hardware as a potential driver for Vista adoption. He says that companies will be more receptive to upgrading computers to run the OS as the upgrades become cheaper.

Nicholls adds that most companies will go through a scheduled hardware refresh in the next 18 months. "That's going to be Vista on those machines," he says, adding that Getronics is preparing its clients for investments in Vista. "We're looking further ahead down our own clients' roadmaps and saying, 'At some point, you're going to have to do this.'"

Meanwhile, Forrester sums up partners' points and predicts a surge of Vista deployments in 2008: "Forrester expects at least one-third of enterprises to begin to deploy Windows Vista enterprise-wide by mid-2008 as more applications will be certified, hardware will be refreshed and ready to run Windows Vista smoothly, and price points will make compatible machines more affordable than they are today," analyst Benjamin Gray wrote in a November report.

The Next XP
Partners agree that XP has proven to be tough competition for Vista, but Nicholls notes that, despite Microsoft's extensions of support for XP and its persistent popularity, Microsoft will eventually put XP out to pasture. And if nothing else serves to usher Vista into the enterprise, XP's eventual demise should do so, he says.

For enterprises, "there's really not much of an alternative to Windows," Nicholls says. "Most companies appreciate that at some point XP's going to go end-of-life."

Moyer agrees. "I think Vista will be a very pervasive operating system," he says. "You've got organizations that are going to refresh on a schedule and that means rolling out Vista, which is the operating system that's available when they refresh. It's only a matter of time in the enterprise."

And, if all the right factors converge, Vista could finally live up to expectations, ultimately emerging as a winner after all.