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Arnold Schwarzenegger did it, and now Bill Gates is ready. Arnold went from bodybuilder to movie star to governor. Bill has already become a big time if not full time philanthropist. He has loosened his grip on Microsoft's reins. And how he is poised to take a final bow saying, "I won't be back." Yet before he can leave he has to pull off a corporate hat trick, launching new versions of Internet Explorer, Office, and Windows. Unfortunately, Windows Vista could trip him at the exit. It is going to require PCs with the kind of muscle young Schwarzenegger flexed.
With Vista, Microsoft has decided that PCs should have high quality vector graphics, not the girly-computer raster graphics on present day machines. All real computers, like real workstations, will, with Vista, be able to work with visual information based on lines and curves, not a grid of dots, the way CAD programs do, the way the most capable typographic engines do. Graphics will stay smooth and not turn jagged as you scale things up. Better shading will allow screens to present information with greater subtlety. Images will rotate nicely. Text will be able to run at angles and even follow curved baselines.
The only drawback to the new graphics scheme is that it won't work with the kind of display hardware on most people's desks. You'll need a PC with a very capable graphics card and lots of its graphics memory, probably 256 megabytes. That's more memory than many business PCs have now as their main memory including some memory that can be borrowed by the machine's graphics engine. And that's just the start. The center of the Vista target, what will become a midrange PC if Microsoft has its way, will have a dual core 64-bit processor and a gigabyte or two of main memory. It will also probably have a 200 GB disk drive that includes the new, smart SATA interface, technology that provide performance similar to what you find in SCSI disks today. Your display will probably run at 1600x1200 pixels, or you might go for a premium screen with roughly 2000x1500 pixels.
This is not at all a secret. Microsoft has provided lots of guidance on its web site.
You're not going to get this box for the price you would pay for a midrange desktop machine built to run Windows XP, which might have no more than 64 mb of graphics memory (or use shared memory), 256 or 512 MB main memory, a disk with 40 or 80 GB of capacity that plus in via a parallel ATA interface, and a screen running at something like 1200x800 or, if you have a flat screen, maybe 1024x768.
Even more generously configured XP boxes, which many companies have been buying this year as vendors improved the specifications of their basic business PCs, are going to fall short. This is not an issue at most sites, because few businesses upgrade PC operating systems once a machine has been installed. However, it can be an issue for users whose personal machines must be kept in line with corporate standards so their owners can continue to get corporate support for work done in home offices or on the road. Lots of these PCs began their careers running Windows 2000 or Windows 98 and were later upgraded to Windows XP, which at most meant adding memory to boost performance. The move to XP was a hop, not a leap. Even users who made the move while IBM was busy shifting its PC support to Lenovo could upgrade with very little difficulty, whether they did this for themselves or with the help of corporate support personnel. The story can be found on an vendor's support site, such as the one managed by Lenovo. Dell and HP provide comparable help to user upgrading machines in the field.
Users may feel a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was carried into office on a wave of popular support that included a referendum calling for the replacement of California's previous governor, only to find that the Governator effect didn't last much longer than the magic coach and horses in Cinderella. Voters don't like all of Schwarzenegger's ideas as well as they like the man himself. If the charming Schwarzenegger can get flummoxed at the polls, there's good reason to believe Microsoft may fare no better as it tries to win acceptance for its next generation of Windows. Even Gartner group, which often puts the best face on things, has been widely quoted for warning that Vista might not be ready for prime time.
Companies trying to puzzle out a PC budget for the coming year may feel like they have gone back in time, the way the Terminator came in from the future. They could experience flashbacks of the decision between Windows 98 and Windows 2000 that was so hard to make five years ago. At that time, a lot of corporate purchasing decisions took the low cost option, choosing Windows 98, which not only cost less to begin with because it worked on less costly platforms, but also promised to be easier to support in a base of end users who were familiar with Windows 95. Microsoft didn't offer that kind of choice to business users when it rolled out Windows XP, but users generally were able to avert a budget crisis, because by the time XP came out computers capable of running the system cost no more than Windows 98 boxes did when they were new, and in some cases actually cost less.
With Windows Vista, things will be different. Microsoft is unquestionably running ahead of the PC industry, and the only question is just how far ahead. To prevent a sales collapse while the hardware makers catch up, Microsoft is going to pack two degraded versions of the software into its package.
There will be a Vista with raster graphics aimed at users with good but not great graphics cards (or computers that have midrange graphics capabilities embedded in their chipsets). This means, to put a number on it, a target machine with 128 MB of graphics memory or the ability to cadge that much storage from a computer's main memory. An even less demanding option, Vista For Wimps, will appear if the software is installed on a machine that simply has no hope of running vector graphics with acceptable performance. These machines will have Vista but they will look like they are running XP. The XP look, a term that today suggests a system at the leading edge, will, as Microsoft's marketing mavens do their magic, become a euphemism for a computer that's passed its sell-by date
This compromise may look great on paper, but it's going to be a horror for support personnel, who will have to work with three distinct classes of end user, three sets of graphics drivers, and three collections of patches and service packs. It won't matter that Microsoft will try to keep its split Vista personalities in step. Multiply the number of current distinct PC designs by three and everyone in the support chain will get hammered, because there is no way the market is going to reject the high end version of Vista. The consumer market's demand for machines that can fulfill all Microsoft's promises will see to that, and the corporate market will just have to go along for the ride.
If you think this is going to be tough for people buying desktop machines, imagine about what's going to happen if you need purchase laptops. You will not only have to deal with higher prices for the equipment, you will have to find machines that can run Vista within their power budgets. The graphics processors, fast central processors, large memory, and bigger disks will take more juice. So far, it's not clear how the vendors are going to build machines with batteries that can survive much more than an hour of the Vista experience without putting on an extra pound or two of weight. Until the engineers catch up, and maybe forever, notebook users are going to get a bodybuilding course worthy of the young Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Some buyers will resist, and they probably will think they can get away with it, too. At first, it may be socially, politically, and technical acceptable if a laptop has that good old XP look and feel. But that won't last long. A significant portion of business laptops are accurately characterized as desktop replacement machines, which is a nice way of saying that somebody no longer has a desk, or no longer really works there all the time. So while business laptops might, on average, be more modestly configured than their desktop cousins, they aren't going to go over well if they are built to deprive users of that desktop Vista look and feel.
There's no doubt Vista will eventually become ubiquitous, and that the machines running it will have the extra capability it takes to make the software work the way it's supposed to. The issue, then, is not if but when. And for Bill Gates, undoubtedly suffering from terminal tedium, how he can turn to the remarkable Steve Ballmer and his other shareholders and say, "Hasta la vista."
— Hesh Wiener November 2005