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Originally published Monday, December 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Silicon Valley view

Bug fixes may help Vista, but let's hope successor is better

The love-hate relationship between Microsoft and its users has always centered on the performance of its operating system. And during the past...

San Jose Mercury News

The love-hate relationship between Microsoft and its users has always centered on the performance of its operating system. And during the past year, Windows Vista has given us reasons to be both positive and negative about the future of the PC.

Before it came out in January, Vista got good reviews, though some critics complained Microsoft should have taken bigger steps to change the look and functions of Windows, much as it did with Office 2007.

But as the year wore on, there were reports about bugs and security issues. And then came the insultingly titled book "Windows Vista Annoyances" by tech writer David Karp.

Computer-industry pundits, including John Dvorak, Rob Enderle, Richard Doherty and Roger Kay, have criticized Microsoft both for not going far enough with Vista and for making it so bloated it was slow at performing various tasks.

"Even when it's working fine, it's noticeably slower than XP," said Kay at market-analyst firm Endpoint Technologies.

Microsoft even decided to extend the life of Windows XP, the earlier operating system, by six months. The critics ask: Did Microsoft get its money's worth from the work of 10,000 employees and the $6 billion it invested in Vista?

88 million sold

For all the criticism, Vista is selling well, says Neil Charney, general manager of the Windows client team. Vista has sold more than 88 million copies in the past year, mostly through new PC sales, according to the most recently reported quarterly results. Businesses are showing more interest, particularly now that a service pack, or bug fix, is due in the first quarter, Charney said.

He also says compatibility is getting better. At launch, there were 1.5 million devices compatible with Vista, he said. That was three times the number for Windows XP's launch, and now the number is 2.4 million devices. Of the top 100 Windows applications, 98 work fine on Vista now.

"More devices will simply work when you plug them in than a year ago," Charney said. "What's exciting is the variety of choices consumers have in terms of the variety of PCs available now."

Vista did close some gaps with the Mac OS, such as better built-in support for managing and editing videos and pictures. It promised better performance for games but has yet to live up to that, in part because the rest of the industry hasn't exploited its features.

There are times when I genuinely appreciate Vista's good things, but I hate how it can take forever to shut down. Karp says that happens because Vista shuts down every background task one by one.

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Leopard pounces

When Apple came out with the new Leopard operating system in October, Vista again looked a little behind the times. Apple's software runs on computers with half the memory required for a Vista machine, Karp said.

"I think a small percentage want to go back to XP, but my sense is a lot of users are dissatisfied with Vista," Karp said. "Considering they had six years to work on it, it's kind of embarrassing."

Karp says he's among those who won't go back to XP and would rather fix problems. He notes you can speed Vista up by going into the control-panel menu and turning off the "view thumbnails" feature, which presents a mini view of an open file as you hover over it with the mouse. Or you can make sure that your machine has enough main memory to run Vista.

Microsoft's Charney says that you're 50 percent less likely to get infected with a virus on Vista than with a fully patched Windows XP machine.

In the first six months, Vista had 12 security vulnerabilities reported, compared with 36 in the first six months for Windows XP. One problem is that, under antitrust rulings, Microsoft has to keep antivirus protection separate from the operating system.

Backup protection

It sells its OneCare protection and backup service for $50 a year, when it really should be included in the operating system. Imagine. They sell a vulnerable operating system for as much as $400 then get to sell you the antivirus software and other protections on top of that.

After the release of the service pack early next year, Microsoft hopes the adoption wave will grow much bigger. The service pack will improve speed on tasks such as copying a file and moving files across a network.

It feels like we're on a plodding pace, particularly after the long wait for Vista. From here on, I'd like to see Microsoft do better. With the next release, code-named Windows 7, it should take some of the radical visual-interface changes that it considered for Vista but rejected as too risky.

A year ago I suggested that a server-based operating system developed by Google — one that operates from Internet servers and doesn't sit on a desktop — could take on Microsoft. People laughed at the suggestion. But given Google's behavior and the events relating to "cloud computing" of the past year, it doesn't seem so outlandish anymore.

There was a collective exhale of relief in Redmond when Vista shipped and another when Microsoft reported its most recent quarterly sales of Vista. But time is not on Microsoft's side. It can't take six years to do its next operating system.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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