Here comes a new Windows operating system from Microsoft Corp. Long delayed, it's the first in several years, so the company plans an enormous marketing campaign to tout the software as a way to get more out of computers.
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But Microsoft's legion of detractors roll their eyes, calling the new Windows a weak imitator of other operating systems. Meanwhile, technology analysts wonder whether Microsoft's dominance is nearing an end, since programs coming over the Internet are emerging as a more powerful force in computing than software tied to individual desktops.
Ah, those were the days. Who can forget the release of Windows 95?
That's right: While the description above applies to the new Windows Vista operating system hitting stores Jan. 30, it also was the landscape 11 1/2 years ago, when Microsoft came out with Windows 95 and ended up cementing its position in the PC industry.
However, there's one key difference this time: Back in August 1995, people actually lined up outside computer stores to buy the new edition of Windows the moment it went on sale at midnight.
Don't expect that to happen for Vista.
That doesn't mean Vista will be a dud. It can't be, not when just about every new PC sold will have Vista included.
Still, there's no ignoring the fact that Vista lacks a camping-outside-stores level of excitement — even if the company's marketing campaign does incorporate heavy use of the word "wow." That's what Microsoft contends people say when they see Vista for the first time.
While that may be the case, analysts expect Vista — which already has been available for business users since Nov. 30 — to gradually replace its most recent predecessor, Windows XP, over the next few years.
This is partly because Windows XP is good enough for many computer owners. In contrast, Windows 3.1, which Windows 95 ushered out to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," was relatively primitive (remember DOS?). More graphical, more polished and easier to use, the $90 Windows 95 introduced many people to PCs for the first time, just as the Web was about to take off.
A lot of the improvements in Vista — which will retail for $100 to $400, depending on the version and whether the user is upgrading from Windows XP — are redesign touches, or invisible tweaks toward better stability and security. Those are important things, to be sure, but not the stuff that makes fans scream like they're seeing the Beatles in 1964.
"Each time Microsoft puts out a piece of software, they're competing with their own previous software," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with the independent Directions on Microsoft research firm. "Now there's not that much extra stuff in the plumbing that they can do. There's not going to be the big obvious leap."
Vista's non-buzz might also come from something that was faintly glowing on the horizon in 1995 and now illuminates all of computing: The desktop seems farther from the center of the action. Storage, bandwidth and content are insanely vast online, and the resulting interactivity is what people think of — whether they're viewing a video, playing a "massively multiplayer" online game or shopping for Tickle Me Elmo dolls — when they think of using their computers.
That makes the operating system mainly a home base, a file cabinet, a platform for other things. Vista is elegant and faster at searching, and it offers improved multimedia management tools, but it's just an operating system. In 1995 that alone was a big deal. Vista would have to desalinate water or levitate things to deserve such hype.
This is still fine with the accounting department in Redmond, Wash. Windows will remain a cash heifer, generating the 80 percent profit margins that explain why everyone has heard of Bill Gates. Friedman, Billings & Ramsey Co. estimates that Vista will boost Windows revenue to $16.3 billion in 2007 from $12.4 billion in 2006, although much of the increase will come from Microsoft's deferral of $1 billion in revenue from 2006 to 2007.
The last massive Windows release?
But the current state of affairs could matter in other ways. If Windows is just expensive plumbing that people happen to get but don't clamor for, then open-source offerings or new entries — such as a long-rumored quasi-operating system that might come from Google Inc. —could erode the Windows monolith. That trend has already happened to a limited degree with other Microsoft products, including its productivity software and Web browser. For example, the open-source Firefox Web browser, officially launched in 2004, now is used on 11 percent of Windows computers in the U.S., according to an analysis by WebSideStory Inc.
Because Microsoft has to fend off such threats — and also because Microsoft has vowed that the next operating system will come sooner than the five years Vista took — some analysts believe Vista will be the last massive Windows release.
Instead, those prognosticators say, Microsoft might adopt a more "modular" approach and sell subscriptions to a regular series of Windows upgrades, rather than Vista-like overhauls that come all at once.
Microsoft has taken some steps toward that design: Largely for security reasons, Vista has several components that run separately from each other and can be swapped in and out using Windows' automatic update functions.
But when asked whether that might lead to a more incremental approach to producing future editions of Windows, Mike Sievert, who oversees Windows marketing, didn't rule it out or commit to it either. He said Microsoft would "take guidance from customers on this" and added: "You can expect us to continue to evolve the architecture."
In the meantime, Microsoft is working hard to generate excitement for Vista. That includes various "wow"-related promotions and viral approaches like an elaborate online game in which the champion wins a trip into low earth orbit.
Asked whether Vista, lacking the pent-up anticipation Windows 95 enjoyed, represented a tough sell for Microsoft, Sievert had a diplomatic response. He suggested that consumer excitement is simply harder to measure now.
"The world's changed in so many ways since 1995," he said. "Some of those lines that you're talking about may be virtual instead of physical this time around."
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