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The Long Wait

Week of 7 May 2006

It's another year before Armageddon and some pundits think it'll be longer. Microsoft's Windows Vista, the successor to 2001's Windows XP, is already five years in coming, already whittled down from its original spec, and already delayed once from the 2006 holiday market to the early months of 2007 and beyond. And some pundits are now saying it will be delayed again.

Not that it matters much to Joe and Joan Homeuser, for they don't get to decide much anyhow. It's the IT resource managers who decide. And they're not exactly known for being on top of things.

The transition to Vista - if and when it comes - will be gradual anyway. Which considering the planet now has in excess of 600 million working personal computers, is a nice slice of change, even for the likes of Bill Gates and his friends.

The last one saw a major OS update from Microsoft was right after the long hot summer of 2001 when Code Red and its cousins hit the world. The highly critical exploit was suddenly in vogue - no need to use social engineering on dimwits and Outlook anymore. Things spread and caused destruction, both rapidly and without mercy.

By early 2002 - only months after the release of Windows XP - Bill Gates was out manipulating the media again, ostensibly apologising [sic] for all the misery and pain [sic] his software had caused the planet [sic]. Of course it was too good to be true: it was only Bill Gates' way of introducing his new strategy for 'digital rights management' (or 'control') as gently and as painlessly as possible.

But by then smart people had fled in a panic to anything with the name 'Unix' somewhere on the label: Debian, NetBSD, OpenBSD, OS X, Slackware, Gentoo, Red Hat, SuSE - and of late the projects of the visionary Mark Shuttleworth: Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Xubuntu, Thisbuntu, and Thatbuntu.

Smart people didn't care about Microsoft anymore.

It's amazing how long it takes to change a demographic. Something like watching sheep and attempting to change their course. Maaah, maaah. They aren't bright, those stupid things. They don't listen. You have to get them all moving at once. They're great followers - but that's about it.

Joe and Joan Homeuser don't even know what an operating system is anyway. They probably think the missiles in the silos are programmed by MS Notepad or MS Freecell. Who knows? Who cares? But the planet as a whole suffers the longer everyone's locked into Microsoft products.

It's not that Microsoft are a bunch of losers - but they are. It's not that Microsoft have one of the weirdest attitudes to software engineering in the history of software engineering - but they do. It's not that Microsoft 'philosophy' is the antithesis of all that is good in IT - but it is. It's a lot simpler than that.

Microsoft Windows is a standalone system not suitable for connecting to the Internet.

Standalone systems are never suitable for use in a 'connected' environment. Windows might be a lot worse than most standalone systems - it is - but that's not the point: even the best written standalone system is not suitable for use on the Internet.

The ramshackle status quo of modern corporate technology is staggering. Here we can do so many things with science and technology - and yet look at the primitive tools on office desktops. Not the look of the hardware itself of course, but what's inside them, under the bonnet. It's actually quite comical.

If ever there were a sign that something had not yet come of age, this is it.

It's like getting dragged through a time warp when you visit the offices of even the best known companies and see how they're working. Microsoft screen savers from 1905; Notepad and WordPad in there somewhere; Craig Brockschmidt's Calculator; dinky MS Office apps. Things look dirty and dusty and you just want to run for it.

And then someone at a party will ask you 'OS X - isn't that vulnerable now?' Stuff like that. These people literally come in from a different world - and they'll probably go forever on defending their cluelessness and ineptitude.

Amazing logic: 'we have a right to be stupid, we have a right to go on not knowing anything, you have a duty to explain things to us and help us - only pro bono of course and only if we specifically want those explanations and that help, otherwise you can exit back through the service entrance whence you came'.

As any anthropologist can tell you, intelligence and arrogance are always inversely proportional.

No Windows user who's been able to test those 'other waters' ever came back. Microsoft once wanted to make a 'switcher' ad campaign, show everyone people consciously chose to switch back to Windows. They couldn't find a single person who'd ever done this - they had to cheat, and were later exposed by the media.

A Gartner report written by Michael Silver, David Mitchell Smith, Stephen Kleynhans and Neil MacDonald and released this week predicts Microsoft will be delayed yet again in getting Vista out the door. Perhaps in Q2 2007, says the report. For even if Microsoft have their second beta ready 'any day now' there'll still be at least an eight month wait for the final product. That's how things like this work.

And you have to question the wisdom of packing five or six years work into an untested release and then unleashing it on an unsuspecting planet all at once. But of course if you go there you have to question the wisdom of releasing something like Windows at all. It's unprotected. It's 'standalone'.

And nothing Microsoft say or do - or as per usual promise - will change that.

Martin Lynch of the Inquirer says none of this matters. 'It's called Vista. It's big, fat, feature-packed, delayed and, at the end of the day, most of us will have no choice about whether we use it or not. So what's all the fuss?'

People change. And people can change people. It's impossible to cycle out an entire shop in a year's time, but this all has to start somewhere. Thanks to Microsoft, IT budgets are down, resources remain. What better time to test alternatives?

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