When Vista finally hits the shelves on Jan. 29, most consumers won't have a clue why they should buy it. Never mind the fanfare it will receive as Microsoft (MSFT ) Chairman William H. Gates III formally launches the new Windows from the stage of the Nokia Theater in New York. Or the hundreds of millions of dollars the software giant plans to spend through June to market it. With all of Vista's many new features, Microsoft seems incapable of really zeroing in on the handful that will truly change the way consumers use their PCs.
Not that Vista won't be a step forward. Just think back to what your PC was like five years ago when Windows xp launched. It was still the era of the Blue Screen of Death, that infamous window that popped up to say your PC had just crashed. Windows XP improved PC reliability. But in retrospect, the real breakthrough for consumers (those who didn't already have a Mac, that is) was XP's ability to help digitize their entertainment. Windows XP made it a snap to stash music, photos, and video online.
Windows XP pretty much stopped right there, though. Microsoft Corp. made it easy to rip a CD to your PC's hard drive. But it took Apple Inc. (AAPL ), with its iPod, to figure out how to actually take advantage of that digitization and make it easy for consumers to listen to their digital tunes. And forget about photos. Consumers have snapped scads of photos—2 billion in 2006 alone. But they remain trapped on hard drives of PCs running Windows XP. It's not all that different than storing snapshots in shoeboxes under the bed.
Enter Vista. Let's go out on a limb and suggest that for all the knocks against Microsoft and the jokes about how long it took to crank this thing out, Vista will in time be recognized as a leap past XP. And not just because it is far more secure and boots up more quickly. When consumers look back a few years from now, the Vista improvement they may be most likely to cite is the ability to actually use all that digital content they've been accumulating over the years.
The result of Microsoft's efforts is a collection of devices and services that takes Windows a step closer to truly being a digital hub. Think once again about those photos. Microsoft has worked with a handful of partners that have developed digital picture frames that connect to PCs over a wireless network.
Sounds geeky. But Microsoft has made it easy for PCs to recognize the frames on a home network, so all users need to do is turn on the frame to connect with it. Then, from their PC, they can select which pictures to display on the frames scattered around the house. "A lot of the success of Vista will be up to the partners like us to make it dead simple," says Jesse Grindeland, director of sales for i-mate plc, a Dubai company whose $299 Momento 10-inch frame goes on sale when Vista launches.
FREEING THE MUSIC
Another gadget, the Sonos Digital Music System, was wowing gearheads long before Vista came along. The Sonos system lets customers shoot music wirelessly from PCs to speakers throughout the house. And it worked well, except for music purchased online that contains copy protection preventing it from playing on multiple devices. Windows Media 11, the music technology inside Vista, fixes that, letting you stream copy-protected content throughout the house.
None of this was easy for Microsoft, which has always done better with business than consumers. "We're really focused on creating a consumer brand for Microsoft," says Brad Brooks, general manager in the Windows Client group. Microsoft's critics will point out that many Vista features are already in Apple's Mac OS X. Even Vista's new method of recovering old versions of files, with the drab moniker Volume Shadow Copy, trails Apple's much flashier Time Machine technology.
But for most PC users, these improvements will matter regardless of who had them first, says Michael Gartenberg, research director at JupiterKagan Inc. (MCGC ) After all, Vista, like its predecessor, will continue to outsell the Mac by 20 to 1.
By JAY GREENE