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Embattled Vista set to ride into the sunset

Microsoft starts to pitch its next Windows offering today - while still pushing current, less-than-loved version

From Monday's Globe and Mail

It's the beginning of the end for Windows Vista.

Today, Microsoft Corp. kicks off its marathon pitch about life after Vista, and even though the next evolution of Windows won't be ready until 2010, at the earliest, the company doesn't think it's too soon to start prepping for a bug-free launch.

Otherwise, despite the fact that Windows's toughest challengers - Linux and Apple Inc. - remain bit players in the operating system game, Microsoft risks suffering in the arena of public perception, again.

The world's largest software company will speak publicly for the first time today about what's in store for the next evolution of Windows, dubbed Windows 7, at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles.

Now, after the incompatibility issues, the missing features and the humiliation of consumers downgrading to Windows XP, Microsoft faces the continuing task of repairing the public perception of Vista while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the next Windows instalment

"Often, packaging and perception are more important than actual technology," said Peter Misek, an analyst at Canaccord Adams in Toronto. "Part of the reason that Microsoft needs to scrap Vista, or just move on, is that it's too late for it. Never mind that people like it when they actually use it. It's over."

As Apple and open-source, Linux-based software continue their slow and steady climb toward a greater share of the global PC market, and companies such as Google Inc. encourage consumers to do more of their computing inside a Web browser and not on the desktop, the headwinds facing Windows are blowing stronger that ever.

Microsoft, however, isn't worried.

"Windows Vista is tremendously successful; it's a rock-solid operating system," said Elliot Katz, senior product manager for Windows at Microsoft Canada. "But perceptions in the marketplace are much worse than what the product actually is."

Vista's ugly reputation stems largely from a number of incompatibility issues that prevented it from working on certain computers and with various software, problems which cropped up shortly after its January, 2007, release.

Also, some developers were upset that features Microsoft had promised would be included - such as a new file system - didn't make it into Vista.

Ever since, Microsoft has been mired in an ongoing public relations battle to shake Vista's negative image, and although the company recently hired Jerry Seinfeld as part of a $300-million (U.S.) advertising makeover, some analysts fear it may be too late for Vista.

Mr. Katz said Microsoft has learned from its Vista mistakes and is determined not to let them reoccur. This time, the Redmond, Wash.-based firm won't be disclosing any Windows 7 features until the company knows for certain they will be included in the version that ships to customers.

Microsoft is looking to include "better mobility capabilities" and better security with Windows 7, but it will look similar to Vista, Mr. Katz said. Analysts also expect Windows 7 to improve compatibility with Microsoft's Windows Mobile software for cellphones.

Still, despite the seemingly endless string of television ads Apple has rolled out to lambaste Microsoft, and particularly Vista, Windows still maintains a veritable monopoly on global PC desktops.

But as computing shifts from the desktop to Web browsers, operating systems become less relevant, Mr. Misek said, a shift that stands to hurt Microsoft more than any other company.

Windows is still the cash engine that drives the Microsoft machine. Microsoft's "client" division, which oversees the Windows business, accounted for nearly $16.9-billion, or 28 per cent, of the company's $60.4-billion in revenue in 2008, according to its annual report.

But with the global economy on the verge of a recession, Microsoft could be in danger of succumbing to the "good enough" computer era, said Kevin Restivo, a software analyst at IDC Canada.

"The operating system is at a level where people don't necessarily need to upgrade every two or three years - they can afford to wait longer if they have to."

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