If you are a finance director who has recently signed a big fat cheque so your IT department can upgrade your company's PCs to Windows Vista – the latest version of Microsoft's desktop operating systems – you may well be very angry indeed. If you are not yet very angry indeed about the arrival of a truckload of brand-new Windows Vista PCs, then you may very well be soon.
The reason you might read this and weep is that Microsoft just announced it intends to start selling Windows 7, Vista's successor, before the 2009 Christmas holiday shopping season begins in November. However, its release candidate, the version of the new operating system with the potential to become the final product – which should be as bug-free as possible – was only made available in May.
Analysts predict this early emergence of the near-final code means the PC vendors, which will be loading the software on their systems to sell, will receive the finished operating system sometime in August. Looking at this schedule, it is clear Vista's successor is going to arrive sooner rather than later. There will certainly be no repeat of the tortuous series of delays that categorised Windows 2000's arrival to market; in fact, quite the reverse, as Windows 7 was originally not expected until sometime in 2010. (Having said that, this is not an easy time to be throwing money at IT upgrades and if you are one of those FDs who spent lots of money on such projects, perhaps you should ask yourself if that money is best spent by joining the upgrade treadmill.)
Windows 7's early arrival has raised few eyebrows among IT folk, as the rumour mill has been grinding fast for months now that Microsoft was pulling out all the stops to get Windows 7 finished as soon as possible. Many experts argue that development of the operating system was accelerated to try and bury the memory of Vista as quickly as possible. And it is fair to say that Vista has not escaped some constructive criticism.
To say that there are 'issues' with the operating system in the tech community would be a bit like saying that there are 'issues' with MPs' expenses and the vitriol is vented in several cult video spoofs, available on the trusty YouTube, by typing 'Vista problems' into the website search – which shows an apoplectic Adolf Hitler in a rant about the operating systemís flaws. (All in very bad taste and not for the easily-offended.)
What, then, of the IT directors who recommended upgrading to Vista when its successor was just around the corner? While it would be easy to criticise them, these hard-pressed IT decision-makers cannot be blamed for not having second sight. And despite the fact it is one of the most closely followed companies in the world, Microsoft is a notoriously tricky firm to second-guess when it comes to product delivery.
Many IT managers have, indeed, advised their employers to hold off Vista deployments for a host of technical reasons, prominent among them the hope that Windows 7 will fix many of the 'issues' in Vista, as well as chucking in some extra goodies for corporates. Assuming it actually works – and initial testing reports have been good – Windows 7 boasts enterprise features including making desktops more secure and speeding up file transfers from remote servers. It also gives organisations more control over what employees are permitted to run and, more importantly, not run on their office PCs.
In this context, it is interesting to note IT research outfit Gartner's estimate that more than half of corporates it asked are planning to skip Vista. Those in the middle of a Vista rollout obviously have no choice but to keep their noses to the grindstone and carry on. These companies will not be able to take advantage of the new functionality and fixes that ship with Windows 7, but at least they keep their IT strategies on track.
For companies that have not yet begun planning upgrades, the advice is clear: leapfrog Vista and move instead to Windows 7. This is an easy decision.
Preparing for a Windows 7 upgrade will take up the same amount of time and resources as a move to Vista, so companies should move to the superior product – but even then, only after Windows 7 has had its first tranche of service packs and bug fixes.
The big question here is whether there are any lessons to be learned that can prevent companies from falling foul of Microsoft's next upgrade cycle. How can executives better interpret the runes of Microsoft's seemingly Byzantine testing process to determine the optimum time to schedule their own upgrades? Sadly, the answer to this perennial question remains as elusive as ever, especially when variables such as products arriving earlier or later than expected are factored in.
The relentless pace of technology development means businesses will always be damned if they upgrade too quickly and cut themselves on bleeding-edge IT – equally damned if they delay too long and allow rivals to steal a technological march on them.
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