Traditionally, a major new mass-market operating system release sends a "refresh" command to the hardware base as well. Users have accepted the costs of more memory, more processor speed and more graphical horsepower as enablers of new capability and convenience—but Microsoft seems uncharacteristically hesitant about the ability of Windows Vista to trigger the next such cycle.
For example, as announced last week, the company plans to offer versions that lack the distinctive new user interface and collaboration capabilities that are key components of the promised new user experience. Microsoft thereby sends a signal that its not confident of its continuing ability to offer user experience innovations that propel substantial hardware upgrades.
If developers pick up the vibe that Vista wont be a compelling upgrade for current users of Windows XP, or even Windows 2000, theyll be slow to write and release new applications that exploit new platform features. If the volume software marketplace ceases to have a single, well-defined core, developers may start to hedge their bets by learning and using platform-neutral application frameworks; they may concentrate on adding value by other means, such as the development of rich Web content, rather than putting their time into mastery of Vistas undeniably impressive thick-client improvements.
The technology stock thats now on everyones radar, Google, dominates by putting massive back-end power behind an almost ascetic UI, fundamentally transforming users manner of using their PCs without a major upgrade of either operating system or hardware. Thats never happened before, and Microsoft has to be praying that its not the new norm.
But Microsoft weakens its own message if it allows, let alone promotes, confusion about what makes Vista fundamentally better—and why its worth the hardware required to make full use of that capability.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.