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Why Vista might be the last of its kind

“Imagine this. One of the world’s most powerful monopolies puts 10,000 people to work for five years to create one new product. And nobody is really sure if anyone wants it. How’s that for a gamble?

That’s what we have with Windows Vista, the new computer-operating system from Microsoft that debuted last week for businesses and, next month, for consumers. There has been so much buildup for this moment that you would expect Vista to cure cancer.

It’s been so long in coming that I’ll just be happy if it does the job and doesn’t present me with a daily dose of the Blue Screen of Death. Already experts are predicting Vista may be the last of its kind. Obsolete before it’s out the door? Geez, we haven’t even had a chance to open our wallets yet.

“Suddenly, the market changed and competitors started delivering technology at the speed of the Internet,” said James McQuivey, professor of market research at Boston University. “In some cases, they do it for free, and that’s painful for Microsoft.”

Redmond giant: The theory about the threat to the Redmond giant goes like this: Microsoft made Vista the old-fashioned way, as a single packaged product that it puts on a disk so users can buy it in a store and load it onto their computers.

By contrast, rivals such as Google are creating spreadsheets and browsers that you simply download from a computer server, which delivers what you need to your desktop as you need it. If Google follows through with more offerings of free, ad-supported software over the Internet, Microsoft won’t be able to charge a premium for its operating systems anymore. Nobody will need its big upgrades anymore.

Suppose this threat, or the one from the free Linux operating system, is real. Maybe Microsoft will have to issue smaller upgrades every year or so to keep up. You have to wonder if it is possible or wise for Microsoft to throw more money at a future project than it has thrown at Vista. This will probably be the last operating system from Bill Gates, who retires to do philanthropy in 2008. Was it worth it? 

It’s worth noting just how complex Vista became. BusinessWeek estimates it took 10,000 employees about five years to ship Vista.

In an interview with Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer a few weeks ago, I asked if he had added up how much money it cost to develop Vista. He laughed, “I can’t say I have. It would be impossible to count up. … I’m sure it’s a lot.”
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