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Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer isn't so sure about how folks are going to respond to Windows

windows 7
7. As Mary-Jo Foley says in a ZDNet blog post, Ballmer told Bloomberg that "The test feedback (on Windows 7) has been good, but the test feedback on Vista was good. I am optimistic, but the proof will be in the pudding."

Mary-Jo goes on to muse:

...I'm left wondering about Vista, as many are/were about the current financial crisis: Why didn't anyone inform us sooner of the impending meltdown? Weren't there warning signs? Where was everybody?

microsoft windows vista
Artwork: Chip Taylor
Most of Mary-Jo's post involves Windows Vista beta testers' reaction to the OS, but it got me wondering: How about the reviews that came out when Windows Vista was released? Negative reaction to Vista among consumers and businesses ended up preventing it from ever truly superseding Windows XP in the way it was supposed to do-but were the reviews among the first signs that something was amiss?

To find out, I dug up evaluations of Vista from late 2006 and early 2007 as they appeared in nine major publications, written by a bunch of distinguished Windows-watchers: BusinessWeek (Steve Wildstrom), CNET (Robert Vamosi), Forbes (Stephen Manes), The New York Times (David Pogue), PC Magazine (John Clyman), Paul Thurrott's Windows Supersite, PC World (Preston Gralla and Richard Baguley), USA Today (Ed Baig), The Wall Street Journal (Walt Mossberg), and ZDNet (Ed Bott). I reread them all, and in a moment I'll summarize here what they said about Vista's visuals, its performance and stability, its compatibility with existing products, and User Account Control security-as well as their overall take on the OS.

First, though, a mini-FAQ on what I found:

How favorable were the reviews? I'd say the majority were guardedly positive, saying that Vista looked good overall but wasn't a killer product that demanded instant installation on every PC on the planet. ZDNet's Ed Bott (who didn't publish a comprehensive review), PC World's Preston Gralla, and Paul Thurrott were enthusiastic overall; BusinessWeek's Steve Wildstrom, CNET's Robert Vamosi, and PC Magazine's John Clyman all accentuated more negatives than most. Only Forbes' Manes was extremely negative, period. (His piece, the last he's written for Forbes to date, is the only software review I've ever read which discusses ripping anyone's liver out.)

Did any of the reviews predict widespread dislike of and/or disinterest in Vista, or guess that it would never become the dominant version of the OS? No, and that's OK: The point of a product review isn't to predict how the marketplace will react. Some of the reviews did make the understandable but incorrect assumption that Vista would become pervasive (Mossberg: "Gradually, all Windows computers will be Vista computers"), and I suspect that even the reviewers that were lukewarm-to-negative would be startled by the widespread rejection of the OS that came to happen.

Did the reviews identify performance and compatibility as problem points? Some said that Vista would require a beefy PC and might be slower than XP (others, however, explicitly contended it would run well on modest machines). Some mentioned compatibility snafus with applications and drivers-BusinessWeek's Wildstrom warned readers to be cautious based on the woes he'd encountered-but with the possible exception of Manes, nobody said that Vista would continue to be rocky from a compatibility standpoint for months after its release.

What did reviewers say about UAC, which ended up being the poster boy for everything that Vistaphobes disliked about the OS? Some of them actively praised it as an effective security measure, including Baig, Mossberg, and Pogue. Others call it potentially annoying but worth the pain. Only Manes and Gralla seemed to regard it as a significant, permanent annoyance.

What was the bottom-line buying advice? Most writers said to think carefully before upgrading an existing PC to Vista, but that it would be a welcome improvement over XP when acquired on a new machine. Ed Bott recommended that medium- and larger-sized businesses wait for Service Pack 1 but said consumers and small companies didn't need to hesitate; Manes said nobody should upgrade existing PCs, period, and that it was best to avoid the OS on new machines until Service Pack 1.

Hey, Harry, you were writing and editing stories about Vista back when it came out, right? What did you say? Um, thanks for reminding me. I wrote quite a bit about Vista in my Techlog blog for PC World, and was smart enough to express caution about its significance and raise questions about compatibility issues, but not savvy enough to guess it would become a legendary flop. (Here's a post from March 2006 in which I'm fairly skeptical, but say "It...seems unlikely that it'll be a Windows Me-style fiasco." Wrong!)

I was editor of PC World when it published the review discussed below. Do I wish, in retrospect, that we'd held the new OS to a higher standard, criticizing it for introducing too few new features of substance and failing to fix enough long-standing Windows annoyances? Do I think we should have reminded readers that all new OSes have bugs and compatibility problems that can be largely avoided by waiting for the first service pack? Do I believe we gave it too much credit for looking pretty? Yes, I do.

OK, enough preface. Here's what software critics said about Vista before anyone knew for sure just how Windows users would greet it.

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