Microsoft is the sworn enemy of geeks internet wide. Though there are many Windows supporters out there, there are plenty who hate Microsoft. Microsoft, last week at the PDC, announced some pretty impressive initiatives. Love them or hate them, they are taking some big risks with a new user interface for Microsoft Office, changing the core of their web server, IIS, in very large ways to mimic many of the strengths of Apache, embracing open XML via RSS, moving data from the registry to the file system in Windows Mail, and even converting their default Office document format to an "open" XML-based format similar to OpenDocument format (OASIS), which OpenOffice.org uses.
As Microsoft tries very hard to advance their core software and revolutionize the IT world, it seems more and more people are investigating alternatives like Linux, Solaris, and the BSDs (including MacOS), lauded for their stability, security, and lack of viruses and worms. In fact, by the time Windows Vista hits shelves in late 2006, or possibly (maybe even likely) early 2007, the Linux kernel may likely be at 2.8 or 3.0, KDE will be at 4.0, Gnome may be at 3.0, there will be a new XFCE, Solaris 11 will be out with some major improvements, and Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" will have been declared gold. Microsoft will have a lot of serious competition; competition that really didn't exist when Windows XP hit shelves over four years ago.
Microsoft didn't have to panic back then - not only were they arguably the most usable - possibly only truly usable - OS out there, their previous offerings, in the form of Windows 98 and the disaster that was Windows Millenium Edition, were completely unsuitable for an ever-smarter public. The number of people who upgraded to Windows XP was driven largely by IT professionals sick of working on their friends' and families' computers, which were in a constant state of disarray, ridden with viruses and spyware - Gator, Hotbar, new.net, etc - and alternatives were simply not ready for the desktop yet, at least in a manner by which reliable support could be provided over the phone and purchased hardware would work with any assurance. Windows XP was needed by the world, and it suited the need well. However, a few years later, the landscape has changed dramatically. If Microsoft loses people to alternative OSes, they lose a massive revenue stream via Office and all their new applications as well, such as Microsoft OneCare and the new Expressions suite. They will lose credibility if their big plans, including XAML and XPS (aka Metro), never take off, like the Hailstorm fiasco. In fact, once they lose the desktop in any meaningful way - and I consider any credible enterprises moving to alternative desktops, even in small numbers, meaningful - they will find it harder to turn massive profits and they will begin to see the chinks in the armor of the once invisible Redmond castle.
Vista has been an emormous project. Microsoft grew big eyes, tried a lot of really interesting stuff, learned from their failures, scrapped their Longhorn builds, and started over with Windows 2003 SP1; they slowly rebuilt Longhorn, and most of what will be Windows Vista RTM. It falls well short of what many of us envisioned even just a year ago, many of its most advanced features are already present in most Linux distros and Mac OS X, it leaves out massive features such as MSH and the much touted WinFS, and yet, paradoxically, appears to still be a really advanced OS that will be able to hang with the other modern OSes feature-wise. Now, Microsoft just needs to ensure that people will actually use it.
Microsoft needs to take a dramatic step to elevate this battle. There is so much to be gained by having the IT community on board en masse. My parents upgrade when I tell them to, as I'm sure many of your friends and families do. They really need us - IT professionals - to go tell people that Vista is a worthwhile upgrade, particularly the executives in our companies. That is why I'm going to propose something wacky: Microsoft should give away Windows Vista.
 There is recognized debate on whether the new formats are "open" due to their restrictive license, but the format is still human readable and the XML docs are out there, so for the sake of argument, we'll call them open now, even if Massachusettes doesn't.
- "A Free Vista, Part I"
- "A Free Vista, Part II"