With Windows 7 Coming, Will Vista be Remembered as the New ME?

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There is a serious question being whispered on the Internet: Will Vista be remembered as another ME? People have taken their sides but mostly the answers are based on an implicit assumption that Windows 7 will deliver all its promises.

In this article, we try to look objectively at both operating systems. What they did right and what they did wrong, why they failed, and why they were or should be praised.

Windows ME

Windows Millennium Edition (ME) was released in 2000 as the successor of Windows 98 SE.

Many new features were announced by the people from Redmond. Among these were improved Universal Plug ’n Play, or UPnP, System Snapshots and System Restore, and automatic Windows Updates from Microsoft’s website. These were exciting new features at that time, almost unbelievable in how futuristic and advanced they sounded.

However, things did not work out exactly as expected. Early adopters had problems with basic installation. It seemed that one needed to be both clever and lucky just to complete the installation. One also needed to luckier still to have all the PC’s hardware work properly. This was due to a security decision made in ME: drivers for non-Plug ’n Play devices were not allowed to be installed. This resulted in huge compatibility issues. A large number of users were unable to get their hardware working correctly, and the system might crash several times per day or week. If one were fortunate enough to have a system that would run somewhat reliably, the fun was not over because the system might simply refuse to shut down.

These problems lasted for years and some were not addressed until Windows XP was released. It was so bad that Millennium Edition’s abbreviation ME was popularly said to stand for “Mistake Edition.”

Was ME all bad? Actually, no. Millennium Edition introduced many features that are still in use today (albeit improved): automatic updates, system file protection, system configuration utility, system monitor, Windows Movie Maker, Windows image acquisition, image preview, Home Networking Wizard, improved power management, compressed folders, on-screen keyboard (which was also present in Windows 3.1), generic drivers for USB mass storage devices, and the TCP/IP stack which was implemented from Windows 2000 code. (Windows 2000 was part of the separate Windows NT line. Windows 9.x and ME were eventually merged with the NT line to become Windows XP.)

Windows Vista

At Vista’s launch, a potential user need to have a certain level of hardware performance. This proved to be a much higher level than what some manufacturer’s, with Microsoft’s blessings, presented in their machines labeled “Vista Capable.” Vista was also resource intensive. Few Windows XP machines had more than 1 GB of RAM. Vista wasn’t really happy (which is needed to make the user happy) in less than 2 GB of RAM. Vista also needed 15 to 40 GB of hard drive space, depending on the version installed (at a time when 30 GB was considered an average hard drive space for a notebook).

How well the machine met the hardware requirements requirments determined which version to run. Retail boxes included Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, and Vista Ultimate. A stripped-down version called Vista Starter was not offered to end users, as was another version called Vista Enterprise.

Once the version was selected, the user had to be lucky, once again, to get all the hardware working. Microsoft had changed some of the driver APIs, and many hardware vendors struggled to get their updates out, some of which came long after Vista’s release. This was not just a question of newer or older hardware, either. Even some Microsoft executives had problems getting Windows Windows to run on theirPCs. One executive speculated that the accessory providers were not motivated to work on Vista drivers because “No one really believed we would ever ship so they didn’t start the work until very late in 2006.”

The New ME?

Millennium Edition could have been a very good operating system just because of the extensive feature list - if Microsoft had spent some time testing installations and driver compatibility before releasing the operating system. Vista also could have been a much better operating system - if Microsoft had been more forthcoming about the hardware requirements and how Vista would “gracefully degrade” such as refusing to run the Aero visual effects unless sufficient video memory was found. Users were simply not prepared for this effect.

Will Windows Vista be remembered as another Mistake Edition? Probably not. The tech world has changed since Windows ME came out. Back then, we got our news from PC Magazine and simply consumed what we read. That’s why many knowledgeable PC users were so unprepared for ME. It also didn’t help that ME was pretty dreadful to use and never really got completely fixed.

By the time Vista came along, five years after XP, a lot more information was available. There was a lengthy beta period with many participants that wrote about their experiences. Microsoft had discovered blogs, and information about Longhorn (Vista’s code name) was there for anyone who looked for it. It’s hard to blame Microsoft if the build-up to Vista was too long and too enthusiastic..

The “Vista Capable” campaign was definitively a mistake. PCs incapable of running the standard home version of Vista got their Vista Capable sticker even if they struggled running Windows XP. Microsoft doesn’t get all the blame here because they were trying to appease the PC manufacturers that were the main source for Windows sales.

At Vista’s launch, early adopters were shocked, and some were angry, about what they discovered when they installed Vista. It had never occurred to many folks that minimal hardware meant minimal performance. These purchasers were not amused by Vista’s ability to “degrade gracefully.” They wanted to know where their “Aero Glass” was.

Many found Vista to be crash-prone. Problems with Nvidia video drivers were a main source of irritation, and this lasted for almost a year after Vista’s introduction.

Even worse, things that had formerly worked in XP suddenly didn’t work in Vista because of the absence of hardware drivers. Why were the manufacturers so unprepared? Was it a problem of inertia?

It took a while, but eventually things settled down for Vista. Users added more memory or bought new computers. Nvidia straightened out their driver problems. People on forums stopped talking about whether or not their particular laptop could run Vista Aero. All those sickly low-ball Vista Capable machines got downgraded to XP or retired. Vista eventually came to work mostly reliably for most people.

And that’s how I think people will remember Vista. It definitely had problems and had a rough launch. Millennium Edition, however, was a disaster and it stayed that way for a long time. Vista, I think, is not the new ME. There may never be another PC operating system as bad as ME was.