The Untold Damage of Failed Product Cycles (Or The Windows Vista Story).

I’ve been in the IT industry professionally for quite some time now, and even longer as an avid enthusiast. I’ve seen so many companies come and go as they evolve with the fast paced ever changing technology world and that’s lead to a great understanding of some of the fundamental rules that don’t seem to change. One of these such rules is the constant upgrade cycle, e.g. the release of new versions of products on a fairly regular schedule , in order to take advantage of the latest developments from other companies. The interesting thing about these cycles is that usually they can’t be too drastic lest you alienate your customers who’ve created expectations of the product that will cause a revolt should they not be met.

Take for example some of Microsoft’s products, most notably their desktop operating systems Windows. From Windows 3.1 to Windows 7 there’s a kind of baseline familiarity that users have developed with the products and, for the most part, they’ve remained unchanged for the better part of almost 2 decades. Granted it would be quite a shock for someone who’d been using Windows 3.1 to move straight to 7 but that’s usually never the case. More most users would be ushured along onto the latest product from at most 2 generations previous, usually when they can’t do something that everyone else in their social circle can.

Most major players in the IT world have mastered this idea of product cycles. From Apple to Dell to AMD you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll release a new product on a predictable timeline, usually timed perfectly to be right smack in the middle of their competitors cycle. If there’s any phenomenon that’s to be held responsible for the IT sector’s almost ubelievably fast movement speed it would have to be this culture of ensuring that your company is providing the latest and greatest features and products to its consumers, always making sure that you keep on eye on your competitors. It is basically a massive game of one-upmanship.

Sometimes however, the product cycle does not go quite as planned.

You see I’m writing this blog post to you today on what should be considered an absolute dinosaur of the IT world: a Windows XP machine. Released late in 2001 I can remember fondly my first experiences with it, blue screens abounding and most of my hardware behaving in ways that I never thought imaginable. A couple months saw it come good with the various manufacturers catching up with their drivers and Microsoft patching the more obvious flaws in the system. It was a rocky start for Microsoft’s attempt to bring some of the better parts of their server line to the desktop but eventually most companies relented and XP found its home as the defacto operating system for the majority of computer users worldwide.

5 years later, Microsoft would attempt to do it all over again.

Now before we dig into Microsoft’s next product cycle let’s take a moment to think about that last paragraph. Think about where you were 9 years ago and compare it to today, worlds apart right? Just imagine if I told you that I’d bought a top of the line phone back in 2001 and I was still using that today, you’d think I was pretty bonkers since even a $50  phone today would be better in almost every way. Whilst I’m sure there are people doing such things (my Dad is using a phone from 2004) the simple fact that technology moves so fast means that most products have an effective life of around 2~3 years. Windows XP, for some reason, seems to be completely immune to that idea.

Partly that’s to blame with the long development cycle that plague its successor, Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn). Initially planned for release a mere 2 years after the initial release of XP its original intention was to function as a stop gap between XP and the next major release codenamed Blackcomb. Due to feature creep that saw Longhorn encroach on Blackcomb’s territory the two finally merged together under the Vista title and the release date slipped by over 3 years. This lead to one of the longest time between releases of Windows versions in almost a decade, and the markets reaction was nothing short of devastating.

Windows Vista, for what its worth, was not a bad operating system at heart. Like its predecessor it was plagued with the job of attempting to support legacy systems whilst at the same time trying to innovate in any way it could. Consequently neither part could be done very well as legacy support inherently holds back innovation, leaving Vista to languish in a kind of no man’s land. Again like XP before it Vista attempted to do things in a completely new way which broke the compatibility with numerous bits of hardware and software further stifling its adoption rates. Overall the industries first reactions to Vista were ultimately its death knell and I never found a workplace that found the idea of switching to it appealing.

Microsoft managed to make the system quite usable in the years following Vista’s initial release. I myself ran it on my personal computer for quite some time and so did many of my technical friends. Still the damage was done and many corporate departments decided that XP suited their needs aptly and left it at that. It wasn’t until late last year that Windows 7 made its triumphant debut, hoping to be the knight in shining armor to pull the damsels of corporate IT away from the darkness that was Windows XP.

However due to the botch cycle of Windows Vista they were met with almost spiteful disdain. 8 years is a long time to go between refreshing your products and nearly all IT departments had grown accustomed to things working the XP way. Whilst many recognised that Windows 7 was not Vista (thanks to new and improved eye candy) they still couldn’t fathom the idea that anything but XP was required and were even more concerned for all those legacy applications they’d developed for their aging XP systems. Thus Microsoft, who really did so many things right with Windows 7, was left trying to market a product to people who were so entrenched in their habits that Windows 7 was almost set to Vista all over again. Windows 7 however is that good that its adoption rates are almost double that of Vista’s for the same time period, matching that of Windows XP.

There’s a couple lessons to be learnt from the Windows Vista story. The first is to repeat the old developer mantra release early, release often. Microsoft’s long development cycle for Vista meant that there was already quite a bit of inertia working against it. Whilst its quite understandable that something as complicated as an operating system takes time to develop they knew from the get go that a long development cycle would harm the adoption rates. They fell prey to some of the most common project management mistakes (read: scope creep) and their final product, whilst impressive technologically, was too far away from user’s current expectations. The original idea of Longhorn being a stepping stone to Blackcomb was sound and was proven succinctly with the success of Windows 7 which inadvertently used Vista as its stepping stone.

It’s always interesting to look back at the history of product releases and to see how customer behaviour influences company decisions. Vista was one of those oddities where the latest and greatest was wholly rejected by the community it set out to serve and only its rebirth under a new label and shiny facade was enough to win them back. It was also a demonstration of the market power that Microsoft has since a failed product cycle was the in for many competitors to swoop in yet as we can see despite their disdain for the latest offering Microsoft’s customers remained loyal, even if it was to the wrong product (in Microsoft’s eyes).

I should really update my machine to the new Windows 7 environment they’re offering here… 😉

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