Canadian IT Manager's Blog

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What price Vista?

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By now you can't have failed to have heard of Vista, the desktop portion of the Longhorn project and the next generation of Windows desktop. How much thought have you given to or how much knowledge do you have about the implications as an IT Manager? Well, 3D here we come! It may not be apparent but every screen object in Vista is a 3D object even if it appears as 2D. Have you heard of WinFX? WinFX is the set of next-generation managed windows APIs provided by Microsoft. Where does that relate to Vista? The Vista interface (and IE7), and I assume Office 2007, interface is based on WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation), which is part of WinFX, and is a set of API's for generating sophisticated 3D interfaces. In simple terms Vista is a "marriage" between WinNT and DirectX.

There is no question that it looks really "cool"; transparency, rotating windows, etc, etc. But at what price and what return? Previous successive versions of Windows desktop have somewhat inevitably required additional hardware resources (typically faster processor, more memory) to run effectively. The minimum requirements stated by Microsoft have to be judged somewhat carefully and I have no doubt that will also be true for Vista. I remember well the "outcry" when XP came along after 2000 and a lot of people swore that they wouldn't move. Well that is an understandable reaction when you have to manage an IT budget. The dynamics of change are always interesting. I remember well a boss of mine saying that when it comes to IT costs that it felt like having a "tiger by the tail"; hanging on is exhausting but letting go might just result in getting eaten.

Getting more and more for your hardware buck is little consolation if you have to keep upgrading or replacing to keep pace with newer technology. "Where is the proven return on investment?" is often heard from "corridors of power". Over all of the years that I have been involved in justifying expenditures, the same "game" has been played. Tell the absolute "truth" and very little gets approved; security issues probably being the major exception today. So the IT Manager is left with constantly playing a "game" (sales job) so as to not get left too far behind the technology "edge" and going to the "well" too often.

So what does this have to do with Vista? In the past one could try to argue in favour of the benefits of improved "functionality" of one kind or another; better tools, better networking, etc. It is not to say that those things may not be present in Vista but the most obvious difference to the uninitiated is the more sophisticated interface. Processor speed and memory have typically been the issue in the past but now the GPU is getting its turn. I recently installed Vista on a PC with onboard graphics, which had previously run XP Home quite successfully. Admittedly, I was using a fairly cheap mother board but at times I thought the machine had "frozen" (even allowing for the fact that I am using beta code it was ssssllllllllllloooooowwwww). So I added a half-decent AGP card (nVidia 6200 with 256MB - $75 on sale) and my PC magically "came to life" (well let's say there was a big improvement). Hopefully, the removal of the "bloat" from the beta for the official release will bring things into line. At least I could actually play Solitaire now in under an hour per game! It is hard not to be impressed or even "blown away" at times by the interface but at what cost and with what value? Today's typical onboard graphics adds very little to the cost of the mother board.

It is possible to "dummy down" the interface to some extent to reduce the graphics demands. That is useful but let's look at what is likely to happen. In the interest of simplicity, efficiency and standardization, and possibly new hardware cost, the IT Manager will want to work to the lowest common denominator, ie. a standard image for the least capable hardware that it is suitable for Vista. So what did we gain from the "improved" interface if we had to "dummy it down"? Obviously, one could have several different standard images but there has to be a sensible limit for practical purposes.

The vast majority of users, both home and industry based, still have very simple needs; email, a little WP, simple spreadsheet, internet, etc. In this context it would appear that Vista adds little other than "looking good". If it means that a large majority of existing PC's will have to have the GPU upgraded just to run it at say the same speed as XP now, that might just be a "tough sell" for the IT Manager, independent of any possible software upgrade costs. It also implies that mother boards will have to have much improved embedded video at increased cost. With razor thin margins in the hardware business, the mother board and system suppliers will likely not be very happy. On the other hand the major GPU suppliers (Intel, ATI, nVidia) are probably "licking their lips". Also, no doubt Microsoft will eventually want the name brand PC suppliers to bundle Vista with systems as they currently do with XP. Until economy of scale kicks in, the cost of a "typical" PC might just have to go up, which will be difficult for the typical consumer to understand.

Having somewhat "picked the wings of the fly", hopefully objectively, let's try and see where this is all going. I am sure that Microsoft will tell you that their studies have shown productivity improvements with a redesigned interface (Office 2007 for example). Experience has taught me to largely ignore the inevitable "hue and cry" over major change. Only time proves the point one way or another. That is not to say that I don't hold a personal opinion but that's all it is. We could simply be seeing the beginning of a new "era", where today's high end graphics (the "gamers" domain) is tomorrow's norm; that's what technical change is all about. For example, look at how the cost of DVD burners has dropped from $800 to $40 since their arrival. There will be "moans and groans" and "gnashing of teeth" but that always happens, and always will.

Debate is always interesting and blogs are a great new way for accomplishing that. So let me know your feelings/opinions/plans wrt Vista.


  • Very useful information Graham, combining feature set with what you have found in practice and in theory.

    As with any beta, the focus is on getting the main issues right and what will follow will be performance improvements. It is the next generation platform that will allow so much more and this is what I'm looking forward to.

    Thank you,
    Stephen Ibaraki

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