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Microsoft's reputation, future riding on Windows 7

Microsoft's standing as an operating system developer is on the line today as the company launches Windows 7, according to analysts and other experts.

“There's a reputation issue at stake here,” said Michael Silver, Gartner's primary Microsoft analyst. “Apple has been making fun of them, and Microsoft wants to put an end to that, and all the talk about Vista. Microsoft wants to make clear that customers shouldn't lose faith that they're able to put out an operating system.”

“A tremendous amount is at stake,” agreed Preston Gralla, a long-time Windows watcher who has extensively reviewed Windows 7 for Computerworld. “Vista was so poorly received. Windows 7 will show if they can do operating systems right, or if they've finally lost it, especially since [Bill] Gates hasn't been around for years. The question is, does Microsoft still have it?”

Gates stepped down 10 years ago as the CEO of the company he co-founded, then left the firm in mid-2008 to devote more time to the charitable foundation that bears the names of Gates and his wife, Melinda. Windows 7, then, is Microsoft's first post-Gates Windows.

Microsoft finds itself in a position of vulnerability three years after the introduction of Vista because of its failure to convince users to upgrade from the even-then-aged Windows XP. After several delays that sent it scrambling to get out Vista, Microsoft found the operating system panned by reviewers and left in the lurch by OEMs, who initially failed to deliver reliable drivers and tried to sell underpowered PCs that didn't have the horsepower to run the operating system.

The company's critics and competitors — particularly Apple — took advantage of the misstep to bash the Windows ecosystem, ridicule its vulnerability to hacker exploits and claim that Microsoft had dropped the ball for the first time since 2000, when it released the also-dismissed Windows Millennium.

“For Microsoft, Windows 7 is the most important release of Windows, ever,” said Silver, “because Vista was, by far, the worst release of its flagship product.”

Everyone from home users and corporate administrators to bloggers and analysts questioned Microsoft's ability to deliver a reliable, desirable operating system. Was Vista a one-off failure, or the first in what could be a string of disasters that would weaken its grip on the operating system market?

“This is an interesting position for Microsoft,” said Allan Krans, an analyst at Technology Business Research. “It's a critical release for Microsoft because Windows is their traditional core business. That's where they've made billions over the last 30 years.”

But 2009 is not 2006. People now spend most of their computing time on the Internet, where the browser is the interface, not the operating system they equate with the computer. That's making some wonder whether a desktop operating system matters, or if it does, whether it matters as much as it used to.

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