It is popular sentiment now to call Windows Vista a failure on a grand scale. Some with historical context are even calling Vista the next Windows Me, which for those that don't know means that it will be a short lived disaster. I firmly believe that Vista will far surpass Me in success, however I think it still is not going to be very long lived. I think Vista is a bridge OS in terms of hardware. I think it is a stop gap while hardware shifts from 32-bit to 64-bit in the mainstream. I am going to go over a bit of history to give context to my thoughts on Vista, many will know the history already and may want to skip down a page or so.
If you look back at Windows starting with the original release of 95 on August 24, 1995 you can see some trends. (I will be skipping Windows NT 3.5-4.0 since they were not targeting at the broader consumer market at all.) Windows 95 was the first hybrid 32-bit Microsoft OS for consumers. It had a great deal of legacy 16-bit code and to some extent sat atop a 16-bit base. There were some problems with the approach 95 took but it was the first step in a transition from 16 to 32 bit as well as from DOS to windows. There were many versions of 95 available in various forms each improving on the last. Then came Windows 98 on June 25, 1998 and 98 Second Edition on May 5, 1999. Most people I think would agree that 98: SE was the pinnacle of this branch of the Windows family and even today more than 8 years since 98: SE was released there are still countless millions of machines running this OS. All of the 9x and Me were known as some version of 4.x.
The next transition was to be to NT 5.0, which was renamed to Windows 2000 during development and prior to release. Windows 2000 was released on February 17, 2000 was not looking good for consumers and as a result Windows Millennium Edition was rushed out on September 14, 2000. There were many things wrong with Me and it is best forgotten. It is really unclear how 98: SE was so broken in going to Me but it was. Windows 2000 was meant to be the big push to get consumers onto native 32-bit code top to bottom. The problem was that Windows 2000 didn't have nearly the consumer side support that 98 maintained through most of its life. Windows 2000 was a huge success in the enterprise market but a total flop in the consumer market.
Windows XP was released on October 25, 2001 and was in essence a merge of Windows 2000 and Windows 98: SE from a consumer standpoint. It shows its roots by its version number of 5.1. By the time it was released there was sufficient support for a native 32-bit OS that XP quickly began replacing both 98 and 2000 in the consumer space. Today XP has mostly replaced 2000 even in enterprises. Due to XP being the second attempt at a native 32-bit consumer OS and allowing for sufficient time for support to build up it had much greater success. Shortly the third service pack will be released for XP making it a fairly reliable and stable platform, likely SP3 will be the last SP for XP. On April 25, 2005 a 64 bit edition of XP was released, it along with Windows Server 2003 were known as version 5.2. This was the beginning of the bridge between 32-bit and 64-bit on the consumer OS side. For the most part this edition is mostly unknown and has seen very limited use.
Now onto Windows Vista which was released for general availability on January 30, 2007 and is known as version 6.0. Vista had a tumultuous development. There was an initial version being developed based more so on the prior Windows XP 5.1 codebase. However somewhere during the beginning part of 2005 the development was reset and began again based on the Windows 2003 SP1 5.2 codebase. Some will argue how much of a reset it is, but it was reset. This had the result of causing Vista to take much longer than originally planned for release and began the downward spiral of bad PR. I personally think it was a good thing that this reset happened and as a result the delay. It allowed hardware to catch up and some regards surpass the Vista requirements.
Vista is the first Microsoft consumer OS to ship in both a 32-bit and 64-bit edition. Unfortunately unlike the transition from 16 to 32-bit this time there are two distinct versions of Vista for 32 or 64-bit. Also Vista has introduced a large suite of new security protections. The protections are very obviously a first attempt and will I am sure be much refined in the future. I think Vista will eventually become the next Windows 2000. Vista's biggest forward looking feature will be 64-bit but that won't be an advantage due to lack of support in the short term in the consumer space. However I think after SP1 or possibly SP2 enterprises will begin to adopt Vista for the enhanced control and security. Quite possibly the enterprises will only deploy Vista 64-bit since they will have the hardware to support it.
This brings me back to the idea that Vista has the unfortunate position of being a bridge OS between 32-bit and 64-bit. I think XP will continue for quite awhile in the consumer space with Vista slowly growing market share on new machines. It won't be nearly the success that XP has been in the long run. This will be spun as a failure for Microsoft I am afraid and they will simply have to weather the storm in the meantime. There are a lot of new ideas in Vista that haven't had time to gel fully just as there were in Windows 2000.
The next release of Windows (known as 7 for now) which will most likely be out in 2009 will be the big step forward. I am pretty confident that it will be 64-bit primarily with potentially a limited 32-bit version for parts of the world. This will succeed since by 2009 64-bit processors will have been mainstream for 5 years and Microsoft can safely assume a sufficient user base to rely upon 64-bit. Windows 7 will be and do for Vista what Windows XP did for Windows 2000.
I end with a SAT favorite
Windows 95 is to Windows 98 : SE as Windows 2000 is to Windows XP as Windows Vista is to Windows 7