What Microsoft and PC makers need to do
This brings us back to the purpose of the "Save XP" campaign: letting people control their environments. Questionable UI changes and compatibility issues threaten that control. Worse, the simple option to retaining control -- being able to add XP on new systems as needed -- is being eliminated.
Until the market is ready to switch to Vista for its own purposes, XP should be available easily. That means available on OEM and system-builder PCs -- and not just a few models. That means available in shrinkwrapped versions you can order from Amazon.com or get at Best Buy.
That does not mean Microsoft's stingy options for XP availability after June 30. Sure, enterprises that have a Vista upgrade site license can downgrade their systems to XP, but very few others. If you have Vista on your new PC -- which nearly everyone does -- there are no such downgrade rights in any meaningful sense. (Technically, you have those rights if the OEM provides you an XP downgrade as well, but even Microsoft's spokespeople acknowledge that very few do.) If you bought a shrinkwrapped full or upgrade license of any version of Vista other than Vista Business or Vista Ultimate, you can't downgrade. In other words, almost no one but enterprises can downgrade to XP on new machines.
Worse, many new Vista-equipped PCs don't have XP drivers available, so they can't downgrade to XP even if they have a license that allows it. That's the fault of Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Acer, Sony, Toshiba, and so on. Buyers should call them on it by insisting on XP-compatible equipment across the board.
Microsoft should toss Vista in the trash, as the company did with Windows Millennium eight years ago, then issue a Windows XP Second Edition (as it did with Windows 98 eight years ago) that capitalizes on some of Vista's key benefits. Then the company should focus on Windows 7, rather than keep trying to push Vista down unwilling customers' throats. If that's too radical, how about doing an XP Second Edition while also continuing to rework Vista? Then Windows 7 can be the common upgrade path. Microsoft did that with Windows 98 Second Edition and Windows 2000, after all.
We know the chances of either scenario are slim: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that he's using the well-designed Windows Server 2008's optimizations for desktop Vista as a way to push Vista onto PCs. Microsoft clearly will keep pushing until we all give up, or maybe the EU -- the only entity that seems to recognize that Microsoft is more than just a vendor -- fines it another few billion.
But there has been a steady, if quiet, stream of mid- and high-level departures from Microsoft, especially from the Vista management crew, in the last six months. Maybe the new blood will be able to chart a different course, not stick blindly to the past playbook.