Microsoft doesn’t ‘do’ failure and the claimed sales figures for Windows Vista at the end of its first year of life were never going to be allowed to blot the company history books.

According to outgoing chairman Bill Gates, Vista hit the 100 million sales mark this month, an impressive-sounding number when compared to the 89 million units Windows XP had managed by the same moment in its life. But the PC market was roughly half the size it is now, and XP’s first year corresponded to a gloomy point for the IT industry after the late 1990s tech bubble. In fact, XP did very well under the circumstances.

Using Gartner’s projected 2007 figures of 255 million PCs shipped for 2007, Vista made it on to barely 40 percent of new PCs, a calamitous figure if you consider that Windows is the most dominant technology brand in computing history. What on was on the sixty percent of PCs that weren’t running Vista you wonder. The answer is a number of things, including, embarrassingly, the XP software Vista was supposed to render obsolete and unwanted.

Does any of this really matter to Microsoft or its users? I’d argue that the early adopters got burned, many finding that the OS didn’t work well as an upgrade on their XP system. Others wondered why 1Gb of RAM was totally inadequate on a new system and forked out more money to take that to 2GB or even 3GB to get the thing to run at an acceptable speed.

Microsoft, meanwhile, won’t give a whit that Vista hasn’t turned out to be a roaring success because the company is in it for the long term. One year of modest sales aren’t going to worry them at all. This is a minor indictment of the industry – that a company’s product can fail to excite the market and can still be termed a huge success because there’s not a lot competing with it on the desktop. Try and imagine any other industry run on that basis. It’s as if the world was resigned to driving three-wheeled cars.

No, the best way to think of Vista is to see its first year as a pre-launch beta affair where people get an expensive opportunity to indulge their taste for something new. With Vista’s first revision, SP1, coming along soon, the real year one will be 2008. The figures for next year’s CES show in Las vegas will probably be much better in both real and relative terms. Forget how many wheels it has as long as they roll.