How well Microsoft's new OS, launched exactly three months ago today, is doing in the market is a matter of fervent interest for enthusiasts.

But what about business? What exactly is the point of this new piece of software -- and what are its chances of success? And what other opportunities does it open up for the competition?

Of course, it's too early to tell whether or not it's a success. Vista is said by some to be selling well -- Microsoft attributes its 32 percent revenue growth for the quarter ended 31 March 2007 in part to sales of Vista, the rest to Office -- while others see it as an opportunity. And there's much interest on independent and vendor forums in software updates that take account of and use the latest features of the new desktop OS.

There can be little doubt too that much of the demand for Vista will be due to the consumerist need for something new. Filling the longest-ever gap between iterations of Microsoft's flagship OS, XP's been around since 2001 and, for many, it's looking a bit tired.

Vista fixes that to some degree with plenty of eye candy -- or, as Microsoft puts it: "dramatic graphic enhancements to the interface that make the desktop more visually exciting and significantly easier to use."

And the interface looks good from what we've seen of it -- Microsoft has yet to provide this reviewer with a live copy of the software, so it's hard to report on the user experience.

Microsoft is claiming business benefits too -- though not many. It has produced no figures to back up its claims that: "[Vista's] redesigned user interfaces will increase productivity and ease of use, helping consumers and small businesses produce documents -- from a marketing plan to a child's birthday invitation -- that look better and are more professional in less time."

However, Vista's of little or no benefit to enterprises, and we've heard of few who are actively considering migrating to it. As wereported in January 2007, early access [to Vista] isn’t translating into early deployments for most business customers, judging by an email poll of 40 IT managers conducted by Techworld's sister publication Computerworld. Even though Microsoft took pains to try to remove some of the barriers that often hinder upgrades, only three respondents said they expect Vista to be deployed on more than half of their companies’ systems by year’s end.

Alternatives to Vista

Freed as they are from the shackles that force individual and small business PC purchasers to buy the OS ready installed on the PC, enterprises can make their own OS choices when it comes to hardware refresh time.

And it seems unlikely that hardware refresh cycles will be driven by the need for more horsepower, given that today's PC are more than capable of handling the quotidian tasks they are routinely asked to perform. Few need two CPU cores running at 2.66GHz -- a fairly standard configuration today -- just to read emails, surf the Web, and write proposals and spreadsheets.

So for many, the issue is how long a life Microsoft decides to give XP. This OS does pretty much all the enterprise needs and is now robust and stable enough not to need replacing. Even now, many enterprises have yet to migrate to it, considering that Windows 2000 is good enough. And while Microsoft reckons it will stop selling XP retail on 31 January 2008, enterprise licences will continue long after that.

What about the Linux desktop?

Alternatives? Desktop Linux is the obvious choice but there remain gotchas. For example, while the bases are pretty much covered in terms of basic applications such as OpenOffice, there's still no credible open source replacement for the Outlook client, in which many workers live from day to day.

In addition, once you move away from the standard set of office applications, there are holes in the software portfolio.

For example, mobile users are by nature, isolated from technical support and need systems that work smoothly. Yet laptops are more technically challenging than desktops simply because environments and connectivity methods can alter in mid-stream, the machine will be powering down, hibernating and going into standby more often than the desktop, and the ability to swap hardware is not generally a solution to hardware failure.

There's also less software around to drive crucial accessories such as 3G cards, which will instead need individual configuration.

None of these issues is by itself a major problem for a savvy IT department, but together they could make IT managers think twice about letting ordinary users loose with such systems. Part of their thinking will be that, if something goes wrong, a fix is likely to mean resorting to tweaking text-based configuration files buried deep in the file structure -- not something most users would be happy doing.

That said, according to surveys, there is general support for open source software within the enterprise -- but Linux for desktop and mobile users in particular has yet to make major in-roads into the enterprise.

Do nothing

So with alternatives to Microsoft not yet quite ready for deployment, we're left with the simple and cheapest solution for enterprise IT managers, which is to do nothing -- assuming the desktop fleet is reasonably up to date in terms of its ability to handle modern peripherals and the like.

Modern hardware is easily capable of handling most workloads, lengthening the refresh cycle, and Vista is too far off the roadmap to make it a compelling option, especially given its heavy hardware requirements and lack of added value for the enterprise. As a result, Windows XP and 2000 remain the default choices for desktops.

Just how Microsoft will address this issue remains to be seen. But you can be sure that the open source community will continue working towards its goal of making its long-held dream of widespread desktop Linux a reality.

Carol Sliwa, Computerworld, contributed to this article.