What do you think of Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Vista operating system?

Scratch that. I can't hear you from here, and it's a polarizing query. Let me see if I can come up with a question that actually has investing implications and can open up the responses to more than just "Vista rocks" or "Vista blows" in the comment box at the bottom of this page.

Hmmm. Got it!

How will history regard Vista?

The knee-jerk reaction may be to dismiss Microsoft's oft-knocked operating system. With Microsoft perpetually extending its XP kill date -- and supposedly rushing its Windows 7 replacement to market -- Vista is becoming less of a bridge between operating systems and more like a stepping stone.

At some point next year, the migration may be from XP to Windows 7, skipping over Vista completely.

If that's the case, history will regard Vista as a failure. I would prefer to characterize it as a martyr. It was the platform that willingly took one for the team as Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) "I'm a Mac" ads jackhammered the Vista brand into the ground. As Apple's market share grows and Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) ships out dirt-cheap miniature laptops with the Linux-flavored Ubuntu operating system, Vista isn't necessarily a loser. It just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Three cheers for the Buena Vista Club
's J. Peter Bruzzese is defending Vista this week. The cheering section is so thin that a rare bull really stands out. He's not alone, though. Bruzzese leans on data from a CDW survey through Walker Information. The study checked in on 772 IT shot callers familiar with Vista. The survey showed:

  • 48% indicate that they are evaluating, testing, or implementing Vista.
  • 30% are currently implementing or have already implemented Vista.
  • 50% who have made the Vista plunge rate the system "above expectations" on key features.

The numbers aren't exactly pretty. If Vista isn't winning over a majority of the IT decision makers at this point in its release cycle, it may never happen. However, the numbers are still better than 0%.

In other words, there is clearly a market for Vista. It's just a voice that hasn't been heard until Microsoft got its marketing campaign back on track with its new "I'm a PC" fleet of ads.

More than just Mr. Softy
Microsoft isn't the only company smarting over Vista's gradual Pepto-dismal coating of the country's computers.

Two years ago, it was computer makers like Dell and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) that were betting on a major Vista-fueled hardware upgrade cycle to improve their fortunes. Dell never got it, and HP's fortunes improved only as a result of new CEO Mark Hurd's margin-widening prowess.

Remember CNET Networks? The company behind tech havens like News.com, Tech Republic, and CNET.com blamed Vista's delay on a slowdown in advertising. When Vista finally did poke its head, CNET's finances didn't get any better. It found CNET going "glub, glub, glub" until CBS (NYSE:CBS) threw out a lifesaver.

Other casualties may be harder to CSI. If Vista was hot, wouldn't Circuit City (NYSE:CC) be in better shape? One can only imagine what an accessory king like Logitech (NASDAQ:LOGI) would be up to if Vista was such a smashing success that everyone was upgrading their systems.

In short, Vista's failure isn't just Microsoft's. A lot of companies are paying the price for the slow adoption, as they rip up their Vista racetrack wagers to bits.

Six feet blunder
"I say that Vista is alive and kicking," writes Bruzzese. "You 20 people who yell like you are 20 million are really starting to get on the nerves of the 200 million Vista-loving PC users out here who would spend more time debating with you, but we are too busy enjoying our Vista OS and don't have time."

I don't necessarily agree with Bruzzese, but I have to go back to Microsoft's costly marketing campaign for a little guidance before shoveling dirt over Vista's shallow grave.

Why would Microsoft spend so much money on the misguided Jerry Seinfeld ads -- and the more effective "I'm a PC" replacement spots -- if Windows 7 isn't ready? Is it a fashionably late response to Apple's attacks or an unfashionably early crank of the hype machine before Microsoft's next operating system? If it's neither, then the answer has to be that Microsoft wants to win Vista converts -- now -- before it moves the cheese in a year or so.

Either way, the strong marketing push actually finds Vista at the right place at the right time, for a change. It may not be much of a heartbeat, but it's at least enough to register a pulse.

Other ways to spend time with Microsoft: