Vista is here. Microsoft has announced that its newest operating system for desktop, notebook, and multimedia personal computers will be released to market, relatively on schedule, this month. It seems some last-minute obstacles have been overcome (anti-trust problems and bugs reported in beta testing), and Microsoft has seen its way clear for this, the first major release of an operating system since XP, five years ago.
Called "Longhorn" while in development, Vista underwent several redefinitions since the project began in 2001, with the current morph crafted in 2004. An extensive pre-release program for partnered Microsoft customers and a five-million-participant beta community effort has brought the new system finally to release.
Which Little Piggies Got to Market?
OK, so what's in that new operating system? First and foremost, Microsoft has concentrated on security issues. Long criticized for vulnerabilities in previous Windows versions that allow viruses, malware, and buffer overflows, Microsoft has taken steps to prevent such malicious activities. Ironically, Microsoft is criticized for this as well. By nature, trying to make private data secure through a mechanism like Vista's new BitLocker drive encryption can also make one's own data inaccessible.
Windows Aero also made the cut. Aero is Vista's new look. The Aero desktop has see-through interface elements (buttons, menus, etc.) that render a 3-D appearance. Microsoft has developed various semi-transparent overlays and a new, cleaner appearance for the Vista OS in which much of the window dressing has taken on a shiny, polished, plastic look (Mac users may see some similarity here). On the downside, Aero requires a powerful graphics card and large amounts of memory and so will not work on many existing computers, especially notebooks, without a hardware upgrade. You may install Vista without installing Aero, however. In fact the low-end vanilla version of Vista (Home Basic) doesn't even include Aero.
Vista also has a new interface feature called Windows Flip that is used to move through your active tasks in a manner similar to the Alt+Tab of foregone versions. Windows Flip, however, will show you a live thumbnail of each display rather than just an icon.
Internet Explorer 7 (IE 7) is a completely updated release with a new rendering engine and security framework. IE7 will no longer run within the Windows shell but will instead run as a standalone application. This will prevent any access to the client computer's file system, other than the user's temporary Internet files folder. IE 7 will also run in "Protected Mode"—an enclosed "sandbox" much like the Java Virtual Machine (JVM)—that is expected to seriously reduce malicious attacks.
The Windows shell itself has been revised to enhance how you organize your tasks and files and how you navigate among them. The Start button has been replaced with an icon, and a Favorites link has been added to allow quick access to your most commonly executed programs. Further, the Search function has been accelerated and is now accessible from a number of common applications.
Vista has other new features intended to enhance the "Windows experience":
- Parental Controls
- Windows Photo Gallery
- Windows Media Center
- Windows Tablet and Touch Technology
- Windows BitLocker Drive Encryption
- Windows Ultimate Extras
- Business Networking
- Business Backup
- Small Business Resources
- Windows Meeting Space
- Windows Fax and Scan
Can I Run Vista on My Computer?
Vista makes some significant demands of the hardware it runs on. For example, you must have at least 13 MB of available disk space, an up-to-date processor (like Pentium 4), and lots of memory. To help determine if your system meets minimum requirements to run Vista, Microsoft provides a utility that will evaluate your PC. Go to Microsoft's Upgrade Advisor Web site for more information.
Criticisms of Vista
Not everyone is thrilled with Vista. Due to the very fact that Vista is, in many ways, a total rewrite of older versions, there is concern over the stability of that much new code. The improved security within Vista is also a two-edged sword in that friendly software companies like Symantec and McAfee can no longer access some parts of the operating system. And, of course, that old chestnut that Windows bears a strong resemblance to Apple's Mac OS X has been advanced again.
The Man on the Street
- "Upgrading to Vista is less than compelling right now." The loss of WinFS (the new Windows File System that was originally one of the "three pillars" of Vista and has since been omitted and sent over to the SQL Server group), the substantial minimum hardware requirements, and the cost to upgrade are all cited as reasons to wait awhile.
- "If security is a strong concern, you should migrate to Vista." My counterparts in business environments are more concerned about security and as such do intend to migrate to Vista sooner rather than later. The peace of mind that they will derive more than outweighs any inconvenience or expense associated with early adoption of Vista.
- "Wait for Service Pack 1" is a common sentiment. Several "early adopters" I've talked with have suggested we should wait for some of the dust to settle before jumping on Vista.
It's my humble opinion that Vista is a pretty satisfactory release. Some of the controversial features that were originally feared to be part of Vista (like Next-Generation Secure Computing Base, formerly known as Palladium, a part of the much-distrusted "Trusted Computing" model) have been skipped this time around. Other restrictive measures, like the new User Account Control (UAC), which is essentially there to protect the standard user from him/herself, and Digital Rights Management (DRM) have been included in Vista (DRM seeks to restrict the reproduction of copyrighted digital content).
At some point, however, the day will come when all software and artistic material that you use will have to be rightfully paid for. Your operating system will check in with the developer of that system, passing your computer's serial number and verifying that you are entitled to the benefits you are receiving. I think Microsoft is not yet ready to bear the heat that that sort of heavy-handed posture would bring, and I think Vista reflects that position. Vista addresses the problems that are most important from the user's point of view, and, for now, Microsoft is content to simply produce a good system.