Will Windows Vista bring clarity to your world?

Several months ago I installed Windows Vista Beta 1 (build 5112) on a spare laptop (slowly… as Vista installations tend to be…) but then didn’t get much time to use it (I’m still using XP on my everyday PCs). There are many good information sources on Vista out there (like Paul Thurrott’s Windows Vista Activity Center) – that’s hardly surprising with with 10,000 users testing Beta 1, but I thought I’d write a quick post about how Microsoft is positioning Windows Vista.

From an initial glimpse, I couldn’t see much (apart from the Microsoft support lifecycle) to compel corporations to upgrade from XP. Many of the new features seem to be aimed at consumers and I recently heard that a Gartner briefing note entitled “ten reasons you should and shouldn’t care about Microsoft’s Windows Vista client” recommended that there is little reason to move (and that even the security improvements can be plugged with third party products, or will be back-ported to XP); however on reflection, there may be some advantages for corporate users.

At a recent event, Microsoft were stressing that Beta 1 might look dull (from a visual perspective), but the focus was to establish robustness, reliability and security and then finish off the look and feel later (sounds very unlike Microsoft to me!). Also, there are no ROI/TCO/business value metrics yet as these will be produced after the product is feature complete (otherwise they could become redundant before release to manufacturing, e.g. if components are added or removed between builds).

According to the Microsoft marketing machine, the main benefits of Windows Vista are clustered around three areas, which I’ll expand upon in the following paragraphs:

  • Confident.
  • Clear.
  • Connected.

Confidence is about four areas:

  • Security and privacy:
    • User account protection (not using administrative rights and prompting users when an extra level of access is required).
    • Data protection (trusted platform module v1.2).
    • Secure browsing (anti-phishing filter in Internet Explorer 7 scans URLs for unusual patterns and compares them against a database of known phishing sites).
  • Performance and reliability:
    • Fewer reboots and crashes (50% less than Windows XP; Vista and Office 12 patches save state before restarting).
    • Greater responsiveness (fast start combining the benefits of hibernation and standby).
  • Deployment and servicing:
    • Single image format (XML-based WIM imaging with single instance storage and support for direct patching).
    • Improved application compatibility.
  • Management:
    • Built-in diagnostics.
    • Power saving via group policy (allowing power savings of up to $40 per PC).
    • Unified event log (XML-based, which can be fed to a database for proactive monitoring).

Clarity is concerned with:

  • Instant search:
    • Enterprise-ready integrated desktop search (in a form which is easier to manage in a corporate environment than the current offerings from MSN, Google and others).
  • Smart organisation:
    • New virtual folders and views.
    • Filter-based column controls.
    • Robust metadata support.
  • Visualisation:
    • Live icons and enhanced document previews.
    • Efficient window management (taskbar thumbnails, flip and flip 3D task switching, on which I’ll expand more below).
  • User experience:
    • Scales with hardware (performance scaling to enable operating system features according to the installed hardware).
    • Stable desktop experience.
    • Familiar, but updated, streamlined experience (Microsoft claims to be aiming for users to be up and running with the new interface in less than 20 minutes).

Being connected is about:

  • Networking:
    • Discover and join networks more easily.
    • Secure and reliable wireless networking.
    • Access to corporate applications without requirement for a VPN.
  • Mobility:
    • Windows mobility centre.
    • Seamless wireless connection to external displays and projectors.
    • Hybrid hard drive support (“super-fetch” capabilities to pre-load common applications).
    • Tablet PC enhancements.
  • Collaboration:
    • Face-to-face collaboration on shared networks.
    • Broadcast presentation and text files (e.g. across secure private encrypted networks).
    • Easy sharing of files and folders.
  • Synchronisation:
    • Integrated synchronisation centre (allowing multiple vendors to synchronise devices through a common API).
    • Platform for mobile development.
    • More efficient data synchronisation.

From my own first experiences, and the product demonstration that I saw (using capable hardware), the much-hyped “glass” effect within the Aero interface is uninspiring but Microsoft are keen to emphasis that it will allow third parties to create software which can take advantage of this for a richer user experience; however business users may also benefit from the flip (Alt-Tab replacement) which shows a preview of each running application as it switches between them instead of just an icon and some text details (something similar is available for Windows XP as a PowerToy). This feature also works by presenting taskbar thumbnails within Vista as the user hovers over minimised applications. There is also the Flip 3D task switching, with overlapping windows in a 3-dimensional form. Many of these user interface items are reliant on the Windows graphics foundation (formerly codenamed Avalon) and a graphics card with around 64-128Mb RAM.

Overall, the Aero interface seems to be a mix of the Windows XP Luna interface with hints of Apple OS X and KDE. It’s a fine line to tread between plagiarism and a familiar user interface but personally I don’t like any of those big icons. The new control panel is an improvement over the Luna version but I still prefer the classic control panel.

Other interface changes include adding blue (XML query-based) virtual folders alongside the the traditional yellow folders. Document preview is enhanced, clearly exposing metadata and displaying the first page of a document in a similar manner to the current treatment of graphics files within Windows XP’s document preview features. Although these are all positive improvements, my general feeling was that the new interface was going to take some time to get used to.

Microsoft claim that search is also greatly enhanced, with desktop search across the file system, e-mail and offline server files and the ability to share filters (i.e. views on document searches). Maybe it is this desktop search capability that means there are some major changes to the file system layout – with some familiar folders and others less so (my machine still had a Documents and Settings folder structure with common application data, but also featured a new Users folder structure), meanwhile some of the old favourites are still there (namely autoexec.bat and config.sys). My brief experience with build 5112 searching was actually quite disappointing as the search only seemed to include user folders whereas shelling out to a command prompt and using an old-fashioned dir filename /s produced a different set of results.

When I installed build 5112, I thought it felt fast (even on a 1.4GHz Pentium 4 Mobile with 256GB of RAM) but that could have been down to a fresh Windows installation (rather than more efficient code). Other observations (made after a just a few minutes looking at Windows Vista) were that:

  • As widely predicted, there is no more My prefix on documents, pictures, etc (good).
  • Fast user switching is available in domain mode (very good).
  • Desktop icons are huge (bad).
  • There is a new Control-Alt-Delete dialog, without a domain selection field – possibly encouraging a move to UPNs, but entering the username as domainname\username also worked for me (okay).
  • Checkboxes have a naff Windows 9x feel about them (bad).

So, when can we (finally) expect to see Windows Vista released? Microsoft is sticking to its 2006 release prediction, but is now saying that release to manufacturing (RTM) will be around Christmas 2006 (so that pushes general customer availability out into 2007). We’ve already seen pre-beta releases for the professional developers conference (PDC) in September 2003 and the Windows hardware engineering conference (WinHEC) in April 2004, before Beta 1 was finally released in July 2005.

Despite industry predictions to the contrary, the Microsoft representative that I spoke to insisted that there will be a second, more widely-available, Beta in January 2006, but there will also be community technical previews (CTPs) in December 2005, February 2006 and April 2006, as well as release candidates. Personally, I think this sounds like a lot of releases to manage and from which to solicit feedback – I’ll be surprised if some aren’t dropped from the schedule in order to hit that 2006 RTM date.

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