Does Windows Vista have more than just a pretty face?

I’ve written a bit about Windows Vista on this blog previously but generally left the product reviews to people like Paul Thurrott (who has both the time to do a review justice and the readership to make it worthwhile). Yesterday, I saw yet another Windows Vista presentation and (with my corporate mindset) I’m still struggling to see why I should move from Windows XP. Maybe that’s because so much is being made of the new Aero interface and there’s not been much emphasis placed on some of the other functionality. At a first glance Windows Vista has lots of new features; but many of them fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Require modern graphics hardware and won’t make any real difference in a corporate setting.
  2. Implement a totally new interface (or at least new ways of working) and so will require additional end-user training (which most companies won’t invest in, so people will continue to use Windows as they have done since we first saw Explorer in Windows 95).

At least, that’s what I thought until I saw James O’Neill‘s presentation at the Microsoft Technical Roadshow. It turns out that there’s a lot of hidden functionality available in Vista (that doesn’t require new hardware) and the list below is probably just scraping the surface:

  • The startup/shutdown sequence is improved to allow for a more reliable sleep function/resume from hibernation.
  • There’s also an improved paging algorithm (known as superfetching) whereby the operating system learns the memory pages that are used frequently and keeps them in memory (avoiding the delay that occurs in Windows XP when returning from a meeting to find that Outlook takes a while to respond because an operating system process has swapped all of its memory out to disk).
  • Then there’s the ability to use a USB key as extra cache (faster than disk, slower than RAM, no problem if it’s removed suddenly because it’s just a cache, although there would be a slight performance hit for a cache rebuild).
  • The operating system is intended to be self tuning, with an API that allows PC components to be scored (opening up the possibility of warning users that they can run an application but it might run slowly due to the system having a poorly-specified processor or a lack of RAM).
  • The restart manager functionality allows a file to be unlocked (e.g. to apply a patch) without needing to restart the PC.
  • There are improved diagnostics (e.g. to report that a hard disk has bad sectors – often a sign that the disk is about to fail).
  • Security is a major area of improvement:
    • User account control/protection allows for least privileged user access, warning users where elevated privileges are requested. Unfortunately I have a feeling that most users will just ignore the warning (click the “yeah… whatever…” button) in the same way that firewall warnings are often not much help today.
    • There are anti-malware features provided through the integration of Windows Defender (it amazes me that so many of my clients are paranoid about virus protection yet don’t do anything about spyware).
    • Internet Explorer 7.0 is sandboxed (so malicious code is limited in its scope to do damage).
    • The Windows firewall is improved to allow for filtering of outbound traffic as well as inbound.
    • Client support for network access protection (NAP), allowing for quarantining of PCs when returning to the network.
    • Improved data protection (e.g. control over USB device connectivity).
    • BitLocker technology to encrypt the whole hard disk.
  • From a deployment perspective, everything that we know about unattended installation (which hasn’t changed much since Windows NT) changes with new file-based imaging tools that allow for compressed images with single instance storage of multiple build versions and non-destructive rebuilds.
  • Language support is handled via resource files (instead of multiple versions of the same DLL), allowing for creation of a singe worldwide operating system image.
  • The new Windows imaging (.WIM) format allows images to be mounted as a file system, then browsed and edited.
  • A new feature called Windows resource protection is provided to protect system settings. Meanwhile, the number of configuration items that can be controlled via group policy has increased from approximately 1800 to around 3000 (mostly control over printing, USB devices, and power management.
  • For legacy application support, the program files folder structure and the registry are virtualised. This means that programs that need (or assume) administrator permissions can still run as they have a virtual registry to write to.
  • The command prompt is also unprivileged by default, with the same user access control functionality as the GUI.
  • The “breadcrumb trail” that replaces an absolute path in Explorer windows allows me to jump straight to a particular folder in the path.
  • The ability to tag documents (including photos) and “stack” them based on the file metadata (e.g. view all documents by a particular author – although for many organisations the author will typically be something like “Any authorised user” or the company name because in my experience other people rarely set the document properties).
  • Within control panel, a shield next to an applet indicates that user access control applies.
  • The mobility center allows for quick application of different settings (e.g. turn of screensaver when presenting). There’s also easier file sharing with users on the same network and a new synchronisation engine for synchronising with mobile devices, or keeping files in sync with another PC (like backing up my work PC to a home file store).
  • Tabbed browsing in IE7 (something which, as a Firefox user, I now find very difficult to do without in IE6), RSS support and preview pages.

Even though I’m unimpressed generally with Aero, there are some UI features that I may find useful:

Microsoft is caught between a rock and a hard place. They get criticised for a lack of original new features; but we accuse Windows of being bloated. They get criticised for a lack of security; on the other hand when they add new features (improved client firewall, anti-spyware, etc.) they are accused of being anti-competitive. Windows Vista has been a long time coming and whilst many of the features originally planned have since been removed it does include some great new technology.

Will Vista be worth the wait? Probably. Will corporates be keen to adopt the new operating system? That remains to be seen but I suspect there won’t be a big rush if the marketing message continues with the “clear, confident, connected, ooh – doesn’t it look pretty” message.

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