Windows Vista Breaks the Mold
New graphics, security features and more.
In many ways, Windows Vista resembles the versions of Windows that came before it.
Like previous new versions of Windows, Vista features a new look that will quickly become the standard for Windows applications, even among applications that don't rely on Vista specifically. Also like previous versions of Windows, Vista pushes the boundaries of what PCs can do today, especially in the area of graphics. The new version will rely on vector-based graphics that take advantage of the built-in graphics chips that go largely unutilized in most computers at the moment. This is a nice trick. It sets the bar for what kind of computer you'll need to use Windows substantially higher, but many users will get substantially improved graphics and better performance as Windows makes more efficient use of the capabilities already present in many computer systems. I'd say this is a good deal for consumers, and it gives software makers new opportunities to create that fabled "killer" product.
But look beyond the graphics upgrade, and you see features that are not in line with a traditional Windows upgrade, including Microsoft's security overhaul and its new Windows Live services.
The security changes have garnered the most recent attention. Microsoft has already performed significant security overhauls on Windows XP, and it continues to rethink security for Windows. Much of this was by necessity. Microsoft dominates the PC landscape, notwithstanding efforts from Apple, Linux, and other challengers. So, the company has maintained a near stranglehold on the desktop even as people come to rely increasingly on their PCs for a host of critical roles, including online bill-paying and home banking. PCs in businesses and at home host critical data, and Microsoft had a duty to do a better job of protecting this information.
Several companies with security-related related products, including Symantec and McAfee, were upset with the way that Microsoft had implemented its security policy in Windows Vista, originally. Specifically, these companies protested the fact that the Windows Vista kernel is off limits to third parties—a change from the past—and that this change makes it more difficult for traditional virus and spyware prevention programs to integrate with Windows at a deep level. They argued this change gave an unfair advantage to Microsoft's own security add-on service—Windows Live OneCare—and there were strong indications that Microsoft was facing new fight over the services and capabilities that Microsoft could ship with Windows. Essentially, these companies were arguing that a change intended to make Windows more secure actually makes it less so because it makes it harder for third-party security vendors to provide their services. In recent days, it appears a compromise has been reached between Microsoft and these security-related companies. It's good to see a potential crisis averted from a consumer and developer perspective, but I can't help but wonder if this was a compromise based on exigency rather than technical merit.
Symantec and McAfee make their money by selling safety on "unsecure PCs." Microsoft has a (deserved) reputation for having been lax about security in its designs, by virtue of the fact that it has emphasized usability and interactivity between software programs that run on the PC. Closing down potential exploits at the expense of functionality is the right thing to do because the information now contained on PCs is simply too important to risk. This makes some aspects of your life as a Windows developer more difficult, but the tradeoff is that you can trust the operating system a bit more than you can at the present.
The subject of Windows Live services is worth its own article, so I won't spend a lot of time on it here, but suffice it to say that Windows Live services, more than any other feature, point the way to Microsoft's future. Windows Live OneCare is the best known service at this time, but more are on the way, and Microsoft has been gearing up to deliver services to consumers for some time. Microsoft will try to drive the use of these services from Windows, of course, but faces the delicate challenge of doing so in a way that doesn't invite new anti-trust allegations.
Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.