Welcome to the World of Windows Vista

Microsoft operating systems have a reputation for providing sophistication, ease of use, and reliability. Get acquainted with Windows Vista and see why it will continue this trend.

More than five years after the release of Microsoft's last client operating system (OS), the company is set to release Microsoft Windows Vista, first to enterprise customers and later, after the beginning of the new year, to smaller businesses, individuals, and computer buyers. As is often the case with new Microsoft operating systems, there will be some early adopters, and there will be those who adopt a "wait and see" attitude. The latter know that eventually they have no reasonable choice, but would like to put off the installation, system upgrades, or user training until the operating system is a proven commodity.

There are also those who increasingly view Microsoft's new operating systems with suspicion, especially because of the continued escalation of hardware requirements and prices. Vista doesn't disappoint in either category, and those who need more reason to dislike Microsoft will not have to look very far.

For most, Vista will bring greater security (though to some extent at the expense of convenience), easier and more reliable administration, a new .NET Framework, better Web services tools, and a killer set of graphics and UI controls. However, Vista is also defined by what we are not getting, in particular WinFS, the object-oriented file system. The ability to catalog, search, and access data based on characteristics other than text has been promised by Microsoft for years (anyone remember Chicago?) and has the potential to ultimately change the face of computing. There is no further word on when this feature may be expected.

High Priorities for the Enterprise
Microsoft has rightly been criticized for the many and varied security holes in previous versions of Windows, and it tries to correct this perception with Vista. However, the trade-off is a less convenient operating system from the standpoint of the user, and potentially from the standpoint of systems administrators.

Better security certainly comes through better coding practices, and there is ample evidence that Microsoft has taken its own practices up a notch with Vista and other products over the last couple of years. However, security means more than hack-resistant code; it also means authentication and authorization for users. Many users, especially in the enterprise, will find that their log-on credentials won't give them the same levels of access that they did with previous versions of Windows. In other cases, they may have to re-enter their credentials to get the access they are authorized.

And there are still more security features, such as Bitlock encryption for dynamically encrypting and decrypting the contents of the hard disk. Much has also been made recently of Microsoft's closing off of traditional access into the OS kernel, which makes it that much more difficult for third-party virus checkers to operate. While apparently a compromise has been reached with the likes of Symantec and McAfee, the details are sketchy.

Other Vista features enable users to have more flexibility in navigating, searching, using memory, and other facets of running the OS. Of course, the new user interface, if run at the highest possible level, will provide users with a graphical experience that is arguably better than anything on the market today.

Facing a New Learning Curve
For developers, Vista has a raft of new capabilities, many of which fall technically under the umbrella of the .NET Framework 3.0. These include the Windows Communications Foundation (WCF), Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF), CardSpace, and the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). The last is perhaps the most widely publicized and intriguing.

WPF, the heralded Avalon, incorporates a high-performance graphics engine that drives a sophisticated user interface called Aero. The graphics engine is driven by a new set of Framework classes that sit side by side with the existing graphics and UI classes, making it possible to continue using existing applications, but not with the new UI features. WPF employs the GPU on a graphics card, and a heavy slice of graphics memory (128MB for the most graphics-intensive applications).

There are several layers of Aero, the top one of which is Aero Glass, a UI with 3-D objects and a graphics model that supports semitransparent objects. The problem with Aero, and Aero Glass in particular, is that it is heavy into graphics processing power. Many existing systems will not be able to run it effectively, and the operating system will drop down into largely the existing UI.

Developing UIs for Aero falls to a new Expression toolset, which will work with Visual Studio for writing code. Using Expression, UIs will be defined declaratively, using the Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML), making it possible for UI designers to work more independently of programmers.

In fact, based on this model, Microsoft will provide separate development tools for the logic developer (Visual Studio), UI designer, and graphic designer. The concept is that these activities are performed by different people with different skills, and they'll need tools that are best for those specific tasks.

WCF provides a comprehensive, Web services-based communications backbone for Windows. It provides secure, reliable, and transacted messaging with an API that abstracts these services so developers have to write only a small amount of code to achieve some significant results.

WCF will not be visible to users or administrators, but will be a key developer technology for moving forward with more sophisticated service-oriented architectures (SOAs). This technology represents plumbing that will rapidly become very useful for developers building fewer applications and more discrete services for an enterprise SOA, which is a fundamental technology that will likely be added to over a period of many years.

WWF is an add-in to Visual Studio 2005 and lets developers build workflow-oriented applications visually and with code. Once a workflow model is compiled it can be executed inside any Windows process including console applications, forms-based applications, Windows Services, ASP.NET Web sites and Web services. This process provides developers with the ability to set up the workflow visually within Visual Studio, write code that implements the steps of that workflow, and deliver it as a completed, services- and components-based application.

WWF is comprised of the programming model, engine, and tools for building workflow-enabled applications on Windows. It consists of a .NET Framework version 3.0 namespace, an in-process workflow engine, and designers for Visual Studio 2005. A completed workflow application requires the upcoming .NET Framework 3.0 on any computer that executes it.

The other key technology is CardSpace, which provides a consistent user experience required by the identity metasystem. The impact of CardSpace, which requires that other applications, networks, and Web sites employ the technology, will only be felt over a long period of time.

Not Nirvana Just Yet
After being present in the industry since the dawn of Windows 1.0, it is difficult to get excited about yet another new Microsoft operating system. It will likely not make the world safe for children, inspire world peace, or make us all better people. Microsoft's marketing machine should take note of these limitations.

Nevertheless, the computing world moves forward, and Windows Vista will contribute to that advance. Because it took so long in development (by some estimates almost two years longer than original announcements had indicated), and because Microsoft has been hyping them for almost as long, its features tend to look like reactions to known limitations and technology trends rather than advances that Microsoft has pioneered.

Of course, Vista will not be a panacea for system administrators, developers, or end users. It will provide more of the capabilities that all are expecting or anticipating. The additional baggage is the result of the extreme backward compatibility that Microsoft continues to provide, a level of compatibility that makes the company a darling of the enterprise. All will balk at the hefty system requirements, but a combination of the continued promise of backward compatibility and the ever-lower cost of hardware will make it palatable to most over time.

However, there is a reason why Microsoft operating systems are used by the vast majority of enterprises and individual users. The operating systems tend to provide a good combination of sophistication, ease of use, and reliability—a trend that Vista will continue on the desktop. Whether you look forward to Vista with anticipation or distrust, chances are you will be a convert sooner or later.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is a principal at Technology Strategy Research LLC, an industry analysis and consulting firm.