As the release date for Vista slips to the end of 2006, initial sightings of the first, developer-only betas of the next version of Windows, ex-Longhorn, now Vista, have laid some detailed flesh onto the bare bones of Microsoft's official statements.
Some 10,000 customers got the software last week. The upgrade process starts here for many, especially since so many users in corporates are still running Windows 2000. Does the new version provide enough added features to make the pain of upgrading worthwhile? Microsoft certainly hopes so, since 30 per cent of its revenues come from Windows.
Services and delivery mechanisms
Many companies will have in place a policy of upgrading every other OS cycle, while others see XP as little more than a prettified face on the Windows 2000 core. And some observers see Vista as the last piece of software you should ever need to buy, as the focus of attention divides, with online applications and individual devices such as iPods, PDAs and mobile phones eating into the PC's domain.
Within enterprises, though, there's a clear need for an intelligent client in many circumstances. For them, Vista matters. But Microsoft is taking advantage of the new methods of software usage and delivery.
For example, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that the company would be delivering "bits and services across the Internet". You can expect too to see more versions of Windows, and more frequent releases. The company sees its base-level OS as having plenty of features, so it believes that it can extract quite a few without breaking it, adding them into premium versions of the product. The complexity and confusion this could well generate is likely only to benefit the company.
Key among the new features is IE7.0, which at last adds tabbed browsing -- a testament to the power of competition following years of zero added features until Mozilla's tabbed Firefox proved hugely popular and started grabbing significant market share. Other elements new in IE7.0 include shrink to fit printing, better RSS integration and improved anti-phishing technology -- such the ability to verify an SSL (encrypted) site's security certificate and other authentication criteria.
Security is at or close to the top of the company's mind when it comes to the whole OS. With that in view, it has moved Vista towards a Linux-style authentication system. In other words, users will be encouraged to log in with limited user privileges, and run their applications in that mode. If they need to perform system tasks, they can do it on a per-task basis - the equivalent of the Linux command 'su'.
Microsoft calls this the Protected Administrator mode. However, there are bound to be certain applications that need or expect to run in Administrator mode, and which could be broken by the new paradigm. Microsoft's solution is to create a virtualised safe haven where older applications can write their data, thus protecting the system while not breaking the applications.
Remote patch management is set to be easier too, as an agent that runs on the client can prevent those with outdated systems from connecting to the network, redirecting them to an update area instead.
Vista can also protect against imminent system crashes, warning the user up to 24 hours in advance that the system is becoming unstable. A new system for creating system image file creation scheme allows IT staff to apply an image to users' PCs either locally or remotely.
Laptop users will like the new Sleep mode, which offers Hibernate-style energy usage -- almost none -- together with a quick, Standby-style resume. And in terms of the UI, Vista will use transparency and other 3D features to prettify the OS, while meta-data attached to files should bring faster, more intuitive searching.
So there's plenty for sysadmins to get their teeth into, and features that bring security up to date, using concepts from other, proven OSes, make PCs more stable, and add better remote desktop management are likely to prove popular.
Time however will tell how many of these survive, with the much-touted but now postponed introduction of a new, file system the most prominent casualty of early promises.
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