Microsoft's next major operating system looks a lot different from the Windows you're used to seeing. But the parts of it you can't see might be even more important.
It has been just over ten years since Microsoft launched Windows 95 to great fanfare and hype (and the Rolling Stones' song "Start Me Up"). Now, as Microsoft prepares its next major operating system launch, scheduled roughly for the end of 2006, an appropriate theme song might be "Security" by blues siren Etta James.
"The key to Vista is security, security, security," says Laura DiDio, an analyst with The Yankee Group. And Microsoft is focusing a lot of effort on securing users from the legion of viruses, worms, and other malicious attacks that have become such a serious problem in the last decade.
But security isn't the only focal point of Windows Vista. Also included are additional gaming features, a stronger desktop search function, a reworking of the graphical user interface, compatibility with high-definition TV, and other multimedia tie-ins. What's more, Vista is the first mainstream operating system from Microsoft built to handle 64-bit applications. The new OS should combine with the latest CPUs to improve gaming, system performance, and security.
Of course, exactly what Vista will include remains in flux. Among the rumors that Microsoft won't comment on: Vista may ship in seven different forms, ranging from an ultra-stripped-down version for third-world countries to a full-featured "ultimate" edition with all business and multimedia components included. Not everyone sees such an arrangement as a good idea. "If Microsoft releases Vista in seven flavors, they're going to have a lot of confused consumers on their hands," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group.
Right now, Microsoft has lots of concerned customers, primarily because Windows is a favorite target for malicious code writers. Vista aims to thwart attacks in a number of innovative ways. One is by making it easier to create "limited user" accounts, which can be set to allow a user only the most basic rights (the ability to download a graphics driver, say, but not to install an application). In previous versions of Windows, only network administrators could control this.
Another way is by having the OS encrypt all the data on your hard drive by default--the first time Microsoft has offered this level of security, according to DiDio. Vista also will isolate various applications and components, so if a virus comes in through Internet Explorer, the amount of damage it can wreak throughout the OS is limited. "That will basically, if not totally, eliminate the threat [from] IE," says DiDio. "At the very least, it certainly cuts down on the vulnerabilities."
One area where Microsoft is lagging is in desktop search: Google beat the Redmond crew to market with its desktop search application. "Desktop search has been a black hole in Windows for years," says Enderle. So look for Microsoft to provide an improved desktop search function in Vista, along with a new (and better) graphical interface for finding files.
If Windows Vista delivers on most of what Microsoft has promised, what the beta release suggests, and what the rumor mongers predict, it will be a dramatic upgrade. From what we know so far, the outlook for Vista is pretty promising.
The Vista-Ready PC
Vista's true system requirements are still in flux, but if you aim for a machine with these specs, you should be in great shape when the operating system does roll out.
- 2GB of RAM
- 64-bit CPU
- PCI Express graphics board with 128MB of RAM
- SATA hard drive with NCQ
- Monitor that supports the HDCP copy protection standard required for playback of high-def content