With Windows and the rest of its successful stable of software, Microsoft has long been accused of being a non-innovator, preferring instead to refine others' efforts--and conquer. But with its upcoming Windows Vista operating system, Microsoft may find itself called by an unfamiliar name: trailblazer.
Due out by year's end, Vista, a top Microsoft official says, will include a number of new features, especially in its graphical user interface (GUI), that are not yet completely realized in competing operating systems such as Apple Computer's Mac OS X or the open-source Linux OS.
Those features include 3D views of windows, built-in handwriting recognition, easy real-time wireless collaboration, online file sharing, automatic alerts about phishing and other fraudulent Web sites, and even support for a feature called Windows SideShow that allows notebook PCs to display regularly accessed information on a 2-inch screen mounted on the outside of the closed notebook case.
"We are pushing ahead as fast as we can for all audiences, whether for the business user, the child, or the digital music enthusiast," said Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft's platform products and services division--which includes Windows and MSN--in an interview Thursday.
Tech Preview in March
Microsoft plans to release a Community Technical Preview (CTP) of Vista by the end of March to companies participating in its Technology Adoption Program (TAP). Allchin says the technical preview, which follows a December release aimed at PC makers, is already "feature complete," and the goal now is to gain feedback from users regarding compatibility with applications and hardware, as well as the ease of deploying Vista.
"We're trying to be more transparent," Allchin said. He admitted getting complaints from beta testers whose machines either were not powerful enough or lacked the right graphics drivers for the advanced user interface features in Vista.
On the positive side, Allchin said that CTP testers have praised improvements in stability and security. One change, he said, will make it harder for hackers or malware to gain administrator-level access, even if they can crash Vista systems--a feature that already exists in UNIX and Linux. Another will be the ability to run Internet Explorer 7 in a "protected mode" that prevents Trojan horses or hackers from surreptitiously auto-installing spyware or other malicious programs. (Though IE7 will come bundled with Vista, it will also be possible to download it separately.)
Vista will also have added antiphishing capabilities. For instance, suspicious Web sites--such as those whose addresses begin with a string of numbers--will trigger a "suspicious Web site" message. Others that have been reported by Vista users as definite phishing sites will trigger a red warning and an attempt by Vista to prevent users from visiting that site. Users can also allow Vista to automatically send information about Trojan horses and spyware infecting their system in a way that does not violate user privacy.
"The goal is not to track anything that an individual does," Allchin said.
But it is the user interface that most excites Allchin, who has been involved with Windows development since the early 1990s, when its GUI was still widely considered a less-than-smooth rip-off of the Mac interface. Not anymore.
"The Mac is a good product. But it doesn't think about business, and doesn't do a good job with gaming," Allchin said. "We're trying to do it for a much wider variety of audiences."
Asked whether Vista will allow Microsoft to finally trump Apple once and for all, Allchin laughed. "People will have to judge that for themselves. We're just trying to make the best product we can."
Microsoft plans to release another CTP of Vista next quarter to millions of beta testers, followed by a Release Candidate 0 of Vista and a release to manufacturing before Christmas, said Allchin. "If there are quality issues, we would hold the product, but I don't anticipate that there will be," said Allchin, who plans to retire at the end of 2006 after Vista's release.
For business users, Vista includes smart handwriting recognition that learns not only a user's handwriting style but also the types of words most commonly written. Its pickiest beta user, said Allchin, is Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.
"Bill is an extremely avid user of a tablet PC. That's how he takes notes and organizes stuff," Allchin said. "He's not only pretty demanding, his handwriting is not the best."
Another feature allows Vista users in a meeting to quickly find each other wirelessly so they can collaborate on shared projects. That allows, for example, simultaneous editing of Office documents, with drag-and-drop copying of files from one Vista desktop to another.
The SideShow feature depends on notebook manufacturers embedding small LCD screens like those used on mobile phones, along with a five-button keypad for navigation underneath it. The feature would also require software to download selected data from the user's hard drive and store it on flash memory. That way, users could check their contact-list phone numbers, read their latest synced e-mails, or choose songs they want to hear, without having to boot up their system.
For enterprise IT managers, it will be much easier and faster to create "images" of Vista that can be installed quickly on corporate computers, said Allchin. Another upgrade aimed at IT staffers is the automatic background fixing of Vista Registry errors.
Microsoft will not have individual Media Center and Tablet versions of Vista, as it does with XP. It will continue to release separate flavors of the Vista OS, Allchin said, but he declined to offer details on what kinds of versions would be available.
This story, "Microsoft's Allchin Discusses Vista's GUI, Security" was originally published by Computerworld.