Vista: Evolutionary or revolutionary?

Although not without its shortcomings, the next version of Windows will bring big changes to the desktop and beyond

Since Part One of my little Vista venture last week, I've received a few not-so-nice e-mails from folks telling me to make sure I prove to them that Vista will really be revolutionary rather than evolutionary. For the most part, that's a subjective term. If you're a rabid, anti-Redmond Penguin palooka, nothing will seem revolutionary. But for folks moving from Windows XP to Vista, you're really going to see a difference.

We left off last time with security. Authentication, especially, has taken on a very Unix-like flavor with UAC (User Account Control) -- a definite change for the better. But Redmond didn't stop with UAC. For one thing, you'll notice a very different and highly configurable Windows Firewall. This puppy filters incoming as well as outgoing traffic and now has enough configurability to compete with dedicated desktop firewalls such as ZoneAlarm.

Overall, I think ZoneAlarm will still come out ahead, but for systems administrators with 50, 100, or even 1,000 machines behind an already sophisticated firewall perimeter, being able to activate the Windows Firewall with the Private profile right out of the box is a truly handy feature.

Next to the firewall, Vista will also include Windows Defender,  Microsoft's anti-virus/anti-spyware package. This won't differ much under Vista from what we've already seen under Windows XP. And, again, I don't think it's robust enough to stand on its own as yet, but it makes a decent secondary platform in an increasingly dangerous cyberspace.

That's enough on security. Microsoft has also made plenty of user-oriented changes that should make users familiar with XP pretty happy after they're used to them. The shell is a good place to start, including the Windows Start window. This behaves much more like a folder-tree file menu now. It's a little strange to get used to it, but when you do, the old XP method seems maddeningly slow. It's much easier to go straight where you want to go with Vista's Start menu.

Windows' Search feature is also radically different. Microsoft is clearly trying to regain its footing on this feature, and it shows. This is a full-fledged desktop index-based search engine that does a full system index immediately upon first boot. Search is still keyword-based, but if you use the separate Search application rather than the Start menu's shortcut version, you can do more advanced things such as save searches into Search Folders -- very handy for recurring searches.

Microsoft has deliberately nuked any ability to index non-local drives. Right now, that's because booting the first time would require every workstation to scan every attached network file system, and the network would die. It's good reasoning, but I also haven't been able to figure a way to add a specific network drive to my search index. I think that should be a quick upgrade and would make Search far more meaningful to corporate users -- especially if it's also an attribute I can control via Group Policy.

As stated in last week's column, I think Vista's display technologies will be the initial thorn in most desktop administrator's sides. The Aero interface is cool, but it's still flaky and requires tweaking. Plus it's guaranteed to weird out your older users. Fortunately, you can click back to an earlier XP-like display model, which is what I'd suggest for all but your most advanced users out of the gate.

Another display feature that will ding you is Sidebar. This is Vista's answer to Yahoo's Widget Engine (formerly Konfabulator). It's a place off to the side of the desktop where Vista can hold and monitor any number of desktop gadgets. This includes goodies like clocks, CPU meters, notes, calendars with active schedules, stock tickers, weather reporters -- stuff like that. Right now, performance overhead is minor: only about 50MB of RAM on average in our test box.

But that's using only the basic set of gadgets included with the beta. Microsoft is promising all kinds of new gadgets plus a public gadget-sharing site for privately developed ones. You get a whole bunch of these on many desktops, with some of those possibly shoddily developed from private programmers. There's a good chance you'll increase the call volume of your desktop support because of this. Nothing critical, but it's something to watch.

So is all this revolutionary, rather than just another rung up on the Windows product ladder? I guess that depends on how you define revolutionary. For a few Windows releases in the past -- notably 2000 to XP -- I thought evolutionary was the proper term; really just tweaking and bug fixing with relatively few new features. Not so with this release. Vista by itself is a big change from XP. In conjunction with Longhorn server, it can literally change (mostly for the better) most ways that users touch their desktops as well as the network. Revolutionary enough for me.

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