After four long years of talking the talk, Microsoft on Wednesday gave the outside world its first official look at its next generation operating system, shipping Beta 1 Release of the recently renamed Windows Vista.
The first release is largely intended for corporate and third-party developers and initially will go to 10,000 developers and users, although it will reach 500,000 eventually. The product is chock-full of security and privacy features the company has been promising over the past year. The beta also focuses on improving reliability and more flexible ways for larger IT shops to deploy and configure the product.
The beta also marks the official debut of Internet Explorer 7.0, which features a new "protected mode" for greater security; tabbed browsing, which allows users to view multiple sites at once; the ability to view and subscribe to RSS feeds more easily; easier access to inline toolbar searching; and a shrink-to-fit printing capability.
"With this release we are focusing on the fundamentals, like with security, reliability, and making it easier to deploy. Most of the end-user-focused elements, such as the [Aero graphical] interface, you will see in Beta 2 next year. We are still on track to deliver [the finished product] in the second half of 2006," said Neil Charney, Microsoft's director of product management.
In the new beta Microsoft addresses a nagging problem users have long complained about, namely working in administrator mode, which allows users to access the system's full capabilities but also potentially compromises the system's security and user's privacy. To give users full access to features but offer a layer of protection, the company has added a capability called User Account Protection.
"Most people in the past have named themselves administrators so they can access the full capabilities of the system. But now they have account protection mode where they can still access all the features but not be able to make changes to registry settings or download unauthorized applications," Charney said.
Microsoft has also introduced Network Access Protection, designed to guard against viruses and other malware. If a system does not have all the up-to-date security fixes from Microsoft, it is placed into a quarantine mode where it is automatically prevented from accessing the entire network until it gets the necessary fix.
Another security enhancement, called Windows Services Hardening, is designed to protect against viruses by monitoring all the services that a desktop machine normally has access to from the time it is booted up. To aid in this effort Microsoft has bundled its AntiSpyware software package into the beta.
In cases where a laptop is lost or stolen, Vista now contains a capability called Secure Start Up, which is a combination of hardware and software technologies that can completely lock down the system. The new capability can be activated remotely by an administrator once he is alerted about a missing laptop.
On first impression, some analysts think Microsoft has made an honest effort to address many of the security shortcomings that have plagued Windows the last several years.