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Windows Vista Beta 1 Delivers UI, Gives IT a Chance to Kick Tires

After years of talking about Windows Longhorn, Microsoft has at last put a full beta version of the operating system on the table for certain people to work with and test. The first beta of the client operating system, now called Windows Vista, comes the year after some of the earliest delivery dates Microsoft originally provided, giving an indication of how stretched out the development process on the operating system has been.

Windows Vista logo. Source: MicrosoftAs a first beta, Windows Vista Beta 1 gives no indication of the size or performance of the operating system, and Microsoft remains quite cagey about what the final system requirements will be. What this beta does provide is the first tangible look at the user interface, end-user functionality and many of the IT-focused features of the follow-on to 2001's Windows XP.

Microsoft delivered the Windows Vista beta July 27, and it included simultaneous releases of a technical beta for the standalone version of Internet Explorer 7 and a private beta for Windows Longhorn Server. (For links to articles on those betas, scroll to the bottom of this article). The first beta of Windows Vista went to 10,000 beta testers via the Windows Vista Technical Beta Program. Thousands more customers will have access to the beta through the MSDN program and Microsoft TechNet.

For Developers?

While much has been made of the developer focus of Windows Vista Beta 1, that focus appears to be primarily marketing at first blush. For years developers who were interested in Longhorn/Vista have been intimately familiar with the WinFX development environment, the Avalon presentation subsystem and the Indigo communication subsystem. Microsoft introduced those core concepts at its Professional Developers Conference 2003 and gave developers alpha code to work with at the time. The company periodically updated developers with further alpha code of the whole operating system and several revs of Community Technical Previews of Avalon and Indigo.

While the developer code is more polished in Beta 1, there's not much discussion of new development features in it. Microsoft has new names for Avalon, the Windows Presentation Foundation, and Indigo, the Windows Communication Foundation. In other words, the code hasn't changed much, but the marketing volume will get increasingly louder for ISVs, partners and corporate developers. With less than 15 months to launch, it is crunch time for Microsoft to generate broad excitement among the developer community in order to have the kind of widely supported Windows launch to which the industry has become accustomed.

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The User Interface

What is new is that a wide community of testers is getting to try the highly anticipated Aero Glass user interface in Windows Vista. Aero has been one of the most frustratingly inaccessible aspects of Longhorn for several years. Microsoft delivered successive alpha releases without the interface, leaving a lot of speculation about what it would consist of. Microsoft finally showed off the interface in a keynote at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference this spring, but didn't make code or even screenshots available outside that conference.

With Windows Vista Beta 1, the user interface that Microsoft demonstrated a few months ago is in testers' hands. It largely looks the way it did then.

Microsoft Vista Beta 1 Start Menu
[Click on image for larger view.]
The Windows Vista Beta 1 Start Menu. Source: Microsoft.

The Aero Glass interface, which will only be supported for systems with advanced graphics processing cards, includes translucent windows and more animation. Microsoft will have several levels to the UI, so that older or cheaper computers can run Longhorn -- they'll just get an interface much more like older versions of Windows.

As the industry has gone gaga over the types of search enabled by browser add-ons like Google's Desktop Search and the most recent Apple Mac OS, Microsoft officials have insisted that the key to better desktop usability is not just search but better organization. To that end, Vista adds Virtual Folders, which are saved searches that are automatically and instantly run when a user opens a folder. Vista also changes application icons substantially to enhance usability. Instead of seeing a large "W" icon and a document name for a Word doc, for example, Vista serves up a scalable image that shows the first page of the document. Folders also include much more detailed property information and the ability to sort across folders for files with similar properties.

Microsoft Vista  Beta 1 Virtual Folders
[Click on image for larger view.]
Virtual Folders in Windows Vista Beta 1. Source: Microsoft.

That said, Microsoft did focus on improving search throughout the operating system. Right in the Start Menu, a new search bar allows users to type in an application name to launch a program. For example, typing "calc" brings up the Windows Calculator. Every Explorer in the operating system includes a Quick Search box.

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A Version for IT

While developers have been kicking at Vista's internals for years under its code-name "Longhorn," Beta 1 is the first version really focused on IT. To start the process of encouraging IT managers to upgrade, Microsoft is using Beta 1 to preview deployment, manageability and security changes that should benefit IT departments.

Deployment

Microsoft's major new features to enhance deployment are native image-based deployment and modularization.

Hoping to reduce the complexity of image-based deployment that has been traditionally done with third-party software or other labor-intensive maintenance processes, Microsoft is basing the installation of Windows Vista on a file-based disk imaging format called Windows Imaging Format (WIM). The format is hardware agnostic, allowing the maintenance of a single image for multiple hardware configurations; can store multiple images within a single image file; and includes tools to allow administrators to edit the images to apply operating system updates, add drivers or remove applications, among other tasks.

Microsoft has also modularized the operating system to make it easy to deploy. One useful scenario for modularization is in international deployments. Because Vista treats languages as a modularized component, the English language can be distributed to one set of computers, while French or German might go to another group.

Manageability

Improving manageability is another major focus in Windows Vista, with Microsoft investing in technologies to reduce desktop support costs, simplify desktop configuration management, enable better centralized management and decrease the cost of keeping systems up to date.

Microsoft is introducing technology called Windows Resource Protection (WRP) that prevents potentially corrupting changes to system files, folders or registry keys from anything but a Windows trusted installer. The Group Policy Management Console will be standard issue with Windows Vista, and most new configuration settings in the OS can be controlled via Group Policy. Another new feature allows for multiple Local Group Policy Objects on a computer for better flexibility when a system is shared.

Microsoft is also making efforts to increase the amount of information in event descriptions and providing that information in XML so it is more easily available to management tools. Windows Vista can also forward events to a central location.

The tools for automating tasks also improved. Many key administrative tasks are now executable from a command line rather than just through the user interface for scripting and one-to-many administration. The Task Scheduler is also improved to allow tasks to be launched in a specific sequence.

Security

While Windows XP Service Pack 2 greatly improved the security of the client operating system, Microsoft contends architectural changes too deep for even that huge service pack have been made to Vista.

A key change is the introduction of a feature called User Account Protection, which is supposed to bring the concept of running with least privileges to reality. The idea is to run with low privileges generally and receive a prompt to enter your administrator password only when absolutely necessary. Many users run under administrator privileges all the time because many applications are written poorly and will not work properly if a user does not have full access to system resources. The situation poses a huge security risk. Microsoft offered a similar feature with RunAs in Windows 2000, but it did not catch on.

With User Account Protection, Microsoft is trying to adjust the balance between security and compatibility by automatically virtualizing registry settings and folders. Changes made to virtualized registry settings and folders are visible only to that user account and the application the user runs on, protecting the integrity of the computer.

The personal firewall in Windows Vista blocks all inbound traffic until the computer is updated with patches, is a two-way firewall and is integrated with IPSec. Microsoft has also hardened Windows Services to restrict what services can do on the system. As an example, the Remote Procedure Call (RPC) service, which will be increasingly important for remote access, can now be restricted from replacing system files or modifying the registry.

Vista also supports Microsoft's Network Access Protection initiative by including an agent that can prevent a client from connecting to the internal network if the client lacks current security updates, is out of date on virus signatures or fails some other security test.

Who Needs It?

Analyst Michael Silver with Gartner says Beta 1 is not for every IT department and offered some useful advice in a recent research note for IT departments considering whether to spend some time with the code or to wait for Beta 2.

Silver says most organizations should use the beta to gain an understanding of Vista's search capability, its new imaging and deployment features and User Account Protection. Organizations that have adopted Windows XP, even just on new PCs, should make sure their developers have tried out the APIs but shouldn't spend too much time testing functions or checking compatibility with Beta 1. "You may wait at least until Beta 2, if not longer, before beginning testing in earnest," Silver said. He expects Beta 2 early next year.

IT managers at organizations that plan to skip Windows XP, on the other hand, should plan to begin limited, internal compatibility testing. "After Windows Vista ships, you will have much less time than those running Windows XP to test and deploy the new OS before independent software vendor support starts waning around 2007."

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