Musings on Vista

In all the hoopla over the release of Vista, I'm struck by one thing: how little there is in it for the typical user (see here for Microsoft's official description of the features of Vista). As Microsoft repeatedly flung bits of Longhorn over the side in an attempt to lighten the behemoth operating system enough to finally be delivered in our lifetime, all that was left in the end that an end user would find worthy of remark is eye candy: the Aero interface.

That's it. A prettier way to look at your computer. One has to question whether that's enough to encourage anyone to go out of his or her way to adopt the product.

Don't take this post as the kneejerk ravings of an anti-Microsoft idealogue. I take a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to selecting software and am just as comfortable choosing proprietary software rather than an open source offering. Overall, Microsoft delivers client operating systems whose virtues make end users happy and whose vices cause problems for IT. Since you know who has the clout in most companies, IT organizations have ended up doing remediation for the various shortcomings of Microsoft OSs, particularly in the security area. In terms of end user satisfaction, Microsoft has done a pretty good job with Windows XP -- it's stable, relatively easy to use, and easy to find add-on software for.

Which raises the question as to why someone would choose to move from XP to Vista. Most people won't have a choice, though. It will come preinstalled on a newly-purchased machine. Nevertheless, in terms of new features, most end users will wonder why a new operating system was necessary. After you get by Aero, most people will say "So what?" 

Of course, there's other stuff in the OS beyond what people will see as end user functionality. And it's here where Vista seems troubling. It's addressed some of the problems in XP in ways that end users are likely to see as intrusive and inconvenient. In other words, they've bandaged their vices in ways that will wound their virtues, which is a poor strategy.

There's the Trusted Computing feature, which is designed to lock down the internals of the operating system and prevent spyware, malware, and the thousand and one things malefactors have shoved into the too-open XP. However, Microsoft has extended this to the hardware level via the Trusted Platform Module. This entails treating the entire computer -- OS and hardware -- as a single entity to ensure security. There's only one problem with this situation -- changing hardware will break the end-to-end chain of security and result in an inability to access the data (see here, particularly page 2, for an interesting discussion of the implications of Trusted Computing and hardware). And, of course, we know that broken hardware on a PC is a question of when, not if.

So Microsoft's attempt to build better security into its OS -- a laudable goal, and one extremely overdue -- is inevitably going to cause end user headache, since no one will keep track of the keys necessary to retrieve encrypted data. It seems that there must have been a better way to solve spyware than this mechanism. I would hate to be the IT help desk person who has to explain to an end user that because the motherboard of the computer went on the fritz and the backup encryption keys aren't available, all data on the machine is lost.

Perhaps more obvious to end users is the DRM capability built into the system. In a sop to the entertainment industry's attempts to build a Maginot Line (Wikipedia, and here for more interesting info on the Line) to protect itself from the onslaught of digitization, Microsoft has signed up for an end-to-end, hardware-enabled, DRM scheme that will protect new generation digital content from being accessed except through this DRM scheme. And, by the way, you'll need a lot more than a new HD DVD drive for your computer if you want to access high def content. A new monitor, new cables, and, presumably, a new DRM-enabled computer are also required for access.

I've seen some commentary that blames Microsoft for enthusiastically embracing DRM and other commentary that depicts big media as the culprit, due to its refusal to enable access to high-def content unless the scheme was in place; in the latter scenario Microsoft is an unwilling victim forced to acquiesce in order to enable its customers to access new-generation digital entertainment. I'm not really interested in whether to despise Microsoft or to pity it; however, I know that no end user is going to see this functionality as helpful in his or her daily life. This seems like functionality put into the system not to serve the actual user, but to appease a powerful constituency that, through money and legislation, can bring more pressure to bear than can individual users. I predict an uproar around DRM when Vista rolls out, and a widespread rejection of new-gen media on PCs due to the onerous requirements.

So, at the end of the day, I'm struck by the curious nature of this release: it delivers little functionality that will make end users happy, and lots of functionality that will tick off end users. This seems like a release driven by motives other than end user demand. In my next post, I'll speculate about Microsoft's real reasons for its new OS.

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