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 unauthorised 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.
"All the security things in here [in Beta 1] is good stuff. The [User Account Protection] is a really important feature that I think will be received well by users. And the quarantine technology, which they have been talking about for a while, is also a good thing. You don't want someone coming into the network that could potentially bring something harmful in with them," said Al Gillen, research director in charge of system software for IDC.
In yet another security move, Microsoft is making available to Vista users anti-phishing support via a global database that contains a list of Web sites known to be dangerous. If users are suspicious about whether a site is safe for them to visit, they can query that database to see if the site is on the list.
To make deploying Windows Vista easier to thousands of users, many of whom have individual desktop computing needs, Microsoft has added a new capability that allows administrators to use a single image of the operating system to deliver multiple variations of that image.
"This allows administrators to deliver the same product but with different languages and applications. It will eliminate the need to rebuild images for individual users, which will save time and money," said Debra Weissman, director of program management for Microsoft.
While both Charney and Weissman admit Microsoft has a long way to go in terms of performance of the system, the company has included in this beta Instant On, a new sleep mode state that allows users to bring their systems back up quickly, as well as improvements in memory management designed to quicken overall system performance.
While analysts think Microsoft has made a solid first step in addressing many of Windows shortcomings, some caution corporate and third-party developers that Vista is still early in its testing phase and to proceed cautiously before hardening their development plans.
"This should be used as a tool to help developers understand where Microsoft is going and for users to gain a sense of how they can leverage this technology in their environments. It is premature though for them to finalise product development plans because there is still lots of time for features to come in and go out at this point," said IDC's Gillen.
As part of this week's briefing to reporters, Microsoft again showed off some of the virtualisation and visualisation improvements it plans to make available in the product, including virtual folders and icons that graphically depict their content by providing live snapshots of the documents. Company officials also showed off how documents and a range of other types of files can be created and organised based on metadata, authors, subjects, and keywords.