Curt Frierson, EVP, Technology and Education

With all of the publicity surrounding Microsoft’s latest client operating system before and after its public release on January 30, 2007, it was expected that Windows Vista would have a huge impact on businesses in 2007. The truth is, however, Vista has entered the business world with little more than a whimper. In fact, it may be more accurate to call the response to Vista an outcry. The new version of Windows is a fairly radical change compared to the 2000 to XP transition. Microsoft has transformed the look and feel of its latest OS to the point that many users (and Administrators) want to put off adoption of it for as long as possible. Public response has been so strong that the software giant has decided to continue offering Windows XP until June 30th, 2008- five months later than originally planned. Many Chief Technology Officers across the nation, upon hearing this news, breathed a collective sigh of relief. The extension, however, will prove to be a short-lived relief for most enterprises due to the lack of practical alternatives. One way or another, the vast majority of PC users will find a Vista machine on their office desk in the near future.

Now that you’re sufficiently alarmed with the migration to Vista, let’s ease the anxiety a little by examining some of the more significant changes and the benefits Vista provides. It is fairly easy to see that many of the new features can help make users more productive. A number of improvements will also significantly enhance workstation security, although the lack of user acceptance may cause them to be disabled. Security is often a battle between protection and convenience, and this case perfectly encapsulates that conflict.

Perhaps the most strikingly obvious change in Windows Vista is the graphical user interface (GUI), which is undeniably more visually appealing than previous versions. Aero, as it is affectionately known, is a drastic departure from what most people expect to see in a Windows operating system. This new appearance looks like a cross between a Mac and a Linux interface. The familiar Start Bar is still present to offer some semblance of familiarity with its predecessors, although it no longer displays the word”start”. The traditional file menu bar (or task pane) however is gone, replaced partially by a new menu system that will take some getting used to. The Flip 3D feature allows you to turn multiple window screens at a three dimensional angle and scroll through them to select the window you want to work with. Vista also utilizes a transparency effect in its window borders which allows you to see the screen behind the window you are working with. These new visual features are made possible by the new hardware-based graphics engine. But while they may make your viewing experience more enjoyable, the visual redesign of Windows is not going to persuade your Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to shell out the expense of a mass workstation replacement.

To appeal to the CFO, Windows Vista includes numerous enhancements to boost user efficiency. Microsoft has drastically updated search capabilities in Vista. Seemingly every window now includes a search box with “Google-like” functionality. A search can locate indexed files, applications, Start Menu items, and email matching the search string almost instantly. Searches can even be saved and executed on-demand at any time. Can’t find PowerPoint in the Start Menu, type”p-o-w” in the “Start Search” box and it instantly finds it for you. Locating files is also made easier by the addition of a new organizational feature called”Stacks”. Stacks are a way of filtering files by basically any criteria you specify. Windows Explorer also now features Favorites links, allowing you to easily navigate to commonly used file folders. Administrators will appreciate the new enhancements in moving or copying files. Gone are the days when one file in use crashes a half hour file copy session. These are only some of the new features that Vista introduces to help make users more productive.

New security features abound in Windows Vista. The entire list is exhaustive and too long to list in a single article. The most significant feature is User Account Control (UAC). UAC is Microsoft’s response to long-held criticisms over the lack of security in Windows operating systems. In previous versions, users are all but required to have local administrative permissions on their workstations in order for applications to function properly. This allows applications to operate under the user’s administrator credentials. This happens without the user’s knowledge and allows malicious applications to function at will with little or no restrictions. UAC combats this threat by blocking and alerting the user when applications attempt to perform any action requiring administrative authority. If administrative access is genuinely required, an Administrator can allow the activity by entering their credentials. Even users who have local administrative rights operate in standard user mode and are required to confirm in order to grant administrative access to an application. The frequency in which UAC requests confirmation for application activity leads many people to disable the control altogether. It seems Microsoft just can’t win when it comes to user acceptance of its security balance.

Additional security features in Vista include a built-in antispyware utility known as Windows Defender. Group policy settings are considerably enhanced, allowing far greater and more granular control over desktop settings. Windows Service Hardening prevents Windows services from modifying file systems and registry settings by reducing their privilege level, thereby mitigating a host of exploits that use this vector. Network Access Protection offers enforcement of minimum security controls, such as antivirus and patch levels, that devices must meet before being granted access to the network. Windows Resource Protection prevents changes to system files by any process other than Windows Installer. This feature protects against potentially harmful system configuration changes. Together these controls dramatically raise the potential security posture of end user workstations, an area that has traditionally presented the biggest threat to corporate network security.

Ultimately, the jury is still out on the overall legacy Vista will leave on the business world. It is still too early in the adoption process to say whether it will be a boon or bust. What cannot be denied is that Microsoft has taken strides to fulfill the demands of its critics regarding the security of its operating system product. Unfortunately, the old adage “be careful of what you wish for” may hold true for some. But more than likely, people’s natural resistance to change will prove to be the cause of the Vista anxiety. Once we no longer have a choice, we will certainly learn to live with it. Miraculously, we may even learn to like it.

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