posted by Thom Holwerda on Sun 23rd Apr 2006 17:40 UTC
IconVista is all the rage at the moment (and now even the Sunday Eve Column is about it). I don't think there's a single piece of beta software that has ever been discussed as much as Windows Vista. Obviously this makes sense, since Windows powers roughly 95% of the world's desktop computers; hence an update to that system will surely spark some heavy debates. Personally, I'm indifferent towards Vista. Read on for why.

There are enough new things coming in Windows Vista. The most obvious thing is of course the new interface, known as Aero Glass. It all looks very flashy, and contrary to a lot of FUD being slung around, the new interface is by far not as heavy on the computer's resources as it might seem-- instead of repeating other people's words, I rely on my own experiences before I make any judgements. Whether I tested Vista on my new Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop, or on my aging desktop Athlon box, Aero Glass barely slowed the system down. Memory usage was comparable to ordinary XP's as well. The same applies for the new Sidebar; a place where you can drop tiny little programs known as Gadgets (similar to Dashboard, which is in turn a direct copy of Konfabulator, which in turn lends its basic idea from Apple's own Desk Accessories, which were in fact not tiny programs, but device drivers to give the old Mac OS the illusion of multitasking) (now ain't that a lot of information in one sentence). The Sidebar process eats up roughly 22-30MB of memory when using 4 gadgets (or widgets or whatever).

However, there are more new things in the user interface. The new shell, for instance, will have all sorts of tiny little additions. One of those is Shadow Folders, which allows any folder to be reverted into a state it was in at any time in the past. And, of course, you can use Vista's system wide search to organize files and folders (much like Apple's Spotlight, but from what I've seen of it, a lot more versatile. My guess is that Leopard will bring features to Spotlight/Finder to bring the Mac OS up to par with vista's system wide search).

Other new things are less apparent to users. For instance, Internet Explorer 7 now runs as a restricted process, making it less dangerous for the system (the fact that using IE7's interface is about as horrible an experience as using a phone keypad to write a scientific book on the history of mathematics is a different matter). However, a more important security measure is what is known as User Account Control, which allows such modern and fresh (sarcasm, boys and girls) features such as allowing non-admin users to perform admin duties (prompting said users with a password dialog) and asking admin users for conformation each time they perform an admin duty (those dialogs get annoying really fast). Other security features include protection against rootkits, support for the NX feature of today's processors, and more.

There are more non-obvious improvements. For instance, the rewritten audio stack which runs in userspace and has the ability to control volume on a per-application basis (oh how I love that in BeOS). The network stack has also been rewritten, sleep/hibernate has been improved (sleep fails in XP on my laptop, while in Vista it works fine), and a whole lot more changes.


That all sounds mighty fine, but why then am I indifferent about Vista? Because I am missing something. Or, better put, I'm not missing something.

No, you don't need to question your levels of caffeine consumption; I'm indeed not missing something from Vista. It's that something that, in my opinion, has been holding Microsoft and its developers (who are not magically less qualified than Apple or open source developers) back for at least the past ten years; it's the something that Microsoft indeed deserves praise for; it's the something that kept Windows so successful, market-wise, for the past decade.

Backwards compatibility.

Windows Vista is still Windows. No matter how much new features or flashy graphics Microsoft inserts into Windows, the main strong point for Windows has been its astonishing backwards compatibility. You can take old DOS applications, and they will run on Windows XP without a hitch. You can take an application designed for Windows 95, and run it without any problems on Windows Vista. It's definitely something Linux and Apple engineers can learn from.

While at the one hand being a blessing, it's a curse at the other hand. Backwards compatibility means restrictions on how Microsoft's engineers can code; it limits how they can extend existing code by adding new code or by removing old code. However, since an operating system is not one big piece of software, but in fact is a complex set of little pieces of software, they can also not just insert new bits without again taking backwards compatibility into account. I'm not a developer, but I can certainly see how frustrating this must be at times for developers working at Microsoft.

So, what would I do if I were Microsoft's Big Boss? I'd split the beast up. I'd continue to develop a version of Windows with all the backwards compatibility in place, obviously important for retaining the business desktop. However, I'd also develop a version of Windows with all the, excuse my words, ancient crap removed from the system. That version would then be the poster child for what Microsoft can do when it is not held back by backwards compatibility; not at all unlike how Intel is using Apple to show the world what it can do when not held back by legacy x86 technologies. That's what I would do if I was Microsoft's Big Boss.

But then again, who am I?

--Thom Holwerda

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