About | ACP | Buy | Forum | Industry Watch | Learning Curve | Search | Twitter | Xnews
Home » Industry Watch

Microsoft Vista: The End of the Road?

Microsoft's latest operating system is close to release. The most recent beta shows what's in store. And long time Windows users are throwing up their arms in defeat.


Although Microsoft Windows Vista will not be available until 2007, the final release version will be ready soon. The most recent beta shows what's in store. And long time Windows users are throwing up their arms in defeat.

Background

Microsoft Windows is the last of the 'personal computer' operating systems still in use. All other systems today are derived from 'real' operating systems. Because Windows is still a 'personal' system it suffers from endemic flaws. These flaws have over the years made themselves painfully apparent with the onslaught of hundreds of thousands of viruses, worms, trojans, spyware programs, and other forms of malware that continue to plague Windows users.

'Real' operating systems are those like Unix (Linux) which were originally designed as multiuser 'server' systems. Common server operating systems have been IBM's z/OS, Digital Equipment's VMS, and Unix (Linux). What these 'real' systems have in common is that they were designed for multiple users with concomitant security to protect both user data and the systems themselves.

In other words they have a 'security model'.

Security Model

All 'personal' systems in use today are based on multiuser systems except Windows. Apple's OS X is based on FreeBSD which is an offshoot of Unix. Other variants of FreeBSD such as OpenBSD and NetBSD are likewise based on Unix.

The many Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Debian, Fedora, Linspire, Mandriva, Red Hat, Solaris, SuSE, and Xandros are likewise based on Unix.

Although professionals have long been aware of the incurable inadequacies in Windows, it has proven tougher to get the message out to ordinary 'personal' users. Microsoft have long held an iron grip on computer hardware suppliers, harassed corporate customers, and bullied the media to keep them from printing the truth.

The question is whether any of these dirty tricks will help anymore, for people are finally getting sick and tired of this endless exercise in nonsense. As Microsoft cannot retrofit a security model onto Windows, all that remains are futile ad hoc attempts to shore up the most embarrassing weaknesses.

The Challenge

When faced with the impossible - retrofitting a security model on Windows - Microsoft engineers have instead opted to make sensitive things more difficult to access, thereby implicitly subscribing to the hara-kiri idea of 'security through obscurity'. But this is even more foolhardy than at first glance, for although these interfaces may require dozens of user clicks, they will most likely require but a single line of easily written hacker code. Users get hassled and when the attacks come cannot get access to their own defenses.

Users get little in the way of true security, all the while the system becomes nigh on impossible to use professionally.

Windows Vista Beta 2

The most recent beta release of Vista shows what's in store. Changes can be lumped into two categories: supposed UI enhancements and supposed security enhancements - the operative word in both cases being 'supposed'.

Computer World editor and long time Windows user Scot Finnie had the following to say.

- On the supposed UI enhancements:

Everywhere you look, Microsoft have copied things that Apple have offered for quite some time in OS X. I have no problem with Microsoft copying Apple's or any other company's best interface designs. We all win when that happens and I wish Apple would steal the best things Microsoft does right back. What is really strange is when a company lifts good ideas and makes them worse, not better.

- On the supposed security enhancements:

The software giant are favouring security and IT controls over end-user productivity. Don't get me wrong, security and IT manageability are very good things. But some of the people actually using the Beta 2 Vista software describe their experience as akin to that of a rat caught in a maze.

As a result Finnie and others are getting ready to finally throw in the towel.

New Apps & Features

Microsoft have a slew of new applications and features for Vista. Unfortunately the list reads like an Apple blurb for OS X.

Windows DefenderAd-Aware
SidebarDashboard
CalendariCal
Photo GalleryiPhoto
DVD MakeriDVD
BitLockerFileVault
Speech Recognition(Built into OS X.)
Windows Mail (formerly Outlook)Apple Mail
Sleep Mode(Default on all Apple hardware.)

Windows Defender

It looks like a pale copy of Ad-Aware and it acts like one too. Set it to regularly check your system for black hats and three days later it will come back and ask you why you don't run it.

Which coincidentally sidesteps the whole point that a 'real' operating system wouldn't need this in the first place. All Windows Defender and comparable tools are doing is scrambling the Keystone Kops to hunt down the bad guys once they've got into the system (and perhaps already caused irreparable damage).

No matter: spyware is the 'writing on the wall' for Windows. It's the one threat Windows can never adequately defend itself or repair itself against. There is no cure for spyware. Even the best of the anti-spyware programs cannot hope to catch more than 70% of the bugs lurking in a system. Those 30% remaining are enough to cause considerable damage.

The principle of anti-spyware is simple enough: it's very much like antivirus. Look for 'signatures' - things in code (and other places) that identify the bad guys. Anti-spyware signature lists have to be continually updated just as antivirus signature lists.

But it doesn't stop there: anti-spyware programs are not 'intelligent'. They're not flexible. All they can do is go through their signature lists and see if any bad programs are on a computer. They can't get into 'in fighting' with them - spyware today will automatically 'clone' itself so it can't be eradicated - and there's nothing Windows Defender or any of the anti-spyware utilities can do about it.

Sidebar

Not much to be said here. Some people think it looks good, others say it's ugly. Light sources and resulting shadowing are chaotic. Sometimes the light source comes from the left, other times from the upper right and lower left simultaneously, and so forth. There are very few 'gadgets' available and the near three hundred in use on Windows Live aren't compatible.

And of course this is a 'photocopier' rip-off of Apple's Dashboard.

Windows Mail (Outlook)

If the past is any indication, this will still be the biggest trojan and worm factory on the planet. What most people don't realise is this program uses the same questionable modules as Microsoft's leaky web browser; when people least expect it they get hit.

User Account Control

User Account Control is an attempt at a security fix at application level for an endemic system flaw. It stops the user from doing reckless things, but it remains to be seen how much it stops the black hats. As the system as a whole has no security model, there is no way in the long run they can be stopped. And as it can be turned off if the user so desires, count on the black hats learning how to do it programmatically.

Aero

Apple have 'Aqua', so Microsoft must have 'Aero'. Aero is a 'skin' on Vista that can lend transparency - albeit at a price. Where Apple's Aqua runs on 32 MB of VRAM Microsoft's Aero demands four times that much (128 MB RAM). Most x86 laptops cannot today be configured for that much VRAM and when such laptops are finally available, they'll cost.

And the results are anything but eye-appealing. The idea with transparency - or 'shared pixels' - is to give visual feedback to the user: about what windows are active, inactive, and key. In Aero Microsoft just ape the technology without providing any of the underlying benefits. The result is a shambles - a motley mix. Staring at Aero long enough produces nausea.

Protected Mode Browsing

Vista features 'protected mode browsing' with Microsoft's less than acclaimed Internet Explorer '7+' in an attempt to shore up security holes. Again, Microsoft are fixing things not at system level where they should but at application level where the fixes don't belong. Users opting for better browsers such as Firefox are left in the cold - insecure.

Start Menu

It remains a mystery how Microsoft continue to fail to grasp their start menu is an insult to intelligent users. Or maybe that's the whole point. It's like an automobile steering wheel four feet in diameter - when opened it dominates the computer screen.

Bewildered

Almost all Windows users will be bewildered by Vista - those with experience and newcomers both. Almost all Windows users know nothing else. All they know is what they see on television and in the computer shops. Where it's all Windows. They don't know anything about operating systems and they're beginning to think the Internet is evil.

They don't understand that they've been sold a bill of goods. Most of them will be impressed - but annoyed - by all the pseudo-important security popups and alerts. They'll never learn that things are a lot simpler - and a lot cheaper - unless someone tells them.

But the impossibility of using Vista might get them to finally lend an ear.

About | Buy | Forum | Industry Watch | Learning Curve | Products | Search | Twitter | Xnews
Copyright © Rixstep. All rights reserved.