It’s best to wait before deploying Vista

Windows Vista’s low-key launch to volume licensing customers last month introduced the first new Microsoft operating system in more than five years. Vista is touted as being the answer to many of the pains suffered by Windows users, especially in the security arena.

It has also created a whole new set of pains for users and administrators, turning the user interface on its ear, and making enough changes in coding and security to render many things inoperable.

I looked at the shipping version of Vista Ultimate, the high-end version of the OS, pre-loaded on a shiny new laptop (our editor’s choice in the recent Computing Canada laptop buyer’s guide, as a matter of fact), and immediately discovered that three devices were not yet supported: an “unknown device” that turned out to be the Direct Media controller, the fingerprint reader and a mass storage controller.

OK, no big deal – the important things appeared to function. Then I tried to connect to our corporate wireless network and discovered that Vista does not support Cisco LEAP – a showstopper for many corporations. Perhaps vendors will issue supplementary drivers, but until then, many Vista laptops will have to be hard-wired.

The first thing you see when Vista fires up is that the Start button is now a circular Windows logo, and the hourglass has been replaced by an undulating blue circle (which can be found in Media Center). The desktop is clean, except for the Sidebar, an inch-wide area where applets called Gadgets reside. Vista comes with a weather gadget that connects to the Internet and displays the weather for the location of your choice, a sticky notes gadget, a calendar, clock, CPU/memory use meter, a puzzle and a few others. Click a button in the gadget gallery and you’re taken to a site where you’ll find dozens of others to download, such as a Sudoku game.

If you don’t see what you want, you can develop your own with the help of tutorials and development kits on the Microsoft Web site.

The Start menu, once you get used to it, makes a lot of sense. It has two columns, as XP does, but when you click “All programs,” the left column simply changes, rather than popping up yet another menu (the right column contains many of the same items XP’s does). Below “All Programs” is a search dialogue; if you type part of the name of the item you want, Vista offers choices that it thinks match. For example, type “note,” and the menu shows Notepad and Sticky Notes programs, a list of the documents whose names or contents contain the word note and a list of the e-mails and other communications containing the word.

Vista’s model is one that Microsoft has been attempting to implement for years: it’s information-centric rather than file- or program-centric. The goal is to allow users to find what they want easily and quickly, without having to remember where they put it, or even the document type. You can even create virtual folders that provide a single view of information physically stored in different places, kind of like the Search Folders in Microsoft Outlook 2003.

Security, as we’ve been endlessly told, is the No. 1 priority in Vista. Microsoft has implemented something called User Account Control (UAC) that doesn’t even let administrative users work with full admin privileges all of the time, but permits privilege elevation where required. Its escalation interface is startling at first – the screen goes blank for a moment, then returns with a dialogue box asking if you really intended to perform the task. After a while, it gets annoying. A “standard” user is asked for an administrator password as well.

UAC has some glitches, however. I attempted to run the admin pack that allows domain administrators to manage their servers, Active Directory, and so forth, and ran into a brick wall. The old XP “Run As” command has been replaced by “Run as administrator,” which, the docs say, should ask you what user ID you’d like to use. The trouble is, if you’re logged on to the machine as a local administrator, it assumes that’s what you want to work as. If you’re logged on as a local user, and choose to run as a domain admin, it did not appear to grant those privileges and so did not present the option to run snap-ins such as the Active Directory Users and Computers.

Security issue persists

Oddly enough, one security issue still remains – Vista continues to hide file extensions by default. It’s meant to be user-friendly, but as many virus-infested users of XP will testify, it can turn around and bite you when malware arrives with an apparently innocuous file name whose real (malicious) extension is hidden. Vista does, however, include Windows Defender, an anti-spyware application which blocks a lot of malicious behaviour such as programs running from temporary directories. You get the same Vista screen blanking and warning from it that comes with UAC.

Because Vista’s plumbing has changed so much, some software doesn’t work. I tested a selection of programs, and found that either Vista, or, in some cases its browser, Internet Explorer 7 (now considerably more secure), prevented corporate applications from functioning. For example, the only mainstream anti-virus program that is currently Vista-compatible is McAfee (although Grisoft’s AVG does run too). Applications run through Citrix didn’t work (that’s an IE 7 issue). I could not get the latest version of the Cisco VPN software to connect. Vista does comment if it thinks something didn’t install properly, and suggests re-installing it with compatible settings. Potential users must test all critical apps before committing to the operating system to avoid nasty surprises.

I could go on at length about the many other new features, but space dictates we cut to the chase – is Vista a must for corporations? I’d say, for most, not yet. First, hardware manufacturers have some device drivers to update. Software publishers and corporate developers need to sort out compatibility issues. And hardware requirements are substantial. To get the flagship Aero display, you need at least 128 MB video memory, DirectX 9 support and other higher-end features. Without that, Vista reverts to a more XP-like display. The operating system wants at least 512 MB of RAM (judging from the memory meter’s readings during tests, I’d up that to 1 GB if you actually want to DO anything), a 40 GB hard drive and a DVD reader. Many corporate systems will need upgrades, which probably means Vista will wait until the next hardware refresh. And staff will need training, too; help desks will likely be very busy.

This doesn’t mean I dislike Vista – on the contrary, I enjoy using it and in the long run believe it will be a positive move for corporate users. It’s just not one they’ll want to leap into right now, except to do extensive testing.

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