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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Windows Vista December CTP

It's always fascinating when the world's most popular (and unpopular) software company, along with the world's richest man, decide to let you peek into what they have planned for the future of personal computing. With the release of Windows Vista (beta 1)'s December CTP, we get another glimpse at what many of us will buy with our next computer, whether we want it or not.

Code-named Longhorn early in its infancy, Microsoft started out with plenty of lofty goals for its new OS. Since then many of those plans have been scrapped or scaled back. More recently, Windows Vista has appeared to be playing catch-up, touting features, such as 64-bit computing, that are already available in Mac OS 10.4 Tiger and Linux.

Vista promises better search that will hopefully match or exceed the search functionality already available through Mac OS Tiger's Spotlight and SUSE Linux's Beagle, not to mention the free Google Desktop Search utility that you can use with existing versions of Windows. In our earlier Vista coverage, we told you about the improved search functionality, 64-bit support and other features, such as the new version of Internet Explorer that Vista will include (which will boast tabbed browsing and RSS support -- features already available in Firefox and Safari).

December's CTP offers us a preview of a few features we haven't seen yet, such as Windows Defender, BitLocker, single-button on/off and Media Player 11.

Windows Defender

Formerly known as Microsoft AntiSpyware, Windows Defender is Microsoft's spyware and malware scanner and removal tool. The version of Windows Defender built into the December CTP of Vista is based on a new engine that Microsoft claims can detect and remove more 'potentially unwanted programs', or PUPs, than before. This version of Windows Defender also offers real-time protection that catches PUPs in the act, before they can be installed onto your computer.

BitLocker drive encryption

BitLocker is Vista's attempt to protect notebook users from having both their data and their computer stolen. In essence, BitLocker is a hardware-based encryption scheme capable of encrypting your entire hard drive or any volume in your computer. The trick with BitLocker is that the encryption key can be stored directly on the motherboard, in a chip called a TPM, or Trusted Platform Module. This gives IT professionals a valuable tool to lock down even lost or stolen computers. BitLocker is currently slated for the Enterprise edition of Vista only, and is best thought of as a power tool for IT pros.

Device-driver locking

Another power tool targeted at IT pros is Vista's ability to block the installation of removable storage devices based on group policy. Basically, this feature lets IT administrators control who is permitted to install storage devices on the computers and who is not. In certain circumstances, allowing a user to install a removable storage device could pose a security risk, since it creates a convenient means of moving sensitive data on or off the network. For more on this type of functionality, read our review of DeviceLock.

Internet Explorer 7

Microsoft released its beta version of Internet Explorer Vista in its last CTP, but since then the company has added support for international domain names. This should not only create a better user experience for those who frequently visit international Web sites, but it also will add a key component to the anti-phishing technology built into Internet Explorer 7, which detects spoofed URLs.

Parental controls

With recent concerns about the effect of in-game violence on children, it's not surprising that Microsoft would build parental controls into Windows Vista. Some of the features in December's CTP release allow parents to view reports of their children's computer usage, although of course it will be possible to use this feature to spy on spouses and employees, as well. You'll also be able to control the Web sites a user can visit and restrict access to games based on title and ratings issued by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB.

Firewall filtering

In a rather surprising move, December's CTP release of Vista includes both inbound and outbound firewall filtering. We've long pointed out that the lack of outbound filtering in Windows XP's firewall gives users a false sense of security. Vista's new firewall may make it unnecessary for you to add a third-party firewall to your system. We'll let you know after we've had a chance to test the final version.

Single-button on and off control

As part of its effort to bridge the gap between PCs and TVs, Microsoft has built a single-button on and off control into its December CTP release of Windows Vista. The button will also be programmed for a new fast-off mode that will essentially cycle the computer through sleep and into hibernation automatically.

SuperFetch

SuperFetch is an algorithm that automatically loads your most commonly used programs into memory for a faster computing experience. In December's CTP release of Windows Vista, SuperFetch has added the ability to reach into external storage devices as part of its memory cache.

Windows Media Center and Media Player 11

Microsoft has included a new version of Windows Media Center in the December CTP of Windows Vista, as well as a new version of Windows Media Player. However, the company has chosen to shroud these topics in mystery, preferring instead to unveil the new operating system features and media-player functionality at CES during the first week of January.

It's easier to understand Vista's long development cycle when you look at the full range of change that Microsoft is targeting. Let's not forget that Microsoft is also a dominant force in server software and is probably designing Vista to take full advantage of its server offerings -- perhaps expanding browsing and messaging capabilities in ways we may not even see until well after Vista is officially launched in late 2006. With Microsoft's new push for hosted services, we expect the software giant's Live offerings, such as Live Meeting and Windows Live Local, to grow substantially, both in number and in functionality, over the next few years. Vista will play a key role in bringing these services to your desktop, including entertainment-related services through Vista's incarnation of Microsoft's Media Center OS.

One of the questions the long development cycle of Vista raises is whether it's smart for an operating system to be quite so smart. Given the fact that software applications already exist that can do most of what Microsoft is painstakingly building into Vista, might it not make more sense for Microsoft to focus on the operating system itself, and not weigh it down with such a barrage of applications and utilities?

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