Windows Vista Reviewed, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Part 3
As an avid computer user, I have been exposed to a number of computer operating systems. I've used versions of DOS and Windows. I've used Linux. I've used Unix variants like BSD and Mac OS-X. I've even used less common ones like ReactOS (an open-source Windows 2000 clone) and Novell NetWare. Through it all, I have seen my share of good and bad. And now that I have had my chance to take Windows Vista for a test drive, I've made some harsh conclusions.
I have many issues with Vista. But I believe they all boil down to the same basic issue - that Microsoft is far more concerned about sustaining it's vast empire than it is about consumer needs and customer satisfaction.
But I'm not the only one that has big concerns with Vista. Earlier this year, US Department of Transportation CIO Daniel Mintz issued a memorandum banning Vista installations throughout the entire department. And Dell was pressured into re-offering Windows XP to many of its business customers because many of them have refused to upgrade to Windows Vista.
So what is so terrible about Windows Vista? I believe it harbors a dark side that Microsoft is very reluctant to elaborate on.
Part of that dark side is the lackluster security that is no better than its predecessors. Within days of Vista's public release, a vulnerability was discovered that could allow an attacker to compromise an entire Vista system. All the computer user needed to do was view a malformed ("bugged") JPEG image file. That's trivial. How many people these days have digital cameras? Virtually all digital cameras these days save their photos in the JPEG format.
And to make the security picture even worse, it appears that Microsoft services have long been granted special immunity from the Windows firewall (XP included). The firewall is the computer's sentinel, which decides what communications are allowed to enter or exit the PC. Because many attackers use network communications to breach a PC, a working firewall is very important.
For example, the Windows Update service uses BITS (Background Intelligent Transfer Service) to download updates in the background (behind the scenes), and as a Windows service, is entirely immune to the firewall. That means if an attacker can compromise the BITS service, it can slip by the firewall and attempt to compromise the computer.
Digital Restrictions Management
But the truly darkest parts of Windows Vista lies with recent changes to the Windows Vista kernel - the core of the entire operating system that provides the foundation for all of the software that runs on the computer.
Vista's kernel, which is based upon that of XP, has been heavily modified to facilitate Microsoft's new content protection policy, which allows Microsoft to dictate what audio or video content users can play on their computers. There's no way to turn it off - it's entirely non-negotiable.
Microsoft has achieved this ill-conceived goal by burying DRM technology deep within Vista, directly inside the kernel. Some will tell you DRM stands for "Digital Rights Management" while others will tell you its stands for "Digital Restrictions Management." Regardless, DRM is a concept or approach that gives someone the ability to restrict what the consumer can do with certain content.
Like many, I am a huge critic of DRM. It doesn't stop the real criminals and it makes it hard for consumers to use the content that they have legally paid for. I am a strong supporter of the legal term "fair use" and believe that if I want to make MP3 files of my favorite albums, or backups of my favorite movies for my own personal use, I should be able to. And I strongly believe DRM also closes the market to new competition and other forms of innovation that can greatly benefit the consumer.
Microsoft has claimed that the multimedia industry has coerced them into adding the DRM infrastructure. Many critics don't buy this excuse, pointing out that Microsoft's mammoth size and excessive dominance in the industry would leave the multimedia industry little leverage to coerce Microsoft into doing anything they didn't want to do. I believe Microsoft is doing it to lock users into its own media formats and make the multimedia industry happy.
Because Microsoft won't elaborate much on their content restriction policies, it is difficult to know how far reaching they are - does it only apply to some multimedia formats, or does it apply to everything? It is known, however, that if Vista believes the consumer is playing "untrusted" or "illegal" content it can heavily degrade the audio or video output, or in some cases even refuse to output anything (mute sound, black screen, etc).
So if a computer user doesn't have "illegal" content on their computer, should they be worried? Absolutely. Using Vista's new DRM features, Microsoft could easily eliminate competing multimedia formats by decreeing that only Microsoft's own formats (primarily WMA and WMV) can be safely trusted as "legal", which would lock millions of users out of their own files. For example, iPod users could suddenly lose the ability to play their purchased music on their Vista PC. Families could lose the ability to play their own digital home videos on their computers. The potential for abuse by Microsoft is very high.
Compatibility and stability issues
What's even more daunting is that many hardware drivers (software that makes a hardware device work with Windows) made for XP aren't compatible Vista, resulting in poor compatibility with hardware purchased as early as a year or two ago.
Along with driver changes is support for older, non-Microsoft technologies. I have several PC games that use openGL to "render" the graphics in the game, and these games won't run on my notebook computer. If games don't exclusively use Microsoft's Direct3D, don't expect them to work on Vista.
Moreover, because Vista's DRM features essentially assume the computer user is guilty of piracy until proven innocent, it constantly monitors what the user is doing, which taxes system resources and wastes energy - drastically decreasing the computer's performance.
And to make things even worse, because Microsoft tore out tried and true pieces from the depths of Windows and replaced them with new, unproven elements (to pursue their content protection scheme), Vista isn't nearly as stable or reliable as its predecessor, Windows XP - at least it hasn't been for me.
Doesn't play nice with non-Microsoft computers
One change that is rather disturbing is Vista's built-in CD burning features (where users can burn CDs or DVDs directly from the Windows file explorer window). By default, Vista burns the disc in a Windows-only format that cannot be interpreted by pre-XP PCs (DOS, Windows 98/ME, etc) or computers with other operating systems like Linux or Mac OS-X.
Vista does allow the user to select an alternative format that is more compatible with other computer systems, but it doesn't advertise this ability, and the default format cannot be changed (so if compatibility is a must, the user must select the alternative format option each and every time they burn a disc).
After looking at Vista from many angles, it is my conclusion that Vista offers very little innovation to consumers and takes a lot in return. The many versions of Vista are confusing for consumers and make PC purchases complicated. In fact, Vista has many things that might make a majority of consumers shy away from it.
It has very high system requirements that most consumers will find difficult to satisfy. Most consumers will be disappointed to find out that Vista doesn't play nice with older hardware (computers or peripherals) or software. If consumers must upgrade, I would strongly suggest buying a new computer preloaded with Vista, rather than trying to put Vista on an older computer.
For now, I suggest consumers wait for Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Vista to be released and see what it brings before they upgrade. Unfortunately, that may not come until late 2008, and most PC manufacturers aren't giving consumers any alternatives.
Have comments about this article, or suggestions for an additional Tech Tips article? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This article is the third and final part of a three part series regarding the author's personal review of Microsoft Windows Vista. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Sun Advocate or Emery County Progress.