Friday, December 15, 2006

First Look: Windows Vista

Microsoft's much awaited and long overdue OS, Windows Vista is finally out - the corporate version was launched on November 30, and the home editions are expected in January 2007.
I happened to attend a seminar on Windows Vista as part of Microsoft ISV, where they were making it sound as the best thing that could happen to the software industry. The talk included a walk through of what's new with Vista, and a few tips and tricks for software development in Vista.
Some of the features in Vista can be back ported to WinXp using Vista SDK, but the rich visual experience can not be ported. The look and feel of Vista is much better than that of WinXP - this could go a long way in redefining user experiences. The other major 'new things' in Vista, apart from the visual effects, are: Improved Search functionality, User Access Control (UAC), Sidebar/Gadgets, IE 7, Speech Synthesis, Guided Help, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), XAML, etc. My first impression of these features, based on what I saw at the seminar is given below:
Improved Visual Experience
The shift is similar to what typical users would have found when they shifted to WinXP from Win2000. They have taken the visuals to a further level of 3D - with page previews on each open window when hovering on the taskbar, page previews during Alt-Tab, and a cart load of rich visual effects. The start menu has been overhauled, and all windows have a 'glassy' appearance/
Improved Search
The search functionality has been improved a lot, and has been integrated with each functionality of windows, including Control Panel. What's more, the search facility can be integrated with any applications we develop for Vista. There's good news for XP users here - this functionality can be installed with XP too.
User Access Control (UAC)
The UAC provides improved security by making even admin users work at practically standard-user mode. Vista is able to achieve this by elevating a user to admin privileges only when absolutely necessary. Whenever an action which needs admin privileges is to be executed, it asks for admin username & password (if the user is a standard user), or asks for a confirmation from the user using a screen to which it is not programatically possible to send keystrokes. While Microsoft is marketing this as a pioneering feature that would go a long way in computer security, I remember using similar features in various flavours of Linux as early as in 2000.
Sidebar & Gadgets
Vista comes in with sidebar on to which user can attach "gadgets". Again, this is compeletely similar to the sidebar of Google Desktop, including the usage of the term Gadgets. Deployment of gadgets is also ditto!
IE 7
Vista comes bundled with Internet Explorer 7 - which supports tabbed browsing and has an integrated RSS feed reader. Again, tabbed browsing is something that Opera used to have for many years
Speech Synthesizer
This looks like a cool tool, as it does more than merely reading out texts in a particular accent. You can use Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) to do a lot of things - like emphasizing on some word in a sentence, or modulating how the sentences are spoken. This can be integrated into the application that you develop on Vista - which could make a lot of difference to the user experience of your software.
Guided Help
While this feature is still under beta, I believe this would be an interesting feature to have. In addition to having descriptive help files, Guided Help teaches you visually how to do the tasks. It also allows you to record steps, from which you can build your own guided help for your application.
Overall: So what is my take on Vista? Vista vindicates my theory that 'Software always grows to make your hardware feel obsolete'. Vista is fast when used with 2 GB of RAM. Note that this is a product from the company of a person, who, back in the 1980s said - 640 KB of RAM ought to be enough for everyone. While the new Search, Speech Synthesizer and Guided Help are really good features to have, you can achieve the rest of the features except the visual effects by installing 3rd party softwares - and they wouldn't need 2 GB of RAM. I would prefer to add patches for whichever features that can be ported to WinXP, while I wait for 2GB RAM to become cheaper, before I switch over to Vista.

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