A Window To Change

By Team Digit | Published 01 Mar 2006 15:12 IST
A Window To Change
A Window To Change

When the successor to the Windows XP throne was being touted, seemingly eons ago, it promised heaven on earth-a pass to the utopian kingdom of computing, wherein everyone is happy and malware happens only to other people.

As with any promise, reality eroded the ideal, and product delays forced Microsoft to freeze upon a more realistic goal for their next-generation operating system. This product was then code-named Longhorn, and now answers to the marketing moniker of Windows Vista.

Although not the product it once was, Vista still offers a vast landscape of features. Much has happened since Windows XP was released-built on the Windows NT kernel, XP was never prepared for the Internet at large, nor for the several mini-revolutions which have since shook the technology space.

Vista hopes to provide a fertile ground and a secure ecosystem within which seemingly disparate elements will thrive-the WWW, wired P2P networks, wireless networks, ad-hoc networks, high-capacity hard drives, high-density displays,  cell phones, mobile audio and video players, the rise of the laptop, the proliferation of the LCD screen, and our ever-increasing need to communicate.

Here, we offer a bird's-eye view of the immediate changes Vista will bring to our computing experience, along with a superficial look at some of the underlying technologies driving that change.

Defining The New Look
The most visible-and thus the most talked about-feature of Vista is its new look. Both with Vista and its Xbox 360 gaming console, Microsoft is betting on the High-Definition (HD) era to come. HD will bring in displays with a much higher dots-per-inch density (dpi) than is currently offered by typical monitors. The idea is to offer fonts, icons and other user interface elements that will scale according to the size and density offered by your monitor. So, if you're one of the lucky few to possess a widescreen 24-inch LCD monitor, Vista will offer larger, more pleasant fonts and icons.

This is done by using a vector-based graphics engine, replacing the bitmap or raster engine that powers XP. Since every visual element on Vista will be a vector image, scaling and resizing will be a simple matter of maths, hardware willing. This is very similar to how 3D games or Flash animations handle data. This technology will bring in text anti-aliasing, animations, transparencies, and advanced gamma functions. The vector engine will be part of the Windows Presentation Foundation, an API built on XML, .NET, and vector graphics, and powered by Direct3D technology.

Beta builds of Vista currently showcase this technology through the Aero Glass interface, which offers transparent window borders (hence "glass"), drop shadows, scalable icons and fonts, and animations.

Information On The Side
Microsoft has embraced XML, and a modified variant of that data markup language called XAML will be ubiquitous under Vista. The Windows Sidebar, which will perhaps share visual prominence with the Start button on a Vista desktop, makes considerable use of this markup language. Essentially, the Sidebar is a data aggregator that uses XML to gather sundry bits of information, presenting them using vector images and animations.

In terms of functionality, the Sidebar will be a collection of what Microsoft calls Gadgets. The concept of Gadgets is meant to blur across networks, and will function both online (via Start.com) and offline. Some Gadgets will extend online functionality to the desktop and vice- versa. When offline, a Gadget can take the form of a calculator, games, sticky notes, slideshows and such. Online Gadgets can connect to Web services to deliver weather information, news updates, traffic maps, online photo albums (such as from within flickr.com), Internet radio, and more. A Gadget can also integrate with your desktop applications. It can bring you your daily calendar, let you control music or play video, or even offer a window to your Messenger contacts.

The search paradigm has deep roots in Vista. Every user element-from the Start menu to Windows Explorer and the Save dialog boxes- will enable you to search for content

They're Live

To underline the user-friendliness of the interface, Vista will offer Live Icons.

Today, you can set XP to show you a thumbnail view of the contents of a folder-or for an image or video file, a snapshot of its content. Vista will extend this concept to all content-a Live Icon for a Word document, for example, will display the content of the first page of the document. The benefits are obvious-"untitled4.doc" will immediately show what it contains, without your having to open it.

RSS feeds will be deeply integrated with Vista. The OS will maintain a central store of RSS data which you subscribe to-regardless of which RSS reader you use-thus, while Internet Explorer 7 will come with an RSS feed reader, Vista will also store feeds gathered by Firefox, for example. This repository will be available to any application via an API. Vista will also add the concept of lists to RSS feeds-this will allow you to create a feed of, say, the Top 10 Bollywood Albums-something not currently possible.

Along with RSS, another notable technology of our time-peer-to-peer (P2P)-will be integrated with Vista. The most visible form that P2P will take is termed the Windows Collaboration client. This application will let you create a P2P network with up to ten other friends, family members or colleagues. Within such an environment, you can share your desktop with others, exchange data and notes, and collaboratively edit documents. Windows Collaboration will support both wired and wireless networks. If no network is detected, it can even start an ad-hoc network, detecting and connecting to other users via Wi-Fi.

Vista is also set to bring a calendar to the experience sans Outlook. The Windows Calendar will be a rudimentary task manager that will be able to work with Internet-standard calendaring formats. You can use this application to set up a Web-based calendar, or to subscribe to one. The application will be able to notify you of an upcoming event even when it is not running, thanks to deep integration with Vista. The Calendar and Collaboration are two positive steps to blurring physical boundaries while working in this connected age.

Dude, Where's My Data?
Microsoft toyed with the idea of entirely doing away with the folder/directory/drive letter paradigm that is currently used to store content. They envisioned a single data store that would encompass every file type, and which, with the help of metadata, would be exposed to the user via an almighty search engine. This vision has taken a backseat to practicality-Vista will offer the traditional folder model and marry metadata to it.

Metadata is, of course, bits you can add to a file to render it as unique as possible, thus making it easier to find. Just as an MP3 file can store album, artist, track, and genre information, a Word document can be tagged with author, keywords, and category; a photograph can be tagged with camera information, when it was snapped, and so on. All of this is currently possible, but what Vista offers is a means to best use this wealth of information-via its search and via virtual folders. Of course, you will have to manually enter all this information at some point.

Vista uses the concept of Virtual Folders to leverage the foundation of metadata. A Virtual Folder is just an XML-based search query that automatically and continuously updates its contents based on the search criteria. Thus a search on "jazz music from the 80s" will find every music file with the relevant metadata (genre: jazz, year of release: 1980-1990), which you can then save as Virtual Folder. The contents of this folder would then be updated live, as and when you add or remove relevant content.

This means of storing metadata-rich content will also bring along the concept of stacks. Think of a stack as related data, for example, a stack of books written by Arthur C Clarke. Similarly, Vista will offer a stack of jazz albums, a stack of spreadsheets created in the year 2004, and such. All of this is customisable, of course, and works similar to the way you can ask Windows Explorer under XP today to show all PDFs from the past week.

The search paradigm has deep roots in Vista. Every user element-from the Start menu to Windows Explorer and the Save dialog boxes- will enable you to search for content.

Device Independence
Vista will offer a printing engine code-named Metro. Similar to the PDF functionality offered by Mac OS X, this will ensure that any application can print to a common format. Metro, or XML Paper Specification as it is now called, will also be instrumental in ensuring that a document retains its formatting across devices-from a PDA to a cell phone to a personal computer.

In a demonstration of the technology, Bill Gates showed how saving a Word file or a photo will automatically generate a Metro document alongside. The Metro avatars can then be distributed across devices or printed.

Metro is built on top of Vista's XML-based Windows Presentation Foundation. The technologies will also let you create, and annotate documents, as well as to digitally sign and apply rights management to your creations.

This awareness of devices other than the desktop PC is inherent in Vista. The OS also offers better synchronisation capabilities- between PC and laptop, or between PC and other mobile devices such as a PDA. Vista will let you synchronise documents, photos or music across devices. This function also extends to the network, where the OS can cache files to a client system and only update changes across the client/ server link.

Icons will be scalable in Vista

PC-to-laptop interaction will also be underlined by the Mobility Center, a gathering of resources and applications to enhance and manage a portable computer.

A Live Icon

Furthermore, Vista will bring better power management to both desktops and laptops. Vista will offer a Sleep mode that aims to marry the best of the current Hibernate and Standby modes. When a laptop's lid is closed, the unit will go into Standby mode, ready to be awakened in seconds. After a period of time spent under Standby (which can be changed), the laptop will hibernate.

Another feature touted by Vista, and which is already seeing support from laptop manufacturers such as ASUS, is the concept of SideShow. SideShow basically takes advantage of falling LCD prices, and offers a solution to the very urgent need to conserve the battery life of a mobile device. A SideShow display for a laptop, as an example, can be a small monochrome LCD or an LED panel, attached on the lid of a laptop. Such a display will then offer a glance at important information such as new mails, your to-dos, battery life, appointments, and more.

A SideShow auxiliary display is not limited to the laptop-it could also be a desktop clock notifying you of new instant messages, for example.

A software service under Vista will not have deep access to the system, so a service crash will be unlikely to bring the entire system down

Microsoft is attempting to graft good security practices onto the very genes of Vista. To begin with, all Vista code is signed and certified by Microsoft, and can be monitored for changes. This level of code integrity is just the first step to building a stronger OS.

A software service under Vista will not have deep access to the system, so a service crash will be unlikely to bring the entire system down. A service will also be able to transparently restart, if needed, reducing restarts after an update or a crash. Furthermore, every service will be monitored by the OS, and a service that doesn't need access to a certain hardware-say to a network port-will be denied access. This will go a long way in minimising spoof attacks or DoS attacks.

The Aero Glass interface will allow for 3D effects such as this [Alt] [Tab] cascade-you can cycle through the Windows using the mouse wheel

Vista will limit administrator-level access to unique situations. For regular day-to-day tasks, a user will not have the rights to make system-level changes. Much like Linux or OS X handles them today, an admin-level task will require you to enter the pertinent password, or at least click on a confirmation.

Since a service under Vista will inherit the rights of its user or application, a service will therefore be unable to make those changes as well. As a practical example, Internet Explorer 7 will be able to run in a low-level mode, wherein it will be able to access all Web sites. However, it will be difficult to launch a malicious attack from this instance of IE, since IE will have no rights to system or user documents.

Power Management in Vista will be a simpler affair

Notably, Internet Explorer 7 will also offer anti-phishing functionality via blacklists and sniffing of spoof URLs. Add to this a firewall that will be able to block and filter both incoming and outgoing packets, and an integrated anti-spyware engine, and Vista will offer a first line of defence against the most common attack vectors.

With the introduction of Windows Vista, Microsoft will also offer a decent palette of parental controls to the millions of Windows users. This feature will allow you to control your child's activities on a computer; it will even maintain a log. This can be something as simple as blocking a game based on its ESRB rating, blocking specific programs, and enforcing Web restrictions and time limits. A parent will thus be able to specify that his or her child cannot use the computer between 6 PM and 9 PM on weekdays, and further, that the child can only use it for three hours on weekends, with access to pornography blocked and with downloading disabled.

The Windows Sidebar will collate information from both Web sites as well as your desktop computer

Vista will offer data encryption under specific Intel Trusted Platform Module hardware. The OS will be able to encrypt the entire hard disk, thus preventing data theft. It will also be able to deny booting with devices such as DVD drives, floppy disks, or USB drives: this will prevent malicious break-ins and avoid data theft. IT administrators can also use Group Policy in Windows Vista to block the installation of removable storage devices.

Under the operating system, security updates and system patches can happen in small increments. It can monitor network inactivity and trickle in an update, thus reducing overhead and making the most efficient use of bandwidth.

The Sync Center: Vista will allow data synchronisation with both mobile devices and servers

Perhaps the most interesting element of Vista is that the OS is "componentised" by design. This is roughly similar to how Linux works-a central kernel, connected to services and daemons that add functionality as and when needed. Similarly, Vista will have a core operating system, called the Windows Pre-Installation Environment (WinPE), which will be language-independent and a subset of all the versions of Vista that Microsoft plans to release.

WinPE will be available as a single image on a Vista install disk. The setup routine will only need to copy this image to the system and reboot it to detect hardware-this will vastly reduce the setup time for the OS. Furthermore, you can also back up an installed system to an image, adding incremental changes to the image as and when needed.

Such an incremental means of data backup is pervasive in Vista. Notably, Windows Backup is enhanced by a new task-scheduling system that allows for status-based triggers, along with the usual timed events. For example, Vista can trigger a backup of your data if 80 per cent of your hard disk has been used up.

Interestingly, Vista will also offer a state-tracking system called Previous Versions. This will track folders, documents and such for changes, and if you desire, it will roll back the tracked element to a previous version. If you've ever opened a document, experimented with it and pressed [Ctrl] [S] accidentally, thus losing the original, you can understand why this feature will be a boon.

Ringing In The New
In many ways, Windows Vista is a parting with old ways and ideas. Compatibility with legacy applications has been sacrificed for greater security. Bleeding-edge hardware, especially video cards and high-definition screens are being embraced. The OS is very network-aware, and the data flood that this awareness brings will hopefully be reined to control using metadata-driven storage. Mobile devices are embraced, and data portability and interoperability is enhanced.

Most importantly, like its predecessors, Vista promises to be a great platform for even more radical ideas than those dreamt at Redmond. With XAML and the .NET platform's evolution to WinFX, Vista offers a comprehensive bundle of technology that will allow a developer to quickly build applications-both online and off.

Windows Vista offers change. It will certainly demand its pound of hardware upgrades and will come with teething problems, but is perhaps the most intriguing release from Microsoft since Windows 95 first replaced the command prompt with the Start button.

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