A look at Vista….

The past couple of weeks I’ve been to a few Microsoft events regarding the upcoming release of their new set of products (Windows Vista, Office 2007 and Server 2003 R2). And with the news starting to trickle out that November 30th will be the official business launch date (with retail sales starting January 30, 2007) it’s no surprise the push is on.

Last week I went to their Partner Briefing event which was basically the “How to sell this stuff” set of sessions. It was largely irrelevant for me as we’re not a reseller partner but there were still some interesting bits and pieces that I learned along the way.

This past Monday though, I was invited to Vista Discussion night that Microsoft put together over at Kultura restaurant here in Toronto. I was invited as a “Toronto Tech Blogger” and the intent was to show us Windows Vista and get some feedback from local “techies” (about 12 in all) about the product and some of the new features.

As other participants arrived (David Crow, Peter Dawson, Jay Goldman, Joey deVilla, Randy Charles Morin, and Thomas Purves to name just a few) it became clear that the evening was going to be interesting to say the least as it wasn’t a “pull any punches” kind of crowd.

As a user
Overall there wasn’t a ton of net new stuff that I hadn’t seen the previous week. My general impression of Vista is it’s a fairly predictable next step as far as Windows OS progression goes.

It’s a little too flashy from my taste (very shiny, everything fades or is transparent etc.) – there are many video games that are probably less graphics intensive then this OS. At the end of the day I don’t really care if every window is translucent or fades in and out, I want them to switch fast and allow me to easily focus on my task at hand (a sentiment more than a few people expressed in discussions following the session).

The one big red flag that kept “popping up” (literally) was the pop-up dialog box EVERY time you tried to perform an administrative action. They explained the reasoning behind it (it simplifies life for IT tech’s who may need to log into a users system, and also allows IT to give a user temporary admin control – i.e. for installing a program). It’s also not limited to non-administrators – if you’re logged in as an admin it will ask your permission to continue. They position it as a security feature but there was a pretty unanimous cringe everytime it popped up during the demo. The first question I think many of us had was “Can we turn it off?” (You can)

Overall the challenge I had with the demo was it was very big enterprise focused (or at least came across that way). At least half the bloggers in the room are either entrepreneurs or working for a startup that probably wouldn’t even rank on the Fortune 100,000 let alone 500.

It was also amusing when someone asked about DRM and the presenter spoke for a minute or two about how DRM had been a major focus with Vista and that it was very extensible so it would be able to accommodate just about any new format that comes up in the next year. Needless to say, by the groans around the room that wasn’t the answer many were hoping for.

As a CTO
If the new Vista line can live up to most of the promises made for it’s ease of roll out and support there are going to be a lot of very happy IT Departments and CTO’s out there in the coming months. They certainly seem to have made some pretty big changes and have spent a lot of time focusing on making support and rollout of systems far easier.

Some of the stuff that stuck in my head (I forgot a pad :/ and my napkin notes are largely illegible):

  • New Image Format (Disk image, not picture image)
    Rather than a traditional sector-by-sector image the new format will be file by file. This reduces a lot of the complexities around supporting multiple images for all of the different hardware configurations a company might have. You can also layer the images so that you can have one central image but it can install in different variations depending on the users requirements.
  • Improved Task manager / System Monitor
    You can now monitor an individual process’ use of the CPU, Memory, Network and Hard Disk seperately, so trouble shooting becomes much easier. The system also logs and rates it’s reliability (“honestly” they assure me), it tracks installs, system config changes and crashes and gives you a visual indicator of how well the system has been performing. It can also be monitored remotely so IT departments could potentially fix issues in systems before the user even realizes there’s a problem.
  • Security Improvements
    As would be expected they’ve done a lot of security improvements. One that seems to be a big deal is they’ve made it easier to hook third party authentication systems into the mix. From what I understand that hasn’t been a pleasant experience in the past.

It was suggested during the night that Microsoft is very very confident that in most cases they can cost-justify the move to Vista with ROI models that show huge savings in support and roll out of systems that will easily outweigh not just the license cost but also the cost of implementation.

Overall though a lot of these concerns just aren’t as relevant to a shop our size.

The discussion during and after the demos was really interesting and the guys Microsoft brought out were competent and knew their stuff. Very little was deferred to a “Let us get back to you” and generally when it was the deferred portion was additional information to support the answer. As far as I could tell they were also very open to our opinions both positive & negative (and I think they got healthy amounts of both).

At the end of the night we got a copy of the RC1 release of Vista – I’m going to stick it on one of my machines and give it a go – if I have any further thoughts I’ll be sure to post them.

In the end Vista looks interesting enough – I won’t be lined up the night before it’s released ready to rush to work and install it but we’ll definitely consider moving to it sooner rather than later. If you’re part of a larger IT department I’d highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already as far as I can see they’re making all the right noises but I can’t really vouch for how practical or useful they are.

And since everyone is being all weird about this stuff:

Disclosure: Good food and a few alcoholic beverages were consumed while watching this presentation. As any good host would Microsoft picked up the tab.

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