Windows XP is almost four years old, and in that time the average size of a hard disk in a new PC has risen ten-fold, from 20GB to about 200GB. The MP3 revolution has taken the world by storm, with many people now having more albums on their hard disks than in their CD racks. Similarly, sales of digital cameras have risen to such an extent that Dixons decided to stop selling 35mm compacts.
The more humdrum uses of a PC have changed too. Most people, when asked what they want their new machine to do, have moved from ‘Oh, you know, word processing and stuff’ to ‘Oh, just email and web-surfing’. In other words, the PC is no longer seen as a utilitarian tool, but as a connected communications and media portal.
Then there are all the concerns that go with connection to the outside world. Today’s newspapers rarely go a week without an article concerning the latest threat to your PC, while utilities such as anti-virus and Internet security software now account for around half of all software sales. It’s pretty obvious then that the main tasks of a new operating system, as far as the individual end user is concerned, should be to help you organise a huge and ever-expanding collection of data, and keep that data secure.
This huge change in focus is perhaps the main reason behind the painful and drawn-out process that’s finally culminated in the first beta release of Windows Vista, formerly codenamed Longhorn. Microsoft has been following a moving target, and it’s notoriously sluggish in reacting to the winds of change. Preferring to dictate rather than follow, it failed to predict the Internet was going to take off in the way it has and then struggled to catch up, and it arguably failed to see the impact of digital media too. It’s a lumbering giant compared to Apple, which has smoothly made the transition from computer manufacturer to music icon.
But now things have settled down enough for the big guns of Seattle to finally get the current market in their sights. However, the chopping and changing has meant that Vista isn’t the beast that Longhorn was once slated to be. Windows XP’s NTFS filing system remains, the revolutionary WinFS having been summarily ejected due to its complexity slowing the whole project down. It’s slated to be retrofitted after Vista’s release.
So what’s left? What, exactly, has Microsoft been doing for the past four years? It’s a question you may well ask when Apple can push out major revisions to its OS X every six to 12 months, and ones that address more than just security holes.
It’s telling that, while this release is named Beta 1, it’s actually somewhere between an alpha and a beta release. Contrary to most other initial Windows betas, it’s pretty unstable and there are some big gaps. What it does provide is the first true insight into what Microsoft’s next operating system will deliver – not just in terms of its flash new graphics, but the power that lies underneath. Its new searching power will have a dramatic effect on the way we handle information, its hardline approach to security could finally deliver the killer blow to hackers and virus writers, while an emphasis on web services will inevitably have far-reaching effects on the way we all do business.
The look and feel of an OS defines public perception. How has Vista moved on from XP in this crucial area?
It’s taken about 15 years, but we’re happy to say that Microsoft has finally got an installation routine right. Even if you’re installing onto a blank hard disk, Vista simply requires you to choose a hard disk partition and enter a product serial number. It then takes over and you can wander off and do something else while it installs. Come back half-an-hour to an hour later and you’ll be greeted with the new Desktop.