The Vista Perception Problem

Windows Vista. A name which makes many people cringe, many people break out in an angry rant about Microsoft and how they think XP is better and a name which makes all the Mac fanboys laugh and point fingers while giving you a raspberry. I'm now going to express my thoughts on Windows Vista in relation to where it fits between 2 successes, Windows 7 and Windows XP, why XP needs to be phased out as quickly as possible and why Windows Vista is actually a fairly decent operating system. I expect I may get a bit of feedback on this article with people thinking I'm a bit crazy and that I don't know what I'm talking about, but after a lot of thought, this is the conclusion I've come to and I don't care what people say about it.

To give some context to Vista we need to start back many years before XP did back at Windows 95 and NT. Microsoft were running 2 lines of their OS called Windows. On the consumer line they ran Windows 95, then Windows 98, then Windows 98 Second Edition (98SE) and finally Windows Me. On the business line they ran Windows NT 4.0 and then Windows 2000. Windows NT/2000 were known for their strong reliability, security and networking features but they weren't very compatible with a lot of software and hardware in the consumer market and were also seen as more complicated than the consumer line. Windows 95/98/98SE and Me on the other hand were very compatible with most consumer software and hardware and were all fairly easy to use, but they were based on the aging MS-DOS kernel, and so were very insecure and also by the time Windows Me came along, the DOS kernel was so overloaded with stuff it was never designed for, it also became incredibly unstable and crashed a lot. So the choice was pretty clear cut, if you were a large business with servers and workstations that needed to be configured to network with each other securely then you got the Windows NT/2000 line of products and everyone else got Windows 95/98/98SE and Me.

After the massive failure of Windows Me (for reasons stated above - the packing of too much stuff onto the aging MS-DOS kernel), Microsoft decided their next consumer OS needed to be based on the more stable Windows NT/2000 kernel (I'm sure they had this change planned for many years, but Me sealed the fate for the MS-DOS kernel). This meant the business and consumer lines of Windows would be merged into one line and the next version of Windows would be designed for both Business and Home use. This operating system was released in 2001, was named Windows XP (Windows eXPerience) and for the first time ever for consumers was split into 2 versions, Home Edition and Professional. The Professional edition contained a few extra business networking related features that Home Edition didn't, but they were very similar. This OS for the first year or so was incredibly unstable and was incompatible with many pieces of hardware and software designed for Windows 95/98/98SE and Me because all hardware drivers and software had to be written for the Windows NT/2000 kernel for them to work, most things written for Windows 95/98/98SE and Me simply didn't work. It also required a much more powerful computer than Windows 95/98/98SE and Me required (as the NT/2000 kernel always had needed strong hardware). Some of these instability and incompatibility issues were taken care of by Service Pack 1, as is normal for Service Pack 1 of any product, it's the reason why businesses generally wait for Service Pack 1 of any product to move to it, but there were still many issues that needed to be resolved.

The other thing about Windows XP was, while it was much more secure than Windows 95/98/98SE and Me it wasn't properly designed for internet security and many stupid decisions were made in the creation of the product. While Windows XP shipped with a firewall called the Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), it was turned off by default in case it got in the way. A firewall that's off is as useful as no firewall at all. The operating system also encouraged the practice of being an administrator the entire time the computer was turned on. Linux and Mac OS X were already protecting their users from running as administrator 24/7 by giving users normal accounts that asked for a password when they wished to perform an administrative action, OR they simply created an administrative account with a password you could not log into, that could only be accessed temporarily from another account when needed and if the password was given. The outcome was the same, the administrative actions were protected behind a password and were not available 24/7. As many Linux people say, NEVER run as root! Well Microsoft with XP did not encourage their users to not run as Administrator, they actually marketed it so that parents ran as administrators and children ran as limited user accounts. Many families also reverted their children back to administrative accounts anyway after programs and games refused to work properly as they weren't written properly for Windows XP. Microsoft's Windows Update system also was not always on by default in Windows XP too when it was released, which meant some systems were sitting ducks to anyone who wished to exploit them.

In the summer of 2003, XP's time came, and it was heavily attacked by many many trojans, viruses and worms including Blaster and Code Red. Microsoft had originally planned to release the Windows XP Service Pack 2 update in the Autumn of 2003 (September to November US seasons) but had to postpone this nearly 9 months to October 2004 because of the complete rewrite of every security technology they could think of. Windows XP Service Pack 2 included the following important security updates: Windows Firewall to replace the Internet Connection Firewall (and this time Windows Firewall was ON by default), Windows Update/Automatic Updates was highly encouraged to be turned on by default (if it wasn't, annoying messages would appear), the Windows Security Center was added to the Control Panel (this program told you if there was anything wrong with the Firewall, Virus Protection or Automatic Updates and if any of them were switched off), some memory execution security features, a major security update to Internet Explorer 6 (this started the practice of ActiveX controls requiring permission to run) and other features including better wireless connections. This was the single biggest service pack that Microsoft had ever released and it broke many applications when installed at first. Windows XP was still nowhere near as secure as it needed to be, but the problems that should never have existed in the first place were for the first time finally fixed. This didn't come at a cheap price for Microsoft though. Many of the designers who were working on the next version of Windows codenamed Longhorn (and Blackcomb to a degree) were taken off the job to work on Windows XP Service Pack 2, so this (as well as a number of other factors) pushed the release date of Windows Longhorn back. Looking at history, XP should have been replaced by now, but it wasn't and a replacement was a few years off yet.

Over the 6 years from 2001-2007, Windows XP started to settle in nearly everywhere. Windows 95/98/98SE/Me/NT and 2000 essentially disappeared and Windows XP became very dominant. Nearly every piece of hardware and software worked on it, there was plenty of support available for it and people just became familiar and happy with it. It still encouraged people to run as administrator and software continued to ask for administrative privileges it they didn't require, causing a cycle where most people just ran as administrator 24/7. It also contained a kernel that was nearly 15 years old. Then in January 2007, it hit! Windows Longhorn (finally given the product name Vista) hit shelves. It had many many new features. Security was bumped up again with the Firewall now supporting inbound and outbound traffic, Windows Update was built into the operating system instead of just being a website, Windows now included a spyware detection program (but not anti-virus) and most important, Windows for the first time actively discouraged and prevented users from running as administrators 24/7 by implementing User Account Control (UAC). Internet Explorer was finally decoupled from the shell, meaning that many attacks against Internet Explorer would not cause the entire system to be compromised. Internet Explorer was also upgraded to version 7, which included many important security fixes, as well as running in a protected mode if UAC was enabled. Windows Vista also completely rewrote the driver and stack model for video cards/displays, networking and sound cards. As part of rebuilding the display driver model, it also introduced some extremely nice effects (which replaced the Fisher Price look of XP) that required a power computer to run. Many new features were added, perhaps too many at once including a photo gallery, improved movie maker, sticky notes and many other tidbits across the OS. The user interface was also redesigned, with many things that had been in the same place for 15 years, now somewhere else (often more logically placed, but still somewhere else.) These updates (especially the rewriting of the kernel/driver models, user interface upgrade and security improvements) moved Windows into an operating system designed for the 21st century instead of Windows NT from the 1990s. These upgrades had to be done if Windows was to stay up to date with changing technology. XP technologically was no longer able to keep up.

Vista did not start with a good perception. In 2003 at the Professional Developers Conference, prototypes of Windows Longhorn were shown and they were very drastic and looked extremely interesting. Due to the delays in development throughout the time of XP Service Pack 2, Vista just could not become what that prototype had shown, so before it even came to market, people were expecting something very big that Microsoft could not deliver on. Microsoft's advertising campaign promoting Vista also didn't help, with "The Wow Starts Now". It was trying to sell a product that could never live up to the hype it was given. The new driver model meant many devices needed new drivers and wouldn't work in Vista without these newer drivers, but due to a combined failure of Microsoft and manufacturers, many of these were written many months after Vista was released, meaning that when Vista first came to market, a very large slab of devices did not work with it. Vista's system requirements were also a big leap. While XP had required strong system requirements at the time it was released, compared to 98/Me, Vista's system requirements completely blew XP's out of the water. Most people would have to buy a new computer to run Vista, full stop. This was because, normally Windows is updated every 3 years, so computers can only change so much over 3 yrs, but 6 years is a large gap between computer specifications, and old 2001-2003 XP computers couldn't support Vista as they were just too old. Another side effect of having rewritten quite a lot of the code was that much of it had not been optimised properly, essentially the OS was very sluggish, especially when it came to boot times and network file transfers. It also meant that the OS tended to be a bit unstable. All of these issues were fixed or significantly improved in Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (or in the case of device drivers, a lot of devices now had working drivers at this point), but sadly the public perception had already hit and Vista was destined to hatred and fail.

UAC was the other big issue people had with Vista, and was very unfairly judged by the public. The general public did not understand what it was, or why it was there and IT professionals knew what it was doing and tended to think they didn't need it and it simply got in their way. UAC was designed first and foremost to discourage and actively prevent users from running as administrators 24/7. This was now without doubt proven to be dangerous (although Mac OS X and Linux had known this for about 7 years now) and had to be stopped. Even the User Accounts Control Panel now used the word standard account instead of limited account to encourage users to make standard accounts rather than limited ones. UAC when activated (and it was by default on all Windows Vista systems) turned all user accounts into standard accounts (even ones labelled as administrator) and for the majority of the time they were on the computer left them as standard users. If an action or program which required administrative privileges was undertaken/launched, then the computer screen would flash and go dim, and a message asking if the user wished to continue what they were doing was put onto the screen. To continue, they had to click Continue or Allow and if they didn't want to continue they had to click Cancel. Standard user accounts also had to enter the password of their administrator, while accounts labelled as administrators only had to click Continue/Allow. The screen flashing and going dim was actually the computer switching to a special secure desktop which prevented viruses with automated keyboard combinations from continuing for the user automatically, the user HAD to say yes themselves to continue. It's proven this prevented 60% more viruses than XP with Service Pack 2 did. UAC works, but many people completely misinterpret what is does and the importance of it. It's actually designed to make users aware of their actions AND of actions any malware might be taking without their knowledge, but a large slab of people just saw it as the computer treating them like idiots and confirming everything they do. This is NOT the case and will NEVER be the case, it only appears when a system wide change is made (which is normally indicated with a little multi-coloured shield icon), but this is where they flaw in the way many XP programs were written comes in. As I said, many XP programs asked for administrative privileges when they didn't need them and when run on Windows Vista, they triggered UAC prompts. The system was working exactly as it was designed, the programs were just incorrectly triggering it by asking for permission they did not require. You actually cannot blame Microsoft for this problem, it's the fault of the program writers for bad programming practices. This is why UAC popped up constantly on user's machines and annoyed people, not because Microsoft designed it like that, but poorly written programs triggered it. Still, it was bundled in with all the problems Vista had, and like the others, by the time Service Pack 1 came along, most programs had been correctly to avoid this issue and the point still stands, it successfully protected users from malware and still does to this day!

Probably the last issue about Windows Vista was the versioning problem. Windows XP had 2 versions to begin with and ended up with 5 by 2007 (though 2 of them only came on specially built machines). The two main ones for purchase in shops were Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional and it was obviously which one was to be used where. Home at home and Professional at work. Windows Vista increased this to 8 (some argue 15) versions you could buy (though only 4 were available in most shops to purchase). Windows Vista Starter was only available on computers in less developed countries. Windows Vista Home Basic was designed for low end computers, while Windows Vista Home Premium was designed for the majority of home users. Windows Vista Business edition was designed for businesses, but took out some features from Home Premium. Windows Vista Enterprise and Ultimate are the top end versions of Windows that include everything, and the only difference between them is licencing (Enterprise is for large companies and Ultimate is for consumers). If you're in Europe also add in 2 extra versions of Vista, Home Premium N and Business N which do not include Windows Media Player and which probably sold like 5 copies (I'm going to discredit them from now on, so only 6 proper versions). Now you can actually nearly double that number to 15 due to 64 bit editions and you've got the technical number of versions for customers to choose from. In reality most users had to only pick between 4 versions, Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate. Some picked Home Basic over Home Premium, because the word Premium sounded like it would have extra stuff they wouldn't need, when in reality, Home Basic was a crippled version of Vista which missed critical Vista features. Others chose Ultimate, because they felt like they needed to have everything in Vista OR (and this really annoyed me personally) because the business edition didn't include the home features, so to have both business and home features, you had to buy Ultimate which was very expensive. So the versioning issue became a confusing problem for people who wished to get Windows Vista, unlike in XP where the difference between Home Edition and Professional was so small.

So, if you look at the history of Windows XP and Windows Vista, they are actually fairly similar. Both had issues to begin with in terms of stability, both had compatibility problems with both hardware and software in their first year or so, both were big steps from their previous version and both had most of these issues fixed by Service Pack 1. The major difference between XP and Vista's releases is that Vista is extremely secure out of the box, while an XP machine is still a sitting duck and always will be. So why does XP get the upper hand in the perception wars? TIME! Time is the problem here, XP had 6 years to mature, if Vista had 6 years without another version of Windows coming out and without a previous version settling in too well, then it too would become very successful. Windows XP had 6 years to sort out it's issues and everyone because familiar with it, everything finally had time to work on it and everyone become complacent with it so that by the time Vista came along, nobody wanted to move from XP anymore. The initial problems with Vista (which again XP had most of the same problems when it was new) got blown out of proportion by people who didn't ever want to change (and also by the Mac VS PC ads from Apple which lied and also exaggerated many of Vista's issues). Microsoft has learnt their lesson here and I don't believe they will ever let an OS stay in the market for more than 3 years again, as to prevent people becoming complacent with the OS like they have with XP.

Windows 7, released with a much more positive perception and is the fastest selling version of Windows ever, yet it's based nearly entirely on Windows Vista? So why the success? Simple, it's not called Vista. Microsoft tested this theory by taking unhappy Vista users, giving them a Vista machine, telling them it's a new version of Windows and calling it Mojave. All the respondents rated it higher than Vista, even though it was Vista, simply because it wasn't called Vista. It's really just a name thing now. Quite a few of the features in Windows 7 that people coming from XP "love" so much actually were implemented in Windows Vista, yet they give the credit to Windows 7, when it really should be given to Vista. Windows 7 was just Windows Vista, with 3 years of code fixes and optimisation and a handful of new user interface experiences. The underlying code, kernel, driver model and security features are identical to Vista, simply optimised a bit. This is why Windows 7 works so well, because it's just an optimised Windows Vista, with a new perception and 3 years of solid Vista foundation in drivers and software. Windows 7 is one of the few OSes that requires no extra hardware specifications than the previous version of Windows. This shows you how little has actually changed between Vista and 7, nothing big enough has changed to need extra requirements. This shows you what perception can do to a product. Windows 7 also fixed the versioning issue by removing Home Basic from the market, and by adding the home features to it's business edition (named back to Professional), therefore removing the reason to purchase Ultimate. So Windows 7 comes in 2 versions essentially again (Home Premium & Professional) and they contain both 32 and 64bit discs in the box. So next time you use Windows 7, thank Windows Vista for the hard work it did to make Windows 7 the awesome product it is.

If you're still using XP and are simply using it because of what you've heard about Windows Vista (namely those people who bought Vista machines and downgraded them to XP) then you are now being stupid and actually quite a danger to yourself and others. XP is not built to withstand the challenges 2010 presents to computers in the security field and can and is hacked regularly. These hackings create botnets which are used to take down other machines. The strong advice here that if you tried Vista in 2007 and said yuck or heard people in 2007 who tried it and went yuck and therefore downgraded to XP, then please upgrade that machine back to Vista for your own security. If you wish to get Windows 7, then even better. If you for some reason have to use XP (2 good reasons are that your computer is too old to support Vista/7 OR if you have some important hardware/software that just won't work on Vista/7) then at least upgrade to Service Pack 3 for XP, turn automatic updates on, install Internet Explorer 8 (DO NOT USE 6) and just be very careful on the net. Windows Vista users should enable UAC if they have disabled it, because you're putting your PC back to XP security standards when you turn it off.

So enough with the Vista bashing please, yes Vista did have its issues, but it does not deserve the amount of bashing it gets and XP should be getting the same bashing for the problems it had when it was released back in 2001 if Vista is being bashed for its. Windows Vista was required to bring Windows into the 21st century and XP users are now just keeping everyone behind and causing security issues. Windows 7 should be enticing enough to bring over most consumers thankfully, but now it's time for businesses to give up their ageing machines and move into the 21st century too. Oh and Mac people, stop with the UAC bashing, you've had the same feature in your OS for years and it's arguably more annoying because it asks for your password every single time, not just a continue/allow button, so you're just being hypocritical and childish when you mention it. So, I'm open to any feedback you have on this issue, positive or negative, so if you wish to contact me, then click on the E-Mail or Facebook/Twitter buttons on the left of the screen to leave your feedback.