Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vista: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Something like a million bloggers, journalists, and pundits have written, talked, and pontificated about Microsoft Vista. So why should I bother. Because I am that unlikely combination of techie and tidewad. While I love the geek stuff, I'm usually too cheap to buy things when they come out or just to be the first one on my block with the latest doo-dad. That gives me “value investor” approach. I don't swoon over the latest technical innovation nor am I the Luddite who dismisses them out of hand. Instead, I look for good technology that actually solves some serious problems.

What's nice is that I see that in Vista. By and large, despite the backward compatibility problems, it offers real value over XP. A quantum leap? Nope. That's just fine with me. I want good incremental value. That's not to say that Microsoft is hitting on all cylinders here. There is plenty to dislike about Vista, though little to outright hate. And isn't there enough hate in the world to be hating an operating system? I think so.

The Good


Search is everywhere. It is integrated into the operating system like no add-on can. You can search for files from anywhere. If you open a folder, you have a search bar at the top and search that folder for whatever you want. Sweet! You can search everything from the Start menu (is it still called that? It's just a little circle now...). You can do simple searches and more advanced ones. Best of all, you can search the program menu. In XP, once you acquired a significant number of programs, you ended up paging through a billion menus to find and launch them. Microsoft has fixed this problem. Not only have they redesigned the program menu system but you can search for your program. This has eliminated dozens of Desktop folders that only contained short cuts.

Wireless Networking

With wireless access becoming ubiquitous, Microsoft rightly decided to make it easier to connect to wireless networks. It's pretty much automatic with Vista. The only decision I usually have to make is to determine what type of network I'm connecting to, which alters the security options.


Speaking of security, that too has improved. I'll take the other writers word for it that the underpinnings of the OS are more secure. The biggest, most visible security changes are the inclusion of features that you used to need additional programs for. These including a personal firewall that is finally useful and an anti-spyware program. Oddly, Microsoft still does not include anti-virus in the system. I'm sure there's a good reason, such as a court order or threat of a lawsuit.

Visual Elements

Vista has a lot of eye candy. It's not useful but it makes the day more pleasant. For example, there is this new feature whereby the you see a miniature picture of each open window and you can scroll through them to get to the one you want. Useful? No more so than then XP's task switching (which still works) but much prettier. The same goes for the opaque window dressing. It's pleasant even if it's not particularly useful.

Tons of Useful Goodies

Microsoft continues its tradition of adding small but useful programs to the OS. Most of these are available somewhere else, often for free. Microsoft is not known for originality in this respect. The just turn it into a feature. The Gadgets are just another desktop widget like Yahoo! Widgets or the Google version. What's different is that they are there out of the box and don't require you to download something special.

The included calendar program is also decent. It's not as full featured as the one that comes with Outlook but it is serviceable and stable. The same is true for the photo organizer (a Picasa clone) and the snipping tool.

The Bad

TCP/IP Printers

It is still a monumental pain in the tookus to set up a printer that does not support Windows naming conventions. I know it is in part the printers fault (how hard is it to put SMB support in a printer anyway) but that doesn't takeaway from the fact that this comes up a lot. There are boatloads of networked printers and print servers that only hand out a TCP address. Vista, like its predecessors, makes you jump through a dozen hoops to create a port, load a driver, etc. Given the geniuses at Microsoft, you would think someone would have figured out a way to detect and configure these printers in a more user friendly manner.

Living in a Microsoft World

The only drawback with Vista's search engine is that it cannot index all types of files. As an user, my documents do not get indexed which limits what search can do. All the search engines have this problem but it seems about time to include what has become a major office suite. It makes you wonder if it's on purpose. This is true about any program in Vista. They don't seem to understand that theirs is not the only file formats.

No Program Launch Bar

This one is so simple. Microsoft has that lousy little program launch toolbar at the top. That forces you to have small icons. Why not have a big fat tool bar like the Mac OS X Dashboard? Clearly someone at Microsoft was thinking of that. They have the sidebar for the gadgets that kinda works that way. I can download ObjectDock but why have another program floating around when it's obvious people want to do this. It's just obvious.

The Ugly

User Access Controls

One of the best features is also the most annoying. Vista makes it difficult to do certain little tricks that viruses like to use such as changing registry options or spawning other programs. Vista also looks to see if a program has been certified as genuine too. The same is true for programs that could do a lot of harm such as those that change system settings. Since there are lots of legitimate reasons a program may break these rules or not provide certification (such as being an older program), you get a dialog box that asks you if you want to run this program. The reason why this is so annoying is that it happens a hundred times a day. It would have been better if the program asked this once and then remembered that it was okay to do so.

Now you can shut this behavior off but you lose the protection. If you try to fine tune this behavior you quickly find out that there is a security policy program (secpol.msc) that can do this and that it doesn't come with Vista Home Premium, the most ubiquitous of the various versions. So, for most people the only options is to run it at full throttle or not at all.

Backward Compatibility

Like I said in a previous post (To The Pain), backward compatibility is a real problem. An awful lot of applications - fairly recent ones - simply don't work or won't work right. If there is one reason not to use Vista, this is it. If you can't run a critical applications under Vista, then it's of no use to you.

Vista is a worthy update. The additional security, search, and wireless networking support are serious improvements. While it's not enough to spend money on an upgrade, if it comes with a new machine, you will be pleased. That is, if you don't mind half your programs not working.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

To The Pain

In the truly excellent movie The Princess Bride, the hero tells the evil prince that he will torture him “to the pain”. He describes “to the pain” in this way “It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery, forever. “ That's pretty much how I feel about my recent, unexpected move to Microsoft Windows Vista. I can deal with the death of my computer but not the pain of moving to Vista.

The story begins, like so many of these stories, with an otherwise usable machine dying an untimely death. My trusty computer of these past five or six years, simply refused to wake up one day. It's probably the power supply. The problem is that it costs a lot to find out if that's true and and then replace it. It's simply not worth trying to revive it. A new computer was in order and that meant Vista.

Now, Vista is a fine OS. It is clearly more secure than XP and has some neat user interface tricks. It's very nice to look at and easier to use than XP was. The search features alone are almost worth the price of upgrading. So far, this looks to have been a lucky move. That's until the “to the pain” part started.

The key problem is application backward compatibility. Several key applications simply do not work and many more don't work right. What really is tortuous is that we are not talking about ancient applications from the Regan era. No! Instead, many of the applications that do not work under Vista are only one or two years old.

For example, Quickbooks 2006 doesn't work. It won't even install. Intuit doesn't seem in the least bit interested in distributing a shim or patch either. Their advice – upgrade to Quickbooks 2007. That's insane. It's not like they didn't know that Vista was coming. It's been delayed longer than Quickbooks 2006 has been released. According to the support forums, this isn't Microsoft's fault either. Intuit apparently did some not so nice things to the Windows registry, exploiting a hole in Windows security that Vista plugged up. If true, that's not right. Actually, it sounds like a scam to me.

I had the same thing happen with NHL 2006. The graphics go wacky when you try and play with a 3D card, which is recommended by the way. The response from EA Sports is “Sorry we released that before Vista”. Nice. Haven't these folks ever heard about developer programs. At least EA Sports gave me some hints on how to get around whatever the problem is. I don't think they will help but at least they're trying.

Interestingly enough, all of my open source applications work flawlessly. Firefox, Thunderbird, Sunbird, and all installed and worked perfectly fine.. Even Truecrypt worked and creating encrypted volumes can be tricky. Maybe it's because developing cross platform applications means you can't use goofy operating system tricks.

Anyway, Vista's multimedia hooks are great and the interface much improved. Overall, I'm pleased with the OS. Not that I had a choice really. This time around, I think Microsoft got it right and the application developers hosed us.