Vista has IT Execs Pondering the Next Horizon

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Microsoft executives are hoping that a host of security improvements in its long-awaited Vista (formerly Longhorn) operating system will have companies lining up to install the new product when it's released in late 2006.

But IT managers and experts alike say the software giant could be mistaken.

''I plan on using Windows XP until its logical end of usefulness and then re-evaluating my options,'' says Allen Gwinn, senior IT director at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. ''Vista is going to be a closed source proprietary piece of software built on the most notoriously insecure platform in history and just like its predecessors, it's bound to have bugs.''

Gwinn, who has led the university through several iterations of the Windows platform, is skeptical that Microsoft has solved the security problems that have plagued previous versions of the operating system.

He says he worries that the time and effort it will take to install the new platform -- and suffer through the initial patches and testing -- will be exorbitant, draining his team of time and money.

''This is the first product they've announced that makes me worry about my total cost to have Microsoft,'' he says. ''How many more virus battles am I going to have to fight? How many more millions of bug-ridden lines of code are they going to write? When you look at it, is it going to be more expensive to go with another option? I'll bet if you look at the time spent dealing with all this, it wont be.''

But Microsoft, which recently released Vista Beta 1 to developers and other testers, says it has fixed a lot of the issues that have had IT managers scrambling in the past. Here are some of the newest features:

  • User account protection, which limits user privileges. A Microsoft spokeswoman says this will avoid the problem of malware being let onto machines through administrator-level access;
  • Full-volume encryption, which allows IT managers and users to put important data into safe repositories. If a laptop or desktop is stolen or hacked into, critical information can't be accessed, the spokeswoman says;
  • Anti-malware protection, which detects and eliminates malware automatically during upgrades, and
  • Service hardening, which, if an attack occurs, limits file, registry and network access, she says.

    The spokeswoman adds that Microsoft has beefed up security in Internet Explorer so a data cache can be cleared with a single click and users can easily check the validity of a Web site's security certificate.

    Even with all these improvements, experts agree that the response to Vista has been lukewarm.

    ''At this point in time, we're not seeing a lot of demand for Vista,'' says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. ''We're still about a year out from its release, but XP and NT were hot products in advance.''

    Dave Kearns, an analyst at the Virtual Quill consultancy in Silicon Valley, says Microsoft is facing an uphill battle. ''They don't know how to make a secure platform that is user-friendly for the average customer,'' he says.

    Kearns points to patching as an example.

    ''They have gone back and forth on whether to automate patching. There are consumers who want it automated and IT managers who don't. There's no solution to that dilemma,'' he says. IT groups want to test patches before they go out to make sure they don't interrupt other applications, while consumers don't want to have to remember to download and install patches, he adds.

    Identity management is another area where Microsoft faces problems, Kearns says. ''Microsoft doesn't stand a chance at getting identity management perfected because of privacy groups,'' he says. Previous initiatives like Hailstorm and Passport have privacy protectors raising red flags about any collection of information and that ties Microsoft's hands.

    Microsoft's biggest problem lies in industry apathy, according to Enderle, who takes a different view on customers' feelings towards Vista. Although IT managers rate security among their top concerns, he says they aren't ready to shed their current operating system in favor of Vista.

    IT managers should be starting to build their budgets for Vista, he says. ''If demand isn't there, there are going to be problems.'' A reason for the tepid interest is that ''people aren't concerned about the desktop. It's just not broken enough,'' he says.

    Enderle hopes that as the release date gets closer, IT groups will see the need for heightened security. ''As companies see their security exposure and that Vista addresses this problem, they will move aggressively toward the platform,'' he says.

    Experts say the ''rip-and-replace'' nature of Vista, rather than it being an upgrade to the current platform, means IT groups will have to plan extensively for it. ''To roll out Vista, IT managers are going to want to roll it out on new hardware -- this could make it costly,'' Enderle says. ''However, with the reduction in overall hardware costs, maybe it won't be as costly as before.''

    Kearns agrees customers will have to do a complete hardware overhaul to accommodate Vista. Nowadays, that's expected, he says. ''The average person doesn't upgrade their operating system anyway. They buy a new computer,'' he says.

    But for Gwinn, that's just one more reason to shy away from Vista.

    ''This destabilizes the investment we've already made in Microsoft products,'' he says. For him, the biggest question still remains to be answered: How long will Microsoft continue to support XP before it is moved to the backwater? That tells me how long I have to make my decision.''

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