Vista has IT Execs Pondering the Next Horizon

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Microsoft executives are hoping that a host of security improvements inits long-awaited Vista (formerly Longhorn) operating system will havecompanies lining up to install the new product when it's released in late2006.

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

''I plan on using Windows XP until its logical end of usefulness and thenre-evaluating my options,'' says Allen Gwinn, senior IT director atSouthern Methodist University in Dallas. ''Vista is going to be a closedsource proprietary piece of software built on the most notoriouslyinsecure platform in history and just like its predecessors, it's boundto have bugs.''

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

He says he worries that the time and effort it will take to install thenew 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 aboutmy total cost to have Microsoft,'' he says. ''How many more virus battlesam I going to have to fight? How many more millions of bug-ridden linesof code are they going to write? When you look at it, is it going to bemore expensive to go with another option? I'll bet if you look at thetime spent dealing with all this, it wont be.''

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

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

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

    Even with all these improvements, experts agree that the response toVista 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 NTwere hot products in advance.''

    Dave Kearns, an analyst at the Virtual Quill consultancy in SiliconValley, says Microsoft is facing an uphill battle. ''They don't know howto make a secure platform that is user-friendly for the averagecustomer,'' he says.

    Kearns points to patching as an example.

    ''They have gone back and forth on whether to automate patching. Thereare consumers who want it automated and IT managers who don't. There's nosolution to that dilemma,'' he says. IT groups want to test patchesbefore they go out to make sure they don't interrupt other applications,while consumers don't want to have to remember to download and installpatches, he adds.

    Identity management is another area where Microsoft faces problems,Kearns says. ''Microsoft doesn't stand a chance at getting identitymanagement perfected because of privacy groups,'' he says. Previousinitiatives like Hailstorm and Passport have privacy protectors raisingred flags about any collection of information and that ties Microsoft'shands.

    Microsoft's biggest problem lies in industry apathy, according toEnderle, who takes a different view on customers' feelings towards Vista.Although IT managers rate security among their top concerns, he says theyaren'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 forthe 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 seethe need for heightened security. ''As companies see their securityexposure and that Vista addresses this problem, they will moveaggressively toward the platform,'' he says.

    Experts say the ''rip-and-replace'' nature of Vista, rather than it beingan upgrade to the current platform, means IT groups will have to planextensively for it. ''To roll out Vista, IT managers are going to want toroll it out on new hardware -- this could make it costly,'' Enderle says.''However, with the reduction in overall hardware costs, maybe it won'tbe as costly as before.''

    Kearns agrees customers will have to do a complete hardware overhaul toaccommodate Vista. Nowadays, that's expected, he says. ''The averageperson doesn't upgrade their operating system anyway. They buy a newcomputer,'' 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 Microsoftproducts,'' he says. For him, the biggest question still remains to beanswered: How long will Microsoft continue to support XP before it ismoved to the backwater? That tells me how long I have to make mydecision.''