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Buena Vista?

After countless delays, Microsoft finally unveils its new computer operating system. Also in In Tech this month: A way to remember all those passwords.

Microsoft engineers know a thing or two about operating systems. Co-founder Bill Gates transformed the fledgling software publisher into a business powerhouse by buying the Disk Operating System, then shrewdly licensing the program to IBM. Later, Microsoft cemented its place in the corporate pantheon by launching Windows, the first non-Apple operating system with a graphical interface. In recent years, Microsoft has released a slew of revamped versions — not always to rave reviews. Windows 98 was fairly pointless, while the Millennium Edition was flat out dreadful. On the other hand, the reigning Microsoft OS — Windows XP — has been a huge hit with businesses ever since its launch five years ago.

And that’s the problem. This month, Microsoft finally began corporate licensing of the successor to XP, the long-anticipated Windows Vista (née Longhorn). Not surprisingly, management at the company would like to see every compatible business PC upgraded to Windows Vista in short order. Among other things, Microsoft claims the new OS enhances mobile productivity and reduces deployment and support costs — big selling points for commercial users. The operating system also features a radical overhaul of the basic Windows user environment. Microsoft, in typical tech understatement, has been touting Windows Vista as “a breakthrough computing experience.”

It remains to be seen if corporate customers are ready for such a mindblower. Users of older Windows operating systems like Windows 98 and Windows ME may switch simply because Microsoft no longer supports those programs. But more than a few analysts think Gates & Co. will have trouble convincing corporate customers to immediately dump XP. “This is not like the upgrade from Windows 98 to XP,” insists Scott Golightly, a senior principal consultant at technology consultancy Keane Federal Systems. “Windows XP is so good in relation to Windows Vista.”

Under New Management

Admittedly, a substantial amount of hand-wringing is generated whenever Microsoft releases a major upgrade to Windows. And critics concede Windows Vista has plenty of virtues.

Among hundreds of new features, the OS offers enhanced security options. With BitLocker Drive Encryption, for example, Windows Vista can store encryption keys and passwords on a dedicated Trusted Platform Module chip instead of in easily copied and hackable software files. That’s particularly welcome news for businesses whose managers tend to forget where they left their laptops. “If a [misplaced] notebook computer were running BitLocker,” notes Michael Cherry, lead analyst (Windows and Mobile) at research firm Directions on Microsoft, “the hardware would still be lost but the data would not be in danger.”

Windows Vista also features improved enterprisewide PC management. For starters, the OS gives businesses better control over removable storage devices like thumb drives and iPods — seemingly harmless gadgets that can put entire corporate networks at risk. In addition, Windows Vista’s Group Policy tool allows IT executives to centrally manage desktop settings and configurations, potentially lowering the risk of user-caused disruptions. Administrators can also set group policies for a wider range of functions and services (things like printers, power management, and Internet settings). Says Mike Burk, product manager for Microsoft’s Windows client division: “Out of the box, Windows Vista will be less costly to manage.”


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