What Vista Gets Right

It took five years, 10,000 employees, and (allegedly) billions of dollars. It contains some 50 million lines of code. Yes, it's Windows Vista, and it's finally here. And guess what? In some ways, Vista has Linux beat.

Originally published in the April 2007 print edition of Linux Magazine.

It contains some 50 million lines of code, and took five years, 10,000 employees, and (allegedly) billions of dollars to develop. Yes, it’s Windows Vista, and it’s finally here. And guess what? In some ways, Vista has Linux beat.

No, I’ve not been drugged, bought, or blackmailed by BillG. It’s just true. That doesn’t mean that Linux is bad, or that I’m going to stop using the Penguin. It does mean, however, that Linux users should work to understand how Vista is superior, so we can talk reasonably to Windows users about all of their options. More important, we can implement the good stuff that Vista has, while shunning the stupid, consumer-unfriendly, so-called “features” that Microsoft has also introduced with Vista.

In any battle, it’s a good idea to understand your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. Read on to learn everything about Vista.

User Interface

If there was a truth-in-advertising law, you’d see this in all Vista ads: “Try new Microsoft Vista! Now more Mac-like than ever! “

The much-vaunted, new Aero provides a fancy, new user interface for Windows, with transparency, animations, and live previews. For instance, Alt-Tab doesn’t just switch between open applications anymore; Alt-Tab, now called Windows Flip, now shows you little up-to-date pictures of open windows instead of simple application icons. Or, if you press Windows-Tab, live pictures of windows appear in a 3D stack. It’s a pretty cool effect, guaranteed to impress the techno-illiterate.

Vista also introduces Live Thumbnails: as you mouse over items in the Taskbar, a live thumbnail of the window pops up. For instance, if a video is playing in the main application window, the video shows up in real time in the thumbnail as well. Shiny!

Still, Microsoft has made some lapses. If you try to add a font (go to C:\Windows\Fonts and choose Install New Fonts from the File menu, the same old dialog — the same one from Windows 3.x — appears. It’s unbelievable that such a hideous and unusable element is still present, over 15 years after it was introduced.

Instead of Aero, Linux users have the very cool Compiz and Beryl. Kind of. Very few distros include them out of the box, and for those that don’t, users have to go through an arduous process to get them installed, configured, and working.[ This month's "On the Desktop" column explains how to get Beryl up and running.] Until users can count on an easier implementation process, it won’t matter how much Linux partisans point to cool desktop effects. Aero is available now, it works, and it’s consistent.

Fonts

Segoe UI is the new system font in Vista, and it’s another nice font from Microsoft. Since Windows 2000, Windows has exceeded Linux and introduced fonts that are clear, readable, and attractive.

Sure, Linux had Bitstream Vera, which has morphed into the much better DejaVu family, but what other, original fonts have been introduced from the Linux world? Linux users typically end up installing the core fonts (Verdana, Arial, Georgia, and Times New Roman, for instance) that Microsoft made available years ago. Heck, even the new fonts introduced with Office 2007 (which I know isn’t part of Vista, but the two go together like Tweedledee and Tweedledum) are really nice.

Will someone at Novell, Red Hat, or Canonical please pay a typographer to create some new, cool, readable fonts that the Linux community can use and propagate?

Further, Microsoft’s ClearType technology makes fonts look sharp on LCD monitors. Granted, it’s possible to tweak font settings on Linux to improve appearances, but it’s more work than it should be; Linux font rendering should adapt automatically to LCD monitors. The days of chewed up, crappy-looking fonts on Linux are so 1999. Linux looks amateurish.

Games

This is a painful truth that most Linux (and Mac) users already know: When it comes to games, Windows is the place to play. The vast majority of games are written for Windows alone, with a few that also work on Mac OS X, and an even smaller number that run natively on Linux boxes.

Yes, this is largely due to the stranglehold Microsoft has on game development through promulgation of its DirectX technology. Yes, Linux (and Mac) users on Intel boxes can always dual-boot, but that still scares the willies out of the vast majority of the public, no matter how simple it may be in practice. And yes, Linux users can try virtualization as one way to run Windows games, but that’s a solution to settle for, not strive for. The fact remains that if you’re a gamer, you have to run Windows.

Microsoft knows this, so Vista has new graphics technologies in place — like the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) and Windows Graphics Foundation (WGF) — that promise to make games look even more realistic and perform even better, while further tying game developers to Windows.

Like it or not, Microsoft’s Vista is going to be the number one gaming platform sooner rather than later, and there’s not much Linux users can do about it.

Media Center

For several years, Microsoft has offered a special version of Windows known as XP Media Center Edition. In Vista, all of the Media Center technology is built-in, at least if you buy the Home Premium or Ultimate editions of the operating system.

So what does Media Center get you? Plug your PC into a TV and you can use a specially included remote control to view or play pictures, videos, DVDs, music, and even TV shows. Multimedia can come from the computer’s hard drive or optical drive, and even from another computer on the network. Everything is sortable and categorized, making it relatively easy to find your stuff. If you have an Xbox 360, you can instead use Media Center on your computer to stream the music you want to hear and the movies you want to watch to the game console for ultimate delivery on your TV. Media Center isn’t as easy to use as Apple ‘s Front Row, but at least it’s there.

What do Linux distros have to offer that’s similar? Nada. The lack of such features is a major problem, and one that must be fixed soon, and in a coordinated manner. And here’s a suggestion for the hardware manufacturers who have to be part of the equation (remote controls, remember?): Apple’s remote is super simple, and that’s a good thing. In this area, less is most definitely more.

Support for Tablets

Tablets aren’t that interesting to me, but I’m not the target audience for this kind of computer. Still, there’s a market for those things, and Vista has Linux completely whipped.

Beyond the fact that it’s hard to find tablets running Linux in the first place, Vista adds a ton of new features for tablets. Vista has improved handwriting recognition that learns from your particular lines, dots, and curls; the new user interface provides visual feedback that makes it clear if you tapped, double-tapped, or right-clicked on your screen; and something called “pen flicks,” (which Firefox and Opera users call “gestures”), translates small movements into a specific task.

Exciting? No. But if you ran a warehouse and wanted your employees to carry around tablets, Vista looks really good, while Linux isn’t even in the running. The game’s over before it starts.

ReadyBoost

ReadyBoost is a cool feature for which Microsoft deserves some credit. Essentially, ReadyBoost enables Vista users to speed up their systems by plugging a flash drive up to 4 GB in size into a USB 2.0 port. Vista then intelligently pre-loads programs and files onto the USB drive, so that the flash memory acts as a mid-point between a computer’s super-fast RAM and its slower mechanical hard drive.

In fact, Microsoft estimates that a flash drive used in this manner is up to 100 times faster than a hard drive, which can spell significant improvements, especially since 4 GB flash drives can be purchased for around $60, while the same amount of RAM costs considerably more.

ReadyBoost is a great idea that makes a lot of sense, and, contrary to what some Linux aficionados have asserted on Internet forums, is not simply the equivalent to moving your Linux swap file to a USB key. Vista is a lot smarter about what gets placed onto the drive, with safeguards in place so that a carelessly-removed USB key doesn’t destroy data, and with encryption so a stolen USB key can’t be scanned for precious info.

I can’t wait for the Linux kernel to add a ReadyBoost-like feature so that Penguin lovers can start to enjoy it as well.

iLife-style Apps

People who buy Macs know that a new computer ships with some of the most elegant consumer applications available today. Collectively known as iLife, the built-in Apple applications include iMovie for creating and editing movies, iDVD for creating and burning DVDs, and iPhoto for managing and editing pictures.

The consistent excellence of iLife drives Microsoft absolutely batty. It’s no surprise that Vista includes Microsoft knock-offs of some of the coolest programs in iLife. Yet it’s still pretty embarrassing that Linux users can’t expect anything even close to the cheap copies that Microsoft includes in Vista.

Windows Photo Gallery lets you view your pictures individually or in slide shows, and allows you to edit them with some simple tools like red-eye removal and cropping. To print your photos, use one of the ubiquitous wizards.

Linux users have various options available, such as Digicam for KDE and gThumb for GNOME, but those, to be charitable, need lots of work. It says something when the best photo management tool for Linux is easily Picasa, a Windows-based program that runs using WINE. Under those conditions, Windows Photo Gallery comes across like a triumph.

Windows Movie Maker is better than it used to be, but it’s still pretty weak, especially when compared to Apple’s iMovie. You can import video and audio, re-order scenes, insert some amateurish transitions, and then save the resulting masterpiece as a Windows-centric WMV or AVI file.

But at least the program works, anemic though it may be. What do Linux users have? Nothing that’s particularly easy to use, or consistently installed across most common Linux distros. Yes, there are some strong contenders, but nothing stands out at this time.

Windows DVD Maker takes the creations turned out by Windows Movie Maker and transfers them to DVD. Here Linux has a better program (K3b, of course!), but since there isn’t a great movie editor that could be used to first prepare the movies that would be burned with K3b, it doesn’t quite matter. Vista provides tools that enable the amateur sitting at home to create a movie and then burn the results on a disc that can be played on the family’s DVD player, and Linux doesn’t have anything that works together that well. Like it or not, Vista has the edge here (although Mac OS X has ‘em both beat).

Networking

When it comes to the stability of networking, I’m not going to go nuts and claim that Windows is better. No way. And I’m not going to claim that Vista is leading the way when it comes to protocols. For example, SSH still isn’t built into the Windows operating system (ridiculous in an operating system that’s touted for its commitment to security). And this has nothing to do with the better driver support for wireless cards that Windows enjoys, since that’s due to the shortsightedness of wireless hardware makers who won’t make it easy for open source developers to write drivers for their cards. No, where Vista beats Linux on networking is in making it easy for normal folks to work with their networks.

When you connect to a network for the first time, Vista opens the Set Network Location dialog, which prompts you to select the kind of network you wish to join: Home (you can see other machines and they can see you), Work (similar to Home), and Public (you can use the Net, but other machines can’t see you). When Bob connects to the local coffee shop’s open wireless network, he simply chooses Public, and Vista automatically turns off file sharing, among other things. Quick, easy, and automatic. That’s a good thing.

Even better, a new control panel has been introduced in Vista: Network and Sharing Center. Visit it to take care of almost anything you’d want to do with your networks: check the status of your connectivity and troubleshoot problems, access pre-configured networks, toggle and configure file and printer sharing, or go into more advanced settings. This is helpful to just about everyone, at all skill levels.

One of the coolest built-ins is the new Network Map, which displays a graphic view of every computer and device on your network. Using the Network Map, you can view info about a device, such as its IP address, or connect to a PC’s shared resources by simply double-clicking on it. This takes working with the resources on a LAN to a whole new level, and I want it in my Linux distro now.

Finally, there’s the Sync Center. You probably have more than one computer, which means you probably have data on more than one machine. The Sync Center in Vista makes it simple for you to create and schedule automatic synchronizations between devices, initiate manual syncs, abort syncs in progress, or view the current status of a sync. If there’s a conflict between devices, the Sync Center alerts you so you can resolve it.

Define which folders will be synced, and the Sync Center takes care of the rest, behind the scenes. Yes, Linux users have things like iFolder, but such solutions are complicated to set up and are missing from standard distro installs.

And yes, rsync rules, and I use it every day, but the Sync Center goes one step beyond rsync in terms of ease of use. Linux needs something like the Sync Center and its underlying autosync capabilities, stat.

IT Management

Windows can be a bear to manage. Imagine, then the pains of a network administrator who must oversee a sleuth of those bears (yes, a group of bears is a sleuth). Microsoft empathizes with Windows owners and provides software tools that IT can use to manage all the Windows boxes on a corporate network.

For starters, there are tools that inventory the hardware and software on existing boxes and then test for program compatibility with Vista. Further, Microsoft’s BDD 2007 (Business Desktop Deployment) 2007 includes WAIK (Windows Automated Installation Kit) and SIM (System Image Manager). This stuff can help Windows admininstrators create Vista image files, wich can then be rolled out to the various machines on the network. (For a walk-through of the process, see “Microsoft Eases Vista Deployment” in eWeek, at http://www.eweek.com/article2/0, 1759,2068701,00.asp).

The process isn’t perfect, and it isn’t super-easy, but it does work, and IT folks inside medium- and large-sized organizations count on it to vastly simplify their lives. Linux has some automated tools, but the more tools the big distros can provide to harried sysadmins, the more comfortable those people will be with adding Linux machines to their networks.

Marketing

Let’s face it: when it comes to clever ads that get people talking about an operating system, Apple is king. The latest series of ads in the “Get a Mac” campaign are brilliant: funny, memorable, and effective in communicating to people the benefits of Macs and the problems with PCs.

Microsoft’s commercials aren’t nearly as good: when’s the last time you saw dozens of parodies of a Microsoft commercial on YouTube? But at least the company is busy spending money hand over fist ($500 million) to build public awareness about its new release.

So where are all the Linux ads? Yeah, yeah, yeah… IBM has had a few ads for Linux on TV, but those tend to be pretty weird and very much aimed at the technical crowd. If your Mom or Dad see an Apple ad, they’ll still “get” it; if they see an IBM ad for Linux, they’ll probably have no idea what the hell is going on. As for ads in magazines, most of those are in technical publications that only nerds like us read, so they don’t help.

Even now, over a decade and a half after the birth of Linux, most people still don’t know that it exists. IBM, Novell, Oracle, Red Hat, and any other companies that support Linux and open source need to pay for ads that are as easy to understand and entertaining as those that Apple seems to effortlessly turn out on a yearly basis. Grass roots marketing is important, and Linux wouldn’t be where it is now without it, but it’s time for Linux to grow beyond a simple reliance on the grass roots and aim at the masses.

We can’t spend $500 million, but we can strive to get the word out more effectively and educate those who haven’t the foggiest idea that an awesome operating system named “Linux” even exists.

Conclusion

We’re at the end of our tour of the good, interesting, or notable features in Vista, and I hope you’ve learned something new about the operating system that, ironically, many of us plan never to run on a regular basis.

Remember, though, that just because the readers of Linux Magazine don’t intend to run Vista, that doesn’t mean that hundreds of millions of people around the world won’t be running it in a few years time. If we want even a fraction of those folks to switch to Linux, we’d better set aside our prejudices and learn about Vista. The more we know, the more we can counter the latest iteration of Microsoft’s operating system.

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