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Click here to view a slideshow of Windows Vista Beta 1.

In the Windows world right now there are two types of people: Beta Ones and Beta Twos. Each group will have a different reaction to the Wednesday beta release of Microsoft’s next-generation operating system, formerly known as Longhorn.

Developers and need-to-know IT professionals are the B1’s. All they require is for the guts of the operating system to be in place so they can begin their work. Everyone else, including myself, are Beta Two people, who want even a first beta operating system to do exciting things right now.

I mention this because, if you’re a B2, using this first beta release is a really frustrating experience. Windows Vista shows tremendous promise, but at this stage in its development it’s not ready to be used in any significant way.

That’s as it should be, of course, and I’d warn IT managers against making any judgments based on Beta 1, which is slow, lacks features, and allowed me to crash badly enough that I needed to wipe my hard drive and start over from scratch. For this reason, Windows Vista B1 sometimes seems more tease than operating system.

Before I launch into first impressions, however, let’s talk about what Microsoft is calling the “essence” of Windows Vista. In a recent presentation, Brad Goldberg, general manager of the Windows client, focused on three, very top-level design goals for the new operating system:

First beta of Vista goes to 20,000 testers. Click here to read more.

  • Confident. Microsoft promises security and privacy, improved performance, easier deployment and servicing, and greater reliability. Users are supposed to have greater confidence in Windows Vista than previous operating systems.
  • Clear. Vista, and I think this is where the name comes from, promises improved visualization of information, better information management, a browse/search/subscribe model for the Web, and better support for photos, music, and other media.
  • Connected. Vista is supposed to make it easier for systems, people, devices and places to connect to one another.

    Microsoft has given demonstrations for all these Three “Cs,” but Vista Beta 1 doesn’t do a very good job of showing much of this goodness. Nevertheless, I find myself quite enchanted.

    Windows Vista is the best-looking OS Microsoft has ever produced and is competitive with, and in some ways better, than Apple’s recently-introduced Mac OS X 10.4, aka Tiger.

    Microsoft’s UI designers have figured out how to streamline the familiar Windows user interface without losing what it means to be Windows. Vista will not be confused with Tiger, but each now sports a very nice user interface. This was a very pleasant surprise, since I didn’t really have any UI expectations.

    At the same time, someone is going to have to write a book—maybe me—explaining the new file system features. Many people, including myself, believed the loss of the WinFS file system also meant the loss of “smart” file management features in Longhorn.

    Next Page: Vista might change the way we search our networks.

    Microsoft has shown a fairly compelling demonstration of the use of Virtual Folders and desktop searches as important new tools for Vista. But in my limited testing, I haven’t been able to make these work in the same, positive way.

    Instead, what I have on my Vista desktop right now is a confusing mess. It’s frustrating to be playing with a new feature as important as meta data searching and persistent search folders and not have them working as I’d like. I expect it to be fixed in Beta 2.

    It will be a while before I can decide whether Microsoft or Apple has the better implementation of these features. Microsoft’s desktop search capabilities seem much richer, at least potentially.

    My impression is that searching on Microsoft Vista will dramatically change how we find information across entire networks. But I’ll reserve judgment until Beta 2, when there should be much more evidence, as well as in the final release next year.

    I mention the UI and search capabilities first because they are what most users will immediately notice about Windows Vista. I also mention them first because until now, most of the attention given the OS has dealt with security features.

    Vista will be an important measure for Microsoft. Click here to read more.

    Many of these security improvements are visible only “under the covers” if they are even visible at all. I cannot, for example, verify that Microsoft has added software to watch port usage to prevent malware from having legitimate pieces of software do bad things. But, I accept that it’s there (or will be before final release).

    Likewise, I don’t “see” how Microsoft has reduced the “threat surface” in this OS, but when they explain it, I listen and nod approvingly.

    With Windows Vista, it appears Microsoft has implemented most of what a modern OS should have in the way of basic security features, That is, they have locked down the system to make it more difficult for malware to do damage.

    One thing I like—even if it’s a bit troublesome to use in Beta 1—is how Vista now limits permissions and asks for an admin password before it will do potentially damaging things, such as installing an application. Over time, Microsoft believes it will be possible for users to run with “only” user permissions, rather than the administrator privileges most find necessary today thanks to poorly-written applications.

    With Windows Vista, Microsoft is inching closer to a self-healing system. Vista will do more to report problems and download solutions. Progress in this area has been slow thus far, so I am not getting my hopes up.

    Having talked some about the “clear” and “confident” aspects of Windows Vista, I haven’t had time to do much with the “connected” features, perhaps because I didn’t find Vista a happy client on my Small Business Server network.

    At this early moment, I like Microsoft Vista more than I expected I would. Even if Beta 1 doesn’t actually do very much, it’s filled with many hints of a better operating system to come.

    If you don’t have a copy of Beta 1, you aren’t missing too much. While every decent-sized IT department ought to be playing with Vista, that doesn’t mean most admins or systems people should be.

    Users are best off just reading about Beta 1 and waiting anxiously for Beta 2. By then, Windows Vista could be a really great OS.

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