The Vista verdict

So Microsoft have finally launched the much delayed, much lambasted successor to XP Pro on the general public; who on the whole feel betrayed. So what’s the big deal? Is the public reaction fair? I’ve decided to go into this for the non-techies as a general comparison guide.

Microsoft are well known for applying the “most secure Windows yet” tag to their new product, only to have hackers start finding exploits within days. It’s a sales pitch, NOT an unbiased opinion. This time round Bill Gates has upped the ante on the sales pitch and declared Vista the “most secure of ALL operating systems”. I didn’t know Bill decided to go into comedy, apparently his debut was on BBC News.

Some of the design flaws of previous versions of Windows have finally been addressed apparently, so I can accept it is the most secure version of WINDOWS (for now, until the holes start to show). Many flaws are down in large part to the thinking of Microsoft, with any operating system you need to create a new user account for each person using the PC which allows them a private place for their files and access to programs they need. Until Vista that default user account was an ADMINISTRATOR account.

Let’s put this in perspective here, with a normal (Windows calls this a “restricted”) user account, the user is limited to what changes he/she can make and where they can store documents. This means they cannot install/uninstall programs, or delete vital system files. An “administrator” account is effectively a “God” account…..with it you can do ANYTHING on that PC even if you have no clue what you’re doing. This means the average Joe playing with Windows can destroy their PC by clicking things. It also means that any malicious programs like viruses can act as an ADMINISTRATOR and destroy your security…it’s EXACTLY what virus writers want you to do. Some parts are kept away from normal users for a reason.

This level of user permissions as a level of security has been standard in UNIX/Linux and the Mac (built on Darwin which is a deviation of FreeBSD UNIX) since before Windows 95 arrived on the scene, why has it taken until now to finally sort it? Is it because a user who destroys their own PC helps the local economy by employing an engineer to fix it for them, or the local PC shop by buying a new license for Windows and paying to get it reinstalled? Remember Microsoft are a huge commercial outfit, their business is to make money, their method of making money is sloppy products and support.

With both UNIX/Linux and Mac’s the concept of viruses, trojans etc are practically unknown. They do exist but are so uncommon that there’s no need to run all these protective programs, which are part of the territory with Windows, unless you are using it as a gateway for an unprotected Windows behind it. This is partly due to the success of Windows, after all if I were to spend time writing a key logger (a program which sneaks onto your PC, records every key you press….and sends it back to me without your knowledge, giving me your bank account details etc which would easily allow me to steal your identity) I’d write it for Windows. Why?

  1. Windows exploits are legendary, it’s such an easy target compared to UNIX/Linux or Mac’s due to the design bias of style over substance.

  2. Around 80% of people who visit your target zone (your infected web site) will arrive in Windows using Internet Explorer as their browser since it comes with Windows. Most of those will be clueless users who assume corporate superiority means IT security and foolishly believe themselves to be safe. In reality they are the most vulnerable.

Until Mozilla Firefox started to bite into the Microsoft domination of the browser market, they couldn’t give a hoot about the user or the danger the user was in online. Too many people got sick of pop ups, programs downloading and installing without asking for permission etc that they abandoned Internet Explorer and switched to Firefox. I am one of the converted. They like to have control, something which Microsoft decided it’s users didn’t deserve. Late last year with Internet Explorer 7 Microsoft finally had an answer to Firefox, which is a HUGE improvement although has the trademark Microsoft talent for hogging resources. If you have to use IE, use IE7……if you don’t need IE, then use Firefox.

Since Windows has been the target of a LOT of hackers you can understand them trying to lock down the kernel (the heart of the PC) to stop hackers changing things however, locking out third party security companies from being able to write programs to HELP keep you safe is a VERY bad idea, especially as you’re then relying on Microsoft to protect you. To me that’s like hiring Michael Jackson as a babysitter, and locking the doors. Microsoft got an unusually strong backlash from the IT community and in the face of a PR disaster had to rethink that policy.

They did however stick to another VERY controversial idea called DRM. This DRM is being cited as a primary reason why people across the world are refusing to touch Vista. DRM or Digital Rights Management to give it it’s full name, is (in theory) a way to prevent piracy and ensure that movie studios and record companies get paid for their work. In practice it’s much more insidious.

With DRM Vista looks at ALL media on your PC; your video files, your music files, your software etc. It looks at media in temporary (removable) media…CD’s and DVD’s to normal people. It then decides through a digital signature if this is genuine or not. If it decides it is, then your PC acts as it should and you can play them. If it decides to fail you then a range of things can happen.

  1. With video or music files (either on the hard drive or on a CD/DVD it can reduce the quality of the output, so the High Definition DVD you bought will look like a normal definition DVD, or the sound may be crackly. Or it may refuse to play altogether.

  2. Unless you have the right connector and cable leaving your PC (as judged by the movie studio) the same might happen as above.

  3. You will be restricted to only playing it on the PC itself, so transferring it to an iPod or blank CD is forbidden.

  4. If you want to use your PC as a streamer to a remote device under the TV to watch your movies on your TV it may decide not to let you.

  5. It may start freaking out, giving you errors, rebooting etc telling you that “piracy is illegal” etc.

Remember, this is what you live with EVERY DAY with Vista, you gamble your PC every time you buy a new CD or DVD that it’ll be able to play the way you want, and that some part of the code on it won’t be picked up as “pirated”. It could be something as simple as the record company in question have not paid Microsoft yet for a DRM code……and the CD you insert is triggered as “pirated”.

Along similar lines is WGA system first introduced in Windows XP to much criticism. WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage) is an update (bug fix) which by all legal and technical viewpoints is SPYWARE, but it seems that yet again Microsoft write their own laws. It is installed as a “critical update” on any unsuspecting Windows user’s PC, and is used to check if the version of Windows being used is “genuine” and not a pirated copy. This is NOT critical.

In theory this would be fine, however it follows the usual Windows ethic of being badly written. It has come in for a flurry of complaints from genuine Windows users being told their PC’s are pirated. Since it scans your hardware when it first registers you, any change like an upgraded sound card will appear to WGA to be a separate PC which will fail your test. It seems to get as many wrong as right. If it decides your Windows is pirated it can trigger all sorts of problems for you, which the only answer is to back up what you can and reinstall Windows……if you know how. Failing that, a trip to the local PC store to buy another Windows license is on the cards, despite the fact you already have a perfectly valid one.

This flawed system is at the heart of Vista and has been hailed by Microsoft as a victory against software piracy. In XP Pro you needed to have passed this WGA test to get updates. They did leave open “critical” updates to everyone; genuine or not as a security issue. This is only an issue when you’re updating. In Vista they’ve went a whole lot more intrusive and now require the PC to contact the mothership VERY regularly to check it’s genuine…..without asking your permission. No doubt they take a whole load of other data readings from your PC, like what movies are on it, what music is on it……as marketing info.

Between the DRM and the WGA systems your PC could potentially turn into a doorstop with flashing things on the screen at any time, with any provocation, all of which you’d be powerless to prevent and expensive to repair. This is not counting any missing data, downtime or useless CD’s or DVD’s. It means you’re renting your PC, even although you own it….Microsoft can lock you out of your own PC at any time. For a more in depth look at Vista’s DRM check this article out. A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection.

This week Microsoft and Bill Gates have been doing the media interviews to sell Vista, these programs have had their own correspondents look at it and single out it’s features. The new fancy 3D transparent windows which flip over when you mouse over them look great. This is not new, it’s been standard fare on the Mac for a few years. It’s also available through a free additional program for Linux. It’s eye candy with very little value other than the “show off factor.” The difference with the Linux version is that you add it on if you want it and want to spare the extra resources to run it……are you sensing the concept of “free choice” here yet?

With every operating system there are two sets of figures for us to keep in mind when judging if we need to upgrade or not; the “minimum” and “recommended” levels of hardware. As PC hardware advances it gets cheaper for the same or more power, it also means that a PC which was “cutting edge” last month has now been superseded. This is progress, it can’t nor should it be stopped. It is however a marketing departments dream psychology to get the customers into. UPGRADE! UPGRADE! UPGRADE! However, for most people upgrading is not needed. There is no need for the very latest PC if you surf the web, send emails and write the occasional letter. You’d be amazed at what you can do with a Pentium 2 on an efficient combination of programs and operating system. These programs don’t need to be very resource intensive……try telling this to Microsoft and they’ll look at you as if your head had turned into an cartoon anvil. For that matter, try asking in a PC store for a PC without Windows installed, and you get the same reaction. It IS possible despite the blank looks you’ll get.

With any operating system, it uses bigger programs, more RAM memory, more CPU time etc to deliver the fancy effects we like, which is fine up to a point. Vista has taken this to ridiculous extremes requiring 15GB just for the operating system (not counting any programs). Only a few years back a 20GB hard drive was seen as HUGE, and was very expensive…now that same hard drive would be 75% full with Vista. It recommends a whopping 1GB of RAM to see the effects. The same principle applies as before, many people have 512MB in their “new” PC’s. The result of this, is that Vista requires you in many cases to go and give money to your local PC store to upgrade your RAM, hard drive and in some cases your CPU (apparently a Pentium 4 is borderline low) which it then steals any new capacity you have to run all the fancy eye candy, and assorted bumf you’ll never use and are most likely spying on you. In my opinion when you buy new hardware you should have that capacity to use as you see fit….not to feed it to a bloated operating system running all sorts of extras you don’t need. The end result of this, is paying for lots of new stuff and getting NO PRACTICAL advantage.

To give a comparison for hard drive capacity of other operating systems. Windows XP needed about 4GB, Windows 2000 needed about 2GB and Windows 98 sat happily on 1GB. Windows Vista (in the spirit of sloppy bloated programming) have decided they need a whopping 15GB. Remember this space is for the operating system only, if you want to actually do anything with it, you’re gonna need space for programs too. The Microsoft Office suite (which requires an additional license at around £100) is around 500MB for the full installation. Assuming you want to save your work you’re gonna need space for that too. Adds up huh?

Linux is a very different animal altogether, first it’s available in many different distributions, which all vary in different ways. Second it’s a complete system which includes many software packages you’d have to pay for with Windows. Even a fully stacked Linux installation would take around 3GB. By “fully stacked” I mean including around 15,000 software packages for everything from Python programming to the full OpenOffice suite to CAD programs. Since Linux software is as simple (in most cases) as opening a “package manager” and ticking them from a list most people tend to install packages for their own uses. I would have no need for many packages yet others would find them essential while others may have no need for an office suite while I need a word processor. This means that the average Linux installation is around 1GB INCLUDING software. In short, it’s efficient……and free (in most cases).

An “at a glance” guide (in no particular order).

Windows

  1. On around 90% of the world’s PC’s through marketing monopolies.

  2. EVERY piece of hardware you buy is Windows compatible.

  3. Very versatile due to the sheer amount of software available for it.

  4. Anyone who’s used a PC at work or a friends house, chances are, (unless you have a technically minded friend or a boss with some sense) it’s Windows.

  5. Costs a fortune to continually upgrade and patch to keep ahead of the hackers. Virtually ALL of the nasty PC stuff online like trojans, viruses etc are WINDOWS exploits.

  6. For gamers there is really only Windows, other than using a games console like the XBOX 360 or Playstation 3.

  7. Rated highly only by people who have no IT knowledge or who rely on Microsoft to make a living such as PC stores, software and hardware developers.

  8. Every part of the system is aimed at selling you something.

UNIX/Linux

  1. Many different distributions are free (not free as in pirated, but LEGALLY FREE). Some charge a small fee, some charge only for support……the Linux ethos is free through the GNU General Public Licence.

  2. Most if not all distributions offer a full software suite free on installation. Packages which are not available on installation can be downloaded free afterwards.

  3. Linux is a workhorse operating system, it’s ethos is substance over style. It’s built with security in mind from the ground up.

  4. UNIX/Linux are the backbone of the internet, chances are most web sites you visit (including this one), mail servers dealing with your email or databases which check your login details are running either UNIX (FreeBSD) or a Linux distribution. It’s an efficient high workload PC which effortlessly handles everything thrown at it meaning stability is better than Windows. Microsoft have recently tried to demonize UNIX/Linux and get into the server market but have failed miserably since the administrators who set up and run servers know the value of stability and security.

  5. Many distributions are awkward to learn and use….until recently with Ubuntu which is aimed at the novice user while still having a full powered Linux under the hood. Ubuntu is free, and is a dual use live / install CD which allows you to try running it from the CD without changing your Windows setup….if you don’t like it, simply reboot. If you do you can install from the same CD.

  6. With Ubuntu Linux it’s now as user friendly and versatile as Windows (if not more so) with a full package list that the normal user would need from Firefox web browser to Evolution (an Outlook type email and personal organizer), OpenOffice office suite which is fully compatible with Microsoft Office to GAIM (a multi network personal messaging client).

  7. Games are very limited on Linux, if cutting edge gaming is your PC’s role in life…..forget Linux.

  8. It’s a customizers dream…..EVERYTHING is customizable, it’s YOUR PERSONAL COMPUTER, not anyone else’s, and as such it should be able to reflect your needs. Desktop themes and widgets (little programs like stock counters or temperature guides) are endless with Linux, simply go look and install.

  9. All the usual brand names like Adobe, Macromedia etc generally don’t do Linux versions of their programs however in many cases there are Linux community versions which do similar jobs, just differently. GIMP is a brilliant image manipulation program which is as good as Photoshop….this means getting used to working with different programs. The alternative is to use WINE which allows Windows versions of programs to run on Linux (this is not perfect but it works mostly).

  10. No need for anti-virus, anti-spyware programs….it’s not required. Around 40 viruses affect Linux and none are in the wild compared to around 100,000 and counting for Windows, with around 1,000 new added each month.

  11. Works on most hardware except WINMODEMS and WINPRINTERS although don’t rule out some tweaking issues with some distributions.

  12. With the software being free you can experiment with things you’d normally need to pay for…only to find it wasn’t for you, losing you money. If you don’t like something, just uninstall it with no loss. Who knows where your PC skills will take you.

  13. Most Linux distributions are community based, which means sharing and helping others. The communities are often stacked with people skilled in administration or programming who know their stuff and encourage you to learn and take part. You are welcomed into a HUGE new family.

Mac

  1. Aesthetically beautiful. It is NOT style over substance though as the Mac is built with Darwin (which is based on FreeBSD UNIX) which means that security and stability wise most of the Linux guide applies.

  2. It uses proprietary hardware which although excellent is expensive compared to others.

  3. Many software developers offer Mac versions of their programs, but not all. The list of software is MUCH less than for Windows.

  4. Mac’s are only available in certain locations, the same restrictions apply to repairs and upgrades.

  5. Excellent for media manipulation, like video or music editing, but rather limited in range of tasks due to lack of software.

  6. Most IT professionals prefer one of the following UNIX / Linux or Mac…..none prefer Windows.

  7. It is still a monopoly situation, albeit a more ethically popular one.

  8. Did I mention aesthetically beautiful?

It all comes down to what you want or expect. Vista has went down like a lead balloon in many quarters; it’s been slammed over so many issue in forums around the world. It’s causing many loyal Microsoft customers to abandon them….in short, it’s arrogance, incompetence and corporate greed have been exploited to new levels and the public have given it the thumbs down. Of course some will need to upgrade to Vista…..gamers will always require the latest kit and developers generally only see one show in town which is the latest offering from Microsoft. Even business is dubious at Vista, which is a major new development. They seem to have gotten it wrong on so many fronts in one product. I sense a “sounded like a good idea at the time” footnote being welded onto Vista’s place in history.

I’ve stuck with Windows until now for a few reasons, first I am an MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional…PC engineer in basic terms) and I know I can fix my PC. Some of my hardware (my modem to be exact) are of the cheapskate and reliant form. It is a WINMODEM not a MODEM, I didn’t know when I bought my PC there was a difference, I’ve since found out that not only are WINMODEMS popular but WINPRINTERS are also out there. This means that it allows PC bundles to be sold cheap as the components are not full, the software needed is built into Windows……which means that they won’t work under any circumstances with any other operating system. Sneaky huh? This means I need to buy a REAL modem before I can get online with Linux. Anyone buying a new PC bundle, ask the sales staff if the modem and printer are the WIN variety, if they are…REFUSE it. By accepting this type of hardware it continues the Microsoft monopoly and you’re denying yourself the choice down the line.

The final nail in the Windows coffin for me, is that when you try to do things right with user accounts and permissions….the stuff that should be built in to Windows from the start, it fights you every step of the way. I’m sick of having to log into the admin account to change a program setting, and remembering to set the “run as” on my clock so it works when I switch back to the normal user account. I’m sick of EVERY program needing admin rights to run, so I have to right click and “run as” EVERY TIME. The restricted user seems to be able to do nothing fancier than rebooting the PC. It seems to have the memory of an educationally challenged goldfish.

It’s no surprise that Microsoft have been caught trying to pay a blogger to edit a Wikipedia entry on their behalf. The products are awful, the PR is largely deserved, and instead of spending time and money making it better, they use underhanded methods to try and fool the public by limiting the bad PR. Says a lot huh? Many people like to join the bandwagon, I have justified reasons for my views.

For the last couple of months I’ve been making plans to switch over to Ubuntu Linux and abandon Windows to it’s fate….hence the lack of recent articles. I urge EVERYONE to abandon the Microsoft Titanic if they can…..try Ubuntu Linux, it’s free and 100% reversible by simply rebooting and ejecting the CD when told to, or to a Mac OSX…either way you will be doing yourself and me a favour. What difference does it make to me? I get spam, like everyone else, the botnets which run these spamming campaigns are Windows which have been compromised by hackers….switching means one less Windows PC to get infected….which means one less potential node on a botnet spamming us.

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6 Responses to “The Vista verdict”

  1. Hans Says:

    Dear Sir,

    I have read your article with much interest and pleasure. I couldn’ t agree more with what you write. Maybe I can be so bold as to give you the advice to look at a very fine distrobution of Linux named “Pardus”. For me it gives “out of the box” more than Ubuntu a.o. Java and Flash are allready implementated.
    It is a Turkish distrobution made under auspices of the Turkish government to create a program that can replace Windows. You can download it here http://www.pardus-linux.nl/
    There is an English version of the program. http://worldforum.pardus-linux.nl/ On this forum, which is in English you can find almost all you want to know about Pardus Linux.

    Sincerely,

    Hans

  2. senco-pardus Says:

    Ubuntu = good

    If ther is one linux who can break the microsoft rolls it,s Linux Pardus

    http://www.pardus-linux.nl/?page_id=4

  3. Emin Says:

    Dear sir;

    This is another Pardus user who shares the same ideas with the frends above. Pardus is more complete than Ubuntu.

  4. Dirk Gently Says:

    I’ve never heard of Linux Pardus until now. This does not surprise me, there seem to be 100’s of Linux distributions all competing for space.

    Ubuntu is by no means the ONLY user friendly Linux helping to wedge it’s way into the home desktop. It’s probably the best marketed at the moment. It has a buzz surrounding it, which from my experience is richly deserved.

    I’ve tried a few Linux distributions and Ubuntu did grab me more than the others. I’ve always like the KDE desktop environment until Ubuntu. Gnome has matured nicely, while KDE feels more bloated and overdone now…..of course switching desktop environments is easy with ANY Linux, so that’s down to personal preference.

    I never trusted the whole Java thing. I can’t get my head around it. Everything I’ve seen for it seems to be a pain to use…..where you have to keep both the application itself and the Java interpreter updated. I’d be happy not to have Java at all.

    I’m curious about the “Flash already implemented” though. Is this Flash player? Or a developer application like Flash Pro? I also looked at the link to the Pardus Forum…my translator will not convert Dutch to English, but I did see someone linked to this article…..thank you. I just noticed there’s an English Forum. I thought that was only a download link…..I’ll have a look later.

    Any system backed by a government I don’t trust on principle. Having said that, it’d be more trustworthy than if the US administration decided to try it.

  5. bram Says:

    Pardus Pardus Pardus

  6. michaelt74 Says:

    Good review, your points are exactly why I have used IE7 twice for a few minutes to check it out and then continued using Firefox. I won’t go near Vista as I have no desire to use such an intrusive system that tells me what I can and can’t use on my computer. Linux offers stability and security and allows users to decide how they want their software and hardware to operate.


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