With Windows and the rest of its successful stable of software, Microsoft has long been accused of being a non-innovator, preferring instead to refine others’ efforts – and conquer. But with its upcoming Windows Vista OS (operating system), Microsoft may find itself called an unfamiliar name: trailblazer.

Due out by the end of the year, Vista will include a number of features, especially in its GUI (graphical user interface), that are not yet completely realised in competing OSs such as Apple’s Mac OS X or the open-source Linux. Those features include 3D views of windows, built-in handwriting recognition, easy real-time wireless collaboration and online filesharing, automatic alerts about phishing and other fraudulent websites, and even support for a feature called Windows SideShow, that allows notebook PCs to display regularly accessed information on a 2in screen mounted on the outside of the closed laptop case.

"We are pushing ahead as fast as we can for all audiences, whether for the business user, the child or the digital music enthusiast," Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft’s platform products and services division – which includes Windows and MSN – said in an interview.

Feature presentation

Microsoft plans to release a CTP (Community Technical Preview) of Vista by the end of March to companies participating in TAP, its Technology Adoption Program. Allchin says the technical preview, which follows a December release aimed at PC makers, is already "feature-complete", and the goal now is to gain feedback from users regarding compatibility with applications and hardware, as well as the ease of deploying Vista.

"We’re trying to be more transparent," Allchin said. He admitted getting complaints from beta testers whose machines either were not powerful enough or lacked the right graphics drivers for the advanced user interface features in Vista.

On the positive side, Allchin said CTP testers have praised improvements in stability and security. One is a change that will make it harder for malware or hackers to gain administrator-level access even if they can crash Vista systems, he said (this is a feature that already exists in Unix and Linux). Another is the ability to run Internet Explorer 7.0, which will come bundled with Vista or can be separately downloaded, in a 'protected mode' that prevents Trojan Horses or hackers from surreptitiously installing spyware or other malicious programs automatically.

Phishing line

Vista will also have added antiphishing capabilities. For instance, suspicious websites – such as those whose addresses begin with a string of numbers – will trigger a 'suspicious website' message. Other sites that have been reported by Vista users as definite phishing sites will trigger a red warning and IE will attempt to prevent users from visiting that site. Users can also allow Vista to automatically send information about Trojans and spyware infecting their system in a way that does not violate user privacy.

"The goal is not to track anything that an individual does," Allchin said.

But it is the user interface that most excites Allchin, who has been involved with Windows development since the early 1990s, when its GUI was still widely considered a less-than-smooth ripoff of the Mac interface. Not anymore.

"The Mac is a good product. But it doesn’t think about business, and doesn’t do a good job with gaming," Allchin said. "We’re trying to do it for a much wider variety of audiences."

Asked whether Vista will allow Microsoft to finally trump Apple once and for all, Allchin laughed. "People will have to judge that for themselves," he said. "We’re just trying to make the best product we can."

Microsoft plans to release another CTP of Vista next quarter to millions of beta testers, followed by a Release Candidate 0 of Vista and a release to manufacturing before Christmas, Allchin said. "If there are quality issues, we would hold the product, but I don’t anticipate that there will be," he added. Allchin plans to retire at the end of 2006 after Vista’s release.

The write stuff

For business users, Vista includes smart handwriting recognition that learns not only a user’s handwriting style but also the types of words commonly written. Its pickiest beta user, said Allchin, is Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

"Bill is an extremely avid user of a tablet PC. That’s how he takes notes and organises stuff," Allchin said. "He’s not only pretty demanding – his handwriting is also not the best."

Another feature allows Vista users in a meeting to quickly find each other wirelessly so they can collaborate on shared projects. That allows, for example, simultaneous editing of Office documents, with drag-and-drop copying of files from one Vista desktop to another.

The 'SideShow' feature depends on notebook manufacturers embedding small LCD screens similar to those used on mobile phones, along with a five-button keypad for navigation underneath it. That feature would also require software to download selected data from the user’s hard drive and store it on flash memory. That way, users could check their phone number contact list, read their latest synched emails or choose songs they want to hear, without having to boot up their system.

For enterprise IT managers, it will be much easier and faster to create 'images' of Vista that can be installed quickly on corporate computers, said Allchin. Another upgrade aimed at IT staffers is the automatic background fixing of Vista Registry errors.

Microsoft will not have individual Media Center and Tablet versions of Vista, as it does with XP. It will continue to release separate flavours of the Vista OS, Allchin said. He declined to offer details on what kinds of versions would be available.