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Benjamin J. Romano
Seattle Times technology reporter
The task is daunting: Make a product that works with tens of thousands of devices and software programs, and will be used by perhaps 800 million people or more. Anticipate their needs and wants now and years in the future. Prepare to be attacked by haters and hackers.
Oh, yeah, and get ready to rake in billions of dollars in profit.
More than five years after Microsoft started on the road to building the next version of the Windows computer-operating system, it's finally ready to give Vista to the masses.
The company is planning a launch celebration in New York City on Monday before Vista and Office 2007, Microsoft's other leading product, go on sale Tuesday. A few retailers are staying open late to accommodate those enthusiasts who want to be the first to get their hands on them, though it's hard to imagine the kind of craziness that surrounded earlier Windows launches.
Millions of software testers have been tinkering with Vista and it was released to large-business customers in November.
Eventually Vista will be on board virtually every new PC sold. Windows expert Brian Livingston expects 400 million people -- college students and seniors and everyone in between -- to be using the software within 24 months.
Here's a look at some of what's inside.
Microsoft is giving top billing to Vista's new look, easier searching, improved performance and security -- an area where Vista's predecessor, Windows XP, fell on its face.
"Vista is more secure than Windows XP. It's harder for a hacker to infect your PC from a distance. That alone is a benefit that makes Vista worth purchasing the next time you buy a PC," said Seattle-based Livingston, co-author of "Windows Vista Secrets," a comprehensive guide to the software.
Notice he said "the next time you buy a PC." Many experts aren't suggesting average users should buy Windows Vista for their existing computer. You have to make sure your box has the capability to run Vista and, if not, add things like a powerful graphics card.
While it will go smoothly for most, the risk of an installation headache isn't worth the reward of Vista versus an up-to-date copy of XP, Livingston said.
"There's no compelling reason to install Vista over XP," he said. Conversely, he sees no reason to buy a new PC that's still running XP -- which will be difficult to do before long anyway.
Microsoft's developers focused on security from the outset, consequently Vista is more secure. Time will tell as the software is distributed to millions of users and subsequently attacked by hackers.
Specific features, such as spyware and virus protection, firewall, user account and parental controls, and automatic security updates, are centralized in the Security Center. Using pop-up messages, the system alerts users of security issues, such as when software is trying to install itself. Some users have complained about the frequent pop-ups, which ask for permission on activities as basic as registering your copy of Vista with Microsoft. The alerts can be turned off.
Carl Von Papp is one of the millions of people who have made Vista and Office "two of the most tested products in history," according to Microsoft.
Testing software is old hat for the Bellevue Community College computer-science instructor and leader of special-interest groups focused on small business and laptop computing.
"I beta-tested DOS 1.0," he said, referring to the Microsoft operating system that debuted in 1981.
Van Papp's take on Vista, which he's been running on several machines for the better part of a year: It's an incremental step bigger in some ways -- specifically appearance and security -- than in others.
"I remember when Windows came out how it changed DOS," he said. "Every version seemed to make it a little easier to use the computer for the average person. In that respect, every version has been a step up, I think."
Van Papp at first dismissed Vista's good looks -- including translucent window edges and thumbnail images of files and open windows that show what they actually contain -- as mere window dressing.
"In the beginning I thought, who needs it?" he said. "But I have found psychologically that this eye candy makes the computer easier to use and more fun to use. I don't mind sitting there doing heavy work."
When travel consultant Beatrice Farrar writes up a proposal for a cruise or tour, she's careful about how she names the file and where she saves it -- skills she's learned in Seniors Training Seniors computer classes sponsored by the Seattle Human Services Department.
"OK, where is it?" she asks. "When you do a file, you save it and it goes in a folder, but you've got to label it so when you go back and look for it, you'll find it."
Microsoft has put more tools in Vista designed to help sort through the growing digital haystack of photos, music, videos, e-mails and other documents accumulating on computers.
The idea is you can find the proverbial needle as long as you remember something about it, like a keyword or the date it was created. The ability to search across a computer's desktop has been available as an add-on from Microsoft competitors for Windows XP. In Vista, search boxes will appear in the Start menu and other windows.
Farrar, 74, said that was a feature she could see herself using.
Microsoft has added a bunch of things it says will improve performance and keep it from degrading over time.
There's also a new power-saving sleep mode -- a combination of the old Standby and Hibernate modes in XP. But sleep is one of six choices Vista gives you for exiting a Windows session. The smorgasbord has drawn some criticism.
Improvements elsewhere might save users other headaches.
The software code underlying the improvements in Vista's appearance will also keep it from crashing during graphics-heavy tasks, provided the computer it's running on has the right hardware.
"The graphics in Vista have been rewritten so that video that a program is displaying is much less likely to crash the operating system, even if it does something wrong," said Livingston, who also edits WindowsSecrets.com. "This makes Vista more stable than XP, and people always complain that it crashes."
Seattle University freshman Amanda Martinez can relate. She said she watches more video on her computer now than she does on television.
"They play shows that you missed 24 hours, all week long," she said. "So you can go anytime you want, whenever you have an hour free."
But she's frustrated because to keep things running smoothly, it seems as if she's constantly downloading security updates and other software fixes.
"It's annoying because you'll be in the middle of something and then have to turn off the computer because the whole thing freezes," said Martinez, a forensic psychology major.
Yes, Microsoft's trying to make that easier too -- at least for its software -- through Windows Update. In this central location you can find out what updates you've downloaded, find out what's available and control automatic updates for fixes related to security.
Computer expert that he is, Livingston offered a surprising answer when asked for one of his favorite features in the new operating system.
"I want to buy Windows Vista just to get the chess game," he said.
Mahjong is another addition to the lineup of games that come with the software.
The chess game takes full advantage of Vista's graphics capabilities, rendering a sharp, realistic 3-D board and pieces. The skill of the computer opponent can be set on one of 10 levels, so no more "being crushed in a four-move checkmate," he said.
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