ARTICLES IN THE BOOK
A GUIDE TO WINDOWS VISTA
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Windows Vista, the latest version of Microsoft's desktop operating system, has been the target of a number of negative assessments by various groups. Criticisms of Windows Vista have included concerns about the security implications of the large amounts of new code, the inclusion of a number of new Digital Rights Management technologies aimed at restricting the copying of digital media, and the usability of the new User Account Control security technology. Security software companies like McAfee and Symantec have also lodged complaints that Microsoft has implemented new security measures that prevent their software from being able to access certain parts of the operating system. Additionally, reviewers have noted similarities between the Vista interface and that of Apple's Mac OS X operating system. Concerns have also been raised about many PCs not meeting "Vista Premium Ready" hardware requirements.
In a July 2006 report, security software vendor (and recently a competitor to Microsoft's OneCare) Symantec's Advanced Threat Research Team said that the large amount of new and untested code in Vista, especially the new implementation of the network stack, could cause instability and new security flaws. The report claims that "Microsoft has removed a large body of tried and tested code and replaced it with freshly written code, complete with new corner cases and defects". Microsoft responded that they "believe the claims are […] unsubstantiated", and Symantec admits that all of the bugs it found were fixed by the time Beta 2 was released, but adds that "While it is reassuring that Microsoft is finding and fixing these defects, we expect that vulnerabilities will continue to be discovered for some time. A networking stack is a complex piece of software that takes many years to mature." IPv6 tunnelling and peer-to-peer collaboration technologies were identified as additional potential problem areas. Firewall maker Agnitum and others have argued that the Kernel Patch Protection feature (also known as "Patchguard") for the 64-bit version can be circumvented by hackers and that some security software makers must use similar methods. McAfee has further claimed that Vista will actually be less secure than previous versions of Windows.
According to CNET News.com some critics are unenthusiastic about the Vista security features, because they believe it "offers mostly basic protection and is not the best of its class."
Although Microsoft has gone through great lengths (i.e. Windows Genuine Advantage and mandatory product activation) to protect its latest operating system from piracy, some users have supposedly already cracked the rights management features of Vista. This has enabled these users to illegally install Vista on their systems without a valid license. Although this was discovered only a few days after Vista went gold, Microsoft has claimed that this issue only affected copies made before the Vista's release to manufacturing (RTM).
Another common criticism concerns the integration of new forms of Digital Rights Management into the operating system, specifically the Protected Video Path (PVP), which involves technologies such as High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) and the Image Constraint Token (ICT). These features have been added to Vista due to an agreement between Microsoft and major Hollywood studios. Microsoft claims that movie studios and other providers of "premium content" will only allow their data to be played back on PCs if sufficient protection is granted. This will concern, among other things, play-back of protected content on HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs.
In essence, the Protected Video Path mandates that encryption must be used whenever content marked as "protected" will travel over a link where it might be intercepted. This is called a User-Accessible Bus (UAB). Additionally, all devices that come into contact with premium content such as graphics cards have to be certified by Microsoft. Before playback starts, all the devices involved are checked using a Hardware Functionality Scan (HFS) to verify if they are genuine and have not been tampered with. Devices are required to switch off or artificially degrade the quality of any signal outputs that are not protected by HDCP. Additionally, Microsoft maintains a global revocation list for devices that have been compromised. This list is distributed to PCs over the Internet using normal update mechanisms. The only effect on a revoked driver's functionality is that high-level protected content won't play — all other functionality, including low-definition playback, is retained. 
Peter Gutmann, a computer security expert from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, has released a whitepaper in which he raises the following concerns against these mechanisms:
Steve Gibson of Gibson Research Corporation has stated during his Security Now! show that he agrees with Peter Gutmann in principle and that what he proposes is a factually accurate description of what is found in the specification from Microsoft.
The Free Software Foundation is leading a campaign called "Bad Vista" against Vista on these grounds, as well as because it is an example of prominent proprietary software.
Microsoft has published a blog entry with "Twenty Questions (and Answers)" on Windows Vista Content Protection, intending to refute some of Gutmann's arguments.
Paul Smith, a Microsoft MVP and beta-tester, has written a response to Gutmann's paper in which he counters some of his arguments. Specifically, he says:
The new User Account Control (UAC) security technology also causes concern among reviewers. While Yankee Group analyst Andrew Jaquith believes that critical security vulnerabilities may be "reduced by as much as 80 percent", he also noted that "while the new security system shows promise, it is far too chatty and annoying". Veteran Microsoft reporter Paul Thurrott, although initially in aggreement with this claim, appears to have retracted those comments, claiming in his Windows Vista Beta 2 review, that UAC had been "completely overhauled" and is "less annoying." He nevertheless acknowledges that Microsoft is "still struggling to find a balance between security and annoyance." It should be noted that User Account Control can be easily disabled if desired, at the expense of the protection that it offers.
Another criticism is a claim by some that Windows Vista emulates specific features in Apple's Mac OS X. Scott Spanbauer of PCWorld jokes about a perceived "striking similarity" between Vista's Aero visual effects, icon design, buttons and those of Mac OS X's Aqua. Paul Thurrott of WindowsITPro made similar comments in his review of build 5308, while also suggesting that some of the new applications "appear to be directly, ahem, influenced by similar applications in OS X." John Rizzo of eWeek has noted that Vista is incorporating features which OS X has had for some time, such as fast searching and Smart Folders functionality. This has led some to perceive that Aero is an imitation of Aqua. Apple was keen to highlight the similarities during the keynote presentation at the Worldwide Developers Conference in August 2006, with Bertrand Serlet showing screenshots of Vista and OS X side-by-side.   However, many features including the Windows Sidebar and Search features were included and/or introduced in early alpha versions of Vista before Apple released the features in Mac OS 10.4. Both Vista's Sidebar and Mac OS X's Dashboard share similarities with Konfabulator (now owned by Yahoo). The application is still available from Yahoo under the name Yahoo! Widget Engine.
Considerable speculation and questions about the hardware required to run Vista were eventually dispelled when Microsoft revealed its own requirements and recommendations in March 2006. However, controversy and concerns have arisen over how the increase in hardware specifications required to take advantage of many of Vista's new features may impact both personal and business users. Elizabeth Judge of The Times stated that “the system’s full range of tools would be available to less than 5 per cent of Britain’s PC market” and that it “would run in full only on super-advanced PCs”. This has raised concerns that users wanting to enjoy the full experience would be forced to buy expensive new equipment, even though the minimum hardware specifications for Vista indicate that it will run on most PCs sold over the last three years. A Microsoft spokeswoman countered these claims by denying that current PC users would be unable to use Vista, stating, “A recent analyst report states that nearly all PCs on the market today will run Windows Vista.” While most PCs purchased over the last three years will be able to meet Vista’s minimum “Windows Vista Capable” requirements, many laptops and low-end to midrange desktops with integrated graphics will not be able to meet “Windows Vista Premium Ready” requirements and will therefore not be able to run advanced features such as the Aero Glass interface.
Microsoft has also been criticized for removing some heavily discussed features such as Next-Generation Secure Computing Base in May 2004, WinFS in August 2004, Windows PowerShell in August 2005 (though this was released separately from Vista prior to its release), SecurID Support in May 2006, PC-to-PC Synchronization in June 2006. The initial "three pillars" in Vista were all radically altered to reach a release date.
The European Union Competition Commission has raised questions with Microsoft about Vista concerning compliance with EU rules intended to allow competition between security providers on the merits of their products. Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd stated, "If business and home users are deprived of choice, a security 'monoculture' based on Microsoft products may lead to less innovation and could harm all computer users. Security risks could increase, and not decrease." Todd also stated that, "it is Microsoft's responsibility as a 'near monopolist' to abide by EU competition rules—in particular, those that prohibit abuse of a dominant market position." Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer met with EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes in August 2006 to discuss EU concerns. Responding to EU concerns, Jack Evans, a Microsoft spokesman, stated, "We still have not received the guidance we're seeking. In July, we received a formal list of questions, but no answers about what specific concerns the Commission has, or how we should address them." Evans went on to state "The bottom line is that we want to launch Vista in a fully lawful manner, and we want to avoid regulatory decisions that could increase security risks for European consumers." There has been speculation that this issue may delay the release of Vista in Europe, but as of September 2006 the Europe release date has not been affected.
Microsoft's pricing of Vista has been criticized by many as too expensive. A majority of users in a poll said that the prices of various Windows Vista editions posted on the Microsoft Canada website in August 2006 make the product too expensive.
The differences in pricing from one country to another are also striking, especially considering that copies of Vista can be ordered and shipped worldwide from the US saving between US$42 and US$314. In many cases, this price differential is significantly greater than was the case for Windows XP. At the current exchange rate, UK consumers could be paying almost double their US counterparts for the same software.
Online forums at Microsoft attracted many complaints regarding the pricing, one correspondent calling for a boycott of the product until pricing was set fairly. When asked why British consumers should have to pay more for Vista, Bill Gates blamed exchange rates.
Categories: Windows Vista | Microsoft criticisms and controversies