Microsoft’s much-anticipated update of its Windows operating system (OS) could be available in a global rollout as early as this fall, according to industry sources. A community technology preview of the program was released last month.

The new version of Windows, dubbed Vista, is Microsoft’s first update of its flagship operating system in five years. The latest version will offer a number of new features that are relevant to educators, the company said, including enhanced security and deployment options, as well as application enhancements.

The release comes as Microsoft faces the threat of emerging competitors–from progressive open-source software providers to internet search giant Google Inc., whose rumored OS and other potential products threaten Microsoft both on and off the desktop.

According to the latest figures from Quality Education Data Inc., a provider of education statistics, in the 2003-04 academic year 69.2 percent of computers in U.S. K-12 educational institutions ran some form of Windows-based operating system, compared to 29.8 percent for Apple’s Macintosh platform.

“There’s a lot of strength in having a network of folks who use the same [operating system] in the same setting as you do,” as is the case in most Windows-based K-12 learning environments, said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

Knezek believes the majority of K-12 schools using PCs will eventually make the switch to Vista in efforts to maintain user consistency and application compatibility, but thinks such a decision will be more difficult in institutions of higher learning, primarily because of the opportunities inherent in increasingly popular open-source alternatives such as Linux.

“If you get into collaborative projects in universities, a lot of those folks are pushing on open source [operating system solutions],” Knezek said. Plus, open-source solutions are non-proprietary, and are widely seen as adaptable to the needs of a given organization, he said.

Technology analysts who spoke with eSchool News about the impending release said Vista represents a solid effort in terms of upgrades for existing Windows users, but is far from revolutionary as far as operating systems go.

“A lot of what’s included in Vista you can get as add-ons to XP,” said Michael Silver, vice president of research at Gartner Inc., a technology research firm.

Microsoft claims Windows Vista is engineered to be the most secure version of Windows to date, a benefit that will no doubt attract the attention of district technology directors, many of whom are constantly battling malicious internet content on huge networks, often without the benefit of additional technicians and support. A spokesman for the company said Windows Vista contains several new safety features that, “taken together, are designed to make Windows PCs more secure and online experiences safer.”

February’s Vista client version preview reportedly includes a number of security features that will be of interest to IT administrators and educators concerned with student access to harmful internet content.

For instance, the company says its Windows Defender feature (formerly Windows AntiSpyware) helps protect networks against spyware and other potentially unwanted software. AntiSpyware was first introduced as an add-on to XP and other versions of Windows.

Vista also reportedly boasts an upgraded firewall security feature that can be scaled to limit file, registry, and network access to only those uses that are legitimately required for a service’s operation. It also can block access to stored passwords and other critical user materials that might reside on protected areas of the network. Such information is often sought out by identity thieves and internet predators, the company said.

The new breed OS also introduces a set of parental controls designed to help provide a safe PC experience for children, allowing parents to more easily monitor their child’s computer usage.

When it comes to security in web browsing, especially in complex educational environments, Gartner’s Silver agrees; Vista represents an important step forward for Microsoft.

“In an educational environment, Vista will offer a new version of Internet Explorer (IE); that version of IE will be less susceptible to [malicious programs], and easier to use,” he said.

Microsoft says Vista also might represent a reduction in deployment costs; that is, it could offer network administrators the ability to deploy and manage several copies of an operating system across a network from a single, centralized location, such as a school technology hub.

Company executives estimate deployment technologies for Vista will bring the cost of manual deployment from $1,000 per PC down to under $100, if the deployment capabilities of Vista are used “along with a modern IT structure.”

But Gartner’s Silver suggested savings like that might be “a bit of a reach.”

“There are a lot of things you need to do to install an OS over a network. I have to move user data, adjust the settings for faculty/staff PCs–there are data and settings that need to be used for one or more users. I also have applications that certain users get, others don’t. Vista does not help me resolve those problems,” Silver said.

The server version of Vista offers, according to Microsoft, a complete solution for remotely deploying a Windows-based operating system.

The company says the remote installation service will reduce management costs associated with deployment by providing IT managers with a way to deploy Vista across multiple desktops on a single network.

Such deployments have not traditionally been standard on Windows and, up until now, have required an investment in add-on software. In most cases, deployments have been conducted by IT technicians who go from desktop to desktop installing the software with a CD, DVD, or other form of media. Microsoft plans to make its Windows Imaging Format standard on at least certain versions of Vista, the company said.

The software-maker also has created a complete set of tools and technologies designed to help IT professionals plan and test desktops across a network. The business desktop deployment tool reportedly includes enhancements that increase Windows compatibility with non-windows applications; permits end-to-end monitoring of tasks and activities during and after deployment; as well as documentation capabilities to help organizations develop a consistent, repeatable desktop deployment methodology, company representatives said.

What’s more, Microsoft says, IT administrators can use updated group-use policies in the Vista Server version to block the installation of removable storage devices, such as USB flash drives and external hard drives, which can help prevent networks from being compromised through viruses uploaded to individual machines. Centralized control over usage policy settings for printers, troubleshooting and diagnostics, power management, and other key features will be determinable by the user. The company says such modifications will improve security and manageability in shared environments like computer labs, libraries, and schools.

“There are lots of technologies that PC users use to get OS down to the desktop. Vista has some interesting features, but it’s not a complete solution to the problems posed by deployment,” Silver said.

As of press time, the company refused to answer questions regarding whether or not older versions of Windows would be compatible with the Vista Server and, conversely, if the server edition of the OS could be used to run Vista desktops.

A number of other features will, however, be available as applications on Vista. For instance, the program will include a built-in platform for hosting mini-applications, known as gadgets. Gadgets, according to the company, offer quick, desktop access to news items, document workflow status for teachers and administrators to monitor student activity, and IT infrastructure status for IT staff. A slide show function and a world clock also will be accessible from the desktop, executive said.

Critics have said that these features are similar to those offered as part of Apple’s 2005 OS-Xv10.4 Tiger OS. That version of the operating system features a mini-application resource known as dashboard (see ).

But despite the inclination of software-makers to add these gadget-type applications to their desktops, software analysts say the real benefit of Vista likely will be found on the backend.

“Gadgets, the Sidebar (the tool to access gadgets), that sort of stuff, that’s really ‘window dressing,’ excuse the pun–you’re going to have to look at some of the security features to see the ones that are going to be more important to people,” said Gartner’s Silver.

Even with all the upgrades, he said, education institutions are unlikely to be early adopters of Vista.

“Microsoft certainly needs to be more worried about getting people to update from XP than fleeing to Mac or Linux,” Silver suggested.

Analysts say it will be important for Microsoft to have the OS in stores by the holiday season, in part because consumers–rather than businesses or education institutions–are usually the first to buy new versions of Windows. Analysts also think the move will be good for computer-makers, who can use Vista as a push to persuade shoppers to buy new PCs.

First, however, Microsoft must persuade consumers that the upgrade is worth it, especially considering that plenty of users might be perfectly content running the current version of Windows.

The company has said it will release six versions of Vista: two for businesses, three for consumers, and one for emerging markets. An education-specific version of the OS was not mentioned as part of the company’s plans. Pricing for the product was not available at press time.


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