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Microsoft releases six critical security bulletins for October

For October’s Patch Tuesday, Microsoft released 10 security bulletins, six of which it’s rated as critical. (The remaining four updates address two moderate threats, one important threat, and one low threat.) In addition, several of the bulletins affect Office applications for the Mac.

Redmond released 10 security bulletins for October’s Patch Tuesday, rating six as critical. Due to space constraints, I’ll review the critical updates this week, and I’ll wrap up this month’s Patch Tuesday coverage with the rest in the next issue.

Keep in mind that attackers are actively exploiting some of these threats, so make sure to examine each update on a case-by-case basis. To learn about specific workarounds and mitigating factors, read each security bulletin in detail.

Fortunately for managers and “patch masters,” most of these threats are only critical for older platforms and applications—a fact that greatly reduces the impact of these critical patch warnings. In most cases, Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA) 2.0 or Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 will identify the need for a patch, but earlier versions may not work properly. However, MBSA 2.0 and SMS 2003 may not work in some instances, particularly for Macintosh platforms and Office 2000.

Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-057, titled as both “Vulnerability in Windows Shell Could Allow Remote Code Execution” and “Vulnerability in Windows Explorer Could Allow Remote Execution,” addresses the Windows Shell Remote Code Execution Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3730). There have been reports that attackers are actively exploiting this vulnerability.

This is a critical threat for Windows 2000 Service Pack 4 and all versions of Windows XP; it is a moderate threat for all versions of Windows Server 2003. This bulletin replaces Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-045 for Windows XP SP1 only.

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Possible workarounds include patching the registry, disabling ActiveX controls, and altering Internet Explorer security zones—all of which can have serious side effects. See the security bulletin for more details.

Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-058, “Vulnerabilities in Microsoft PowerPoint Could Allow Remote Code Execution,” addresses four separate problems:

* PowerPoint Malformed Object Pointer Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3435)
* PowerPoint Malformed Data Record Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3876)
* PowerPoint Malformed Record Memory Corruption Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3877)
* PowerPoint Malformed Record Vulnerability (CVE-2006-4694)—attackers are actively exploiting this vulnerability.

This is a critical threat for PowerPoint 2000; it is an important threat for PowerPoint 2002, PowerPoint 2003, PowerPoint 2004 for Mac, and PowerPoint v.X for Mac. This bulletin replaces Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-028 for all affected versions.

See the security bulletin to learn about possible workarounds and mitigating factors, which are numerous.

Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-059, “Vulnerabilities in Microsoft Excel Could Allow Remote Code Execution,” is another threat that affects both Windows and Macintosh platforms and addresses multiple vulnerabilities:

* Excel Malformed DATETIME Record Vulnerability (CVE-2006-2387)
* Excel Malformed STYLE Record Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3431)
* Excel Handling of Lotus 1-2-3 File Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3867)
* Excel Malformed COLINFO Record Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3875)

While both the Lotus 1-2-3 and STYLE Record vulnerabilities were publicly disclosed threats, there were no reports of active exploits at the time of publication.

This collective group poses a critical threat for Excel 2000; it’s an important threat for Excel 2002, Excel 2003, Excel Viewer 2003, Excel 2004 for Mac, and Excel v.X for Mac. This bulletin replaces Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-037 for all affected versions.

Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-060, “Vulnerabilities in Microsoft Word Could Allow Remote Code Execution,” is another threat that affects both Windows and Macintosh platforms and addresses multiple vulnerabilities:

* Microsoft Word Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3647)
* Microsoft Word Mail Merge Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3651)
* Microsoft Word Malformed Stack Vulnerability (CVE-2006-4534)
* Microsoft Word for Mac Vulnerability (CVE-2006-4693)

This collective group poses a critical threat for Word 2000; it’s an important threat for Word 2002, Word 2003, Word 2003 Viewer, Word 2004 for Mac, and Word v.X for Mac. This bulletin replaces Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-027 for Word 2000, Word 2002, Word 2003, and Word 2003 Viewer. These are newly disclosed threats, and there had been no reports of active exploits at the time of publication.

Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-061, “Vulnerabilities in Microsoft XML Core Services Could Allow Remote Code Execution,” addresses two separate threats:

* Microsoft XML Core Services Vulnerability (CVE-2006-4685)
* XSLT Buffer Overrun Vulnerability (CVE-2006-4686)

This bulletin affects Windows 2000 SP4, all versions of Windows XP, all versions of Windows Server 2003, Office 2003 SP1, Office 2003 SP2, Microsoft XML Core Services 4.0, and Microsoft XML Core Services 6.0. While the XML Core Services Vulnerability poses an important to low threat—depending on the version—the XSLT Buffer Overrun Vulnerability is a critical threat, so the collective rating is critical for all affected versions.

These are newly disclosed threats, and there had been no reports of active exploits at the time of publication.

Note: While Microsoft updated the bulletin to remove a mistaken update note, this bulletin doesn’t replace any prior security patches.

Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-062, “Vulnerabilities in Microsoft Office Could Allow Remote Code Execution,” addresses four separate threats:

* Office Improper Memory Access Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3434)
* Office Malformed Chart Record Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3650)
* Office Malformed Record Memory Corruption Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3864)
* Microsoft Office Smart Tag Parsing Vulnerability (CVE-2006-3868)

This bulletin affects Office 2000 SP3, Office XP SP3, Office 2003 SP1, Office 2003 SP2, Office 2004 for Mac, and Office v.X for Mac. It also affects Project 2000 Service Release 1, Project 2002 SP1, and Visio 2002 SP2. It is a critical threat for Office 2000, and it’s an important threat for all remaining versions.

This bulletin replaces Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-048 for all affected versions. Microsoft has updated the security bulletin itself to V1.1 to clarify some details.

The Microsoft Office Smart Tag Parsing vulnerability was the only publicly disclosed threat, but there had been no reports of active exploits at the time of publication.
Final word

And if six critical patches aren’t enough, don’t forget that Microsoft also recently released a critical patch out of sequence—Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-055 for XML problems. Yes, folks, these critical threats are the ones Redmond felt could wait for the regular scheduled Patch Tuesday! Tune in next week for details on the remaining security bulletins.

Points You Need to Know For Becoming MCTS Certified

Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) is one of the most popular certifications awarded by Microsoft. This certification will help you demonstrate your range of expertise, practical skills, and a thorough knowledge of Microsoft technologies. The Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) credential endorses the knowledge and skills of an IT professional with respect to performing a given job role including those like database administrator or enterprise messaging administrator. One of the most distinguishing features of this certification process is that it is built by Microsoft on the technical proficiency assessed by the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS ) certifications. This fact will enable you get one or more MCTS certifications as you progress on your way to securing an MCTS Training.

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MCTS certification attests that the candidates have the necessary set of skills to deploy, build, optimize, design various applications operating technologies with respect to a particular job role and that they are capable of designing and making a number of technology decisions crucial to accomplish successful technology implementation projects.

While the Microsoft Certified Techonlogy Specialist (MCTS ) credential enables IT professionals with a more focussed and simpler framework to display their technical and professional skills, some reputed MCTS certification training programs available on the net enables the candidates to systematically acquire the required knowledge and skills needed to make their cherished IT dreams come alive and besides easily securing a great paying job in the purview of the IT industry.

One of the most important aspects that you need to note regarding this certification is that it also highlights your exclusive field of expertise as there are about twelve concentrations available within this one certification. This will help you distinguish yourself among other IT professionals by possessing the up-to-date skills and surpassing job-role capabilities to effectively work with a comprehensive set of Microsoft technologies.

While choosing the right site for getting trained for this certification, always look for programmes that are offered by certified instructors. This will help you with a quality education necessary to enhance your IT career. One of the greatest advantages of securing this certification is that you are actually letting the employers know that you are more capable than others to get the job done right.

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Trend Micro issues virtualisation security warning

Companies could be at risk if hackers turn their attentions away from the desktop

Attacks targeted at datacentres and virtualised environments could represent the next vanguard of threats if cyber criminals begin to shift their attention away from the increasingly well secured desktop, according to security experts.

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Trend Micro chief technology officer Raimund Genes told V3.co.uk that, despite the many benefits of cloud computing, the back-end virtual infrastructures of many clouds are potentially at risk.

“If the desktop becomes more difficult to attack they will focus on the datacentre,” he said. “VMware has done a good job with security, but is it 100 per cent flawless? The same is true with other providers. It’s something we need to be aware of.”

Genes also criticised Microsoft’s Essentials security tool for relying on an outdated anti-virus signature update system which is poor at protecting against zero-day threats and lacks the agility of a cloud-based protection network.

“Every malware is now zero-day,” he said. “Microsoft’s detection is lousy. It doesn’t use the cloud and it doesn’t offer exposure layer protection.”

Genes criticised the “security monoculture” that the free Essentials security tool could create, claiming that it will make it easier for hackers to circumvent.

His argument echoes that of Panda Security, which also railed against Microsoft’s free anti-virus product last month, calling for a European anti-trust investigation over the policy of pushing out the software via the Microsoft and Windows Update services.

Windows @ 25: 25 things you didn’t know about the Microsoft OS

It’s 25 years since Microsoft launched the first version of Windows, and what started out in November 1985 as a graphical front end for DOS has grown into the most widely used operating system. To mark Windows’ 25th, we’ve put together 25 facts about the OS to highlight some of the more memorable moments in its history.

1. The origins of Windows can be traced to September 1981 when Microsoft began working on a project entitled Interface Manager.

2. The release of Windows 1.0 in 1985 was actually two years later than planned. We’d be on Windows 8 now if they’d stuck to their schedules.

3. Microsoft supported Windows 1.0 until the final day of 2001, some 16 years later.

4. Windows 3.1, despite being first launched in 1992, found a niche role as an embedded operating system, and was still in use in 2008 by Virgin Atlantic and Qantas in some onboard entertainment systems on long-distance flights.

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5. Fortune named Microsoft as the ‘Most Innovative Company Operating in the US’ in 1993 as sales of Windows started to rocket.

6. Many editions of Windows required endless floppy disks to install the system. For example, Windows 95 came on 13 disks.

7. Microsoft used Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones on adverts for the launch of Windows 95. The Stones were reportedly paid between $8m and $14m, but this is said to be a gross exaggeration.

8. Music was also part of the obligatory free stuff that Microsoft bundled in with Windows 95 – to be exact, a video of Buddy Holly by rock band Weezer to show off the system’s multimedia capabilities.

9. Microsoft also cashed in on the success of Friends in the 1990s by commissioning a promotional video, labeled a ‘cyber sitcom’, featuring Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry showing off the top 25 features of Windows 95. The firm claimed it was a “fast and funny” guide to the new operating system. It was anything but.

10. In the US, the Empire State Building was lit up to match the colours of the Windows logo for the 95 launch.

11. In the UK, Microsoft paid for 1.5 million issues of The Times to be given away with a bundled supplement about Windows 95 on the day it launched. This was twice the daily circulation of the paper at the time.

12. All this advertising clearly worked, as more than a million copies of Windows 95 were sold in the first four days after its release. How Microsoft executives must wish for a return to those days, instead of watching Apple enjoying queues of fans waiting for new products.

13. Nevertheless, Windows has a 91 per cent market share for client operating systems that use the internet, so those executives needn’t be too glum.

14. Bill Gates appeared in two adverts with American comedian Jerry Seinfeld in 2008 in which, as well as displaying what we’ll kindly refer to as questionable comic timing, he and Seinfeld made some sort of left-field comment on the way Windows had helped connect billions of people on the planet, or something like that.

15. Musician Brian Eno, of Roxy Music, composed Windows 95’s startup music. He produced 84 pieces before settling on the now famous sound.

16. There are estimated to be some 25 million Windows crashes everyday.

17. The successor to Windows XP, which eventually became Vista, was codenamed Longhorn during development stages, which is also a type of cow. You can draw your own comparisons.

18. Bill Gates is actually called William Henry Gates III and has a knighthood bestowed on him by the Queen, although more for his charity work than for Windows.

19. During the pre-release phase of Windows 98, Gates was hit by the Blue Screen of Death when showing off the new Plug and Play feature, something he managed to laugh off rather well.

20. Windows supports 34 languages including Hebrew, Latvian and Arabic.

21. Windows 8 is most likely to be released sometime around 2012, based on previous operating cycle timelines.

22. Windows XP is said to have 50 million lines of code, the figure rising with each new release.

23. It’s impossible to name a folder as ‘Con’ on Windows. Try it. On the desktop, in the hard drive, wherever you try, it will just revert back to the name ‘New Folder’.

24. Microsoft used US cities for codenames of some of the new Windows developments, such as Chicago for Windows 95 and Memphis for Windows 98.

25. And finally, while Windows has been a staple of the desktop computing environment for the past 25 years, another Microsoft attempt at providing a user interface for personal computers proved less successful, and was even placed in Time magazine’s 50 Worst Inventions.

It’s name? Microsoft Bob, a “front room” layout of the desktop environment that was essentially Clippy on steroids. It didn’t last long.

Making Windows 7 Home Premium the Ultimate OS, Part 4: Disk Encryption

As you step through the various Windows 7 product editions, an interesting picture emerges. Windows 7 Home Premium is, quite clearly, the sweet spot from a functionality perspective and the reason I consider this version to be the starting point for any Windows 7 user, and the focal point of this article. When you move up from Home Premium to Professional, you get a smaller bump in functionality, and if you look over the past two parts of this series, you’ll see some of the key Windows 7 features that are unique to Professional edition and the free or cheap tools I recommend to Home Premium users to replace them. But when you jump up from Professional to Ultimate, there’s an even smaller leap. In fact, there are really only two key features that are unique to Windows 7 Ultimate. And they’re both based around the notion of encryption-based data protection.

These features are so key, in fact, that I consider it almost criminal that Microsoft doesn’t make them available to all Windows users. I’d like to see that change in the future. But for now, you’ll need to seek out other ways to duplicate the functionality in the features Microsoft provides via its BitLocker and BitLocker To Go functionality.

BitLocker came first, in Windows Vista, and provides full-disk encryption for fixed hard drives. BitLocker To Go, meanwhile, debuts in Windows 7 and adds this same encryption functionality to removable storage media like USB memory keys. You can find out more about BitLocker To Go in my Windows 7 Feature Focus article.

I’ve found an excellent replacement for BitLocker, but have yet to find anything that is as seamless and well designed as BitLocker To Go. Fortunately, there’s a nice (if temporary) workaround you can take advantage of if you’d like to use BitLocker To Go. Here’s what I found.

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Full disk encryption replacement: Zone Alarm DataLock

Cost: $20 (Normally $30)
Download: http://www.zonealarm.com/security/en-us/zonealarm-data-lock.htm
Description: Hard drive encryption makes everything on your computer’s hard drive unreadable to unauthorized eyes. It jumbles the data in such a way that it cannot be deciphered unless a special password is entered. If your laptop PC is stolen or lost, hard drive encryption prevents your personal data from getting into the wrong hands, even if you never recover your hardware. All your data is fully protected – even temporary and deleted files. Your encrypted hard drive is inaccessible unless a special login and password are entered. No password, no access – thieves are locked out. This login cannot be bypassed by removing the hard drive or by booting off a CD.

Notes: ZoneAlarm DataLock is essentially a consumer version of a Check Point product that’s been around for a while. I’ve been using it on my own Windows 7 Home Premium-based laptop (a ThinkPad SL410) and it appears to work quite well. As with any disk encryption solution, the actually encryption process is time consuming. But once it’s done, you won’t notice that it’s there–it doesn’t impact performance at all, from what I can tell–other than when you boot the computer, since there is a separate security logon at boot time.

There are a couple of interesting differences between DataLock and BitLocker (aside from the boot time logon). First, DataLock also works with Windows XP and Vista as well as Windows 7. Second, if you forget your boot-time logon, you can actually call ZoneAlarm to get it; Microsoft doesn’t offer any kind of BitLocker recovery functionality.

There are a few questions here. ZoneAlarm notes that “not all systems will be compatible” but doesn’t explain what that means. (I had no issues installing it, but I only did so on one system.) The product costs $20, and while ZoneAlarm says you don’t need to pay a yearly license fee, once you go beyond the first year of usage, you will need to pay a small renewal fee after the first year for ongoing technical support, which presumably includes logon recovery. Also, I noticed that Windows Home Server-based PC backup stopped working after installing DataLock. I will test whether reinstalling the WHS Connector software fixes this after I return from the trip I’m currently on.

Making Windows 7 Home Premium the Ultimate OS
There’s not a lot of UI to show here: It just sits in the background, protecting your data.
Other alternatives to BitLocker and BitLocker To Go

Here are some other reader recommendations for BitLocker and BitLocker To Go replacements that you may want to check out.

Cost: FREE
Download: http://www.truecrypt.org/
Description: TrueCrypt is free open-source disk encryption software for Windows 7/Vista/XP, Mac OS X, and Linux.

Main features:

* Creates a virtual encrypted disk within a file and mounts it as a real disk.
* Encrypts an entire partition or storage device such as USB flash drive or hard drive.
* Encrypts a partition or drive where Windows is installed (pre-boot authentication).
* Encryption is automatic, real-time (on-the-fly) and transparent.
* Parallelization and pipelining allow data to be read and written as fast as if the drive was not encrypted.
* Provides plausible deniability, in case an adversary forces you to reveal the password.
* Encryption algorithms: AES-256, Serpent, and Twofish. Mode of operation: XTS.

Notes: TrueCrypt is hard. But if you don’t mind navigating through a technical interface, it can basically do everything that BitLocker and BitLocker To Go can do. So you may find it worth the effort.

Cost: FREE
Download: http://www.7-zip.org/
Description: 7-Zip is an open source file archiver with a high compression ratio. It supports strong AES-256 encryption in 7z and ZIP formats, so it’s possible, in a very manual way, to protect important documents and other data files on a USB hard drive or memory stick.

Windows 7 Annoyances

After the poor reception of Windows Vista by customers, Microsoft knew it had to retrench for that system’s successor, Windows 7. And retrench it did: Windows 7 has entered the market to universally positive reviews from the tech press and customers alike. Part of the reason is that Windows 7 is a more modest upgrade than was Windows Vista. And part of it is that Microsoft tried to create a more cohesive and simpler system than it had with Windows 7’s predecessor.

So Windows 7 is a huge success, no doubt about it. But if you’re coming to Windows 7 from a previous Windows version, you’re going to notice a number of changes–some big, some small–and that’s true if you were previously using Windows Vista, XP, or an even older version. And while Windows 7’s changes are mostly improvements, unfamiliarity can lead to a loss of productivity. So if you’re looking for a way to fix some of Windows 7’s most obvious annoyances, or simply change some crucial feature back to the way it used to work, fear not: I’ve got your back.

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Looking at the Windows 7 user interface, the most obvious change is the new taskbar, which represents a major functional departure from the previous several Windows versions. Now, instead of just providing buttons that represent running applications and other open windows, the taskbar also comingles shortcuts for frequently-needed applications and other objects. If you’re familiar with Mac OS X, you may feel that the new taskbar is a rip-off of that system’s Dock. In many ways, however, it simply combines the functionality from the XP/Vista taskbar taskbar with the Quick Launch toolbar. Regardless of its origins, one thing is clear: The Windows 7 taskbar is different enough that it will cause some headaches for users who are accustomed to previous Windows versions.

Annoyance: By default, the Windows 7 taskbar displays only a single icon for every shortcut or button. So if you have several Internet Explorer windows (or tabs) open, you’ll only see one button. That can be confusing, but it also means there’s no descriptive text caption on the button to describe what the window(s) are displaying, as was the case with all previous Windows versions dating back to Windows 95.

Windows 7 Annoyances
How many windows of each application are actually open? It’s impossible to say.

Solution: Fortunately, you can overcome Microsoft’s less-than-ideal default taskbar behavior and arrive at a display that more closely resembles previous Windows versions. To do so, right-click a blank area of the taskbar and choose Properties. Then, in the Taskbar buttons pull-down, choose “Combine when taskbar is full.” This will cause the taskbar to make two display changes. First, each button (each of which represents an open application or window) will include a caption, and not just a nondescript icon. Second, when you open multiple windows of the same application (as with IE or Windows Explorer), each window will get its own button.

Windows 7 Annoyances
With a small change, the Windows 7 taskbar is much more usable.

Annoyance: Most people who use Windows 7 quickly come to accept the way it combines shortcuts (links to non-running applications and windows) with buttons (links to running apps and windows). But there is one bizarre limitation: You cannot add two links on the taskbar for the same application. This is particularly problematic for Windows Explorer links: If you’d like to place separate shortcuts for, say, the Documents and Pictures libraries, you can’t: Instead, Windows 7 places links to both of these locations into the Windows Explorer shortcut’s Jump List.

Solution: Fortunately, there is a way around this limitation. Here how it works: Create a shortcut to the Windows Explorer location you want on the desktop. Then, right-click the shortcut and choose Properties. In the Target field, add the word “explorer” (no quotes) before the folder path. (If the path has any spaces, the path must be inside quotes.) The shortcut’s icon will change to the default Windows Explorer icon, but you can of course change it again as needed. Now, pin this shortcut to the taskbar: Instead of pinning it to the existing Windows Explorer shortcut, it will create a new shortcut. Voila!

Annoyance: While many users will embrace the new taskbar, some wish to retain a separation between shortcuts and links to running applications and open windows. And many of these people miss the Quick Start toolbar, which Microsoft removed from Windows 7.

Solution: You can enable the Quick Launch toolbar in Windows 7. To do so, right-click a blank area of the taskbar and choose Toolbar and then New toolbar. In the Choose a folder window that appears, type the following text into the Folder field: “%userprofile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch” (no quotes) and click Select Folder. You’ll see the Quick Launch toolbar appear in truncated form at the right of the taskbar. To modify this, unlock the taskbar (right-click and uncheck “Lock the taskbar”). Then, drag it where you’d like it and then disable two options, “Show text” and “Show title,” by right-clicking the Quick Launch toolbar. This will make the toolbar look as it did in previous Windows versions.

Windows 7 Annoyances
Yes, Virginia, you really can enable the Quick Launch toolbar in Windows 7.

Annoyance: Windows Vista included an excellent utility called Software Explorer, part of Windows Defender, that made it very easy to prevent applications from starting up when Windows boots and, in many cases, littering the notification area with unneeded icons. Windows 7, sadly, removes this utility.

Solution: Unless you want to hunt down a third party utility, you’re going to have to go old school on Windows 7 and stretch some pre-Vista plumbing skills. There are a number of places to look at if you wish to streamline the Windows 7 boot process, but one is key: The System Configuration utility–type “msconfig” (no quotes) in Start Menu Search to find it–is a spiritual predecessor of sorts to Software Explorer and it provides a list of startup apps in its Startup tab that you can edit.
Start Menu

Annoyance: While the Windows 7 Start Menu is largely unchanged from Windows Vista, many users of the new OS will be coming from Windows XP or older Windows versions, and they may prefer the classic Start Menu from those versions. Unfortunately, Microsoft has removed this option from Windows 7.

Solution: Fortunately, an enterprising third party developer makes available a Classic Start Menu replacement for the Windows 7 Start Menu, so you can get back the Start Menu that graced Windows 95 through Windows Vista. It’s part of the Classic Shell project (see below).
Windows Explorer

Annoyance: If it seems like Microsoft has changed the layout and capabilities of Windows Explorer with each new Windows version, well, they have. And this trend continues in Windows 7, which, like Windows Vista, no longer includes a number of useful toolbar buttons that were available in Windows XP and older Windows versions.

Solution: Once again, Classic Shell comes to the rescue. This Explorer plug-in provides missing buttons like Cut, Copy, Paste, Delete, and Properties, and provides other old-school functionality, such as bringing back the pre-Windows 7 file copy dialog. It also displays free disk space and the file/folder size in the Explorer window status bar. Just like XP.

Windows 7 Annoyances
Classic Shell adds a mini-toolbar to Windows Explorer (in the upper right), providing easy access to commands Microsoft removed.

Anytime Microsoft releases a new Windows version, there are fears that device or application compatibility issues will render an otherwise decent upgrade into a disaster. And while this was certainly true with Windows Vista, Windows 7 does a much better job of maintaining backwards compatibility. Of course, no software is perfect.

Annoyance: An application won’t install or run under Windows 7.

Solution: Like previous versions of Windows, Windows 7 provides a nice suite of compatibility tools. These tools allow the system to fool installers and application programs into believing that they are running under older versions of Windows, and they’re typically found in the Compatibility tab of the Properties window for the application in question. But Windows 7 makes it much easier to work through these issues thanks to a new Troubleshooting infrastructure that provides plain English wizards, with step-by-step walkthroughs for compatibility problems and a host of other common issues. To more easily determine whether an application can be made to run correctly under Windows 7, open the Action Center (“action” in Start Menu Search) and click the Troubleshooting link. Then, click the link titled “Run programs made for previous versions of Windows” under Programs and follow the steps in the Program Compatibility wizard.

Tip: You can run this wizard more quickly by typing “compat” into Start Menu Search.

Annoyance: An application still won’t install or run under Windows 7.

Solution: Some legacy applications simply won’t ever install or run correctly under Windows 7. In this case, new Windows features called Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode will help you solve the problem using virtualization technology. Windows Virtual PC is the next generation version of Microsoft’s Virtual PC product. It requires hardware virtualization support in the PC’s microprocessor and BIOS, and offers some important benefits over its predecessors, including USB support and the ability to run virtualized (“guest”) applications alongside native (“host”) applications. Windows Virtual PC is available for free to all Windows 7 users.

Windows XP Mode is a specially packaged and complete virtualized version of Windows XP with Service Pack 3 (SP3). It is provided, for free, to all users of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions. And because it runs under Windows Virtual PC, any applications you installed inside this environment can run alongside your normal Windows 7 applications. It’s the perfect solution for those few remaining applications that simply won’t run in Windows 7 natively.
Windows Update

Annoyance: Microsoft has done a nice job of improving the Windows Update application in Windows 7, but one glaring issue remains. If you leave the PC unattended overnight and the system automatically installs critical or important security updates that require a reboot, you might get back to the PC in the morning to discover that all your applications have shut down and, potentially, you’ve lost some data.

Solution: You can prevent Windows Update from automatically rebooting your PC, though it will require a bit of work. The reason is that the Registry Key that controls this functionality is missing from Windows 7.

To do so, open the Registry Editor (Start Menu Search, “regedit”) and navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Polices\Microsoft\Windows. Then, create a new key called WindowsUpdate and, inside of that key, another new key called AU. Inside of that key, create a new DWORD (32-bit) value named NoAutoRebootWithLoggedOnUsers. Modify its value data, setting it to 1. You will have to restart the computer for the change to take effect.
Final thoughts

Every version of Windows comes with new challenges and new ways of doing things. And while Windows 7 is does indeed represent a major functional improvement over its predecessor, it’s also different enough from Windows XP and Vista to cause a bit of grief. Fortunately, there are simple workarounds to most problems, and while any change can be traumatic, Windows 7 is, in many ways, the least annoying upgrade Microsoft has ever shipped.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week God Mode

Months ago, reports far and wide lauded a “secret” Windows 7 God Mode that would grant you access to hidden OS features using, literally, a secret code. The truth is, Windows 7 God Mode is nothing of the kind, neither god-like nor a mode. So I resisted writing much about it, until recently I began getting a second round of emails about this trick. And now that the dust has settled, looking at it again, I can see the attraction.

What God Mode really is, is a way to access every single Control Panel feature via simpler-to-read list. Critics have poo-poo’d God Mode because there’s nothing new in there, and because it’s supposedly simpler to type key words into Start Menu Search than it is to scan a long list. That is incorrect. The beauty of God Mode, ultimately, is that it presents its capabilities in list form. And if you don’t know what to search for, Start Menu Search is useless.

So God Mode really is an excellent Windows 7 secret, because it reveals a long list of features you may never have otherwise discovered. In this way, it works a bit like the Office 2007/2010 ribbon in that it doesn’t necessarily offer anything new, but it does surface features you probably would never have otherwise found.

To “enable” God Mode–really, just create a new shell view for all Control Panel features–right-click on the desktop and choose New Folder. For the folder name, paste in this text:

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A new Control Panel-looking icon will be created with the name God Mode. Open this, and you’ll see a very long list of all of the available features.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: God Mode
It’s … full of features.

The funniest thing about God Mode, of course, is the name. That is, you don’t need to use the text GodMode above. Instead, you can use any text: All Control Panels, whatever. It’s your choice. The number after the period (“.”) is a GUID–a globally unique identifier–and it must remain as-is. However, you could use other GUIDs to enable different views as well. For example, using Computer.{20D04FE0-3AEA-1069-A2D8-08002B30309D} would create a new icon for the Computer view.

So enjoy God Mode for what it is: A chance to find out about features you never knew about before. And ignore the haters. On a web where everyone is tripping over themselves to prove how smart they are, the real experts are those who simply know where to look for the answers. And God Mode, horribly named as it is, is one such place.

Simplest. Tip. Ever. 🙂

PS: For a semi-complete list of available God Mode features, and a list of other GUID values you can apply to new folders in Windows 7, check out this post on Windows 7 Themes.

Internet Explorer Feature Focus Notification Bar

When Microsoft reset development of Windows and other core products in the wake of the Windows XP UPnP fiasco, it ushered in the current era of “Trustworthy Computing” that we’re arguably still living within. As part of that reset, it added a number of security features to Internet Explorer, which it delivered as part of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2). Key among these was an Information Bar that sat at the top of the browser display area.

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The bad old days: The Information Bar first appeared in a revision to IE 6.
In that version of IE, the Information Bar provided access to the browser’s then-new pop-up blocker. Over time, the Information Bar became a central bit of blocker UI for such things as downloads and even browser plug-ins. It was so good, in fact, that every major browser maker copied it for their own products. Today, you’ll see a near perfect copy of the IE Information Bar in Mozilla Firefox, for example.

In Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft has dramatically changed the behavior of this control, which has been renamed to the Notification Bar in this release. Under the covers, IE 9 treats notifications just like it does most other things, in a minimalist fashion that is designed to prevent distractions while browsing. So there are fewer notifications than before, yes, but perhaps more important, when those notifications do occur, they are less disruptive and won’t typically prevent you from browsing the web. (One major exception to this is serious security threats: In such a case, the new Notification Bar will, in fact, halt the proceedings.)

“Interruptions kill the user’s flow,” Microsoft general manager Dean Hachamovitch told me. “So we looked at the prompts IE was using. They’re well intentioned, but got in the way. So the question was, how can we maintain the behavior but quiet it down?”

Also in keeping with the overall IE 9 “get out of the user’s way” mantra, the IE 9 Notification Bar has been moved to the bottom of the browser window where it’s less likely to distract you when it does appear. As such, it is very subtle. Perhaps too subtle, actually: It’s very easy to miss, even in when you know its coming, such as when you trigger a download.

Gets out of the way
One of the major considerations for the new design, of course, was that it not stop a page from loading or prevent the user from doing what they were doing; i.e. reading the page in question. With previous versions of the Information Bar, some notifications were modal, preventing the page from continuing to load until the user addressed the notification. This is (mostly) no longer the case. So if you browse to the Apple web site, for example, you’ll still get incessant notifications about enabling QuickTime. But you can safely–and easily–ignore them.

The Notification Bar also appears less frequently. In previous versions of IE, for example, an Information Bar would pop-up if you tried to navigate to an intranet site (a web URL without a .com or similar ending). IE 9 instead automatically resolves intranet addresses and doesn’t prompt you.
Clearer instructions

The new Notification Bar is also designed with normal users in mind. So the messages are written in Plain English–or the language of your choice–and don’t present a bunch of technological gobbledygook.
Pop-up notifications

Occasionally, the IE notifications system will need to pop-up a dialog box instead of using the Notification Bar. The most common reason is when a web site stops responding. In previous versions of IE, the user would be confronted by an “Internet Explorer is not responding” dialog. But in IE 9, this changes to “[Name of web site] is not responding” and in most cases, IE will recover and redisplay the site correctly. So why display this message in a dialog? The web site crashed, and the IE frame may be unavailable.

IE 9 Notification Bar Corporate controls
Like other IE features, administrators can customize how the Notification Bar works on PCs throughout their environments using Group Policy. For example, you can disable Add-On Performance Advisor notifications (see below) if you’d like.
Common Notification Bar scenarios

Nothing dramatic or unexpected, but here are some of the more common times when IE 9 will display the Notification Bar.

Save a password. When you enter a user name and password at a web site, the Notification Bar will appear and ask you if you’d like the browser to save this information so you don’t need to re-enter it later.

Download a file. IE 9 features a new Download Manager, and it integrates with a reputation service and the browser’s SmartScreen filter to help prevent you from downloading any dangerous (or at least unknown) files.

Add-On Performance Advisor. Every time you start IE 9, the Add-On Performance Advisor gauges the performance of the various add-ons you’ve got configured. And as is (perhaps too) often the case, it will trigger a Notification Bar message that one or more add-ons are loading too slowly.

Default browser. If IE 9 is not set to be the default web browser, it can display a Notification Bar message asking if you’d like to change it back.

IE 9 Notification Bar Final thoughts
Overall, the new Internet Explorer 9 Notification Bar is a nice addition to the browser, but I’m hoping to see some refinements to this feature during the beta process. As it is now, the Notification Bar is, perhaps, a bit too subtle, even for those moments when you’ve initiated an action, like downloading a file. This may be a matter of familiarity. But then an important UI like this should be as intuitive as possible. It’s very close.

Windows 7 Feature Focus

While you could always shell out $60 for a pointlessly long Windows 7 book that teaches you everything from how to use a mouse to the vagaries and history of TCP/IP networking, I think there’s a better way. You’re already a Windows user, so we can make certain assumptions about your needs and wants. And when it comes to the next version of Windows, what you want to know–what you need to know–is what’s changed, what’s different. And that’s why I’m writing this Feature Focus series: To focus on the new features in Windows 7, Microsoft’s new client operating system.

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It won’t happen overnight. But with Windows 7 now completed and generally available, I will be filling it out throughout 2010. (And if you do want to take it to the next level, please check out my latest book, Windows 7 Secrets.)

Here are the new features I’ve identified in Windows 7. If you find a missing feature, or would prefer for me to cover certain features first, please do let me know. I will be adding new articles to this series on a regular basis going forward.

Action Center

While previous versions of Windows included a feature called Windows Security Center that monitored the various security features of the system, Windows 7 takes this functionality to the next level with Action Center. In addition to monitoring security, Action Center also monitors the OS’s maintenance features and consolidates alerts from numerous Windows features into a single interface. Read more…
Aero Peek

This replacement for Show Desktop in Windows 7 lets you “peek” behind all of the open windows on your desktop and easily view and Windows Gadgets or files on your desktop. You can also peek into the contents of specific open windows. Read more…
Aero Shake

Windows 7 includes a unique new way to minimize all windows except for the currently selected window: Just grab it by the title bar and shake vigorously. It’s called Aero Shake! Read more.
Aero Snaps

By dragging open windows in certain ways, you can “snap” them to the edges of the screen, maximize, or minimize. This obviates the need to click tiny onscreen elements, making these features more accessible to users. Read more…
Aero Themes

In Windows 7, Microsoft combines various system preferences–including the desktop background, the Aero glass window color, the system sounds, and the screen saver–into Aero Themes you can customize, save, and share with others. Read more…
Backup and Restore

Windows Vista’s stellar backup and restore features have been streamlined and simplified in Windows 7. Like its predecessor, the version of Backup and Restore in Windows 7 supports both data backup and image-based system backup, but now the capabilities are more consistent across product editions. Read more…
Bitlocker To Go

The full-drive encryption feature that first debuted in Windows Vista has been updated in Windows 7 to support removable USB storage devices like flash memory drives and portable hard drives. Read more…

The Windows Calculator utility inexplicably receives a major upgrade in Windows 7 with calculation history, unit conversion, calculation templates, data calculations, and other new features. Read more…
Display Improvements

Windows 7 includes numerous improvements related to computer displays, including integrated display color calibration, improved high DPI support, ClearType, and improved support for external displays. A new Windows Key + P keyboard shortcut helps you easily switch between connected displays. Read more…
Hardware Support

Microsoft provides several unique Windows 7 features related to hardware device support, including Device Stage, Devices and Printers, location-aware printing, improved power management, and integration with the Windows Troubleshooting infrastructure. Read more…

Microsoft has consolidated the most common network-based sharing tasks into a single simple interface called HomeGroup. Computers in a HomeGroup can easily share documents, digital media files, and printers over a home network. Read more…
Internet Explorer 8

Windows 7 ships with the latest version of Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer 8, which offers such new features as the Favorites Bar, Web Slices, Accelerators, Visual Search, and InPrivate browsing. Read more…

In Windows 7, Microsoft has realized a long-term goal to replace the static special shell folders from previous Windows versions with virtualized shell locations that aggregate content from a variety of physical locations. Libraries are implemented as virtual folders and the views they present are the results of search queries. Libraries are also the basis for HomeGroup file and digital media content sharing.
Parental Controls and Family Safety

The parental control functionality that debuted in Windows Vista is updated in Windows 7 to support multiple games rating systems and parental control providers. Read more…
Problem Steps Recorder

Windows 7 includes a new utility called the Problem Steps Recorder that captures screen shots of the steps a user is taking so that help desk personnel can provide a fix without physically having to visit the desktop. Read more…

ReadyBoost first appeared in Windows Vista, providing users with a way to cheaply and easily improve the performance of their PCs by utilizing a USB memory key as a memory cache. In Windows 7, ReadyBoost is enhanced in numerous way: It supports multiple memory devices, can work with USB memory keys, Secure Digital (SD) memory cards, and other internal flash devices, and supports over 4 GB of storage per device. Read more…
Scenic Ribbon, Paint, and WordPad

Microsoft has evolved the Ribbon control from Office 2007 and made it part of the operating system in Windows 7. This new version of the Ribbon, called the scenic Ribbon, is used by two Windows 7 applications, Paint and WordPad, and can be used by third party applications going forward as well. Read more…
Start Menu

The Windows 7 Start Menu is an enhanced version of the Start Menu that debuted in Windows Vista, and features Jump Lists and an improved Start Menu Search. But the single biggest feature, perhaps, is that the Start Menu is being deemphasized as an application launcher because of the new taskbar. Read more…
Sticky Notes

The Sticky Notes utility loses the bizarre Windows XP-style interface from previous Windows versions and supports both ink and text input. Read more…
Tablet PC and Windows Touch

After making Tablet PC functionality available more broadly in Windows Vista, Microsoft is improving this technology in Windows 7 with better handwriting recognition that has improved accuracy, speed, and support for math expressions, personalized custom dictionaries, and 13 new languages. Additionally, Windows 7 builds on the Tablet PC and touch capabilities from previous Windows versions and adds pervasive support for multi-touch. All of the major UI components, including the Start Menu, Windows Taskbar, and Explorer, are touch-friendly in Windows 7. Read more…
User Account Control

While much reviled by certain users, the User Account Control (UAC) feature that debuted in Windows Vista played a huge role in making that system the most secure Windows version yet. In Windows 7, UAC is extensively updated to be less annoying, and the overall system has been fine-tuned to minimize the number of UAC prompts that interrupt users. Read more…
View Available Networks

Windows 7 includes a new Jump List-like utility for finding and connecting to Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, dial-up, and VPN connections. Unlike the similar UI in Windows Vista, this utility, called View Available Networks, does not require you to navigate through a series of dialogs and windows. Read more…
Windows Experience Index

The Windows Experience Index continues in Windows 7, but like Nigel’s amp in “Spinal Tap,” it now goes to 11. Well, to 7.9. Read more…
Windows Explorer

Microsoft has significantly updated Windows Explorer yet again in Windows 7, this time with a new toolbar, a resizable search box, and a new navigational pane. Read more…
Windows Gadgets

The Windows Sidebar disappears in Windows 7, but the Gadgets continue on and are integrated with the desktop. Read more…
Windows Live Essentials 2011

Available as an optional download, Windows Live Essentials 2011 is an application suite that includes a number of new versions of classic Windows applications, including Windows Live Mail (email and calendar), Windows Live Photo Gallery (photos), Windows Live Messenger (instant messaging), Windows Live Movie Maker (video editing), Windows Live Family Safety (enhanced parental controls), and more. And the 2011 version, currently in beta, is the best yet. Read more…
Windows Media Player

Microsoft’s media player received a major makeover in Windows 7 with several new features, including enhanced DVD playback, a sleek new Now Playing mode, dramatically improved format compatibility (including AAC and H.264), Windows Taskbar Jump List customization, PC-to-PC and Internet-based media streaming, and a new Play To feature. Read more…
Windows Recovery Environment and Startup Repair

The Windows Recovery Environment was included with Windows Vista but wasn’t installed by default. In Windows 7, it is installed into the OS partition automatically, providing access to a suite of recovery tools including the excellent Startup Repair, which automatically fixes boot problems and returns the PC to its normal booting state. Read more…
Windows Taskbar

The Windows Taskbar has been dramatically enhanced in Windows 7 to minimize clutter. New Taskbar features like Jump Lists, fly-over and full-screen icon previews, and more. Read more…
Windows Troubleshooting

This new Windows 7 feature diagnoses and resolves common operating system and hardware issues. It works automatically, or you can visit the Troubleshooting control panel to find problems to troubleshoot. Windows Troubleshooting integrates with Action Center so you’ll be notified when relevant new troubleshooters from Microsoft and third parties are made available. Read more…
Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode

This combination of solutions provides users with the ability to run many older Windows XP applications in a virtual Windows XP environment, side-by-side with native Windows 7 applications. It’s the final piece of the Windows 7 application compatibility functionality. Read more…
More new Windows 7 features

Accessibility improvements. Microsoft has revamped the accessibility features in Windows 7 with improved speech recognition and a new Magnifier utility with full-screen and lens-mode views.

Blu-Ray support. Windows 7 natively supports Blu-Ray optical discs and enables you to write to Blu-Ray recordable media.

Credential Manager. The new and improved Windows 7 Credential Manager lets you save credentials, like user names and passwords, so that you can more easily logon on to Web sites, networked computers, and other resources automatically. Credentials are saved in the Windows Vault and can be backed up and restored to encrypted Managed Information Card (MIC) files. (Credential Manager uses Windows CardSpace technology.)

DirectAccess. This feature is aimed at business users who need to securely access corporate network resources while away from the office. Essentially a simple replacement for VPN connections, DirectAccess requires Windows Server 2008 R2 on the server-side.

DirectX 11. Windows 7 includes the latest version of the DirectX multimedia libraries.

Getting Started. This replacement for Windows Vista’s Welcome Center no longer appears the first time you boot into the Windows desktop, but it still provides a central location for discovering new features, personalizing the system, transferring data from your previous Windows PC, and discovering and launching other common tasks.

MinWin. The componentized core of Windows 7, which includes both the traditional operating system kernel as well as the minimum necessary surrounding support technologies to create a bootable (and, for Microsoft, testable) system. Note that, in Windows 7, MinWin isn’t a feature per se but is rather the foundation upon which the rest of the OS is built.

System Restore. The Windows 7 version of System Restore works as before, providing a way to non-destructively return a PC to a previous point in time, but is more reliable, predictable, and effective than its predecessors.

Virtual Hard Disk support. Windows 7 allows you to mount a Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) as a drive in Explorer so that you can navigate its contents like a physical hard disk. It also supports the ability to boot from VHD images.

VPN Reconnect. Windows 7 users who still need to make traditional VPN connections will benefit from a new VPN Reconnect feature that automatically reestablishes a VPN connection when you temporarily lose Internet connectivity.

Windows Defender. The malware and spyware protection utility from Windows Vista continues in Windows 7 with a few changes: It’s been integrated into the new Action Center and its centralized notification system. But Defender also drops the useful Software Explorer feature, so users will have to look elsewhere for a way to prevent unwanted applications from running a startup.

Windows Easy Transfer. The Windows Easy Transfer utility that debuted in Windows Vista has been substantially updated with a new user interface and new capabilities. As before, Easy Transfer helps you transfer files, folders, and program and system settings from your previous Windows install to your new one. This time around, however, the process is simpler and more streamlined.

Windows Live. Windows 7 integrates with a growing collection of Windows Live services, including Windows Live Photos, Windows Live Profile, Windows Live People, Windows Live Spaces, Windows Live Home, Windows Live SkyDrive, Windows Live Groups, Windows Live Calendar, Windows Live Events, Windows Live Hotmail, and more.

Windows Media Center. Microsoft’s ten-foot UI for digital media content is improved with a slightly enhanced user interface, multi-touch support, HomeGroup integration, and various global broadcast TV standards.

Windows PowerShell. Windows 7 ships with the Windows PowerShell 2.0 scripting environment and the Windows PowerShell Integrated Scripting Environment (ISE).

Windows Search. Windows 7 comes with the latest version of Windows Search, and unlike the version that first shipped with Windows Vista, you can now obtain instant search results from network-based file shares as well as local hard drives. Microsoft has also improved the performance of local searches, sorting, and grouping.

Windows Update. Microsoft’s utility for downloading and installing system updates has been enhanced in Windows 7 to take advantage of changes in the security model and to better expose optional and featured updates.

XPS Viewer. While Windows Vista users are forced to use Internet Explorer to view XML Paper Specification (XPS) documents–essentially Microsoft’s PDF knock-off–Windows 7 gains a dedicated XPS Viewer application.
Removed features

Sometimes, Microsoft adds features during the beta and then removes them for various reasons. Maybe they’ll show up in Windows 8 or other Microsoft products. Who knows? What we do know is that these features were originally going to be included in Windows 7. And now they’re not.

A Look at Windows XP Service Pack 3 Part 1: Good Enough?

Rather than write a traditional review of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), I thought this might be an opportune time to reevaluate XP’s standing in the Windows world. After all, virtually every technology pundit on earth has described Windows Vista as operating system non grata, an upgrade to be avoided at all costs. Over at the tabloid-o-rific InfoWorld, a “Save XP” petition has garnered 100,000 signatures: Sure, that pales next to the 120+ million people that are using Windows Vista at this time, but what the heck. There must be something to this. Is XP really good enough to warrant saving?

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To find out, I did a clean install of Windows XP with a near-final version of Service Pack 3, the final XP service pack. I then installed a number of applications and technologies from Microsoft that bring XP roughly up to speed with Windows Vista, including Internet Explorer 7, the various Windows Live suite tools, Windows Defender, Windows Media Player 11, and Office 2007. And then I installed my stock group of preferred applications on the system, including AVG Free Antivirus, Apple iTunes, Firefox 3 Beta, Adobe PhotoShop Elements, WinRAR, and several others.

And you know what? I get it. I get why all those people are freaking out over the impending end of the mainstream availability of Windows XP, why so many are clamoring for Microsoft to give its previous generation OS another chance. And it has nothing to do with any faults in Vista, real or imagined. (Mostly imagined, actually.) No, it has everything to do with human nature. We’re creatures of habit, you and I. And even the most forward-looking of us, those who enjoy living on the edge, technology-wise, have a very natural need to be in the comfort zone sometimes. And XP is just that, comfortable, like that ratty old sweatshirt that we should have thrown out years ago but just can’t bear to replace.

Don’t get me wrong, though: It’s not like anything’s broken here. Windows XP has plenty of life left in it. This system will run on far less demanding hardware, comfortably, than any version of Windows Vista, and that alone means this system will be around for years to come. (Not surprisingly, XP also provides better performance in virtual machines as well.) After all, PCs last a lot longer than they used to, and while Microsoft and Intel wrestle with the fact that Moore’s Law is succumbing to the current generation of under-utilized multi-processor CPUs, everyday users are noticing that they can get a lot more out of yesterday’s software than was possible a decade ago during the Megahertz wars. This is big news for the industry, and for the billions of people who use PCs every day.

No, clinging to Windows XP is entirely understandable. I typically advise against upgrading to Vista on current, XP-based hardware. After all, not only will XP likely run more quickly on your existing hardware, but you’ll probably also experience better compatibility, both with software and hardware devices. The old maxim is as true as ever: Unless you’re an expert, you should simply adopt the latest Windows version when you purchase a new PC. This discussion begs a new type of question, however: Should you opt for XP over Vista on a new PC? (Though to be fair that question will become academic this summer when XP is no longer available in this fashion.)

My answer to this question is no, you shouldn’t. Instead, you should choose Windows Vista, for the many reasons I’ve outlined in my Windows Vista review (check out the final part of that review for a quick list of reasons why I think Vista is a big deal and a huge improvement over XP.)

But that’s not what this article is about. No, this is about those of you who have elected, bravely, foolishly, or otherwise, to stick with XP. So let’s take a look, a last look at Windows XP, at least on this site, which is, after all, dedicated to the future of Windows, and not the past. But I think it’s OK to take a step back and see whether what’s old can be new again. After all, that’s what Windows XP Service Pack 3 is all about.
Windows XP and the Vista conundrum

In delaying Windows Vista for over two years, as Microsoft did between 2004 and 2006, the software giant exacerbated the problem it always has getting customers to upgrade, and it did so once inadvertently and once on purpose. The inadvertent bit was that the longer Vista was delayed, the more comfortable XP became to users. Though XP suffered from the same performance, stability, and compatibility issues that dogged Vista in its first year (and, let’s not forget, please, that XP also suffered from a range of extremely high profile security issues the kind of which have never plagued Vista, thank you very much), enough time passed that people simply forgot. Anyone buying a new PC during 2005 and 2006 discovered, perhaps to their amazement, that things actually worked pretty well most of the time. This kind of experience may be commonplace in the tightly controlled Mac OS X environment, but in the willy-nilly world of Windows, where any third-rate second-world company can and will ship a painfully bad device driver at the drop of a hat, this level of stability and reliability was a new phenomenon. Windows XP simply got more mature over time, in ways that were never possible with previous versions of Windows. For the first time ever, time effectively slowed in the computer industry. The upgrade cycle pretty much ended for a while there. (Further evidence of this evolutionary mindset can be seen in the number of XP-based OSes Microsoft shipped in this time frame, including various versions of XP Media Center and Tablet PC Editions.)

More purposefully, Microsoft also screwed over Windows Vista. As Vista was delayed again and again, Microsoft realized that it would be a mistake to tie the success of key new technologies that were to have originally been Vista-only. So it back-ported a number of technologies to XP, things that previously were designed to be Vista-specific. These include, among others, Windows Defender, Internet Explorer 7, Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Communications Foundation, .NET 3.x, the Windows Security Center, Windows Media Player 11, and even Office 2007. (Remember, Office 2007 was originally going to be Vista-only, was then going to offer unique Vista-only functionality, and was finally changed so that it worked identically on Vista and XP.) Microsoft also dramatically detuned some key Vista features, like Instant Search, while cancelling related technologies such as WinFS. In short, Vista became less exciting over this time period whereas Windows XP became more and more capable. Now, I understand why Microsoft made these decisions and I may even agree with most of them. But the net effect should have been predictable: By not drawing a clearer line between XP and Vista for much of its next-generation technologies, Microsoft in effect created a situation where XP didn’t become obsolete as quickly as did previous Windows versions. Now, the goal is admirable and understandable: Those technologies would achieve greater success due to their exposure to a larger audience. But Vista suffered as a result.

Couple this strategy with the Vista delays and Microsoft’s inability to capitalize on multi-core hardware (another way in which Vista could have differentiated itself from XP), and suddenly XP becomes that comfortable old sweatshirt I discussed previously. I have no doubt these events will be closely studied by both Microsoft and various business schools in the future. To say that this was a lost opportunity is an understatement.

So here it is, in 2008, four long years after Microsoft shipped the last major update to Windows XP (Service Pack 2, which can and should have been marketed as a completely new Windows version). Microsoft may have originally wanted to ship Windows XP SP3 long, long ago, but the Windows division got all caught up in this little project called Windows Vista, so XP SP3 was sort of cast to the side and forgotten. Well, forgotten by Microsoft, that is: The company’s biggest and most important customers–big businesses–seemed poised to settle on XP for the next decade, and they were getting a bit prickly about all the post-SP2 hot-fixes that Microsoft has shipped over the past three years. It seems these things are a bit time consuming to install, and they were interested in getting that promised next service pack, which would roll-up all the previous fixes into a single, convenient update.

Microsoft was quiet about SP3 for a long time, but last year the company finally owned up to the fact that it would indeed develop SP3 and ship it sometime in 2008. And sure enough, SP3 nicely rolls up all of the previously released hot fixes, providing a more seamless (i.e. less complicated and time consuming) install experience. There are a few new features, but not really, unless, again, you’re one of those big businesses Microsoft is so concerned about (see my XP SP3 FAQ for details). As with Windows Vista SP1, XP SP3 is a traditional service pack, more about rolling up previous hot-fixes than about new functionality. And in XP’s case, specifically, that’s just fine because XP, as noted previously, has already gotten a new lease on life. Heck, practically anything that’s available in Vista is available on XP now too, right?

Well, not exactly. But this isn’t a matter of whether all of Vista’s useful features and functionality are being made available on XP. It’s a matter of whether enough of Vista’s useful features and functionality are being made available on XP. In other words: Is XP still good enough? No, XP with SP3 isn’t as “good” as Windows Vista, but remember that it doesn’t have to be. It only has to be good enough. And maybe it is. It’s certainly good enough to make people forget all about Linux on the desktop. It’s proven good enough to keep people from switching to the Mac in dangerous numbers. And it appears to be good enough to make customers look at Vista and say, eh, there’s not enough there there.

And that’s a problem, at least for Microsoft and its current and future platforms. Because in this case, I think the company has kowtowed a bit too much to those who would see XP live forever. It cut a bit too deep from Vista and gave a bit too much to XP. Microsoft will tell you that this doesn’t matter. A Windows license sold, after all, is a Windows license sold. But that’s absolute baloney. If customers are standing put on the previous version, that means they’re not sold on the company’s technological vision, and they’re no longer lining up as Microsoft tries to lead them to the future. I mean, imagine a case in which customers were allowed to choose between a previous generation Toyota Camry and the all-new, designed-from-the-ground-up 2008 model, and the customers actually chose the old version by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, despite the fact that the price hadn’t changed at all? This would be devastating to any car maker. I believe it’s devastating to Microsoft for the same basic reasons.

But enough business theory. What I’m really concerned with here is how this affects you, the Windows user. And the question I put before you, again, is … Is Windows XP good enough?