Robert McLaws: Windows Edition

Blogging about Windows since before Vista became a bad word

August 2006 - Posts

  • The Infamous RC1 'Conversation': Vista WILL Rock You

    Whew. Brandon was definitely not thrilled with me after this conversation. If you've seen my Windows Live Messenger personal message the last couple days, I said "The next build of Vista will rock your world." It led to a very interesting discussion with Brandon about "expectations", and what RC1 will shape up to be. Brandon and I both have seen the progress that has been made since 5472, and up until a couple weeks ago, I was pissed at the level of (in)stability Vista still exhibited so close to RC1. My public statement to that fact led to more traffic on this site than I had seen in quite some time.

    So what could make me change my mind so quickly? I got a sneak peek at the build TechBeta testers will receive (hopefully) soon. I won't go into details now, but suffice it to say, tt will have been worth the wait. Brandon's all hung up on UI, and that's fine. I'm not as picky as Brandon and Pirillo are (although I don't know how many people complaining it will take until they get Win 3.1 UI out of the OS). I just want to be able to use it on a daily basis without it hosing my computer in one form or another. And I wouldn't mind having my system be quick enough to be, God forbid, productive. I'm on a dual core 3GHz box with 3GB of RAM for Pete's sake... I ought to be able to have an app pop right up when I launch it.

    So what are my expectations? Well, my new WLM message reads: "If you haven't experienced anything since 5472, the next Vista build will rock your world." Is it finished yet? Hell no. I still don't think the next milestone should be called a "release candidate". But it gives me hope. And I'm patient enough to accept that (for the time being).

    (Oh, and I hear Microsoft is going to "get creative" with this release's name. Microsoft's really struck out with the way they handled build names up to this point, so we should really be in for a treat.)

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  • OT: Check Your Catch-All Mailbox Often

    Wanna know what happens when you haven't checked your catch-all email inbox in 26 months?

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  • Windows Vista Homepage Updated

    Just like the operating system itself, Vista's public face is also being refined. Sometime in the past couple weeks, Microsoft made some subtle changes to the look and feel of the official Windows Vista homepage, while making major improvements to the content. The overall feel of the site has changed from a dark blue to a light green, and the "Experience" and "Features" sections have been further flashed out.

    It's becoming very clear that Microsoft is gearing up for a marketing campaign that will be quite a bit different than anything they have done before. My biggest fear is that the "impendence mismatch" between the way the features actually work and the way Marketing thinks they work will be much as it has been in other releases (XP was WAY overhyped, IMO), but so far things seem to be shaping up well.

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  • Vista's New 'Copy' Dialog

    Some of the more useful improvements to Windows Vista come in the underlying file system. There are a ton of improvements under the hood to make files easier to deal with. One of the more subtle but important differences from Windows XP is the way discrepancies are handled during file transactions.

    In Windows XP, if a file encountered some kind of error (file already exists, etc.), it was handled at the time it occurred, interrupting whatever you were doing. If the same thing happens on Windows Vista, the operation continues, and you are prompted to resolve the conflicts at the end of the process.

    The UK's Official Windows Vista Magazine covers it as one of their favorite features:

    The problem I have with this dialog is that it is misleading. The first option makes me think two things are going to happen, the file is going to be copied, and then replaced. I had to think about it for a second. So I don't think it is intuitive enough.

    I think a better version would say "Replace", "Keep existing", "Keep both files". That leaves no doubt in my mind what is going to happen.

    What do you think?

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  • Windows Vista ISV Logo Program

    The US ISV Developer Evangelism Team Blog has some details about the new ISV Logo Program for Windows Vista:

    The Windows Vista Quality Program standards will improve user experience in 4 ways:
    1)     Security (e.g. prevention of mal-ware)
    2)     Compatibility with Vista and future OS
    3)     Installs and uninstalls
    4)     Reliability (e.g. hangs and crashes)

    There are a rich set of marketing benefits associated with this program and the certification test will have Microsoft Partner Program points associated with it.  In addition, Microsoft is willing to offer you additional program benefits for your early participation.

    It's always better to get in on the ground floor of opportunities like this. If you're interested, follow the link for contact information.

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  • Vista Patch Not The First

    Tuesday's Vista patch was not the first for the product, as many news outlets are reporting. This one was.

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  • Windows Vista's PatchGuard Architect

    Microsoft's Jeff Jones follows up his pivotal post on PatchGuard last week with an interview with the guy who built it. Forrest Foltz is the Windows Architect for Kernel Patch Protection, and his interview gives some great insight into the PatchGuard technology. If you care about the kernel, take 10 minutes and give it a read.

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  • OS Undelete: Vista v. Leopard

    It's not every day that The Inq does a pro-Microsoft piece. So when they publish one, you take notice. This time, they talk to Windows Storage PM Dan Stevenson about "Previous Versions" vs. "Time Machine". In this one, Vista comes out on top.

    I love the new CompletePC backup... my only wish would be to be able to actually boot the VHD files in VPC/VS. Maybe in Vista SP1.

    [via Neowin]

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  • Test Post From Windows Live Writer

    More on my opinion of this tool shortly...

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  • The Truth About PatchGuard: Why Symantec Keeps Complaining

    Symantec has definitely been the target of my wrath as of late, and the time has now come to address the third and (hopefully) final paper (at least from Symantec) critical of Microsoft’s next big thing. This time, the target is PatchGuard.

    PatchGuard effectively blocks any changes to the OS kernel, and stops unsigned kernel-level code from executing. Why? The answer is simple. The kernel is the lowest level of code in the OS. Its stability is critical to the stability of your system. Microsoft recognizes this, and now kernel-level code must go through extremely rigorous testing as part of the Security Development Lifecycle. Anything that hasn’t gone through that process does not get executed at the kernel level.

    So understanding that no one but the Windows Core Team should be putting OS code in the kernel, Microsoft revoked everyone’s free pass into the kernel. It’s that simple. Some people would argue that this is a bad thing, because then we have to wait for Microsoft to patch problems as they arise. They argue that Microsoft is too slow to do this, and that they should be able to “provide this service” to Microsoft customers.

    But here’s the $64,000 question: How many of you have installed “security” products from Symantec, McAfee, and others… only to find your system is much slower than before you installed it? I bet it’s a lot. Would you believe that your system is less secure too? Microsoft has something to say about this:

    Q. What problems are associated with kernel patching?

    A. Patching fundamentally violates the integrity of the Windows kernel by replacing actual kernel code with unknown third-party code. As a result, patching introduces problems in three primary areas: reliability, performance and, most importantly, security.

    Reliability. The Windows kernel is tested extensively before any release of the operating system to ensure a high level of quality. Because patching replaces kernel code with unknown, untested code, there is no way to assess the quality or impact of the third-party code. Furthermore, kernel code is by its nature complex and critical to system stability, so bugs in unknown code can have a significant negative impact on system stability. An examination of Online Crash Analysis (OCA) data at Microsoft shows that system crashes commonly result from both malicious and non-malicious software that patches the kernel. (Emphasis mine)

    Performance. Kernel performance is critical to the overall performance of the operating system. When low-level system calls are intercepted and unknown code is executed before control returns to the kernel, performance becomes unpredictable. Poorly designed unknown code can cause significant performance issues for Windows users.

    Security. Patching results in unknown code executing in kernel mode, so it is increasingly an avenue of attack by malicious software.

    Skywing from Uninformed (yes, the same Skywing that broke through PatchGuard on Windows XP x64 in the first place) explains why PatchGuard is a good thing and how anti-virus vendors are actually writing terrible and ridiculously unsafe code that has the potential to harm your computer more than it helps. His solution? The same as Microsoft’s: use documented APIs instead of undocumented hooks. (He decompiles code and gives specific examples of where a couple security vendors are really screwing the pooch in this area).

    But this is all chaff to distract you from the real reason Symantec is blowing their horn so loudly. In News.com’s report on the issue (“Windows defense handcuffs the good guys”), the Symantec spokesperson all but revealed the true reason for these reports:

    "It seems a bit disingenuous of Microsoft. They are getting into the security market and are disallowing this whole class of security products that they don't have," McCorkendale said. "It does not feel like a level playing field at that point."

    McCorkendale stopped short of saying that Symantec would sue Microsoft or complain to antitrust authorities. However, Yankee Group analyst Jaquith believes that step is getting closer, especially if Microsoft were to give its own security products a way to bypass PatchGuard.

    AH HA! I get it now! PatchGuard is really there so nobody but Microsoft can build Windows security products. Looks like someone has their tin foil hat on too tight. Symantec is trying to build up a case to try Microsoft as being anti-competitive in the court of public opinion. But this line of reasoning is pure crap. None of Microsoft’s other products have access to the kernel, either. Jeff Jones from Microsoft Security dove into it further:

    I went to the Host Security product team and asked them if they got to hook the kernel - they did not.  They said that the x64 version of their product for Windows Vista would use the defined interfaces, just like any 3rd-party security product.  They said they'd have to re-implement certain aspects from the way things were previously done.

    Next, I went to the Windows Firewall product team and asked them if they got to hook the kernel.  The said no.  A new Windows Filtering Platform (aka defined interfaces) had been introduced for Vista, which they would be using just like everyone else.

    The Windows Vista Security Blog has more:

    These solutions were designed with reliability and long term supportability in mind, and also provide a means for multiple products to co-exist without the conflicts that kernel patching could cause. We have been working with our security partners and other types partners for almost 2 years to assist them in making their solutions compatible with our current x64 architecture-and we are working with them even more closely as the Windows Vista launch approaches. If your application or driver must perform a task that you believe cannot be accomplished without patching the kernel, contact your Microsoft representative or msra@microsoft.com for help in finding a documented alternative. (Emphasis mine)

    Microsoft says they'll help you find the right answer... So what's the problem? Anyways, Microsoft is not without its own jabs in this argument. In response to Symantec's incessant babbling about the insecurities in old beta builds, CNET has Microsoft's reaction:

    Microsoft thanked Symantec for its feedback, even though the software giant called it "unusual for a partner to provide this amount of analysis and publish its findings on a beta version of Windows Vista."

    As if it wasn't already obvious. Look, Symantec has every reason to be worried in this space. Windows Live OneCare grabbed 15.4% marketshare in its first month, and 10.1% of that was from Symantec. Why? Because it's less bloated then Symantec's product.

    The problem Symantec has is not in Vista's "virgin network stack" or that UAC might have been improperly designed in older builds. Symantec is pissed that, in order to build a product for Windows Vista, they're going to have to totally rewrite their security suite. And they might even have to put some effort into doing it right. And that's a problem for a company who has been profiting from Microsoft's security problem for the last 15 years. Now that Microsoft has gotten their security act together, Symantec can't be innovative, and has to resort to inventing problems to stay relevant.

    The bottom line is, I'd rather Microsoft keep everyone out of the kernel , good code, bad code, or indifferent. I think they made the right decision, and I think that all security software will be better for it. If only Symantec & Co. would just quit bi%^*ing and start writing some decent code already...

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  • Xbox Live on Windows Vista Has a Name: Panorama

    Shacknews tells us that Microsoft Live Anywhere product for Windows Vista has an internal codename: Panorama. No doubt Engadget will try to get Microsoft to dish the dirt on this one.

    I’ll like this platform, with 2 caveats: A) if they can keep mods and cheats from entering the system, and B) if I can play games I already bought on my Xbox on my PC without paying extra.

    [via Neowin]

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  • Windows Licensing: The Price of Success

    Microsoft has played a huge part in the success of the PC. Not only do many families in the US have one computer, there is a decent percentage that have more than one. Stats on this are hard to find, but according to this In-Stat report, in 2004 there were 89.3 million homes in the US with a computer. According to this vendor, over 20 million of those homes have more than one. That’s 22% of all homes in the US. While this should be regarded as a huge success for the company, when it comes to Windows Licensing, it is Microsoft’s greatest blunder.

    Microsoft’s policies are nothing short of ridiculous when it comes to the way consumer computers are licensed. When you buy a new computer from Dell, you’re not allowed to install it on another computer (see Question #4). Even if that computer explodes. Hell, you can’t even transfer your license when you upgrade your motherboard (but people do anyways).

    Consider the cost of upgrading a family of 4 with three computers to Windows Vista. Say an upgrade copy Vista Home Premium costs $225 a pop. If they want to upgrade every computer in their house, it would cost $675. At that price, they could buy a new Dell computer instead. What family can afford that kind of money on an upgrade? You can buy a copy of Office 2003 that you can install on up to three computers, but Windows is licensed individually, and I haven’t seen any hints that it will change any time soon.

    These two scenarios encourage unintentional piracy, and costs Microsoft millions of dollars in the process. Now, I don’t know whether or not Microsoft is even aware of this problem. I know for a fact that as of two months ago, it wasn’t even on their radar. But it needs to be.

    Personally, I’d like to see Microsoft take the lead here. Microsoft has already built “Anytime Upgrade” into Windows Vista. It could easily be extended to help families manage their software licenses. If a family buys one upgrade copy of VHP at $225, additional copies per household should be around $44.95 a pop. Instead of paying almost $700 to upgrade their house, the family now pays $314.90, which is a little more palatable.

    But it shouldn’t stop there. If you purchase a new PC from Dell, you should still be able to purchase additional Vista licenses for your household at the same $44.95. That would encourage everyone to at least get off Windows XP (which is extremely insecure compared to Vista). It might also encourage further PC sales, because people with slower machines might replace their oldest PC sooner if they know they can get all their computers upgraded to Vista on the cheap.

    (NOTE: Microsoft does this now (sort of), but the discounts are virtually non-existent. I doubt MS makes any money from this.)

    If Microsoft were to make this happen, and every home that has more than one computer were to upgrade, Microsoft could realize at least $900 Million dollars in additional revenue. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s a lot of money. Now, I know not EVERY family will upgrade every computer, but of all the families I know, most have at least two computers in their house, and of those, most would rather upgrade them all at once.

    It’s a plan that has the potential to eliminate families unintentionally pirating software, AND it could get Vista onto millions of additional PCs. Will Microsoft actually do it? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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  • Vista Scores Well At Black Hat

    CRN Magazine has a rundown of the praise Windows Vista received after being torn apart at the 3,000 attendee strong Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. They talk to Dan Kaminsky, who has previously discovered a bunch of holes in the OS (and who hasn’t posted to his blog in ages).

    “When we found a flaw, we immediately got access to whomever we needed to talk about it with," he says, adding that it wasn't simply a matter of Microsoft responding to the researchers. "We dealt with a large number of teams, and they all had lists of known vulnerabilities for us before we started; it was like having Cliffs Notes for a security audit. The teams really understood what their responsibility was in getting good code out the door."

    Kaminsky says that while new Vista vulnerabilities will be inevitable, the OS marks Microsoft's best attempt yet at creating an airtight solution.

    "It's clearly better than Windows XP/Service Pack 2," he says. "They've taken the opportunity with a major OS release to implement a lot of deep structural changes that will make Windows more secure. I'm not sure you can ever achieve total security, but they've really cleaned up a lot of things."

    Hopefully that will take a little wind out of the sails of those who claim Vista is only “XP Service Pack 3”.

    [via ActiveWin]

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  • Inside Windows Photo Gallery

    Have you checked out the Windows Photo Gallery blog yet? Karen Wong, Program Manager of the WPG Team, has a nice little writeup about the Windows Vista Slide Show. She even tells us how to get all of the cool templates and backgrounds if your graphics hardware isn’t quite up to snuff.

    Windows Vista has a media experience that is much more integrated than it is in Windows XP. I’m hoping to cover it in detail very soon.

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  • But I Thought Apple Never Copied Anything?

    Looks like Redmond’s not the only one with an overheating Xerox Machine. Think “Spaces” is a new idea that Apple came up with? Think again…

    Microsoft Virtual Desktop Manager PowerToy OS X 10.5 "Spaces"

    NOOO! Say it ain’t so, Apple?!!?!

    Thanks to JedR and WindowsVistaMagazine.co.uk for the heads-up.

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