Back in the day, your operating system was a big deal. It was who you were. Mac vs. Windows was like Catholic vs. Protestant, or Republican vs. Democrat, and about as rational. Now it's somewhere down around Coke vs. Pepsi. Microsoft is still winning the battles the iPod "halo effect" notwithstanding, Apple is hovering at about a 5% market share but no one's getting worked up about the war. So many of the file-compatibility issues have been solved, and so much computing goes on in the browser anyway. So who cares?
That's one reason for the near-total non-excitement surrounding the launch of Windows Vista, the first new version in five years of the software that runs hundreds of millions of PCs. The other reason is that Vista is ... pretty good. It's not a disgrace, and it's not a masterpiece. It's not worth buying a new machine for Vista, and there's no reason to switch to it if you use a Mac, but it gets the job done. Not the stuff of which great headlines are made.
And now that I've drained all the interest out of this review, let's go to the features:
1. Vista looks pretty. The edges of the windows are now transparent, like little glass microscope slides. Vista blatantly following the trend set by Apple represents data as translucent and jewel-like and faintly glowing. Subtle shadows, gleams and animations enhance the illusion. It's just cosmetic stuff, but given how much time one spends there, it's nice when one's desktop doesn't feel like a soul-leaching cubicle. (To assuage the Mac faithful: yes, many of Vista's features are pilfered directly from Mac OS X, and in general Apple has shown itself to be far more efficient and innovative in the operating systems market. Done.)
2. Vista makes sense, more or less. Much of the challenge of creating a good operating system is design, not technology. Which means figuring out a visually logical way for users to get at all their information easily. Vista is creeping in that direction, with improved search functions and nicely built-in music and photo organizers you can actually "tag" photos with keywords, which is very handy. Useful widgets like clocks and photo albums cluster happily at the edge of the screen like attentive waiters, happy to serve you.
What truly makes a great user interface is an ineffable internal logic, a set of consistent internal rules that one absorbs without their having to be stated (like in a manual, for example), and I don't see that quite yet in Vista. You don't always instinctively know where the back button will be, or the "close this window" button. If your desktop is overcrowded with windows, you can hit an icon that will line them all up for you, tilted at an angle, so you can pluck out the one that you need. Nice but at the same time, it breaks with the visual metaphor of a flat desktop.
3. Vista is secure, or at least it's securer. If that's a word. Being a near-monopoly makes Windows a magnet for phishers, viruses, adware and other malware writers. So Microsoft has worked on that, mostly under the hood. I think what most impressed me were the built-in parental controls: you can decide when your kids will use Vista, what websites they can go to, what applications they can run, whom they can IM with, and so on. And if they try to break the controls, Vista will rat them out.
4. Vista is expensive and a bit of a resource-hog. There are two versions targeted at home users : Basic ($199, which is about what OS X costs) and Premium ($239). (Note that Basic doesn't give you that nice pretty translucent look, which is Vista's most immediately appealing feature.) Most people won't buy Vista at retail, but you'll feel the burn somewhere in there whenever you buy your next computer. For the Premium edition Microsoft recommends a 1Ghz processor and 1GB of RAM, as well as a respectable graphics setup, but I think you'll need quite a bit more power to get the full, smooth experience. The laptop Microsoft loaned me to test Vista had 2Ghz and 2GB, so be careful not to buy more Windows than you can run.
To sum up: Vista is a perfectly respectable new iteration of Windows. They've even, finally, come up with a decent way to make laptops sleep and wake up again, which XP was never very good at. The fact that it took Microsoft over five years and $6 billion dollars to create Vista is and I mean this quite seriously an embarrassment to the good name of American innovation, but it's perfectly fine.
Two closing thoughts. One, there's a lot of functionality built into Vista look at the photo editor, which is integrated with the operating system and which works like a stripped-down version of the already-stripped-down Photoshop Elements. Isn't that the kind of anti-competitive integration that got Microsoft into anti-trust court last time around? (Not that they ever left: they're facing hundred-million Euro fines in Europe as we speak.)
And two, Vista's real test won't be some reviewer checking off features in his lonely office. It will come when millions of Vista users make their way out into the deep waters of the greater Internet ecology, where legions of Internet-based criminals will start banging away on its security features, looking for a way to fool it, break it or hijack it. Translucent borders are all well and good, but out there in the jungle, no one cares how pretty you are.