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One of the great failings of Windows XP was a default security model that gave the primary user account full administrative powers over the operating system.
In its documentation for IT professionals, Microsoft recommended that administrators configure standard accounts for users, to limit the amount of damage they could do if they were tricked into installing a malicious piece of software. But many Windows programs were written under the assumption that the user had full administrative privileges and wouldn't run under a standard user account.
So, for Windows Vista, Microsoft decided to get serious about tightening the screws on user account permissions. In the process they went too far, alienating users and creating the single most mocked, misunderstood, and despised Vista feature of all: User Account Control.
During the darkest days of the Vista era, I wrote a lot of posts about UAC. including one extremely popular set of instructions for taming UAC. That post included this succinct description:
The biggest misconception I hear about UAC is that it’s just another silly “Are you sure?” dialog box that users will quickly learn to ignore. That’s only one small part of the overall UAC system. The point of UAC is to allow you to run as a standard user, something that is nearly impossible in Windows XP and earlier Windows versions. In fact, with UAC enabled (the default setting) every user account in Windows Vista runs as a standard user. When you try to do something that requires administrative privileges, you see a UAC consent dialog box. If you’re an administrator, you simply have to click Continue when prompted. If you’re running as a standard user, you have to provide the user name and password of a member of the Administrators group.
What went wrong? For starters, there were way too many consent prompts—some of them in a cascade for a what should have been a simple task.
And it didn't help when a Microsoft executive publicly and proudly admitted that the point of the feature was to "annoy users." David Cross, a product unit manager at Microsoft, made that admission in a speech at a security conference:
"The reason we put UAC into the [Vista] platform was to annoy users — I'm serious," said Cross, speaking at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Thursday. "Most users had administrator privileges on previous Windows systems and most applications needed administrator privileges to install or run."
Cross claimed that annoying users had been part of a Microsoft strategy to force independent software vendors (ISVs) to make their code more secure, as insecure code would trigger a prompt, discouraging users from executing the code.
That might have been literally true, but the subtlety was lost on exasperated Vista users, who felt personally offended at being used as human targets in a sniping war with third-party software developers.
Microsoft toned down UAC dramatically in Windows Vista Service Pack 1 and gave it a complete overhaul in Windows 7. And the bad publicity did indeed shame the most egregious software offenders into cleaning up their act. But the damage was done. Today, UAC may be far less annoying, but its reputation has never fully recovered. Microsoft learned a key lesson: features with this much disruptive potential need to be designed carefully from Day 1.
When people ask me what's the stupidest thing Microsoft ever did with Windows, I have an easy answer.
I even used that word back in June 2006, when I wrote Microsoft presses the Stupid button:
When you’re the Evil Empire, it’s only natural to get a bad rap for everything you do. Microsoft gets bad-mouthed a hundred times a week for things that would be perfectly acceptable coming from anyone else. Given that level of criticism, it’s easy to ignore the times when they’re just completely, egregiously wrong.
The uproar over Microsoft’s new Windows Genuine Advantage authentication software, which is now being pushed onto Windows users’ machines via Windows Update, is one of those occasions. Someone at Microsoft just pushed the Stupid button. And things aren’t going to get better until they stop pushing it.
But over the next two years, they made it worse, with activation servers that failed and unfairly branded innocent Windows users as software pirates. The program hits its low point, not surprisingly, in Windows Vista, when Microsoft released its toughest version yet:
Microsoft denies that this is a "kill switch" for Windows Vista ... Technically, they're right, I suppose. Switching a PC into a degraded functionality where all you can do is browse the Internet doesn't kill it; but it's arguably a near-death experience.
I long ago lost count of the number of words I wrote about Windows Genuine Advantage and product activation, but I don't regret a single one of them. I know they made a difference. Microsoft removed the "kill switch" in Windows Vista Service Pack 1, and in Windows 7 the activation experience seems to finally work.
For as long as Microsoft has made operating systems, it has had a complicated relationship with its customers.You might think of yourself as a Microsoft customers, but roughly 90% of all copies of Windows are sold by PC manufacturers, who in turn resell those machines to end users like you and me.
That creates the potential for a conflict if the interests of the PC makers aren't in alignment with the needs of the customers who will eventually buy those PCs. And there is no better example than the mess Microsoft made when it was getting ready to launch Windows Vista.
The new, whizzy Aero graphics in Vista demanded up-to-date hardware. But Intel was still selling the older 915 graphics chipset, which wasn't up to the challenge, and PC makers like Sony and Dell were continuing to design notebooks built around those chipsets. Microsoft initially wrote specs that would have disqualified those PCs from earning a Vista logo. Intel demanded that Microsoft bend the rules, and Microsoft eventually caved.
Microsoft created a new logo that defined these graphically challenged PCs as "Designed for Windows XP / Vista Capable." In its public pronouncements, executives danced around the limitations: "PCs with the Windows Vista Capable logo can run the core experiences of Windows Vista," said Microsoft's Will Poole at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in 2006.
And that's when the lawsuits began.
The exhibits that came out during discovery were particularly embarrassing. The worst was an e-mail from Jim Allchin, who said, "I believe we are going to be misleading customers with the Capable program." According to CNET's Ina Fried, he was described as "apoplectic" over the decision.
Several years later, I was offered an opportunity to give Microsoft some free advice on how to fight Vista criticism. "We're sorry" is a good start, I said.
"Microsoft could admit that they screwed up when they put Intel’s interests over those of their customers in the 'Vista Ready' and 'Vista Capable' logo snafu. It would be nice to think that some heads rolled for that one."
It’s worth noting that Steven Sinofsky, who’s now in charge of the Windows development effort, was harshly critical of the decision at the time. All of the executives who were named in the most damning bits of evidence have left Microsoft. I don't think that's a coincidence.