Only a long view sees much in Vista

Vista has a central place in Microsoft's plans for the future. It's not so clear it will have the same importance elsewhere

It’s been a long time coming, and it’s not here yet. This week has seen a brief flurry of activity in the extended saga of Microsoft’s Longhorn operating system — it got its proper name, Vista, and its first official beta release. Don’t look too hard at it, said Microsoft, it’s just for programmers.

Fair enough: if you weren’t a programmer, there isn’t much to look at. Compared to Apple’s OS X, Vista doesn’t look unfinished so much as barely started. So what has Microsoft been doing for all this time? Important though it is for the company to promote innovation by trying to patent the smiley, it doesn’t take that long to fill in the forms.

The answer, of course, is that most of Vista’s newness sits beneath the interface. The surface details have to be fiddled with to make it look new, but what Microsoft’s really keen on is the new security, trusted system and digital rights management (DRM) under the hood.

This is good and bad news for users. Better identity management and less vulnerable systems are essential for the continued health of e-commerce, but it’s not clear that the rest of the industry is willing to hand over control of these ideas to Microsoft. Nor is it clear that Microsoft is willing to relinquish control of the ideas inside Vista. It’s certainly keen on the sort of DRM that lets it and the content provider decide exactly what you can do with media you buy — and introduces the potential to disable parts of your system if you do not comply.

Understandably, users tend to see this sort of thinking as a big 'Keep Away' sign. Vista is going to have to be something particularly tasty to make us swallow such unpleasant medicine, otherwise it will never get the critical mass necessary to make it a viable distribution mechanism for content providers — let alone become the default standard. Looking at the first beta, this magic dust is nowhere to be seen.

It’ll be a while before we see enough of the finished product to pronounce on its viability, but based on what we’ve seen on Beta 1 Microsoft will need every minute of every week until launch to ladle in sufficient goodness to make it a contender. Not wasting time on daft patent applications would be a start.