I think it's fair to say at this point that Microsoft has been through the wringer with Windows Vista. Originally envisioned as a revolutionary Windows client upgrade with a next-generation database-backed file system and a video-driven 3-D interface, Vista is now very much an evolutionary upgrade to Windows XP. The whiz-bang file system is gone, replaced by, well, NTFS, and the Jetsons-like UI has been replaced by a pretty UI that will slip back into an ugly XP-like UI at the first sign of a software error.

But if Microsoft's corporate customers are to be heard--and they should be, since they constitute one of the largest single markets for the Windows client--then none of this really matters. Tech pundits, industry analysts, and college-aged fanboys with too much time on their hands can debate the relative merits of Vista's Aero Glass UI till they're blue in the face. What really matters is whether the OS has enough beef to get customers to pony up for the costs of upgrades and, if necessary, training and other related expenses.

In my extremely positive review of Vista build 5270 (see the URL below), which Microsoft recently issued as its December 2005 Community Technical Preview (CTP) release, I note that Vista is finally starting to show some of the fit and finish one might expect from a shipping product. The UI is fairly clean in places and the end user applications are coming along nicely. Performance is getting better, too, although it has a ways to go. My review is positive mostly because Vista development is on the upswing, and it shows in this build.

That wasn't always the case. During a particularly ugly part of 2004-2005, we didn't hear much about Vista because Microsoft was in the middle of a painful process called "The Reset" internally, in which it had to restart Vista development with a pared-down version of Windows Server 2003, which it componentized and then began adding back features. This setback cost Microsoft about a year of development time, causing the Vista release to slip until late 2006.

So what does Vista offer corporate customers? Is there any compelling reason to upgrade to Vista? And perhaps more important, are there reasons to avoid the upgrade?

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is yes. But as with any Microsoft upgrade, you'll need to balance the cost of upgrading with the benefits you'll supposedly receive by making the leap. To date, Microsoft has been very quiet about the enterprise-related features in Vista, but I think I can present a few features you'll find interesting.

Full-Volume Encryption
We're all aware of the horror story of the traveling executive who inadvertently loses his or her notebook in a cab, hotel, or bar, and realizes that it contains crucial insider information about the company. To combat data theft, Vista includes a full-volume encryption technology called BitLocker Drive Encryption (which works better with underlying Trusted Platform Module--TPM--hardware in modern PCs) to encrypt a system's entire hard drive. Non-TPM systems must use a USB memory key or similar device to unlock the drive when booting.

Image-Based Deployment
I've discussed this feature before, but given Vista's three-plus years in development so far, that's not surprising. Thanks to its componentized nature, Vista supports a new, more efficient image-based deployment scheme and a new version of Microsoft Remote Installation Services (RIS) called Windows Deployment Services (WDS). With WDS, you can automatically deploy Vista installation images over a network in a more elegant and timely fashion.

For companies that want to upgrade or migrate XP Professional Edition systems to Vista, Microsoft is providing updated versions of earlier tools, such as the User State Migration Tool (USMT) and new tools such as the PC Migration Assistant Wizard, which moves settings, files and folders, and user accounts from an old XP or Windows 2000 PC to a new Vista PC.

Better Group Policy
With Vista (and Longhorn Server), you control policy settings via new XML-based ADMX files, which replace the proprietary ADM files that earlier Windows versions use. This functionality will require new versions of the Group Policy Object Editor and Group Policy Management Console (GPMC), but will make automating Group Policy tasks much simpler. The biggest change with ADMX-based Group Policy is that common Group Policy Objects (GPOs) will now be stored in a single domain-level location, reducing storage requirements and making all GPOs more accessible to domain administrators. You can then use File Replication Services (FRS) to automatically replicate the central store to all domain controllers (DCs).

One big concern that businesses have today is that employees will plug a USB memory key, iPod, or other USB-based storage device into a PC, copy sensitive corporate data to that device, and then bring it off site and either lose it or purposefully give it to others outside the company. With Vista, corporations will be able to control device access via Group Policy, determining which types of devices that users can and cannot connect.

Better Security
This topic could entail an almost book-length discussion, but Vista will offer numerous security advantages over XP or other Microsoft OSs. Key among the changes are Protected Mode Admin (aka User Account Control--UAC), which forces even administer-level users to OK changes that could affect the system, and Protected Mode IE, in which Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0 always runs under privileges below those of other running tasks. Vista will also include an integrated malware scanner and eradicator called Windows Defender and numerous other security features.

So why might you want to avoid Vista? All the obvious reasons apply: It's a big upgrade and likely to be extremely disruptive. Despite the surface similarities with XP and earlier Windows versions, Vista also includes several new features and enough changes to upset the productivity of the typical information worker. In some ways, Vista's change to a more evolutionary approach will result in fewer training costs, but it's still a big change from earlier versions.

As of this writing, you have about 9 months to sort out a Vista strategy, and by early 2007, I expect that Vista will likely be the only easily obtainable Windows version with new PCs. The question, I guess, isn't so much whether you're going to upgrade, but when. The clock is ticking.

Windows Vista December 2005 CTP (Build 5270) Review