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Vista: Exclusivity By Design

Hoo boy. If you thought Microsoft Vista was going to be complicated to run on a PC, that looks like simplicity itself compared to writing applications to run on it. At every level from the lowliest device driver to the most complex GUI app Microsoft is putting developers through hoops and tightening its grip. If you're a developer who thought it was tough to compete with Microsoft before, get ready for a whole new relationship: Microsoft as God.
Hoo boy. If you thought Microsoft Vista was going to be complicated to run on a PC, that looks like simplicity itself compared to writing applications to run on it. At every level from the lowliest device driver to the most complex GUI app Microsoft is putting developers through hoops and tightening its grip. If you're a developer who thought it was tough to compete with Microsoft before, get ready for a whole new relationship: Microsoft as God.News stories put the changes in perspective. Microsoft has released CTPs (that's Community Technology Previews, or betas to you) of two tools application developers will use to build Vista software: our first look at Expression Interactive Designer and an update of Expression Graphic Designer.

At the same time, Microsoft has announced that all kernel-mode software for Vista must be digitally signed for security. This apparently means that every device driver, for starters, will have to be produced by a company that is registered with, and monitored by, Microsoft.

First, the developer tools: Because it's getting increasingly difficult to tell the players without a program, here's a run-down. Expression Interactive Designer(formerly codenamed "Sparkle") is a tool developers will use to create application controls. Expression Graphic Designer ("Acrylic") is a tool graphic designers will use to create UI elements. Developers can import Expression Graphic Designer elements into Expression Interactive Designer, it says here, to build Windows applications that run on , the Vista API.

These tools have a third sibling, Expression Web Designer ("Quartz"), that will make its appearance in March. And there is a fourth related tool, Visual Designer for the Windows Presentation Foundation ("Cider"), which is the tool developers will use to develop for the Windows Presentation Foundation subsystem ("Avalon" -- all the 3D eye candy that looks like a major consumer of CPU cycles in Vista).

Presumably the common threat, er, common thread in all these tools is XAML, Extensible Application Markup Language, which is also the native language of "Orcas," the version of Visual Studio that will support Vista development, currently scheduled for release in 2007.

Your eyes do not deceive you. That is "2007." Vista itself is still scheduled for release in 2006, according to Microsoft. So it would appear that we're headed for a situation where Vista will be released before its high-end application development tools are. (Somebody from Microsoft, jump in here and correct me if I've got it wrong.)

In the basement of Vista development, down where the device drivers live, there is a different set of problems brewing. eWeek is reporting that kernel-mode software for Vista must be digitally signed. Digital signatures, and the certificate structure that makes them work, is in general a Very Good Thing -- certificates are the backbone of SSL security that makes you feel OK about typing your American Express Card number into a browser, for example. But my understanding (again, Microsoft, feel free) is that every device driver that runs in Vista in kernel mode will need to be digitally signed, which means it will need to be rewritten. Millions of them. By the time Vista ships. Or else.

The "or else" is the possibility that anything you've ever installed a third-party driver for on your PC won't work if you move to Vista. It's also the possibility that legacy software you know and love won't work on Vista (not Windows apps so much as older DOS apps and custom software).

Taken together, these high-level and low-level changes may mean that you won't need to rush to a decision on Vista late this year. Microsoft may have just bought you a couple of more years of time while app developers catch up and device drivers get written.

If you're not an application developer this may not bother you particularly. If you are an application developer -- particularly if you develop commercial software for the consumer market -- you might want to be very bothered, because that couple of years of learning curve is time Microsoft is giving itself to enter your market. Adobe/Macromedia, for example, looks vulnerable in this transition, and Symantec, as Microsoft pushes into security software and graphics.

History repeats itself. Remember that Lotus and WordPerfect and Apple sat at the top of the hill before Microsoft morphed DOS into Windows. When the dust settled 1-2-3 and WordPerfect had lost to Excel and Word, and all of the Mac's genetic code had been cloned. We seem to be approaching another one of those inflection points.