Vista, the latest version of Microsoft's Windows operating system, makes its long awaited consumer debut tomorrow. The first major upgrade in five years, Vista incorporates a new, sleek look and features a wide array of new functionality, such as better search tools and stronger security.
The early reviews have tended to damn the upgrade with faint praise, however, characterizing it as the best, most secure version of Windows, yet one that contains few, if any, revolutionary features.
While those reviews have focused chiefly on Vista's new functionality, for the past few months the legal and technical communities have dug into Vista's "fine print." Those communities have raised red flags about Vista's legal terms and conditions as well as the technical limitations that have been incorporated into the software at the insistence of the motion picture industry.
The net effect of these concerns may constitute the real Vista revolution as they point to an unprecedented loss of consumer control over their own personal computers. In the name of shielding consumers from computer viruses and protecting copyright owners from potential infringement, Vista seemingly wrestles control of the "user experience" from the user.
Vista's legal fine print includes extensive provisions granting Microsoft the right to regularly check the legitimacy of the software and holds the prospect of deleting certain programs without the user's knowledge. During the installation process, users "activate" Vista by associating it with a particular computer or device and transmitting certain hardware information directly to Microsoft.
Even after installation, the legal agreement grants Microsoft the right to revalidate the software or to require users to reactivate it should they make changes to their computer components. In addition, it sets significant limits on the ability to copy or transfer the software, prohibiting anything more than a single backup copy and setting strict limits on transferring the software to different devices or users.
Vista also incorporates Windows Defender, an anti-virus program that actively scans computers for "spyware, adware, and other potentially unwanted software." The agreement does not define any of these terms, leaving it to Microsoft to determine what constitutes unwanted software.
Once operational, the agreement warns that Windows Defender will, by default, automatically remove software rated "high" or "severe," even though that may result in other software ceasing to work or mistakenly result in the removal of software that is not unwanted.
For greater certainty, the terms and conditions remove any doubt about who is in control by providing that "this agreement only gives you some rights to use the software. Microsoft reserves all other rights." For those users frustrated by the software's limitations, Microsoft cautions that "you may not work around any technical limitations in the software."
Those technical limitations have proven to be even more controversial than the legal ones.
Last December, Peter Guttman, a computer scientist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand released a paper called "A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection." The paper pieced together the technical fine print behind Vista, unraveling numerous limitations in the new software seemingly installed at the direct request of Hollywood interests.
Guttman focused primarily on the restrictions associated with the ability to play back high-definition content from the next-generation DVDs such as Blu-Ray and HD-DVD (referred to as "premium content").
He noted that Vista intentionally degrades the picture quality of premium content when played on most computer monitors.
Guttman's research suggests that consumers will pay more for less with poorer picture quality yet higher costs since Microsoft needed to obtain licences from third parties in order to access the technology that protects premium content (those licence fees were presumably incorporated into Vista's price).
Moreover, he calculated that the technological controls would require considerable consumption of computing power with the system conducting 30 checks each second to ensure that there are no attacks on the security of the premium content.
Microsoft responded to Guttman's paper earlier this month, maintaining that content owners demanded the premium content restrictions. According to Microsoft, "if the policies [associated with the premium content] required protections that Windows Vista couldn't support, then the content would not be able to play at all on Windows Vista PCs." While that may be true, left unsaid is Microsoft's ability to demand a better deal on behalf of its enormous user base or the prospect that users could opt-out of the technical controls.
When Microsoft introduced Windows 95 more than a decade ago, it adopted the Rolling Stones "Start Me Up" as its theme song. As millions of consumers contemplate the company's latest upgrade, the legal and technological restrictions may leave them singing "You Can't Always Get What You Want."