Today Windows Update sees the first mainstream release of the Windows 10 Creators Update and the last public patches, ever, for Windows Vista.
Released to manufacturing on November 8, 2006 and shipping to consumers on January 30, 2007, Windows Vista had a troubled development and a troubled life once it shipped. But it was an essential Windows release, laying the groundwork for Windows 7 and beyond. For all the criticism that Vista and Microsoft received, the company never really backtracked on the contentious aspects of the release. After a while, those aspects just stopped being contentious.
Windows Vista was originally meant to be grander in scope and ambition. Microsoft’s Longhorn project envisaged a new database-like file system known as WinFS, a radically new development model and set of APIs based on .NET, and a 3D accelerated user interface built using these APIs.
But development of Longhorn faltered. Some problems came from Longhorn itself; WinFS never worked right and was eventually abandoned. This in turn wiped out much of the development work that Microsoft had done on things like the new Explorer and Mail client, which depended on WinFS. Scrap WinFS, and Microsoft had to scrap anything that required WinFS. Even when the code worked, much seemed to be of dubious quality, with instability and memory leaks abundant.
Other problems were not with Longhorn per se but rather with the software that Longhorn was based on: Windows XP. Windows XP was getting ravaged by remotely exploitable security flaws, and Microsoft realized that it had to do something about it. Over a period of years, the company in some ways transformed itself, devising methodologies and development processes to try to ensure that the code it developed was much more secure by default. The most immediate product of this change was Windows XP Service Pack 2; it beefed up the built-in firewall, made it harder for ActiveX content to run within Internet Explorer, and made a multitude of invisible changes to the operating system to fix security holes. For perhaps the first time ever, Microsoft took the approach of doing the right thing from a security perspective, even if it meant making changes to Windows that might jeopardize application compatibility.
Service Pack 2 was a large undertaking, drawing resources away from Longhorn development and making Longhorn’s underlying basis—Windows XP without Service Pack 2—a liability.
With the new parts of Longhorn flawed and the old parts of Longhorn riddled with security issues, Microsoft decided in August 2004 to start over, scrapping most of the work done in the previous three years. For the new development, the codebase that would eventually become Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 was the underlying basis. Ambitious features such as WinFS were shelved indefinitely, and while many elements of the planned new APIs did ship, as parts of .NET, the operating system itself was not built on top of them.
But Windows Vista did contain one important element from the Longhorn timeframe: a brand new display driver stack (using the “Windows Display Driver Model,” WDDM) that enabled 3D acceleration of the Windows desktop. The Aero Glass shell used pixel shader effects computed by the GPU, and the desktop itself was composited on the GPU, too; each individual window was drawn to its own piece of memory, and the GPU handled overlaying all the different windows to produce the finished desktop.
Shaking up something so major as the entire graphics stack required a lot of work from GPU companies. Early WDDM drivers were perceived to be slow or buggy, comparing unfavorably to their much more mature Windows XP counterparts. It also somewhat increased the system requirements; Windows itself now needed a DirectX 9-class GPU to perform optimally, and while that’s trivial today, it represented a major change relative to the requirements of Windows XP. Without such a GPU, Vista could revert to using XP display drivers, which worked fine but meant losing Aero Glass’ translucency.
Under pressure from Intel, Microsoft allowed some systems without DirectX 9 GPUs to be branded as “Vista Capable.” While this was technically true and such machines lacked only visual pizzazz rather than anything functional, it nonetheless led to a lawsuit against Microsoft. Consumers were unhappy that their “Vista Capable” systems were unable to use every single feature that Vista brought.
From Microsoft’s new security focus, we got User Account Control (UAC), the feature whereby Windows asks for confirmation before performing certain administrative tasks. Prior to Windows Vista, most Windows software, especially in the consumer sphere, blindly assumed that it was running with full Administrator privileges. UAC broke that assumption, and accordingly, broke software that assumed it had full access to the system.
This put Windows Vista in an awkward spot: at launch, it had drivers that were worse than XP, software compatibility that was worse than XP, and hardware requirements that were higher than XP. Windows Vista’s reputation was immediately tarnished, and there were calls for Microsoft to abandon it and go back to the “superior” Windows XP.
Progress can be painful
But Microsoft didn’t. The changes that Vista brought with it were not mere accidents, and the pain was essential. While UAC was slightly toned down in Windows 7—a few situations that required confirmation in Vista no longer needed confirmation in 7—the core mechanism was retained and has been kept to this day. It’s just much less annoying today because most software is better behaved and no longer assumes it has full system access—the days of assuming that everyone is an Administrator, all the time, are behind us. WDDM drivers rapidly matured, matching and surpassing their Windows XP predecessors, and today every Windows display driver uses WDDM. The forward march of technology made Vista’s higher hardware requirements a non-issue.
Windows 7, released in 2009, included every contentious or “problematic” part of Windows Vista, but its reception was the complete opposite. It was regarded as compatible and stable, with fast, reliable drivers and modest hardware requirements. But this was only possible because Vista had forced hardware and software developers to do the right thing in the first place. If Windows 7 had arrived in 2007, its reception would have been every bit as hostile as Vista’s was, for precisely the same reasons. While Microsoft could have sidestepped some minor issues—it could have restricted “Vista capable” branding to systems with suitable GPUs, for example—most of what Vista did was not whimsical or accidental but deliberate and essential.
Windows Vista won’t be mourned the way Windows XP was when it dropped out of support, and the end of support will be much narrower in impact—there just aren’t that many people using it any more. In some ways, it’s always going to be remembered as a disappointing release because Vista never truly escaped the sky-high expectations that Microsoft set when it first announced Longhorn. Vista wasn’t Longhorn; indeed, nothing Microsoft has released has lived up to that grand vision, and nothing ever will.
But Vista was a necessary release: it blazed a trail that made Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and Windows 10 all possible. It should be remembered not as a mistake, but as an essential, if difficult, evolution.