Windows drives improvements in

 
 
By Staff Reports  |  Posted 2005-11-13 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tech Analysis: How one operating system came to dominate computing—and what's next.

device handling"> Anne Chen: Hardware

The Windows device driver architecture may have left a lot to be desired when it was introduced, but Microsoft brought to light the issue of handling devices and, along the way, taught many others how to do it better.

Introduced in Windows 3.x, VxD (virtual device driver) was subsequently used in the Windows 95 operating system. The architecture handled software interrupts from the operating system for a computers hardware devices, such as the keyboard and serial and parallel ports—one of the most buggy areas of an operating system.

True hardware geeks will remember how painful it was to write drivers before VxD. And writing devices using the VxD framework was no guarantee that a system wouldnt still crash. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Microsoft vastly improved the experience.

Its true that Microsoft may not have been the first to introduce a framework for writing device drivers, and it certainly was not the best at it. However, Microsoft had the weight to ensure Windows and VxD were used by enough developers to become the standard.

VxD gave way to WDM (Windows Driver Model), the framework Microsoft introduced for device drivers for the Windows 98 and Windows 2000 operating systems. WDM defined a unified driver model by standardizing requirements and reducing the amount of code that needed to be written. It was also designed to be forward-compatible, allowing drivers to be used across all Windows operating systems from Windows 98 and beyond.

Today, of course, WDM is used to provide features including plug and play, which enables users to add and remove devices across Microsoft operating systems without having to download or install drivers. Thats a long way from the days when programs such as PrintShop (remember that?) roamed the earth, and the number of disks with printer drivers outnumbered the number of disks for the program by a 4-1 margin.

Thank goodness those days are long gone.

Peter Coffee: App Development, business intelligence, tech apps

The good news and the bad news: Its the standard.

Before Windows, application development suites were like high-end stereo systems. You bought best-of-breed components and plugged them together: an editor from one company, a compiler from another and a debugger from yet a third. Borlands Turbo Pascal and Microsofts QuickBasic introduced integrated environments, but tool integration wasnt the norm because any developer might be aiming at any of several platforms—like trying to do mass transit in Los Angeles, a city with no single center.

Windows, by comparison, was San Francisco or New York.

Visual Basic 1.0 defined drag-and-drop development, and Windows 3.0s good use of Intel 386 hardware made it clear that OS/2 was fatally handicapped by being originally designed for the 286. The combination of Windows and Visual Basic was a powerful attractor for specialized applications, creating a positive-feedback loop where Windows-based tools built still more Windows-based tools.

Engineering and scientific applications proliferated on Windows for two reasons: Visual Basic made it easy to make the application look good, and BASIC had a long tradition of offering ease of entry to people who wrote programs to do their job—not as their job.

Click here to read Peter Coffees story "If Windows Had Never Happened." Any number of difficult tasks became quickly supported by widely available software. For example, my teenage son had a summer job for a professor at USC, turning videotapes of drifting flame balls in a space shuttle experiment on zero-G combustion into numeric data that could be analyzed. We assembled the tool chain to do that in one afternoon of Internet browsing.

The second thing that happened was less benign. In the business intelligence space, data quickly migrated from databases into spreadsheets as Excel became both ubiquitous and surprisingly powerful. BI applications soon had to answer two questions: How did they bring in data from Excel, and how did they integrate with Excel as the tool for end-user analysis?

Without the ubiquity of Windows and Office, enterprise data might have had its primary residence in more disciplined databases and other repositories. As it was, data leakage to the desktop was just too easy and useful to prevent.

Andrew Garcia: Security

From the turbulent days of the early Office-borne macro viruses to todays swarm of self-propagating worms, memory-resident ad engines and mutating spyware strains, Windows continues to be a fleshy and delicious treat for malware.

When the first Windows-specific virus came on the scene in 1992, MS-DOS and the IBM PC were already the most attractive target for virus writers, and Windows has only enhanced that attraction, with the rise of the Internet and high-speed broadband as deadly accomplices. Poor Windows security has given rise to a huge cottage industry of companies vying to shore up its defenses.

Ive spent countless hours reviewing the many Windows-based security technologies—anti-virus measures, desktop firewalls, host-based intrusion detection systems and, now, anti-spyware—without hope of ever being able to cover every product that has arisen to clean Windows (pig)pen.

By chasing the twin gods of simplicity and backward compatibility, Windows continuously leaves itself open to abuse. Its true that Microsofts dominance in end-user operating systems leaves Windows as the lowest of the hanging fruit for malware authors, but Windows design and architecture make it a meal thats all the more tasty. Rife with coding errors and exploitable vulnerabilities? Check. Begs and practically requires users to run with the highest levels of local administrative permissions? Check.

The latest Windows desktop incarnations, Windows 2000 Professional and Windows XP, made some small steps toward improving host security, but Microsoft is committed to improving only the most recent operating system iterations. With Windows XPs Service Packs 1 and 2, Microsoft has added a few features (an inbound integrated firewall and restricted executable installation via Internet Explorer) to tighten security. But it steadfastly refuses to offer these features for older operating systems.

With the forthcoming Windows Vista release, I hope Microsoft can solve its security problems—not by bolting on additional protective services but by fixing Windows underlying flaws.

Jim Rapoza: Web browsers

When Microsoft pulled its famous 180-degree switch on the importance of the Internet, its strategy was essentially based on two cornerstones: IE and IIS (initially known as Internet Information Server and later changed to Internet Information Services).

At the time, if Id had to place bets on which would become the dominant player in its space, I probably would have gone with IIS. There was a lot of heavyweight competition in the corporate Web server space back then. IIS, which was included free in Windows NT 4.x, looked as if it would wipe out most competition, leaving the high-end Unix side of Web serving to powerhouse servers such as those from Open Market and Netscape, with Apache picking up the smaller Linux-based sites.

As it turned out, most of the competition did go away—of six Windows Web servers I reviewed when NT 4.0 was released, only IIS remains. But IIS didnt become the dominant Web server, instead giving way to the surprisingly mighty open-source Apache, which dominated all sites, high-end and low-end, and has become the de facto engine of the Web.

Because of multiple, serious security holes, IIS became one of the main enablers of dangerous worms such as Nimda, and its appeal to many large Web sites dropped significantly. Now IIS has to settle for being king on Windows.

IE had the exact opposite experience. Pitted head-to-head with the massively popular Netscape browser, it prevailed in short order, due to its own capabilities, mistakes made by Netscape and the fact that Microsoft tied it as closely as it could to Windows.

At first, IEs rise was a good thing because the browser had better standard support than Netscape and heralded the age of free browsers. But by the time it reached 96 percent market share, the rarely upgraded IE was stagnating the Web. It now faces challenges from the children of Netscape, namely Firefox, and has seen its share drop to the mid-80s. This drop is mainly due to mistakes made by Microsoft, as well as the fact that IE isnt being updated on the Windows systems that most people use, and because it has been an enabler of a number of malevolent worms and viruses.

Cameron Sturdevant: Management

Microsoft released SMS (Systems Management Server) 1.0 in 1994, but change and configuration management became a really big deal for Windows, and Microsoft, at the turn of the century.

What began as SMS 1.0 has evolved into SMS 2003, with a second service pack going into beta as we go to press. In the intervening 10 years or so, SMS has grown from a tool for gathering a basic inventory of desktop software and hardware to a more powerful system that includes servers and mobile devices, along with gaining far-reaching configuration capabilities.

The journey hasnt always been easy for Microsoft. When I started covering system and network management tools for eWEEK in 1997, SMS was known for its slow development cycle, clumsy software license metering and awkward implementation. Competitive offerings packaged as families of tools, including Computer Associates Unicenter, Novells ZENworks and IBMs Tivoli management products, covered a broad range of operating systems and gave Microsoft a run for its money.

They still do.

SMS 2003 has certainly come a long way, but other products have a longer history of deeply integrating heterogeneous operating systems into a single pane of glass (or fewer panes of glass, at least) in the operations control center.

The introduction of SMS 2003 did away with many of the thorns found in previous versions of SMS, such as unscalable software license metering, and replaced them with nicely crafted, much more practical tools for system management.

SMS 2003 can now reach the wide range of devices that users and administrators must configure and manage, and it therefore does a good job of lowering management costs associated with daily operations. Although management tools from Microsoft will likely stay Windows-centric, the track record now points to a future where Microsoft management tools will increasingly manage diverse environments with greater expertise.

SMS has moved far beyond its early inventory capabilities, which were aimed at desktop systems. Mobile systems such as laptops were hardly at the head of the list of supported devices when SMS first hit the street. The addition of BITS (Background Intelligent Transfer Service) technology enabled SMS to distribute software while taking into account bandwidth constraints and unplanned network disconnections.

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