Windows Vista Beta 2 may be the most-downloaded program in history — but heaven help ya if you use it for real work.
Bugs and lock-ups come with the territory — it’s beta software, after all, and you’d be crazy to run Vista Beta 2 on a production machine. (Or go crazy trying.) Having spent months struggling with various incarnations of the Vista beast, I’m worried about something more fundamental than bugs. More insidious. One Vista feature, User Account Control, just keeps getting in the way.
UAC raises its head
If you’ve used Vista Beta 2 for more than 15 seconds, you’ve bumped into UAC. Or, more correctly, it’s bumped into you. UAC raises its ugly head by blackening your entire screen, and presenting you with a dialog box that says either "A program needs your permission to continue" or "An unidentified program wants access to your computer."
What you do next depends on whether you’re running as a Standard user or as an Administrator. If you have a Standard account, you must provide a user name and password for an Administrator account to make it past the challenge screen. If you are already using an Administrator account, you need only click Continue. If you pass muster, Vista allows you to keep going.
If you happen to have Vista running on a machine, click the time in the lower-right corner, click Date and Time Settings, then click Change Date and Time. UAC, ever the Cerberus, snarls and demands that you validate your existence. If you can answer its questions correctly, Vista lets you change your computer’s time. Much ado about not much.
I dislike intrusive security prompts as much as the next guy. I realize that there’s a crying need for more control over sneaky programs. (Don’t get me started on Windows Genuine Spyware, er, Advantage.) But I don’t think Microsoft burned enough gray cells getting UAC right. And I believe that the fixes Microsoft has promised before Vista gets shoved out the door aren’t good enough.
The genesis of UAC
User Access Control acts as an antidote to a fundamental design decision made by Windows’ originators two decades ago. Since the earliest days of Windows — I still have my Windows/286 floppy! — Windows was designed to let programs pull each others’ strings. For instance, you might click Start, Control Panel, User Accounts. In a startlingly similar way, a program can "click" Start, Control Panel, User Accounts. If you have the ability to, say, reformat your hard drive, a program that you accidentally start inherits the same ability to reformat your hard drive. Once upon a time, that was very cool. Now it’s very dangerous.
Windows XP tried to limit the obvious downside of that design by supporting two different kinds of accounts: so-called Limited accounts and Administrator accounts. As you no doubt know, XP’s Limited accounts are so limited that nobody uses them, in spite of Microsoft’s continuing exhortations. You can bet that almost every ‘Softie who ever wrote the phrase, "Use a Limited account for everyday work," was, in fact, using an Administrator account at the time.
Vista goes one step beyond XP (or is it one step beneath?) by forcing everybody to use a Limited account, all the time. The names have changed a bit — in Vista it’s called a Standard account — and some of the old restrictions have been lifted. But by and large, if you have an Administrator account, everything you do in Vista takes place at a Standard security level.
That’s good. It means that any program you start, whether intentionally or unintentionally, only gets Standard security clearance. At the same time, it’s bad, because every time you want to perform an Administrator-style action, like change the time on the clock, you have to click-click-click over UAC’s challenges.
The user’s perspective
I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I say, "Everybody hates UAC."
It could be worse. Earlier test versions of Vista had far more hurdles to clear. Microsoft has made good progress on trimming the number of challenges, and the UAC development team promises that the number will be reduced even more.