The most striking thing about Microsoft's Vista beta is how much the GUI has improved over XP - and how similar it now is to Apple's first Mac OS X releases. In fact, any Mac OS X user who's been in suspended animation for a few years will feel right at home using exciting Microsoft innovations like flip3d, me2life, sidebar, and gadgets.
Look deeper and you'll see some real 90s improvements under the hood too - although you can't tell just by using the beta Microsoft says it now has better memory management, real 64bit support, and the ability to handle 128GB of RAM in the ultimate enterprise edition.
I'm sure there's depth there somewhere, but essentially none of the neat stuff promised for Longhorn back in the day when the Windows community proclaimed the MacOS X interface effete and inefficient made it into this product.
On the other hand, there are two things about Vista, that make the product interesting. The first of these is the new security and identity thinking since that's likely to speed the move to centralised IT control while requiring non conforming XP and 2K users to get with the program, throw out most of their dot.net adaptations, and institute enhanced identity, download, and security management.
That pales, however, beside the other one: the changes to the way the GUI is called and used represent another back to the future move; but a good one. The Windows Presentation libs control the entire screen system and are callable from within Microsoft's own rendition of XAML -originally an extensible markup language designed as an XML instance, but now an RPC manager. Put the two together, throw in some pre-packaged, forms based! application elements or building blocks that together stand-in for a backend framework, add an optional "rich experience" video framework and what you've got is the makings of a new Windows client architecture - and a viable long term replacement for dot.net.
There's a lot to be said for this, and I see it as a lot smarter and a lot better than anything they've tried to do before - ok, it's actually a natural consequence of trying to reinvent the Network Environment Windows system without giving up bit twiddling as a method for graphics management, and it's part of the general move to have Windows operations re-capitulate the mainframe experience, but it has real potential.
Specifically, it's a bigger step toward creating a smart client environment than anything they've done before. And there's a zinger: and not ginzu knives either, but a real potential for Microsoft to create a windows smart display because this stuff could almost certainly be made to run with minimal hardware and a 10,000 line boot monitor in place of 60 million lines of Windows code. I can't see Microsoft doing it, but if the EU or somebody else succeeds in opening those APIs, other people should be able to.
So what do I think of Vista overall? It depends on what you do with it and what you know: monopoly wintel users should like it, but if you've used MacOS you'll probably see Vista as just Microsoft Deja vu; if you are an applications developer you'll see it as Windows RearView unless, of course, you're a Windows only shop, in which case it'll be Vista to you if you're not heavily vested in dot.net or windows identity management - and Windows clifface if you are.
The bottom line, however, is that all of us should mourn the passing of Microsoft's Longhorn dreams because NT 5.3 is almost certainly better than 5.2, but fundamentally not a new OS at all; just the same old, same old, with some bug fixes and new, mostly "borrowed", make-up.