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With the 2005 holiday season just over, Microsoft is already coaxing consumers to put its new operating system at the top of their holiday shopping lists for 2006.

At his keynote speech during last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates showcased the much ballyhooed, long-delayed Vista operating system, which is finally set to come out late this year. The presentation (which featured a walk-on cameo by pop singer Justin Timberlake) highlighted graphical advances in Vista that would, for example, allow consumers to organize and share digital photos more easily and view pictures alongside video on their PC screens.

Vista is still technically a work in progress – the Redmond, WA company released its third and most recent “community technology preview” build in late December. As Mary Jo Foley, editor of New York-based Microsoft Watch, points out, “we don’t know totally what’s in it.” But experts have seen enough to say that, alongside graphical presentation, new security and search capabilities will be the software’s main selling points. “If I were [Microsoft] and I were trying to attract people, I’d focus on the security,” Foley says.

Based on what Microsoft has revealed – in a beta release last fall, its community previews, and the CES presentation – better security is definitely a core component, and could be key to drawing in virus-weary consumers. Vista will incorporate anti-spyware and anti-virus protections into the system, Foley says, and ferret out any unusual activity in the file system, registry, or network that could be a sign of malicious. As a safeguard for consumers who are routinely plugging in memory sticks, handheld organizers, and other mobile gear into their computers, the OS will also securely “check in” new devices as they are connected to the PC, and prevent a user from connecting to potentially compromised machines in a wireless network environment.

Michael Cherry, a lead analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, WA, believes Vista’s so-called “user account protection” will be another critical aspect of of its security system. This feature allows each user only as much access to software applications or the operating system as they will need to perform specific tasks. Cherry says this will substantially limit hackers’ ability to “do a drive-by install of spyware.”

Microsoft has also been trumpeting the operating system’s new search and navigation capabilities. Mike Burk, a product manager with the Windows client division at Microsoft, says that the new OS will make searching a local hard drive easier, and will also collect data from other locations and devices connected to the PC. And through the Windows feature code-named Flip, users can page across a series of live “thumbnails” of open applications and documents to find what they need. A related feature called Flip 3D utilizes the system’s improved graphical presentation and search together, so users can scroll through a three-dimensional stack of all their open windows – “similar to using a Rolodex,” Burk says.

Vista users will also be able to create “virtual folders” that can contain all the documents and applications related to a particular project or query, or even a time period, says analyst Cherry, so they’re easier to access.

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