It's hard to even remember this far back, but when Microsoft launched Windows 95 over a decade ago, the product included the TCP/IP networking features necessary for accessing the Internet, but it wasn't enabled out of the box. Nope, Windows 95 defaulted to Microsoft's proprietary NetBEUI, a LAN Manager-based protocol, though I'm sure a vast number of 95 users, at least early on, accessed IPX/SPX Netware networks as well. The Internet, in 1995, was just starting to hit, and networking, especially home networking, was fairly rare.

Today, home networking equipment is so inexpensive that I keep expecting to see a wireless router fall out of my box of Cheerios. Standardization on TCP/IP, the emergence of the Internet, and killer online services such as Google, Amazon.com, MySpace, and many others have made networking a de facto feature of all operating systems and many applications as well. And that networking, of course, is all based on TCP/IP today.

As a first-class networking citizen, Windows Vista ships with native support for both IPv4 (the current 32-bit version of IP-based networking) and IPv6 (the 128-bit successor to IPv4 that has yet to really catch on). That means that Vista is future-proof, from a networking perspective. But Vista also improves on the networking features in Windows XP in a variety of dramatic ways. Let's take a look.

Networking Features

While Windows XP made wired networking a plug and play affair, and Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) took away much of the pain with connecting to various types of wireless networks, with Windows Vista Microsoft finally took the enormous step of completely rewriting the networking stack. That means that Windows Vista features a lot of new UI, most of it quite good, as well as completely reworked underpinnings. The result is a system that is amazingly easy to connect to a variety of network types, be them wired, wireless (Wi-Fi), or wireless (WWAN), such as Verizon's EV-DO network, which I'm now testing on my Vista-based Lenovo ThinkPad.

The nicest part of this new networking work, from the user's perspective, is that Microsoft has removed the technical jargon without dumbing it down too much for power users. So when you connect to a new network of any kind for the first time, Vista will display a dialog in which you can choose between three plain-English profiles: Home, Work, and Public. Each of these profiles configures various networking settings accordingly. So for example, in your Home-type network, you will have access to connected PCs and devices and shared printers, and your own PC will broadcast its shared resources. On a Public network, however, such as one you might access in a Starbucks or an airport lounge, your system will be locked down, offering you Internet access, but hiding your PC from the world. That's smart.

Smarter still, each network type has its own profile. So at home, my ThinkPad connects to the home network using Home, but to EV-DO using Public. And if you power users really want to get in there and configure stuff, you can: Microsoft's created a nifty new Network and Sharing Center that provides you with access to every networking option you can think of.

Network and Sharing Center

The Network and Sharing Center is your one-stop shop for all your networking needs. Here, you can access each of the network types you've configured, determine the sharing and discovery options for network discovery, file sharing, public folder sharing, printer sharing, password protected sharing, and media sharing, as well as more advanced networking features such as your actual network connections. You can also jump to other networking-related parts of the Vista UI, such as Network (the replacement for My Network Places), Internet Options, and Windows Firewall.

The best part about Network and Sharing Center is that most people will never even need to access this control panel. Instead, you will simply choose a networking profile from the simple wizard-based network discovery dialog I discussed early and move on from there.

Wireless networking, too, is much simpler than it was in XP. As with XP SP2, Vista supplies a list of available wireless networks, from which you can connect and disconnect. But this time around, this dialog is more connected with the rest of the system; you can right-click selected networks and access more information, such as the Status and Properties dialogs, as well as a new Diagnose option for when things aren't working properly.

The new Network and Sharing Center is a wonderful addition to Windows Vista, but the take away here is that this bit of UI is only the tip of the iceberg: Underneath the covers, Microsoft has rearchitected the Windows networking stack to be more efficient and easier to use. This is good news for everyone.

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Windows Meeting Space

Windows Meeting Space is a bizarre new peer-to-peer (P2P) application that's designed to let you host and join virtual meetings in which you can share and/or view documents, applications, or even your Windows desktop with others. You can start a Windows Meeting Space meeting from any version of Windows Vista from Home Premium on up (Home Basic users can only view meetings), and up to ten people can join these meetings via a wired or wireless network.

Sadly, Windows Meeting Space bears all the ugliness of a Microsoft 1.0 product. It looks and acts nothing like any other Windows Vista applications, and takes on an ugly gray fascia that looks out of place with, well, everything else in Vista. From this simple UI, you can start new meetings, join a meeting, or open an invitation file that was sent via email or some other method.

Behind the scenes, Windows Meeting Space requires some low-level Vista networking features such as People Near Me (the low-level Vista P2P service) and Windows Firewall, the latter of which must be configured to allow Meeting Space traffic. Fortunately, this firewall exception is not enabled until you run Meeting Space for the first time.

When I heard that Microsoft was going to include a P2P application in Windows Vista, I should have known that it was going to be some boring corporate applet and not a cool Internet-enabled sharing solution like BitTorrent. Ah well.

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Improved file and folder sharing

If you're familiar with file and folder sharing in Windows XP, you know that you typically right-click the folder you'd like to share, choose Sharing, and then navigate through a dialog in which you enable sharing, name the share, and then add and remove users and groups that access the share, and possibly configure their permissions. This system actually works pretty well--enough so that, curiously, it's still available in Windows Vista as an option. But Microsoft has revamped its UI for file and folder sharing in Vista, and in a rare move, it is providing both the new and old ways of performing this task in the new OS.

In Vista, when you right-click on a folder and choose Share, you're presented with a simple wizard-based dialog in which you choose which users can access the share, and which permission level they have (Owner, Reader, Contributor, and Co-Owner). And that's it: It's just some plain English with, hopefully, obvious ramifications.

However, you can also right-click and choose Properties, and then navigate to the Sharing tab of the Properties dialog, where you can access two ways to configure sharing: Network File and Folder Sharing, as described above, and Advanced Sharing, which works like XP. Nice.

Windows Vista also supports a broader and (presumably) simpler sharing method: You can simply configure the Public folder to be shared globally: Anything you copy to C:\Users\Public can be viewed, modified, and deleted by other network users. (You can grant access to just everyone or no one.) Or, you can turn on password-protected sharing, another newly exposed networking feature, and limit Public folder access only to those users with a user name and password on your PC.

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Network projector support and Presentation Settings

For you corporate drones that live and die by the blade of Microsoft PowerPoint, Windows Vista includes new support for network-based projectors, making it easier than ever to connect to these devices and use them to run a presentation. Vista accomplishes this via a Connect to Network Projector wizard, which looks simple enough: I've never actually had a chance to use it, however. And really, thank God for that.

Another related feature, Presentation Settings, is enabled only on notebook PCs and Tablet PCs. This feature lets you configure your system to keep the screen on constantly, even when on battery power, so you do the Energizer Bunny routine during your next presentation. Presentation Settings is available in Windows Mobility Center via a single toggle button. What a neat idea.

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Remote Desktop Connection

As with Windows XP, Windows Vista includes a Remote Desktop application that allows you to remotely connect to other Windows-based PCs and servers, using a floating or full-screen window. Remote Desktop Connection also provides a few additional features over the XP version. If the software is unable to determine the identity of the computer to which you're connecting (typical if it's older than Windows Vista or Longhorn Server), you'll get a warning dialog aimed at getting you to upgrade to a more secure version of the software on the destination machine.

Remote Desktop Connection works with PCs and servers on the local network and, if configured properly, systems connected to the Internet. The experience is configurable, so that with faster connections, you can enable more graphical features. Unlike virtualization solutions, Remote Desktop Connection is generally quite fast.

This feature is only fully implemented on Business versions of Windows Vista. That is, while you can use any Vista version as a Remote Desktop client, you cannot connect to systems running Windows Vista Starter, Home Basic, or Windows Vista Home Premium with this solution.

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Final thoughts

There's a lot more, but I'll flesh out Vista's networking functionality in my upcoming Feature Focus articles. For now, understand that Vista establishes an interesting middle ground for networking that is both easy enough for mainstream users and configurable enough for power users and enterprises. Windows Vista's networking implementation is top-notch, from the simple and elegant new UIs to the low-level support for new networking technologies such as IPv6.

Next: Windows Vista Features: Mobility Features