If you were in charge of the next version of Windows, what sort of utilities would you include? That’s the question I posed in the most recent Microsoft Challenge. Product managers for the next version of Windows, code-named Whistler, have told me they’re still designing the product, and they’re actively seeking feedback. So I asked TechRepublic members to help me put together a wish list of administrative tools and system utilities for power users and network administrators. The resulting list is as long as the one I wrote out for Santa when I was five years old. Fortunately, Old Saint Nick didn’t bring me everything on that list. (I’m still not sure what I would have done with a Geiger counter, but it sounded cool at the time.) And if Windows users are lucky, Microsoft will show the same sort of restraint when Whistler finally arrives in 2001.

You asked for firewalls, Active Directory designers, high-powered diagnostic programs, drive imaging utilities, improved command-line capabilities, and a bunch of improvements to the file system. One tongue-in-cheek response even suggested tossing in Microsoft Office, since every Windows user has it anyway.

TechRepublic member ron.hite isn’t quite playing the role of Grinch, but he does sound a cautionary note about the tendency to shovel new features into an already large operating system: “Don’t include non-OS tools in the OS. These are better left as add-ons. Leave MS to build the OS and allow third-party vendors or even other departments at MS to include or ship the tools. Firewalls, antivirus software, and browsers are all worthwhile products but just add a burden if the included product is not the one you want.”

The trouble with many of the suggestions I received is that, as Ron points out, they’re better done by third parties than by Microsoft. I like the fact that PowerQuest’s Drive Image Pro and Symantec Ghost are locked in a battle to see who can make imaging software faster and easier. If Microsoft steps in and bundles a bare-bones version, won’t that discourage innovation?

We could spend days debating which utilities belong in the OS, which go in the Resource Kit, and which should be reserved for third-party software companies. But after you made the list, I checked it twice, and I’ve decided these two good ideas belong in Whistler:

  • Registry Restore. TechRepublic member lynn_greiner points out that consumer versions of Windows have had third-party utilities like GoBack and ConfigSafe Complete Recovery for years. Windows Me builds in a new feature called System Restore that does the same thing. “It can really save your bacon if a badly behaved app or driver or user stupidity (hey, we all do dumb things!) destroys critical application or OS files,” Lynn said. “It also makes it safer to test new software, since you can get your system back exactly as it was before installation without spending ages doing tape or CD backups.”
  • Personal Firewalls. You can have your choice of third-party port-blocking utilities, including ZoneAlarm Pro, BlackIce Defender, and Norton Internet Security. But this is one feature that belongs in the OS. Right out of the box, TechRepublic member Lucky Max wants to be able to “easily block out the unneeded traffic, dynamically filter various ports, tune up logging, and filter log results.” Rgershbock‘s plan is even more ambitious: “I would like to see a collection of preconfigured and configurable security scripts for servers and workstations. Pick levels ranging from wide open to fully paranoid (C2 or better?) and have scripts make the required changes to the registry, install or uninstall components as appropriate, and provide reminders of what else has to be done for that level. It is far too easy to miss something when locking down an NT4 server.”

And now for the good news: Both features are planned for the Personal and Professional versions of Whistler. System Restore, adapted from the Windows Me feature of the same name, isn’t in Beta 1 of Whistler, but Microsoft promises it’ll be there soon. And the Whistler personal firewall feature has promise. I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s Ed’s new Challenge
To celebrate the holidays, I’ll be taking a three-week break later this month, from Dec. 21 through Jan. 4. That means a three-week hiatus from the Q&A portion of this column, too. Don’t worry, though, I’ll be back with a brand-new Microsoft Challenge in plenty of time for the New Year. While I’m away you’ll get a special bonus, as I update some of the year’s most popular columns. Stay tuned.