Microsoft to improve Vista's problematic UAC in Windows 7

By Elizabeth Montalbano, IDG News Service |  Security, Microsoft, UAC

Microsoft plans to improve the much-maligned user account control (UAC) feature in the next version of its Windows client OS, acknowledging that the new security feature it built into Windows Vista has caused unnecessary problems for users.

On the company's Engineering Windows 7 blog, Microsoft called UAC one of the "most controversial" features of Vista, and said it will tweak UAC in Windows 7 so it works more closely with Microsoft's intended goal for the feature.

Microsoft added UAC to Vista in an effort to improve the security of the system and give people who are the primary users of a PC more control of its applications and settings. However, UAC turned out to be more of a headache for many users than a benefit.

"UAC was created with the intention of putting you in control of your system, reducing cost of ownership over time and improving the software ecosystem," according to the post, which is attributed to Ben Fathi, corporate vice president of development for Microsoft's Windows Core Operating System Division. "What we've learned is that we only got part of the way there in Vista and some folks think we accomplished the opposite."

UAC prevents users without administrative privileges from making unauthorized changes to a PC. But because of how it was set up in Vista, it can prevent even authorized users on the network from being able to access applications and features they should normally have access to.

UAC does this through a series of screen prompts that ask the user to verify privileges, and it may require a user to type in a password to perform a task. Vista users reported that these prompts would interrupt a user's normal workflow, even during some mundane tasks, unless a user is set as Local Administrator. UAC prompts became so problematic that competitor Apple even spoofed them in a television commercial.

Microsoft said that in Windows 7, it will work to reduce UAC's "unnecessary or duplicated prompts in Windows and the ecosystem, such that critical prompts can be more easily identified," according to Fathi's blog post. It also plans to make the prompts "more informative" so that users can make better choices about how to proceed once prompted, and will provide "better and more obvious control" over UAC in Windows 7.

Microsoft is taking into consideration user feedback and the effect UAC has already had on third-party software to make changes to UAC in Windows 7, according to the blog.

Vista users said the reason the UAC prompts were so frequent and misguided is because many third-party Windows applications that predated Vista weren't developed to work with UAC's "Standard User" designation. Because of this, applications would default to requiring Local Administrator rights and prompt people who used the Standard User setting if they wanted to perform functions deemed as administrative tasks.

Third parties already are making changes to software that runs on Windows to accommodate UAC's Standard User designation, something Fathi said in his post is a good thing.

"UAC has resulted in a radical reduction in the number of applications that unnecessarily require admin privileges," he wrote, saying this "improves the overall quality of software and reduces the risks inherent in software on a machine which requires full administrative access to the system."

Microsoft is no stranger to dealing with flack over UAC. The company even called it one of Vista's "misunderstood" features in a paper it published on its Web site in May that tried to explain how best to work with certain Vista features Microsoft felt were barriers to people adopting the OS.

Windows 7 is the next major update to the Windows client OS and is expected to be released late next year or in early 2010. Microsoft plans to give developers an early look at Windows 7 at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles next month.

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