Windows Vista and The Importance of Metadata

I’ve been running Windows Vista on my production laptop for a couple weeks now.  For those techies in the audience, I’m running build 5219 – the same build distributed to PDC attendees in early September.  This build is somewhere between Beta 1 and Beta 2 quality, and runs fairly well considering where we are in the development cycle.  I don’t recommend Vista for the average user; however, it has been quite educational for me as a consultant and general IT enthusiast.  I even get the coveted “Aero Glass” interface thanks to LDDM drivers for the ATI video card in my HP nc8000 laptop.  Truthfully, though – I often disable the Vista “eye-candy” in order to gain more performance.

  • Note: Aero Glass can be disabled by the pressing CTRL + SHIFT + F9. 

While many blogs and industry journalists are focused on the look and feel of Vista, I’d rather highlight something that isn’t getting much attention – metadata.  What is metadata, you might ask?  Metadata is simply data that describes other data.  For instance, when you write a Microsoft Word document you have the option to add metadata such as a subject, author, keywords, or other information.  This metadata is saved with the document and is viewable by anyone with access to the file.  Below is a screen shot of the Microsoft Word metadata entry screen.  You may have seen this screen before and never thought twice about it.  Vista is about to change all that.


Word-Enter Metadata


In my opinion, a key advancement in Vista is the ease with which metadata is exposed to a user.  For instance, the default Windows Explorer view of a user’s documents now includes a column listing document keywords.  Here is a screen shot that shows the new interface and how easy it is to discover document metadata without the need for a right-click or any other action on the part of the user.


VirtualFolders-Library-Document View with metadata highlighted


The interface element at the bottom of the Explorer window is called the preview pane, and it can be enabled or disabled based on your preference.  However, before you go disabling it to save screen real-estate, understand that the preview pane provides an easy way to modify metadata.  Simply left-click on the Keywords to change or add to them.  The same thing goes for comments, project, and any other metadata field associated with the file in question.


While a well-structured metadata model can surely boost productivity and improve search results, I have some concerns about the average “knowledge worker” experience.  For instance, there is no way to ensure that the keywords I choose to describe a document will be the same as another user.  The keyword field is a free-form text entry box, not some kind of drop-down menu, or radio-button interface.  This means I could describe a document by using the keyword AD, while another user might use Active Directory.  One way around this is to create a robust document template structure, and require that users create new documents from templates with pre-populated metadata.  This approach is a little draconian in my opinion – but I think it highlights the type of discussions that organizations need to have over the next few months/years.  Finally, metadata isn’t only being consumed and displayed by Vista.  SharePoint products also take advantage of metadata, and those products are shipping today.  Let me know your thoughts about metadata using the comments link below.