In April of this year, Bill Gates casually mentioned that "Sometime in the next year or so we will have a new version of Windows," which has often been called Windows 7. According to many pundits, this is the death knell of Windows Vista, and for many users—myself included—it’s not a moment too soon.
I’ve worked through every operating system from DOS 1.0 to Vista, and have generally been more than satisfied. However, Vista is a complete loser with many negatives and not a single relevant positive. Of the roughly ten Wintel computers I have, only one runs Vista. That said, my goal for this column isn’t to bash Vista, but to tell two stories in the hope that someone in Redmond might be listening. A butterfly flaps his wings, and all that.
My first story relates to the release of Windows 95. As you may recall, Windows 3.1 had a version of Windows Explorer with two browser windows that you could separately point to a different drive and/or folder. If you wanted to drag a file from your C: drive to your D: drive, you’d open one window at C:, the other to D:, and drag and drop as desired. A simple, elegant, visual solution for a very common operation.
With Windows 95 came the single-browser Explorer as it exists today. To perform the same function, you have to open and position two windows, then drag and drop. While testing Windows 95 for a review, I noted this to a Microsoft spokesman. The conversation went like this.
"What happened to the dual-window approach in Explorer?" I asked.
"We took it out and went to a one-window system," he responded. I explained my workflow with the old program and he replied, "You don’t need to do that anymore. You can simply copy the file from the old location, move to the new location and then paste."
"I don’t want to do that," I said. "The old way was faster and easier, and much more visual."
"Well, we think it’s better this way and that’s how you’ll have to do it from now on," he told me, and I’ve missed it ever since. Here’s story number two, and it goes back to the launch of the original Macintosh. Apparently, Steve Jobs felt it essential that the Macintosh boot faster, and he lobbied the team with this exhortation.
"You know, I’ve been thinking. How many people are going to be using the Macintosh? A million? No, more than that. In a few years, I bet five million people will be booting up their Macintoshes at least once a day," he predicted. "Well, let’s say you can shave 10 seconds off of the boot time. Multiply that by five million users and that’s 50 million seconds, every single day. Over a year, that’s probably dozens of lifetimes. So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you’ve saved a dozen lives. That’s really worth it, don’t you think?" (You can find the full tale here.)
I read that story years ago and it quickly came to mind when Vista and Office 2007 shipped, since it appears that Microsoft was thinking about anything but saving our time. The poster child for this attitude is the new ribbon toolbar in the Microsoft Office 2007. (I know it’s separate from Vista but it’s the perfect example of how the thinking seems to be going at Microsoft these days). According to eWeek, over 120 million copies of Office 2007 have sold. While doubtless many users like the ribbon bar now, I’m sure it took at least an hour—if not more—for every user to return to his or her previous competence level.
Don’t take my word for it; here’s a comment from Amazon.com" "Microsoft has taken a gigantic leap backward with Word 2007. The interface is horrible ... virtually unusable. Everything takes forever to find now. The simplest commands are no longer located in any logical place. I spend 75% of my time hunting for stuff that used to be easily and predictably placed in the interface."
Let’s see, 120 million users times one hour equals 120 million hours. Assuming that an average person works 2,000 hours a year for 30 years, that’s 2,000 lifetimes of productivity the ribbon bar has wiped out. That’s like a plot from the X Files—does Scully know about this? Not surprisingly, the overall rating for Window 2007 on Amazon is a 2, with 17 of 23 users rating it a 1.
And there are many other examples, some seemingly trivial, some equally significant. For example, when I loaded Vista on an existing XP system, I had to reload most video-related applications, only to learn that rendering speed was 25% slower. Why do I want to upgrade again? For over 15 years, I’ve removed programs by clicking Add and Remove Programs. Now it’s Programs and Features. Why? This is change for change’s sake, not improvement, which is endemic in Vista.
Getting back to our two stories, it’s simplistic and unfair to say that Microsoft unilaterally uses a top-down, "we know what’s best" approach, while Apple focuses on only those features that save their users time. Still, it’s clear that Microsoft needs a lot less of the first attitude, and a lot more of the second for Windows 97. Perhaps a great start would be bringing back that dual-window interface in Explorer from the good old 3.1 days. Probably not likely, but a boy can dream, can’t he?
Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics and the author of Critical Skills for Streaming Producers, a mixed media tutorial on DVD published by StreamingMedia.com.