When you make a decision, what sways you - cogent rationalisation or what your gut tells you?
I'll tell you what I believe in: real-world, hands-on research. And lots of it. I want to know every facet of a new product or technology before I judge it. I want to try it for myself. Run it through different situations. Measure how it reacts to different conditions, and record how I and others react to those things.
My first copy of Windows Vista came to me in late 2003, and I can't even count the number of builds I tested before the gold code arrived in late November. I have spent hundreds of hours testing Vista. In the end, though, my decision about the OS arrives from my gut. I do the objective and subjective research and wait to see what my unseen, unknown jury says.
The only problem is that even after all that research on Vista, my inner 8 Ball keeps saying, "Reply hazy, try again." How could that be?
What's Wrong with Vista?
At least 80 percent of the changes in Windows Vista are positive. Microsoft took the extra time to smooth over some of the speed bumps noticeable in the pre-release builds of the OS. You can't fault the software giant for lack of effort with Vista's development process.
The graphics improvements, both in terms of hardware support and how the software takes advantage of that hardware, change the user interface in scores of subtle and overt ways, all of them positive. The single best advantage of Vista is that ergonomically, it's easier and just plain more satisfying - at the gut level - to use.
On the other hand, nothing about Vista is truly innovative or compelling. With the exception of security (and we don't know yet whether Microsoft's security changes will be enough to significantly change the Windows experience), there's no transformational, gotta-have-it feature in Vista.
This is why computer software reviewers, though mostly positive, have struggled to put their fingers on exactly why they're positive. To use the '90s vernacular, there's no killer feature; yet for the most part, most people will prefer Vista over XP once they've had a chance to live with Vista for a while.
Make no mistake, either: Windows Vista will be a success. Two years from now, it may be a roaring success. Even Windows ME - the most embarrassingly uninspired version of Windows since Windows 2.0 - was a relative financial success for Microsoft. Vista makes Windows ME look like somebody's "Hello World" experiment.
So how come Vista doesn't pass my gut check? Vista has become the version of Windows I just can't get excited about. I was far more excited about Windows ME because I hated it. I don't even hate Vista. I'm just supremely tired of it.
A Change of Focus
It has something to do, I think, with Microsoft's shifting internal priorities. Microsoft has always wanted to make money and dominate the technology landscape. I can't quibble with Microsoft's need to succeed. In fact, I applaud it. It helped create a stable desktop PC marketplace for a long time. But when that's the only goal, something important is lost.
I'm not talking about innovation; Microsoft has never been in the fore in that department. While many fault it for that, innovation doesn't always pay. In fact, it's expensive. Microsoft's strategy to buy or copy the most important technologies in a sort of just-in-time way makes good sense in the computer market. Picking the best ideas is a lot easier than coming up with all of them.
Despite that supposed fault, one thing Microsoft had going for it during its rise was its exceptional customer focus. It listened to end users, as well as the press and analysts who represented them. It made decisions based on the needs of small and mid-tier businesses, instead of just its thousand or so largest enterprise customers.
There was a fever in Redmond that was about pioneering what was needed to make PCs the premier business and communications tool - and in particular, making them easier to use. Microsoft wanted to be the very best at serving users, and its employees believed in that goal.
The acid bath of the US versus Microsoft antitrust proceedings during the late '90s and early part of this decade stripped away a lot of the better aspects of the software giant, leaving it noticeably less than it had been. Microsoft stopped focusing on end users and now seemingly makes many decisions based on these two things:
1. Avoiding negative publicity (especially about security and software quality)
2. Making sure the largest enterprise customers are happy
Ten years ago, the notion of Microsoft missing the consumer pre-holiday launch of a new version of Windows by only a matter of weeks would have been inconceivable. It's not necessarily a bad thing that Microsoft made the decision to delay Vista, by the way. But it shows a fundamental change in the company's orientation.
The trouble with Vista isn't the features you can see, or the lack thereof - it's the priority shift at Microsoft's core. Vista is the first major version of Windows to have been entirely conceived and delivered in the post-US-versus-Microsoft world. In this world, not only isn't the customer always right, but Microsoft isn't really listening. It has decided what's needed well in advance.
Let me illustrate what I mean:
Example 1: Security. After years of making people put up with viruses and other malware - to the point that business and consumer usage of Windows computers has occasionally come to a halt - Microsoft has got religion about security. Does it solve the virus/worm/malware problem? Well, to some extent. Does the firewall block outbound transmissions? It can, but not by default. Will users find the ubiquitous User Account Control prompts mind-numbing? I have no doubt about that.
UAC will be self-defeating because it's annoying and mindless. Although you get used to UAC prompts, what you get used to is that they're coming, and you just click right through them. Some UAC prompts make sense. But even after Microsoft streamlined UAC to avoid this problem, it's still overkill. Now that Vista has shipped and my review work is finished, I'll admit it: I turn off UAC on my machines. But here's the most important point: I've never even looked to find the off button for a similar feature on the Mac. Why? Because Apple smartly reserved the prompts for the most dangerous things, not everything.
Bottom line: UAC and a few other somewhat invasive security measures are not about protecting customers; they're about protecting Microsoft from negative publicity.
Example 2: Vista upgrade processes. For well over a decade it's been possible for people who own a recent previous-version Windows CD to buy the less expensive upgrade edition of a new Windows OS and use it to easily perform a clean-install installation of the new code. (A clean install allows you to wipe your hard drive and start from scratch, as opposed to an upgrade installation, which sets up on top of your existing Windows installation, keeping your files, applications and preferences.)
As long as you have an actual previous-version Windows CD, you can wipe your hard disk and insert your previous Windows CD into the drive for validation of ownership when the installation process prompts you to do so. You haven't been locked into running an upgrade installation.
Under Vista, the ability to insert a previous copy of Windows in the CD drive for validation has been removed. Microsoft has provided an alternative route to achieve the same goal, but more advanced users are apt to consider it to be less convenient. You have to have the previous version of Windows already installed on your PC. Then, when you run Vista's setup, it will give you a clean-install option. But the clean-install process that Windows users have followed since Windows 95 is significantly altered - and it's controlled entirely by Vista's setup routine.
What if your hard drive fails and you decide to upgrade to Vista as you replace the drive? What if you wiped your hard drive to install Linux and now you want to install Vista? You'll have to reinstall XP first, then upgrade over it, opting then for either a clean install or an in-place upgrade. (Vista's in-place upgrade is much better than that of any previous version of Windows. But in this setting, you should definitely choose to clean install.)
When it comes down to it, Microsoft's prime motivation for this change is most likely closing the door on Windows upgrade validation loopholes - making sure that everyone who should buy a full-install version of Vista does. It's well within its rights to do so, but the deep focus on milking the installed base for every penny goes against my grain.
Example 3: Digital rights management. Microsoft has quietly included a variety of copy-control technologies in Vista, none of them clearly outlined to users.
While I can't fault any artist, inventor or writer for protecting the intellectual property that is the fruit of his or her labour, I can fault some methods. Anything that causes user inconvenience or reduces the value of the content makes me nuts. And I fault the DRM stuff quietly baked into Windows Vista in part because it is quietly baked in. The people who gain from this technology aren't the people who are paying for Windows.
Example 4: Software Protection Platform. Windows Vista ushers in the newest generation of Microsoft DRM for Windows: Software Protection Platform. After years of playing around with this, Microsoft's full solution is in place, because SPP finally adds the stick. Once SPP determines you have an illicit copy of Vista installed, you have 30 days to pay up, by buying (or re-buying) your copy of Vista. If you do not comply within that timeframe, SPP places your Vista computer in what Microsoft calls ‘reduced functionality mode’. The only thing you can do in this state is launch your web browser for the purpose of paying up and getting a valid product key.
After one hour in reduced functionality mode, Vista automatically logs out the user, without recourse. You can log back in immediately for another hour, but unless you decide to pay up, your computer becomes virtually useless to you. There is no Start menu, there are no desktop icons, and the desktop background is changed to black in reduced functionality mode.
I don't want to overstate this problem. It's likely that most people whose computers are trapped by SPP will, in fact, have pirated copies of Vista. But some portion of those people will have no idea that they do, or why they do, or even who to turn to. And most likely, some very small portion of that group will be people on whose machines Vista's SPP has falsely tagged their copy as being invalid. There never was a perfect piece of software, and SPP is not the first shining example of perfection.
Microsoft has already made ardent enemies of previously more or less happy Windows users through the use of its previous-generation antipiracy measures, Windows Genuine Advantage, Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications and Windows Product Activation. What would you do if you bought a new computer from a major PC maker or retailer and then were notified by a dialog box that your computer's copy of Windows is invalid? It's happened to a lot of people. And for Microsoft, it's all about making money. The customer focus is gone.
Example 5: Vista pricing. Speaking of making money at the expense of users, Microsoft's pricing scheme for Vista is clearly aimed at upping the ante by charging the most demanding users a lot more money for a copy of Windows. Windows Vista Ultimate, the only version that contains all the high-end digital home media features and all the high-end enterprise features, has a £240 upgrade list price and a £350 full-install list price. That's a lot of money for an operating system these days.
When all is said and done, it's not that I don't like Vista. It's that I've lost faith in Microsoft to deal in an even-handed way with end users and corporate buyers of its software. Large enterprises will be the least affected by these problems, but we should not discount the fact that some of the things above - and others like them - will bite corporate end users, cause IT departments additional help desk costs and possibly even reduce employee productivity.
Despite the welcome improvements in Vista, using the product just isn't exciting or intriguing any longer. It's at least two years later than it should have been, and I don't absolutely have to have it. You don't either.