The Truth About Windows Vista

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When I first saw XGL and AIGLX being demonstrated through YouTube videos, I was blown away. I assumed that it would take a monster video card, much like Vista does. However, I found that I could run a full 3D accelerated Linux desktop on Ponzi’s low powered laptop with an average Intel video chipset. Make no mistake: Windows has fierce competition in the marketplace, especially for the masses. Is Linux ready? No, but it’s definitely looking sexier than Windows Vista RC1 these days.

And if you don’t want your desktop to be sexy, you’re in a minority.

I’ve seen several geeks (and countless developers) dismiss the slick nature of the AIGLX demo. “I got seasick from the wavy windows” is tantamount to saying that “the way Windows works is good enough for me and everybody else.” It’s not like those XGL options are hard-coded into the operating system, folks – it’s fully customizable, fully tweakable, and fully usable. My original complaint stemmed from the way Microsoft has been actively touting Vista as a “breakthrough” experience – and until I saw that video, I couldn’t point to something to put the haphazard implementation of Aero (and the shim-ridden Windows shell) in its place.

Uh, Flip3D is borderline useless – not half as usable as OS X’s Expose (which a forthcoming Microsoft mouse will fully emulate, and I’ll report on that soon enough). I get more out of the free TaskSwitchXP than I do from Flip3D! Vista’s user experience has been further rendered generic when it’s demonstrated side-by-side with the full range of today’s AIGLX features. I’m not saying that the average user would want to use (or could use) half of the eye candy that’s shown in the new Linux desktop, but that doesn’t make AIGLX / XGL any less exciting to see. Linux with a 3D desktop, much like OS X, is fun to use – and Windows Vista is just. feh.

And if you’re not excited by desktop advancements, then you should just live on the command line and be done with it.

So, Robert McLaws wants me to take a deep breath. “[Chris's] feedback on Vista would be far more valuable if he accepted the reality of the situation and focused on problems that actually stand a chance of getting fixed at this point in the game.” I agree and disagree.

Yes, I’d be happy to help Microsoft fix the fixable Vista oversights – but I’m not going to push my opinions to the sidelines, throw up my hands in defeat, and wait to see if they actually improved anything. It’s been in my experience that by the time I see a Microsoft product, it’s far too late to provide feedback for it. Instead, I’m told to hold off until the next version – but by the time I see that Microsoft product, it’s far too late to provide feedback for it. Instead, I’m told to hold off until the next version – but by the time I see that Microsoft product, it’s. starting to sound like a broken record.

It’s great that Microsoft has accepted so much feedback in the development of Vista, Office, etc. I’m never short of feedback – and I typically provide it freely. But I’m tired of feeling like I’m talking to a brick wall. Need an example? I told Microsoft to build RSS support into Windows Media Player 9 before it exited beta, years before podcasting, months before Scoble went to work for `em! Windows Media Player 11 will likely ship without it. There’s another Microsoft team that thinks they know more than users do – and what’s best for you.

And if you don’t think that users matter, you’re living in a bubble that’s about to burst.

“Brand loyalty” is a phrase that’s quickly disappearing. Users are looking for better, cheaper, faster, nicer, cleaner, smarter, etc. I used to swear by Dell – now I see that everybody’s swearing at them. I used to rely on MSN for my searches – and now I only look when I forget to change my defaults to Google. I used to use Internet Explorer – until I discovered Maxthon 1.x (and I’m still not liking the way 2.x is shaping up). If you’re blind to brand, you deserve everything you might get from it – both good and bad.

Henry Ford initially refused to innovate beyond the Model T, resolute in his belief that his automobile did everything a driver needed it to do (and nothing more). Because of this attitude, Ford had slipped to #3 in the nation by the time the World War was upon us. In a similar sense, I believe that Microsoft has gotten lazy in the desktop space – much like Apple has gotten lazy in the media space. What’s most interesting is that each company is only now beginning to challenge the other on more equal terms – Zune vs. iPod, Windows vs. OS X on Intel.

And if you don’t think that users provide feedback (and make decisions) on their own schedules, you’ve got another thing coming.

I’ve run into countless UI hiccups which prove (beyond a shadow of a doubt) that the usability quirks inside Windows Vista are by design. Need four prime examples that are completely replicable?

  1. In installing and running WinVNC server, I’m prompted to view a dialog that’s been forced into some kind of separate desktop (a backwards compatibility screen that runs in Classic mode, removes me from the Vista experience, and looks like total ass to boot). I’m sure this isn’t an isolated incident. My beef, again, is that Windows Vista handles incompatibilities with the largest amount of inelegance possible.
  2. Separately, the QuickTime Preferences Control Panel applet causes my entire Windows session into some kind of non-glass Aero fallback mode. Why? Why not just shove that process into some kind of space that protects it from the rest of Windows Vista? Then, why does the screen flash suddenly – as if I’m about to hit a BSOD? Screen flashes without fades are jarring.
  3. If you’re lucky enough to have a video card powerful enough to run the full Aero experience (Glass), you know that it’s certainly better than XP’s Luna. I’m not talking about the way that Microsoft’s own developers completely ignored the guidelines set forth by their own company here, mind you (that’s another rant entirely). My legitimate complaint is that the non-Glass experience doesn’t look like Glass at all. Seriously, even Stardock emulated Aero pretty well in WindowBlinds (with transparency!) – but Microsoft opted to give users this 50/50 experience. It’s not just about having a great video card – it’s about having applications that are 100% optimized for Windows Vista. For that, you’ll likely have to wait. forever.
  4. “Classic Mode” has always been pretty clean across the board. I’m not so sure that’s the case in Windows Vista – at least, in respect to Microsoft’s own applications (especially Windows Explorer). The shortcomings in UI cohesiveness and completeness are even more apparent when you’re not in Aero (or Aero Basic). With all the new Vista shell shims and hacks in place, “Classic Mode” has pretty much been shoved out of the picture – even though it rears its ugly head far too frequently, as witnessed by my first point in this truncated list.

And if you think I’m the only geek who believes Windows Vista RC1 is not compelling, then you need to start reading reviews outside the Microsoft echo chamber.

Vista’s user experience is just sloppy, folks – sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. I’m sure we’re going to get excuse after excuse, apology after apology, reason after reason – but nothing is going to undo what’s already been done in Vista betas to this point. I’m told that little to nothing is going to change in the UI between RC1 and Gold. We’ll see what happens in a few weeks, won’t we? I’m not holding my breath, but I remain hopeful that someone in the Quality Control department will wake up and smell the competition. Unless we see a radical system-wide improvement in the final (shipping) version of Windows Vista, my judgement on the OS will remain negative.

Without veneer, underlying code will never have a chance to shine.