Saturday, April 7 2007

Vista doesn’t suck

Mossberg is right about how much crapware infects a brand-new Sony laptop running Vista, and that’s sad. Because Vista sucks a lot less than Windows XP, and it deserves better.

Despite all of the stuff that got cut from the release, Vista isn’t just another minor update to the ancient NT codebase. There are serious architectural changes that make it an honest-to-gosh 21st Century operating system that will produce a better user experience on newer hardware, once every vendor updates their software to use the new APIs.

Microsoft has done a lot of good, solid work to improve not just the use, but also the installation. Rory and I both did fresh installs of Vista Ultimate (onto MacBooks…), and felt that the install process was on par with Mac OS X, if not a little better in places. I’m still installing XP at least once a week, and I can’t tell you just how significant an improvement this is. [don’t ask about Linux installs, please; I just ate]

Is the Aero UI gaudy and gratuitous? Yes. Are the menus and control panels different from previous Windows in ways that aren’t obviously functional? Yes. Does any of that really matter after about twenty minutes of familiarization? No, not really. I expect the adjustment period to be pretty short for most users, and none of them will ever want to use an XP machine again, just like most Mac users were delighted to abandon the limits of Mac OS 9 once they settled into Mac OS X 10.0.

Because that’s what Vista is: Microsoft’s OS X 10.0, with all that that implies. The XP compatibility is a subtler version of Apple’s Classic environment, and they really, really want everyone to rewrite their software to use the modern APIs that, for instance, use “fonts” instead of “bitmaps”. There’s going to be a few years of mostly-compatible legacy apps, service packs that break random things as a side effect of improving performance and reliability, and general chaos and confusion. And because it’s Microsoft, they’re going to try to solve the problems faster by throwing more engineers at them, which never works out well.

In the end, though, Vista will have 90% of the desktop market, Mac OS X will have 9.99% of it, and the rest will be evenly divided between fourteen different Linux distributions that don’t ship with all of the drivers you need, but they’re free and you control everything and you can fix it yourself and it even has Ogg Vorbis support.

Office 2007, on the other hand, is a major upgrade hassle, and it has nothing to do with functionality or cost. Microsoft’s grand release plan failed to cope with one very significant fact: experienced Office users know where everything is, and spend far more time navigating Office menus than they do Windows menus.

We’ve been forced to start slowly rolling it out at work, and it’s painful. Everyone who gets it hates it, because they need to get their work done right now, and they don’t have time to go to a retraining class and learn the joys of the ribbon and the “obviously superior” new arrangement of commands and menus. They don’t care about Vista; they just find the Start button, select “Word” or “Excel”, and they’re happy. But when the Word and Excel interfaces change in fundamental ways (and, worse, ignore the settings that are supposed to make sure files are saved in Office 2003 formats…), they’re angry and frustrated.

[Side note to Gerry: read the preceding paragraph carefully three times, and then shut the fuck up about OpenOffice.org as an alternative. It’s not better, it’s not a complete suite, it’s not as compatible, it adds to my support load, it requires just as much retraining effort, and I can’t hand the users Dummies books and send them off to training classes, which we don’t have time for anyway because we’re a startup in the middle of a major product launch. Got it?]

If we’d had the money a few months ago, we could have picked up the volume license agreements that would let us avoid Office 2007 for another year. And we’d have been a lot happier, because “launching your first product” is not the time to cut into everyone’s productivity by changing their tools.