Friday, 9 October 2009

Will Windows 7 win back users' hearts

It seems that Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, may be trying to blame testers for the Windows Vista catastrophe - at least that's the way I understand it. Either Microsoft don't actually listen to their geek testers when they say "This product is un-usably slow", or the testers themselves are so used to appaling performance that most of them didn't notice. Either way, Mrs Foley's article suggests that Microsoft may still have an uphill battle with Windows 7, and that the early positive signs don't necessarily mean W7 is brilliant.

Performance is one of the biggest frustrations of using a computer. I believe everyone just takes for granted that computers take forever to boot up. This week, reports no improvement in boot speed in Windows 7: the testers suggest 90 seconds between pressing the power button and the computer idly being ready to do work (you may have noticed that Windows does an awful lot of it's boot stuff AFTER the window environment is loaded - this is cheating). We've grown used to pressing the power button and going to make a coffee.

In the meantime, Linux geeks have managed to get the boot time down to 5 seconds (remember - Linux developers don't get paid to write Linux). That's not just 5 seconds till you can see the desktop, that's 5 seconds for the whole boot process. Admittedly they used special hardware (solid-state disks are a lot faster than hard-drives), but the same code running on a standard Dell machine still boots in less than 30 seconds. Ballmer, can you get Windows to do that too, please?

Over the last two years, Linux has made a huge leap from being geek-friendly to being usable by mere mortals. Ubuntu-Linux ("Linux for human beings") has had a lot to do with this. One of the many aspects of Ubuntu I really like is the installation process: boot off the live CD, try it out, and you can play sudoku or surf the internet at the same time as re-installing the operating system on your computer. Genius! Can Windows do that?

But installation and boot time do not a user experience make. The key point for most people is the day-to-day usability. Does the computer respond as I type or move the mouse, or is there a delay? (even a sub-second delay makes a difference). If something unexpected happens, users really just want to know how to carry on. To use a railway analogy, who cares if a points failure in Crewe has caused a delay to the 13:50 to Basingstoke? I just want to know how late I'm going to be. And why do I get a meaningless warning when copying things from a zipped folder? What are "unspecified security risks" when copying files from one machine to another? Unlike Microsoft, it seems that Apple have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and most of their error messages mean things to mere mortals. Windows' users have to be content with messages that at best are meaningless jargon, and at worst red herrings. Ballmer, if you can spare some non-geeks to work on those, that would really help as well.

Windows 7? Well it looks nice, the graphics are nice, maybe the box smells nice. And we wait patiently for the first users to try it in anger to see if it's really better than Vista. In my past experience, new versions of Windows are usually more power-hungry than before, and hence less responsive. I hope for Microsoft's sake that Windows 7 is an exception.

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