Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wow! Is Vista really a $10bn Sedan?

So, what do you think of Vista? The reviews of Vista I've seen usually start with how good it looks - which is understandable. It does look good - especially if you can run the Aero desktop and you get the glass title bars and Flip 3D.

Ok, Flip 3D is a bit of a gimmick. But it does put the "Wow" in The "Wow" starts now and shows up in just about all of Microsoft's marketing. For anyone who doesn't know, Flip 3D is the updated task switcher - what you get when you hit alt+tab. (To get the 3D version you winkey + tab instead.) That's right... the task switcher.

Flip 3D gives a glimpse of what a 3D User Interface might look like. Don't be fooled by the marketing though: Vista is not it. What's more, there no indication that Microsoft are pursuing any such radical redevelopment of the Windows User Interface. It wasn't always that way. Flip 3D is the impoverished descendant of an illustrious ancestor: the Microsoft Research TaskGallery project. The ghost of TaskGallery still haunts their website here. Anyone interested should read this article on The Register website dated 22nd January 2001 entitled Windows to go 3D… but not in Whistler. (Whistler was the codename for XP if, like me, you're hazy on Windows code names.)

The User Interface on Windows, on OS X, on Linux, on Solaris, is defined by the same desktop model that was developed by Xerox at PARC 30 years ago. Why is that? Familiarity, certainly, but you would think someone somewhere would take the desktop model on. Aren't there hundreds of millions of people around the world just as familiar with the 3D "User Interface" of the first-person shooter? User Interface development isn't simply about making computers easier and more intuitive to use. The User Interface defines not just how you do things, but what you can do.

Vista is far less radical than, say, Windows 95 was when it was launched. It might be hard to believe now, but Windows 95 was genuinely innovative; it brought 32bit computing and preemptive multitasking into the mainstream, allowing you to run multiple applications at the same time. Admittedly it took a while for processor speeds and memory sizes to reach a level where running multiple applications was easy, but the possibility was there in the Operating System. Windows 95 changed what you could do with a Personal Computer.

Perhaps we've reached the point where Operating Systems have become like cars: each new model does the same basic job that the previous model did, except just a bit more efficiently. Here in the UK, the car maker Audi is showing a TV ad which ends with the line, "To date, NASA have filed 6,509 patents. To get to the A6, Audi have filed 9,621 patents." And? They've built a car. It does the things cars do: start, stop, get stuck in traffic, that kind of stuff. If we have reached the point where Operating Systems have become like cars, it isn't because there's no other choice.

At the UK business launch of Vista, Microsoft's UK managing director Gordon Frazer said Vista cost $10bn to develop. Let me just spell that out for you: 10,000,000,000 dollars. Now if I gave you $10bn (and the source code for XP) and told you to go away and design an Operating System, is Vista what you would come back with? If you start Vista and go to the "Welcome Centre" and then click on "What's new in Windows Vista" what is it that Microsoft themselves want to tell us? The top three are Search from within folders. Organize files in new ways. Keep devices in sync. Is that what they mean by Wow?

There's probably a serious point to be made about competition here - or the lack of it. It's not that (near) monopoly suppliers don't invest in developing their products; it is more that they don't know what to invest in. AMD and Intel are a good example. If it wasn't for AMD we wouldn't have multi-core 64bit processors on the desktop, and Intel would be spending even more millions still trying to perfect Itanium, the processor no one wants. With Linux suppliers desperately trying to make the Linux desktop look as much like Windows as possible (otherwise, the argument goes, no one will switch - when the opposite is more likely to be true - there's no reason to switch) there is little competition to drive innovation.

This is not to say that Vista is a bad operating system - far from it. Vista is a seriously good operating system. It's just that it is a deeply conservative, risk adverse, play-it-safe operating system. Vista doesn't change anything.

One of the things both users and developers have to get used to in Vista is User Account Control (UAC). Next time I'll go into the changes we're making in User Profile Wizard to handle it.

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