I’ve been meaning to write about my impressions of the various Windows Vista previews since I first tried it out in January. My thoughts (and my feedback to Microsoft’s beta site) have been piling up since then, but I never got around to putting virtual pen to even more virtual paper. However, Paul Thurrott’s recent article on where Vista fails really sums up a lot of my feelings here. Thurrott’s always been the type who’ll try his hardest to find the positive in even the worst Microsoft releases, but as a long time reader, I can tell that he’s very, very frustrated with Vista, and as a Windows journalist it really pains him to see something that promised so much deliver so little. He’s not alone. I’ve tried my hardest to like what I’ve seen of Vista so far, but it’s nearly impossible, especially when Mac OS X is out right now, and in many respects better than Microsoft’s late update to XP.
This is going to be a pretty long rant, so if you want more you’ll have to click inside.
I’ve been assured that under the hood, Vista is a vast improvement over XP. Rewritten kernel, better network, revamped graphics, etc. The problem is that nobody really cares. Even for the hardest of the hardcore, Vista’s myriad annoyances, design snafus, and general clutter are what’s going to make the biggest impression. For example, UAP (User Account Protection), is at best infuriating, and at worse useless as users quickly learn to ignore (or disable completely). Even within an hour of using the Vista previews I’m about to tear my hair out at the frustration of having to click away three and four dialogs just to install an ActiveX control. While UAP is the most egregious of the user experience blunders, it isn’t the only one. As Thurrott points out, the “Aero glass” look is terrible, and confusing. Even Apple has backed away from their overused candy bubbles and transparent menus, settling on a more mature, restrained look for OS 10.4 Tiger. Aero glass just looks amateurish, though I wouldn’t know firsthand - I’m stuck with the “Scrap Metal” theme on my laptop, which is a step down from the very pretty Royale theme for XP. And don’t get me started on the new Media Center - even for a company with a reputation for screwing up their branding, the new Media Center is bad. I liked the old blue/green look of Media Center, and the new dreary color scheme doesn’t hold a candle to the Xbox 360 Dashboard. While we’re at it, the new Windows Explorer interface is godawful - it’s so full of differently-colored bars and panels and buttons that it’s almost impossible to look directly at it.
What I don’t understand is why they’re working on making file browsing more complicated when there are some existing scenarios that need a lot of improvement. Installing and uninstalling programs still sucks, and it isn’t improved much in Vista. Installing and uninstalling applications is a pretty basic PC function. Why not focus some development time on making installs/uninstalls one-click (or one-drag, in the style of Mac OS X)? Why not let Windows handle checking for and applying updates to applications, instead of the hodgepodge of custom update schemes. That’s not the sort of thing that should be left to individual applications to handle. Will this be another area where we’ll have to rely on third-party applications to perform a basic function of the desktop environment? Or what about notifications? That’s another thing developers have to roll on their own. I remember when this was even rumored to be a part of the Windows Sidebar concept. Mac OS X users have Growl, which not only provides good-looking notifications, it gives the user control over when and how they’re notified. I’m surprised Apple hasn’t built this into OS X yet - it’s certainly miles above the Navi-style bouncing dock icons. Or maybe we should focus on little things - it’d be worth my $200 just to have keyboard shortcuts everywhere - especially for creating a new folder.
And that isn’t all Vista is missing. WinFS is out. The Monad shell, while promising, won’t be mature when Vista launches. Virtual Folders have been abandoned. Virus scanning is AWOL. Basically all we’re getting is Windows XP with Microsoft’s idea of a shinier shell, and fixed file search (OK, and the cool new RSS engine, but that’s coming out for XP too). Even more disappointing, it looks like Vista won’t launch with WPF (formerly Avalon) or WCF (formerly Indigo) right out of the box. That means that when other people get around to using these cool technologies to make real next-generation apps, they’ll have to get their users to download a whole bunch of stuff just to get the experience that Vista was supposed to be synonymous with.
So after a long wait, I’m ready to give up on Vista. It’s just impossible to stay excited about it, especially when Mac OS X Tiger is out right now. Some history: I’ve never been a fan of the Macintosh. However, ever since OS X debuted, with its slick UI, UNIX backend, and total disrespect for legacy applications, I’ve been intrigued. But Apple’s smug marketing and zealous acolytes have kept me from really trying OSX, and honestly, I grew up building PCs and configuring Windows - the Mac seems more like a consumer electronics device than a real computer. Having a sealed box that “just works” seems like easy mode. That said, the 5-year-old Athlon T-Bird box I built for college is still humming along just fine. My plan was to upgrade when Vista shipped, but even as Vista’s release date has gotten pushed back, my trusty PC has failed to become obsolete. Being a tech geek, I still want a reason to get a new computer, though. The Mac Mini seems to fit my bill. I get a well, designed modern OS with all the “comforts” of a UNIX command line. The only software tying me to Windows at all is Visual Studio and .NET (sad, really, that I need to keep Windows around just to develop Windows apps, but .NET is just so much fun). So I think I’m going to hop over to Amazon and pick up a Mac Mini. Who knows, maybe I’ll switch. If I do, it won’t because of Apple’s advertising or gorgeous product design. It’ll be because Microsoft seriously dropped the ball.