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Will Vista be Remembered like Windows ME?

Pete Brown - 28 September 2007

Windows ME is something Microsoft would probably rather forget. While some of its more interesting technology made it into XP (file recovery/snapshots, for example), the OS was pretty much a marketing and user disaster. At the time, most enthusiasts who wanted to stick with Microsoft kept Windows 98 for games and did real work on Windows 2000. Most people who had ME had it only because their machine came with it installed.

Will Windows Vista be the same? There's lots of roughness around the edges (well ok, the whole thing is like 60 grit sandpaper glued to a rock), it's a real pig on the workstation, isn't compatible with enough hardware/software to eliminate the pain of installing it, and frankly can be a real pain to use. I use Vista on my work laptop (and have since some of the betas) and XP on my home workstation and find myself far more productive on XP despite a serious attempt to get into Vista (I live new and shiny and have always loved trying out new user interfaces)

However, for some reason, the navigation for the new windows explorer/file manager bit (the treeview on the left) just hasn't clicked for me. That's pretty rough, as I spend almost as much time in Windows explorer as I do in any other application. Thinking about it from a user experience standpoint, I can find a few reasons why that is likely the case:

  • The hierarchy isn't immediately clear. The indentation isn't enough to point that out with a quick glance, the arrows don't always show (depending on where you are), and there are no lines. It may look "cleaner" but it is harder to use.
  • I upgraded the machine from Windows XP, so there are lots of folders with shortcut icons that I am simply not allowed to click (My Music, My Pictures, for example, both give "access denied" errors. If those aren't shortcuts, MSFT shouldn't have used the shortcut icon
  • After 15 years, why change folders from yellow to green, and then do it only in some places? Keep the folders yellow. Consistency is one of the more important rules of UX design
    • Along the same lines, the Vista icons are all too similar to be able to quickly discern. It seems like someone at MSFT thought a theme would be more important than actual usability.
  • Expand/collapse icons (the little triangles that were a variation of the plus sign for the last 15 years) don't always show up, so you can't mentally process the hierarchy efficiently. Oh, did I mention that consistency is good? 
  • Favorite Links move around. Things tend to move off that list without me taking any explicit action to remove them. Looks like a bug, or a really ill-conceived "personalization"-type of function
    • This got really annoying when VS 2008 forced its own Projects folder into the favorites when I already had c:\Projects (keeping it in the root has avoided issues with paths that are too long when stored under documents and settings\username\projects) and I couldn't tell which was which. Somehow through use, mine got bumped to the drop-down and the VS one was shown up top.
  • Clutter. The explorer window is just way too cluttered. There are six different and distinct regions vying for your attention at any given time, and due to the colors, contrast etc. they all try to outpop each other to stay in the foreground.

Sure, bugs can and likely will be fixed. Design flaws are a bigger issue. This isn't just about resistance to change (I've embraced most changes in the past), but resistance to change for the worse.

There's lots of other annoying stuff in Vista with UAC being at the top. One of these days, Microsoft will provide an install option like "I'm a developer" or "This is not my grandma's PC" so you can eliminate a lot of the in-your-face fluff (run Visual Studio for the first time and you are prompted to tell it the type of developer you are; the concept is not new). I originally thought UAC would be annoying only during the initial install, but when you develop and debug applications on Vista, it tends to get in your face all the time. Microsoft's developer tools are top notch, but they always seem hampered by operating systems that try be everything for everyone, with no easy way to do different installs for different classes of users.

Memory is another issue. Vista uses a huge amount of memory just in normal operation. That's usually not a big deal, but due to the recent trend towards SharePoint development, and the inability to run most IIS6 apps on IIS7 (that comes with Vista) without serious configuration changes, we find ourselves running Virtual PC instances with Windows Server 2003. On XP, you can do that with 2gig - the limit many laptops have before you can no longer install memory, or it gets crazy expensive to install more - with Vista, we need to go to 3 or 4 gigs (well, 3.5 as Vista won't see all 4 gigs, like most 32 bit OSes). I tried running a VPC on Vista on a 2 gig laptop and the experience was beyond painful. You can turn off all the eye candy, but that doesn't make enough of an impact to make it all better.

Using Vista is like riding a theme park motion ride that is slightly out of sync with the video. You can tell something is wrong, and you feel a little sick, but you can hang in there if needed.

I'll likely never get a Mac - I just have too much software, knowledge, and development experience tied up on Windows, but whenever I look at the Mac UI I find myself drooling a bit. Perhaps the shine would wear off after some use, but the Mac UI just looks crisper, cleaner, friendlier, and generally easier to use. Sometimes I think Microsoft User Experience designers looked at the other operating systems out there and snagged what they thought was "cool" without trying to get the underlying psychology worked out first.

I'll probably put Vista on the home PC (the kiosk that will be in the kitchen) as the UI will be almost exclusively my WPF kitchen kiosk application. Vista brings a few good things to the table for that, and the Vista UI won't get in the way.

I'm not ready to completely write off Vista yet, but I haven't moved my home workstation to Vista, even though I have a free license of Vista Ultimate from MIX sitting in a box next to me. Considering that I stood in line on the day Windows 95 was released (and also got Pitfall - one of the first Windows 95 games), I think I can say that my enthusiasm has defiitely waned. Sure, after I have had to work with it for another year and have no other choice, I'll make my peace with Vista, but it will be more like that fake peace like seeing an ex girlfriend in the supermarket and pretending to be civil to each other when you know you're both going to walk away and talk about how old/fat/ugly/poor the other person got since you last saw them :)

In the end, the cool stuff from Vista (live previews, 3d application switching, having a copy/move function that doesn't die halfway through due to a locked file etc.) will likely make it into v.next, but I would expect to see (and would like to see) a good chunk of Vista's clunky UI and code just fade away. Will Vista be remembered like Windows ME? Let's hope it gets forgotten like it, at least.

posted by Pete Brown on Friday, September 28, 2007
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1 comment for “Will Vista be Remembered like Windows ME?”

  1. Mark Lindellsays:

    Almost the entire development group where I work was running vista since it's release. We have all moved back to Windows XP over the last 2 months. The Vista UI is just eye candy and there are too many flaws. I would say overall the UX sucks.

    UAC is a nightmare. They really needed to fix the OS security rather than patch it with an annoying new user interation. I mean come on, why do they allow anyone to elevate with a simple click! Also, how are we supposed to understand all the API virtualzation hooks now in place for the registry and the file system? Yikes! Is that for compatibility? I've seen more software not work because of it.

    I really believe that Microsoft will lose if they continue to push Vista and don't abandon it like they did with ME.

    I too have considered a Mac for home and I have way too much invested in Microsoft technologies. I have to admit that VMWare's product on Mac does look really compelling.


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