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Windows Vista February 2006 CTP (Build 5308/5342) Review, Part 5: Where Vista Fails

I still remember the day very clearly. It was Monday, October 27, 2003. Several thousand developers--and, let's face it, quite a few garden variety Windows enthusiasts--charged into Hall A at the Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC) like teenage girls at a Justin Timberlake concert, jockeying for the best seats. I've been to more Bill Gates keynotes than I can count, and this was the first time I ever saw anyone climb over other people in order to secure a better view. (No offense to Mr. Gates, but he's not exactly a dynamic speaker.) It was PDC 2003 (see my review) and everything was right with my world.

The purpose of this melee? Gates and Microsoft were about to unveil Windows Vista--then still known by its codename Longhorn--to the world. And sure enough, almost an hour into a typical Gates snoozeathon, the lights finally dimmed, the rock music kicked in, and we were treated to a musical and video feast for the senses (see my showcase). As I excitedly wrote at the time, "my goodness. [Windows Vista] is going to rock ... The transparent window effects--called glass windows, appropriately enough--are beautiful. The ability to embed video and any other kind of media into documents, apps, and anything else you can think off--even small previews you see when you mouse-over a scrollbar--are just incredible, surpassing anything on any system available today (yes, including Mac OS X Panther). The visuals in [Windows Vista] are just going to blow you away."

Let those words hang in your mind for a bit. Two and a half years later, Microsoft has yet to ship Windows Vista, and it won't actually ship this system in volume until 2007. Since the euphoria of PDC 2003, Microsoft's handling of Windows Vista has been abysmal. Promises have been made and forgotten, again and again. Features have come and gone. Heck, the entire project was literally restarted from scratch after it became obvious that the initial code base was a teetering, technological house of cards. Windows Vista, in other words, has been an utter disaster. And it's not even out yet. What the heck went wrong?

Even the mightiest tree...

Having dealt with Microsoft for many years, I can say this much with certainty: The company is literally filled to the brim with some of the brightest, smartest, most insightful, and friendliest people I've ever met. Some of my best friends work at the company either directly or indirectly (in some cases doing PR work), and I've established long-term friendly relationships with numerous people I've come into contact with specifically because of my job writing about technology. Despite these enviable assets, Microsoft has made some mind-numbing mistakes. It (illegally, as it turns out) artificially bundled its immature Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser so deeply into Windows in order to harm Netscape that it's still paying the price for the decision--a full decade later--in the form of regular critical security flaws that have taken away time from developers that might have otherwise been spent innovating new features. The company itself has turned into that thing it most hated (read: IBM), an endlessly complex hierarchy of semi-autonomous middle managers and vice presidents of various levels and titles, many of whom can't seem to make even the smallest of decisions. The company is too big and too slow to ship updates to its biggest products. It's collapsing under its own weight.

For Windows, specifically, the situation is dire. As I've noted in the past, the Windows Division retains, as employees of the software giant have told me, the last vestiges of the bad, old Microsoft. This is the Microsoft that ran roughshod over competitors in order to gain market share at any cost. The Microsoft that forgot about customers in its blind zeal to harm competitors. The Microsoft, that frankly, all the Linux and Apple fanatics always imagined was out there, plotting and planning their termination. The Microsoft that threatens Windows fans with needless legal threats rather than reaching out and creating constructive relationships with the very people who prop up the company the most.

This Bad Microsoft is not all of Microsoft, and it's not even all of the Windows Division. But it's there. And while it was allowed to continue during the software Glasnost of the past few years because of the immeasurable benefits of Windows to Microsoft's bottom line, it seems that the company is finally, if belatedly, fixing things. Steven Sinofsky, a Gates confidant who oversaw a steady and regular set of Microsoft Office releases over the past decade, is now running the development of future Windows versions. Sadly, Sinofsky came on board too late to help Windows Vista. But it will be interesting to see if he can remove the cancer that has almost destroyed the Windows Division from within.

So what went wrong? What didn't go wrong? When Bill Gates revealed in mid-2003 that he was returning to his roots, so to speak, and spending half of his time on what was then still called Longhorn, we should have seen the warning signs. Sadly, Gates, too, is part of the Bad Microsoft, a vestige of the past who should have had the class to either formally step down from the company or at least play just an honorary role, not step up his involvement and get his hands dirty with the next Windows version. If blame is to be assessed, we must start with Gates. He has guided--or, through lack of leadership--failed to guide the development of Microsoft's most prized asset. He has driven it into the ground.

Promises were made. Excitement was generated. None of it, as it turns out, was worth a damn. From a technical standpoint, the version of Windows Vista we will receive is a sad shell of its former self, a shadow. One might still call it a major Windows release. I will, for various reasons. The kernel was rewritten. The graphics subsystem is substantially improved, if a little obviously modeled after that in Mac OS X. Heck, half of the features of Windows Vista seem to have been lifted from Apple's marketing materials.

Shame on you, Microsoft. Shame on you, but not just for not doing better. We expect you to copy Apple, just as Apple (and Linux) in its turn copies you. But we do not and should not expect to be promised the world, only to be given a warmed over copy of Mac OS X Tiger in return. Windows Vista is a disappointment. There is no way to sugarcoat that very real truth.

Broken promises

Windows Vista was going to include a completely rewritten file system, based on SQL Server and once called Storage+. Later renamed to WinFS, this file system was downgraded to a "storage engine," meaning that it would, in fact, run on top of the decades-old NTFS file system. Then WinFS was stripped out of Windows Vista because the performance was so horrible. WinFS will supposedly ship around the same time as Windows Vista now, as an add-on. Or maybe it will be later than that. Maybe it will never ship. Who the heck knows? Who cares anymore?

Losing WinFS wasn't a big deal, I was told, because Windows Vista will still include pervasive index-based searching features modeled, apparently, after the Spotlight feature in Mac OS X. OK, that's fine. Besides, the new virtual folder system in Windows Vista was to have begun a long-necessary move away from the drive letter-based file systems we use today. With virtual folders, it wouldn't matter where files were stored because these special folders--which are really just stored search results--would simply aggregate files from all over your PC, and even the network, we were breathlessly told, and display them in a simple, single view. Right on your desktop.

Virtual folders seemed great, but as it turned out, they confused a lot of people. So now I can (and eventually will) document several major changes to the virtual folder technologies found in Windows Vista, and these all occurred between the September 2005 CTP (see my review) and the May 2006 CTP, which we'll supposedly get late next month. (Anyone care to bet whether that will happen?) At first, virtual folders replaced the special shell folders like My Documents and My Pictures. Then, they simply augmented special shell folders but were still prominently available in the shell. Then, virtual folders were renamed to Stored Searches, the built-in virtual folders were completely scrapped, and a new set appeared. Then, Stored Searches were completely downplayed in the shell. And then, finally, Stored Searches were renamed, simply, to Searches. Good luck finding them in the current builds. They're in there, but like the Task Panes in XP, no normal user will ever discover them, let alone use them. If a feature is in Windows and no one uses it, is it still a feature? I'll leave that one to the philosophers out there.

There are so many more examples. But these two, WinFS and virtual folders, are the most dramatic and obvious. Someday, it might be interesting--or depressing, at least--to create a list of features Microsoft promised for Windows Vista, but reneged on. Here are a few tantalizing examples: A real Sidebar that would house system-wide notifications, negating the need for the horribly-abused tray notification area. 10-foot UIs for Sidebar, Windows Calendar, Windows Mail, and other components, that would let users access these features with a remote control like Media Center. True support for RAW image files include image editing. The list just goes on and on.

Where Vista Fails

I'll leave a fuller examination of Vista's broken promises for a later date. For now, let's look at the most current builds we do have--build 5308 and 5342--and see where Vista just completely blows it. As with the broken promises, Vista's failures are legion, but I'll just focus on a few examples here and leave the full list for a later time.

User Account Protection

Modern operating systems like Linux and Mac OS X operate under a security model where even administrative users don't get full access to certain features unless they provide an in-place logon before performing any task that might harm the system. This type of security model protects users from themselves, and it is something that Microsoft should have added to Windows years and years ago.

Here's the good news. In Windows Vista, Microsoft is indeed moving to this kind of security model. The feature is called User Account Protection (UAP) and, as you might expect, it prevents even administrative users from performing potentially dangerous tasks without first providing security credentials, thus ensuring that the user understands what they're doing before making a critical mistake. It sounds like a good system. But this is Microsoft, we're talking about here. They completely botched UAP.

The bad news, then, is that UAP is a sad, sad joke. It's the most annoying feature that Microsoft has ever added to any software product, and yes, that includes that ridiculous Clippy character from older Office versions. The problem with UAP is that it throws up an unbelievable number of warning dialogs for even the simplest of tasks. That these dialogs pop up repeatedly for the same action would be comical if it weren't so amazingly frustrating. It would be hilarious if it weren't going to affect hundreds of millions of people in a few short months. It is, in fact, almost criminal in its insidiousness.

Let's look a typical example. One of the first things I do whenever I install a new Windows version is download and install Mozilla Firefox. If we forget, for a moment, the number of warning dialogs we get during the download and install process (including a brazen security warning from Windows Firewall for which Microsoft should be chastised), let's just examine one crucial, often overlooked issue. Once Firefox is installed, there are two icons on my Desktop I'd like to remove: The Setup application itself and a shortcut to Firefox. So I select both icons and drag them to the Recycle Bin. Simple, right?

Wrong. Here's what you have to go through to actually delete those files in Windows Vista. First, you get a File Access Denied dialog (Figure) explaining that you don't, in fact, have permission to delete a ... shortcut?? To an application you just installed??? Seriously?

OK, fine. You can click a Continue button to "complete this operation." But that doesn't complete anything. It just clears the desktop for the next dialog, which is a Windows Security window (Figure). Here, you need to give your permission to continue something opaquely called a "File Operation." Click Allow, and you're done. Hey, that's not too bad, right? Just two dialogs to read, understand, and then respond correctly to. What's the big deal?

What if you're doing something a bit more complicated? Well, lucky you, the dialogs stack right up, one after the other, in a seemingly never-ending display of stupidity. Indeed, sometimes you'll find yourself unable to do certain things for no good reason, and you click Allow buttons until you're blue in the face. It will never stop bothering you, unless you agree to stop your silliness and leave that file on the desktop where it belongs. Mark my words, this will happen to you. And you will hate it.

Glass Windows

One of the most highly-touted features of Windows Vista is glass windows, a part of the Windows Aero user interface. It sounds like a great idea, and heck, let's give Microsoft a bit of credit for the ingenuity of taking the windows metaphor to its logical conclusion. Maybe Apple can add stained glass windows to the next version of Mac OS X in response.

Anyway, the reality of glass windows is that they stink. The windows themselves are translucent, meaning you can see through them partially. But the visual difference between the topmost window (that is, the window with which you are currently interacting, or what we might describe as the window with focus) and any other windows (i.e. those windows that are visually located "under" the topmost window) is subtle at best. More to the point, you can't tell topmost windows from other windows at all. And don't pretend you can.

Let's look at an example. Here are two windows in Windows Vista, viewed side-by-side. Quick: Which one is the top-most window? You have a 50 percent chance of getting it right, so don't pat yourself on the back if you chose the right one quite yet. The truth is, neither one is particularly differentiated from the other.

How about a screen with more windows? Go ahead, I dare you: Press DELETE. I'm sure you'll get the right window. (It's the one in the lower left, by the way.)

Now, compare how similar windows appear in Windows XP. Even though XP arguably isn't as pretty as Vista (though one might make a case for the reverse), it's always very clear which window is on top.

Glass windows sound like a great idea, until you actually use them. Surely Microsoft can do better than this.

Media Center

When I first saw an early version of the initial Media Center release at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2002, I complained to Microsoft that they had ruined the rest of my year: The problem was, I wanted Media Center immediately, and was told it wouldn't be shipping until late that year. Fortunately, I got on the beta early and have been using a Media Center PC as my main TV interface ever since. And though I always disagreed with making Media Center available to consumers only via a special XP Media Center Edition, I championed this software over the intervening three years as it matured into XP Media Center 2005 with Update Rollup 2 (UR2, see my review). It was never perfect, but Microsoft hit a home run with Media Center.

And then the steroid abuse began (forgive me for continuing the baseball comparison). In Windows Vista, Microsoft has broken Media Center. It's a horrid update to a wonderful bit of software, an ugly stepchild of beautiful parents. It's so bad, I don't even know where to start. But I'll try.

First, the color scheme. Rather than going the obvious route and offering a way for consumers to adjust the color scheme of the Media Center interface, Microsoft has taken the clean medium blue interface from previous versions and dyed it an ugly darker blue color. For good measure, they've also messied up the interface by overlaying a weird and unnecessary graphic behind the text bits. You know, just in case they were too easy to read.

One of the problems with Media Center over the years--a problem that Apple has faced with its iPod as well, incidentally--is that it was hard to keep the simplicity of the base user interface while piling on features. The first Media Center version was short on features and thus necessarily sported a very clean and simple UI. But in subsequent versions, Microsoft had to change to a revolving main menu and other tricks to keep the interface clean and intuitive. And sure enough, through the previous release, it worked.

In Vista Media Center, they've run out of ideas. Rather than big, clear text labels, each menu item in the main menu is encased in a box. The boxes have small, stacked boxes of stuff in them, for some reason, though you can rarely tell what those items are (the Music Library choice, for example, includes small album art images, though they aren't from your music library).

But what's really wrong is that Microsoft is overplaying a feature I call horizontal navigation. If you think about the way that most computer and consumer electronics interfaces work, you'll see that they usually feature a vertical interface, where you must scroll up or down to get to other locations. Word documents and most Web pages work this way, and TV and Media Center remotes include various Up/Down buttons (like Volume and Channel) but no Left/Right buttons. There are exceptions, of course. Excel spreadsheets often extend horizontally, and of course a TV guide can go left and right as well as up and down.

In previous Media Center versions, there were limited opportunities for navigating horizontally. In Vista, the horizontal navigational style--which debuted in the horrid Portable Media Centers (see my review)--has taken over. I think it's a mistake. You navigate into, say, Music Library, and instead of getting nicer vertical lists of music, easily navigated with all existing Media Center remotes, you get a bizarre horizontal structure composed of album art renderings through which you mostly navigate from left to right (Figure). It's not logical or intuitive, and it gets more bizarre if you have a lot of content. Worse, the submenus in each section require horizontal navigation as well. Have fun with that.

My guess is that Microsoft will deflect this criticism with two points. First, most Media Center users don't use a TV and remote control anyway, so the new system works fine for people with keyboards and mice. Besides, I bet they're working on new Media Center remotes anyway, and those will likely include better controls for the new interface. That's nice. But what Media Center, like much of Windows Vista, does is punish people for being familiar with the previous interface. My family has been using Media Center for four years now. It's their TV interface, the only one they know. Now it's very different, confusing, and ugly to boot. Congratulations.

By not rewarding people with retaining key interfaces, Microsoft is making Media Center as confusing to use as a completely new software application. In other words, there's precious little reason to keep using it when superior alternatives--like a TiVo or SnapStream Beyond TV--are out there.

Previously, Media Center was something I could recommend to normal people with only a few caveats. (It was, after all, always a PC-based solution, so it suffers from the same problems as any PC.) Now, I'm not so sure. I don't think regular people will grok Media Center at all. In fact, I think they'll find it horribly confusing.

What's hilarious, of course, is that Windows Media Player 11 completely nails the graphical, vertical media-centric user interface that Media Center abandoned. Like Media Center, WMP 11 presents media with album art. Unlike Media Center, WMP 11 is attractive, easy to navigate, and intuitive to use, even the first time (Figure). My guess is that most Vista users will be quite content to enjoy digital media content in WMP 11 and just skip the ugly mistake that is Vista Media Center. Media Center should simply be a remote control-capable version of WMP 11. Maybe next time.

Feature complete, my butt

Back in early December 2005, Microsoft promised that it would ship a feature-complete version of Windows Vista internally by the end of 2005 and then deliver an updated version to testers in early 2006. That milestone slipped from December 2005 to January 2006, and testers didn't get a so-called feature-complete Vista version until February 2006. However, that build, and a subsequent interim build 5342, are not feature complete. In fact, there are many, many features missing from these builds that will apparently show up in future builds.

Among these missing features are the various Vista Ultimate Extras (features and services), including a Texas Hold-em game that was developed by the people behind Windows Calendar and Sidebar, Virtual PC Express, Media Center support for the Xbox 360 Media Center Extender, automatic hard disk defragmentation, themed slideshows, Windows Movie Maker HD, and so on.

Why is this a big deal? It's not really, but when taken in context, this is simply another example of Microsoft promising one thing with Windows Vista and then delivering something entirely else, and late no less.


OK, let's not get silly here. I don't hate Windows Vista, and I certainly don't hate Microsoft for disappointing me and countless other customers with a product that doesn't even come close to meeting its original promises. I'm sure the company learned something from this debacle, and hopefully it will be more open and honest about what it can and cannot do in the future. But you'd have to be special kind of stupid to look at Windows Vista and see it as the be-all, end-all of operating systems. In some ways, Windows Vista actually will exceed Mac OS X and Linux, but not to the depth we were promised. Instead, Windows Vista will do what so many other Windows releases have done, and simply offer consumers and business users a few major changes and many subtle or minor updates. That's not horrible. It's just not what was promised. Because it failed so obviously with Vista, my guess is that Microsoft is a bit gun shy about major OS releases and will be for some time. And that's too bad. Windows Vista was Microsoft's first chance since Windows 95 to reach for the golden ring. It may be another decade before they try again.

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