Before you dismiss this commentary as the rantings of another Mac fanatic, hear me out. I do not have a knee-jerk position about Microsoft. In fact, they can produce some really good products from time to time, when they allow for true innovation, which is not the stuff Bill Gates talks about. They have thousands and thousands of very smart people and their Mac development team needs to be singled out for its dedication and decent attention to detail.
But let’s look at the facts: Except for the late and, to some, lamented Cube, Apple has been hugely successful in nearly everything it has done since Steve Jobs returned to the company and righted the ship. After taking a little time to get its act together, Mac OS X has become a superlative operating system, largely free of serious shortcomings, except, perhaps, for a few interface inconsistencies and oddities.
At the same time, Microsoft cannot figure out how to deliver a major upgrade to Windows XP in a reasonably proper time frame. One of the early failed promises had it that Windows Vista, then known as Longhorn, would appear in 2004. Sure, right! In addition, some features, such as the enhanced Windows file system, have been shed along the way. They may appear at a later date, or maybe not.
Earlier this year, Microsoft said it would deliver Vista before the end of 2006, and no doubt the PC box builders were happily awaiting a lucrative holiday season. Alas, it was not to be, and the first delay for the consumer version announced so far this year puts Vista off to January of 2007. There are a few published reports, which Microsoft denies right now, saying that it may come later. But after missing the holiday season, an extra quarter or two probably doesn’t matter so much. PC makers can always promise a no-cost or cheap Vista upgrade to keep sales afloat, or maybe most will be relieved that they won’t have to contend with the uncertainties of a new operating system just yet.
Beta 2 of Vista is supposedly going to be released to a couple of million testers shortly, but one wonders just how feature complete it might be. You may have heard complaints about its security system, and the way it handles requests to verify that you want it to perform a function. On the Mac, if you want to install an application, you get a single password prompt. Under Vista, you may, depending on what you want to do, confront a byzantine array of dialogs, and it’s quite possible a lot of Windows users will just give up and turn off the authentication process. That, of course, defeats some of the enhanced security measures, and puts you much closer to where Windows XP is now. But there will be bundled security software, and you might wonder if that, and not the storage system it allegedly is using without Symantec’s approval, is the real reason behind that lawsuit.
To be fair, Microsoft might simplify the authentication process before Vista is released, whenever that is. But the problem is not just single user interface motif. Just examine the roster of control panels that a Windows user encounters and compare them to the preference panels under Mac OS X Tiger. If you think it’s sometimes hard to fathom the Mac’s settings, multiply that by two, four or eight times to understand the complexity of Windows. It gets to a point where even adding a simple printer delivers a Wizard to guide you through all the complicated steps.
This is another area where I regard Microsoft as clueless. Instead of simplifying the basic procedures for changing things, they pack on another Wizard. That is not the same thing, and one hopes that Vista will represent a concerted effort to set things right.
Sometimes you might wonder why more than 90% of the personal computers on the planet use Windows. Forget the various and sundry malware issues, which you can control, in large part, with up-to-date security software. It’s a fact that many Windows users generally use a single application or two, and seldom have to explore the interface annoyances. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bank, a legal or medical office. They rarely switch from application to application, or choose from among a large number of printing or other peripheral devices. More than likely, the IT people restrict access to a very limited number of PC functions, which means there’s less room to get into trouble.
That is not an excuse, though, for Microsoft to pack on features with little regard as to how they’re to be used and whether they’ll be used. Instead of setting aside a huge war chest to compete against the likes of Google and Yahoo, which has gotten Wall Street upset, at last, about the company, Microsoft ought to put that money to better use. Maybe they should try to hire a few interface designers away from Apple Computer, give them free reign and allow them to make Windows usable to regular people. Or just harness more of the creative energies of their own staff. Now wouldn’t that be a change?
This doesn’t excuse Apple, however, from perpetrating its own operating system offenses, although they are generally far less severe. There are, in fact, many things I’d like to see fixed for 10.5 Leopard. But that’s for another day and another time.
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