Is Microsoft is slamming Windows shut for new users?

A colleague of mine forwarded this article on Microsoft extending the life of its Windows XP operating system due to user disinterest in its next operating system, Windows Vista. Apparently Microsoft is concerned about users not wanting to transition, as they intended, from XP to Vista.

I find this situation curious. First, I have heard all the arguments/complaints about incompatibilities, stability, security, etc., but let’s set those aside and ask a more fundamental question: why would users want to upgrade an operating system at all? If Microsoft is so concerned about maintaining market share (and widespread discussion indicates that they certainly are), why not take a look at why users don’t want to use the next, newest thing just because it’s the next, newest thing? Most people I know are perfectly content using Windows XP. Since an operating system governs the user experience for operating the PC, switching the OS is not a small change.

Here’s what I think the answer to that question is: most users don’t. Technology users that actively depend on the technology for productivity really just want consistency, and will only accept change if it makes tasks better in some way — faster, more efficient, and almost universally, easier. Do you really want to use new technology if it doesn’t provide you with something you need? Will you acquire the newer form of that technology if it doesn’t provide you with something crucial that you don’t have today? Do you want technology that makes (or even if it only appears to make) your tasks more difficult? Efficiency is found in consistency, and products that change constantly won’t be well adopted by those that need to be able to depend on using the technology without taking time to re-learn, re-learn, re-learn. Yes, there are some technology aficionados that love that cycle, but I feel safe in saying that most of us don’t. We just want our technology to work for us, not the other way around.

Now, in the context of operating system changes, put on the new PC user hat. For new users, change is almost insurmountable. (Is change while learning difficult? Have you ever tried changing the engine on a moving car?) A PC is hard enough to use. Change the operating system significantly and they’re ready to throw in the towel altogether. As a more experienced user, I understand updates are needed (especially for security these days), but honestly, I wonder if Microsoft likes change just for the sake of change (and profit.) Could it be that Windows XP is simply good enough for most existing PC users? Is it possible Vista doesn’t yield anything “improved” enough to warrant the change? And what about our brand new PC users? Is Vista or XP better for them, or neither?

Given that choice, my vote would be neither. Neither Windows XP nor Windows Vista are gracious enough to new users… they’re obviously made for existing users. Since learning about PCs and operating systems is a pretty tough request for new users, is there something that could make the learning curve easier? I think there might be. My colleagues know I’m a big fan of software that teaches users to develop better skills (on that particular software) via different “user modes.” Many pieces of software currently on the market have “beginner” modes which allow new users to be productive without expending vast amounts of effort just to learn the software. Eventually, an intermediate mode allows users to progress toward more sophisticated use. Truly experienced users can elect “advanced” mode.

For some time it has been my opinion that Windows needs something like this. Imagine an interface that is a little more “real world” for new PC users. It would be intuitive, yet allow completion of the same tasks the standard (“advanced”) Windows interface does while at the same time reinforcing the concepts needed to understand “advanced mode.” What might “beginner” mode look like? Well, I have a few ideas running around in my mind… nothing final, but it would surely need to be a little more discreet. Perhaps the interface would be slightly analogous to other “real world” machines. Now, please understand  I do NOT mean something like Microsoft Bob. While “Bob” used a real world,  analogy-based approach to the PC interface— and I’m certainly fond of analogies — it took the concept much too far. Note to Microsoft (and other developers): even the newest, most elderly users understand that a PC is a machine. What they don’t understand is how to operate it!

That’s what I see as the ultimate challenge — making sense of the machine. That’s why I wrote The Ultimate PC Primer , and that’s where I see Microsoft’s operating systems closing the door on new PC users — the OS is still too foreign. Do I think it’s easy to solve? Not at all. But it is needed, and it is worthwhile to try to solve. So while Microsoft is worried about losing existing users when it comes to adoption of their new operating system(s), perhaps they should also double-check to make sure they’re not slamming their own Windows closed on potential newcomers to the market.

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