I’m long overdue for a new computer. Looong, overdue. But I’m waiting. “Why?!?” people ask me. Well, truth be told, I’m trying to figure out what’s going to serve me best, though it’s not like there’s much choice of operating systems: Windows, Mac, Linux. Choose and be done, right? Now, I’ve used Mac and Linux before as supplimentary systems, but Windows has always been my primary. I’ve been on Windows for a long time. I’m used to it. It’s familiar. And I originally planned on going from XP to Vista, like many others. But after reading all the press after the painful Vista launch — users “upgrading” from Vista to XP and even Microsoft admitting after Visa that the next version of Windows would be “less annoying” than Vista — I decided to hold off. Then came the final nail in the “upgrade coffin”: a Microsoft employee actually told me Windows 7 was so much superior to Vista, he recommended hanging on with XP until Windows 7 is realeased. Ouch.
What went so wrong with Vista? It doesn’t look bad. It’s not like Microsoft put too little effort into it. Major initiative, lots of resources, lots of time spent, but lots of users still hate/hated it. Complaints abound. So what’s the deal? Where did Microsoft go wrong with what, technically, seems to be a really cutting edge operating system. Well, in my opinion…
It’s the users, stupid. Somewhere along the line, someone forgot that the majority of people probably just want to use their computer. They don’t spend time thinking about their computers. They don’t want to love their computer, be impressed by their computer, or take six minutes to marvel at their computer’s fancy graphics while it boots up. After the initial “Gee, I have a new operating system,” they just want to do stuff as fast and painless as possible. An operating system that just gets out of the way is ideal for that.
So, my contact from Microsoft says that Windows 7 will be light-years faster than Vista. Good job, Microsoft. You’ve learned. But I still wonder, will my operating system serve me, or will I find myself serving Microsoft… catering my work to their concepts of how work on a computer should be done. It occurred to me (while listening to my contact) that while Microsoft’s policy of dog-fooding their new products is good in one sense (their products have actually been put through some real use), it’s really bad in another. They’re testing their own products in the same enviornment they were made in, which I would think will tend to make the product concepts, features, corrections, and enhancements more narrowly focused on Microsoft’s own internal ways of working.
Now lest you think I’m out to bash Microsoft, let me remind you that I’ve been a Windows user for a long time. I’m not one of those anti-Microsoft guys. But I am growing a bit concerned about Windows… especially for newer users. It seems like more and more, the focus of software (operating systems included) is on the existing user base. The concepts are optimized for users already familiar with the product. Obviously, this makes it really difficult for new users to enter the arena, but what can be done? Many have argued with me that “That’s just how technology is. You snooze, you lose.” And there is some value in that attitude. After all, let’s ask a fair question: is it reasonable to expect vendors to serve both the technophiles and the novices equally well? Just how much should vendors have to cater to those fringe customers (or even brand new ones) who haven’t kept up with the evolution of their products? Isn’t it only fair they favor loyal customers? To what lengths should software and electronic gadget manufacturers go to keep their products “welcoming” and “easy to use” for newcomers?
So we shouldn’t bother worrying, right? Wrong. Here’s why I bother… the new and confused users are still out there. They’re out there in extraordinary numbers you can’t imagine unless you look for them as often as I do, but they just take too much time, effort, compassion (and that, for Microsoft and other companies, translates into real dollars), etc. to address. Serving them isn’t perceived as bringing any significant return. They’re viewed more as a distraction, drain, or an outright inconvenience. In a similar vein, it’s why all publishers to which I’ve sent The Ultimate PC Primer think it’s a great book, but that there’s no market. They’re wrong, of course. The market is there is incredible — if anything, they’re underserved — but it’s just not easy money for the taking. The pipeline isn’t straight. So they don’t want to bother, and I get the sense they feel people like me should move on, too. So I should give up, right? Microsoft has the market share, they’re giant, they don’t (or can’t) care, and there’s no going back. Well hold on there…
Just when you think Microsoft is king, of all players, Google (after targeting nearly every other space Microsoft is in) announces they’re going to offer an operating system. Oh dear. What does this mean? Well some are already wondering if it will start another operating system war. I’m wondering any of this will actually benefit newcomers to computing or if it will just be more sophisticated options for those who are already already computer savvy.
Yes, as you can tell, I have my doubts. So if you’re thinking, “Okay, Mr. Critical, do you have any better ideas on how to help your precious “newcomers” in a profitable way?” Yes, actually I do, and I think it not only stands to help newcomers but also give the OS vendor a larger market share while building loyalty and familiarity with the product. So here’s the simple idea: build multiple interface modes, tailered to skill level, over the top of the core operating system. The core doesn’t change, but the interface layer is based on a “Newcomer, Novice, Expereienced” model. I’ve seen this successfully done with other pieces of stand-alone software. Multiple modes. The user picks the most suitable mode. Each mode helps the user learn the software better and prepares him or her to use the next mode. I’ve seen it done with just two modes (beginner and advanced) up to four modes.
So how would this work for Windows (or any operating system)? I suggest there should be a basic interface which allows the user to operate the computer’s core functions in a simple and clean fashion. The operating systems concepts would be framed more in line with a traditional (non-digital) machine. Required: file namagement (probably locked down to a single area of the hard drive), starting and stopping programs (with an easily decipherable programs menu), and for goodness’ sake, a clear representation of the status of what’s happening on the computer (Do you know how many new users don’t know what’s running on the computer?).
The next mode might look a bit more like Windows of today, but in a more vanilla, no-frills, don’t confuse me sort of fashion. Interface concepts take a step toward “virtual,” helping to bridge the gap between basic and full modes. Again, the ability to operate is there, but perhaps more functionality and options available than basic mode (like installing or removing programs, system configuration, unrestricted file management, etc.) The rules are relaxed, allowing the user to make some more choices that could have greater impacts. It’s both a usable product and yet training at the same time. Once that’s mastered, it’s time for opening the OS wide open for the user… and they’re on their way… flying on their own… no longer a newcomer, but a user. And users go on to buy additional products.
This all will sound silly to all you skilled computer users. But put on the “I’m trying to get into computing for the first time” hat. Then put on the “I’m a vendor worried about losing my OS marketshare, primarily from skilled users” hat. See the wins? Newcomers have an easier way in, and a way to grow toward modern OS usage. And since the multiple user modes would run on top of the core OS, little would need to be changed. (Think about how the original Windows was running on top of DOS. Same type of concept.) Lastly, as an added feature to the “main product,” product loyalty is built as the user grows and learns on the “Training OS.” This TOS would be the first “operating system” the newcomer ever uses. The vendor that does this will have virtually guaranteed a customer for many more years. It’s why marketers target youth with their branding. Remember, a computer newcomer is essentially a “digital child.” They will grow up with the brand and products they remember learning on as a child.
Now let’s come back down to earth. I do want to be realistic about the whole idea. Yeah, I know. It’d take some convincing to get one of the major OS vendors to execute this. It would take time, and time equals money. It would have to be designed well. It would have to be tested. (After all, it’s part product and part training!) So, it’s not really the sort of thing high on Microsoft (or any OS vendor’s) priority list to tackle these days. (Sheesh, it might mean they’d have to listen to some users on the outside, and some basic users at that!) But with Google closing in, there may come a day when even Microsoft needs to find some new life for their flagship product. I hope they remember it’s the users — all kinds of users — that keep products alive.