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Reflections On A Vista Failure

In the US Microsoft has cut the price of Microsoft Office for students to $59.95. This is said to be the “Ultimate Steal.”

In fact, the list price is now a fiction. Microsoft’s products are so unwanted they will soon be either giving them away or paying people to use them (which they’ve already tried with search) to try to maintain the market share that is beginning, at last, to slip away.

Unlike some, I actually like the Office 2007 user interface. However, it crashes regularly on my Vista PC (on a machine with a user experience rating of 4.8, with 3Gb RAM, plenty of disk space etc.) and it really doesn’t give me anything compelling for the vast increase in disk space it requires.

Office 2007 size

Office 2007 size

Microsoft knows about the crashes because it gets crash data. Over a year on, and it’s a complete hit or miss (usually miss, miss, hit) when I open a Word file if the program will crash. The best and nearest to compelling reason to buy Office 2007 is OneNote. By itself, however, it’s not enough to justify sticking with Microsoft.

I had cause to reflect on all this yesterday when I, rashly perhaps, agreed to install an update to the (ATI Catalyst) video driver software for my “home theatre PC” (HTPC) / Personal Video Recorder (PVR) PC, a vanilla Windows Vista Ultimate PC with two internal drives

  1. 320Gb drive (60Gb drive C: for Vista and the rest for Vista backups)
  2. 750Gb for recorded TV (backed up to an external 750Gb USB drive)

I’ve done it before with no problem, but I do know that you can never tell when “upgrade” is going to break things. This time the upshot was that the HD TV screen acquired a large black border. Adjustments that resolved the problem earlier no longer worked, and nor did reverting to the old driver. “OK” I thought, and I reverted to a backup, made automatically last Saturday. When it was successfully restored the drive letters were incorrect and the computer was unbootable.

It should have been straightforward to fix, but it wasn’t. Again. (Something similar has happened before). If I didn’t already know why people are willing to pay 100% more for Apple products, I was reminded. Apple’s appeal is not entirely about external design. Even though I was 110% backed up it took hours to resolve.

While working on it I read in this month’s issue of Personal Computer World that Microsoft’s technology is not ready for

cut and paste to the living room.

I knew this. What was I thinking? Put it down to the seductive power of integration and the assumption that simplicity would help.

A windows PC with no other job in life but to be a media centre PC should be bulletproof, and more easily than most. Alas, it’s not true. When it works it works well, but why is it so fragile?

As Many Baskets As You Like, As Long As It’s One

I’ve decided that Microsoft designs for one case: the customer who uses the product in a default configuration. It’s Microsoft’s version of “any colour you want, as long as it’s black.” The shade I require is not outlandish.

All I have ever wished to do is keep sofware and data separate, on different drives. It’s a best practice that goes back to the dawn of disk storage and beyond, to the first baskets used for eggs.

Doing so is possible but it involves things like registry edits in the case of Windows Media Centre. I believe a non-default configuration, in the form of a documents folder on another drive, is at the heart of the problems I have with Word 2007.

What words describe this appropriately in 2008?

What does Microsoft do internally? Famously, they use the term “dogfood” as a verb to describe their using their own systems (as in “eating their own dogfood“), but

Everything on the C: drive?

Microsoft's approach to software and data

Microsoft approach

I find it hard to believe.

Vista does have some real improvements in backup technology, especially volume shadowing.  It gives you a bit of a personal time machine, in a small way. But push-button backup and recovery are a dream still. The overall level of robustness is still pathetically low.

This is why the latest version of Acronis TrueImage, the backup software I use, and unfortunately a version I hadn’t upgraded to yet, has a feature called

Try and Decide

which lets one try a software update and then decide whether to keep it or not. Apple’s OSX operating system has this capability this built-in. I could live without this if a bare metal restore was quick and easy.

The contrast with Linux is also striking. Linux makes it very easy to keep software and data separate and to easily restore a software volume with no impact on data. And it’s going to become easier as more and more computers become capable of booting Linux from a chip.

Take a look at what Microsoft Research does. Now have a look at the blog of the Microsoft Research Community on software reliability

Improving software quality via automated tools and techniques

There’s nothing there. (Update: now the site is gone, so I’ve removed the link).

Bill Gates is famously paranoid that some missed innovation will make Microsoft obsolete. One of the innovations Microsoft is missing is reliability and simplicity. How can they go on missing it?

Microsoft is about to spend $300m to try to persuade people that Vista isn’t as bad as it’s reputed to be.

Who seriously believes Vista is as good as it ought to be?

Bill Gates thinks the I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC ads are unfair. In fact, the blue screen of a crashed Windows machine projected in the Bird’s Nest stadium during the Beijing olympics said it all. Apple isn’t successfully misleading consumers, it’s giving them a simpler and more reliable alternative (most of the time!).

I prefer Ubuntu Linux to Apple OSX and I begin to feel impatient for the day when I get the last Microsoft software out of my house. Increasingly, I feel about it the way I did about cathode ray tubes. At least they worked reliably, whereas Microsoft, for all it’s blaming others for Windows failures, chose not to include backup software with some versions of Vista and it has yet to take reliability seriously.

Alas, too much good software is still Windows-only. However, this is beginning to change. There are now Linux versions of two of my most indispensible software tools:

The Linux versions are not as good as the Windows version. But they weren’t available a year ago and the gap should close over time. On Sunday I paid for my first Windows/Linux license for an upgrade to the latest version of Beyond Compare.

Consider this a small personal subtraction from Microsoft’s $300m marketing budget.

Update: this post has drawn a lot of traffic from StumbleUpon. Click here to make your deduction from Microsoft’s marketing budget:

Stumble it!

4 Responses to “Microsoft Worried: Cheap Dogfood, $300m Promotion”

  1. Let’s talk about my laptop. A HP dv6000 with 3GB of RAM and a dual core processor clocking at 2GHz per core. It runs Vista perfectly, I just had to install and everything worked, the webcam, wireless internet, the video card, everything. On the same computer I installed Kubuntu Linux and behold, the ethernet cards do not work so I cannot install all the packages I need to get the webcam, video card and sound card working correctly. To tell you the truth, I prefer Vista.

  2. I didn’t find Ubuntu useful on a laptop until v8.04. There were, I agree, too many problems with wireless networking (I never had any problems with wired ethernet however). The last release put paid to most of these and the next, due next month, will improve support for peripherals like webcams.
    I agree too that it’s behind Vista in terms of user interface polish and in the extent of driver support, but it is advancing much faster than Vista. LOTS of people who bought laptops with Vista a year ago had to downgrade to XP beause of poor driver support. This has changed since but Microsoft’s reputation has suffered.
    Meanwhile, Ubuntu is about to go mainstream with the release by Dell of laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed. With the laptop market splitting into costly Macs and cheap netbooks and with corporate IT managers resisting Vista (even Intel consider it a losing proposition) the outlook for Vista’s market share on laptops looks bleak.
    You can try a later Ubuntu with a live CD and see if everything works. If it does you can run it using wubi — no need to set up a separate partition.
    I don’t “prefer Vista.” I prefer some applications which are only available under Windows and Vista is the least bad version of Windows.

  3. cassetti says:

    Honestly, I hate Vista. But I have to say, the tablet pc features in vista are quite nice on my Lenovo X61T.

    Oh how I wish I could find an alternative to OneNote for linux.

  4. That IS a nice laptop! Your best alternative to OneNote is OneNote running on XP in a Virtualbox. Alternatively… you could run a webserver and run your own wiki.
    Here’s what I use http://wombatdiet.net/2008/04/29/wanted-goldlocks-wiki/
    I use them in combination. TiddlyWiki on my USB stick, PMwiki on my desktop PC and Deki Wiki on a server.
    Google “Evernote Linux” and you may find some interesting things; that’s another thing I use but not so much since switching to OneNote.

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