Thursday, August 9, 2007

Open Vistas

I've been using Vista as my primary OS, and Office 2007 as my primary productivity suite, for over a year now. My initial take, after a month or so of exposure to the betas, was that MS had made a fairly serious strategic mistake with both of them. Over a year later, that first impression has settled into a firm conclusion.

I will say, there are things to like about both platforms. Vista's Aero interface has some nice eye candy. I like the built-in search, and its photo and multimedia organizing capabilities. Outlook 2007 has some nice UI tweaks. Word 2007's blog integration isn't perfect, but it's the best alternative to composing it all in HTML that I've found.

But these are minor pleasantries, and they come with some serious annoyances. Apart from being buggy, which is kinda expected, they both have significant performance problems. The graphing engine in Office 2007 makes some nice looking charts, but it's astonishingly slow. Chart-heavy spreadsheets that would refresh sub-second in Excel 2003 take 10-15 seconds to refresh in Excel 2007. Even after I've figured out where everything sits, I still hate the new ribbon interface. I'm a heavy keyboard user, and although you can still do most things through the keyboard, Office 2007 requires more keystrokes, and significant pauses between those keystrokes. I've got a dual proc, dual core Xeon desktop, and it still takes so long to refresh the ribbon on each keystroke that I could swear MS put the delays in on purpose.

With regard to Vista: I can't say enough how much I hate User Account Control. Yes, of course, I can turn it off – and I would, in a second, except that our software has to run well on Vista with the default settings. And of course, tons of software that I need to run still doesn't work right with Vista. It was only a couple days ago that I finally got my hands on a version of Cisco's VPN client that worked consistently. Zango's network team had to completely redo our wireless infrastructure to allow Vista laptops to connect. My PolyCom video-conferencing software still doesn't work right.

The biggest problem with Vista, though, is simply that it's underwhelming. From a user's perspective, there's a little bit to like about it, but nothing that makes it interesting or revolutionary. It's light years away from what MS originally promised. I've got it running here at work, but I can't figure out why I would spend the money to upgrade my home desktop.

I'm hearing pretty much the same thing from lots of different sources. I do know a few people who like the new ribbon interface – God help them. But I don't know anybody who's excited about Vista. I don't know anybody's who's purchased it, and trust me, I know lots of geeks of the must-have-it variety. Friends I've known for years, friends who upgrade automatically to the latest beta/service pack of anything, are still running XP. If this sample set is any indication, Vista inspires nothing so much as apathy. Nor does anybody seem to care about the next version of Windows. Why should we, if the delta between XP and Vista (three steps forward, two steps back) is any indication of what awaits us?

And here's where Microsoft's missteps might cost them. I've actually started getting interested in Linux. I've got Ubuntu running on a second desktop in my office, and when I replace my current home desktop, I'm planning to switch my old machine over to Linux as well. I've even been wondering about whether Macs might be any better. I'm not ready to make the switch yet, but you'd have to know me to understand just how revolutionary it is for me to be getting tired of Microsoft software.

It's worth nothing that I still don't think Linux is quite ready for mainstream use, even compared to Vista. Open Office is OK, but Evolution can't replace Outlook. (For starters: if it knows that an email has been deleted, why the **** does it still list for browsing? And why does it hang every time I try to delete an email from Exchange?) But the thing is, Linux doesn't have to be that good. For most purposes, honestly, it just has to be good enough to run FireFox and a mature version of Google Gears. With those two, and the services that Google already offers, I could get 90% of my daily work done, as easy or easier than with Vista.

And Microsoft definitely needs to be worried about that. I'm not switching, not yet. But the fact that one of their most loyal customers is thinking through what it would take to make that switch should make Microsoft very nervous indeed.

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