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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Microsoft Windows Vista

Apparently Microsoft regards me as a known Toronto tech blogger, because they invited me to a local Windows Vista preview event this evening. I was one of around 15 guests who turned up, including such better-known-than-mine names as (in alphabetical order) /pd, David Crow, Jay Goldman, Joey deVilla, Leila Boujnane, Michelle Tampoya, Randy Charles Morin, and Thomas Purves (there, I’ve just listed half the guests).

Microsoft is making a concerted effort to reach out to the “community”, which is interesting in itself to me as that’s a Web 2.0-ish thing. Microsoft is currently making its second seismic shift, this time to Windows Live and related things. The first time was when it belatedly discovered the importance of the Internet, i.e. Web 1.0. If there’s a “3.0” at any point, I predict that it will cause Microsoft’s third seismic shift. Microsoft is slow sometimes, but it catches up.

The four technical people from Microsoft included two from nearby Microsoft Canada and two from galactic HQ in Redmond, all very knowledgeable, plus a Microsoft PR person and three people from their PR firm. Only a 2-to-1 guest to staff ratio, kind of like on an expensive cruise ship. I had very interesting chats with Bruce Cowper (Senior Program Manager, Security Initiative) about usability improvements in Vista and Office (even though he’s a security guy) and Graham Watson (Senior Product Manager, Windows Client) about his former employer Xerox (even though he now works at Microsoft). I remarked to Graham that his presentation had been largely about enterprise issues, which I figured reflected the greater difficulty of getting enterprises to adopt a new version of Windows. Consumers tend to get the newest version automatically when they buy a new computer, or choose to upgrade their OS; it’s generally only enterprise IT departments that are so risk-averse that they’ll stick with what they have as long as possible (even if, paradoxically, this causes them to run risks that come with using outdated software).

David Crow was very complimentary about some of the user-experience improvements in Vista, which was quite striking to me as he’s such a Mac fan. Speaking of which, I was stunned yesterday when I was trying to help a Mac-wielding friend send out a formatted document as an email message, and learned from a Web search that Apple Mail doesn’t believe in sending HTML mail! I’m starting to wonder why there are so many Apple acolytes around in the Web world given that Apple’s email client and Web browser suck (relatively speaking). I suppose they just use other apps such as Firefox. Which is fine, except that the vast majority of computer buyers use the email and browser programs that came with their computer. Oh right, those would be Outlook Express and Internet Explorer, since that vast majority buys Windows machines! All right, Apple, you have my permission to continue producing substandard email clients and browsers. Well, not really: my wife and some of my friends use Macs and are not going to switch to third-party apps unless pushed by someone like me, and I don’t want to do Apple’s tech support at no charge.

Vista’s new Aero user interface didn’t particularly impress me. So what if you can see through the “glass-like interface elements”? I want to see those interface elements, not what’s behind them. Microsoft claims “spectacular visual effects”, but this is the typical Microsoft programmer’s issue of wanting to impress people. Note to all Microsofties: it’s not about you.

I’m actually happy that Aero is dispensable, because it needs a lot of graphics memory that my computer probably doesn’t have. So I can upgrade to Vista minus Aero and won’t feel like I’m missing out.

Speaking of user interfaces, I mentioned to a couple of the Softies my idea that I earlier blogged about of how to hide advanced features from novice users. They both liked it, but not enough to start agitating within Microsoft to do something like that.

One cool feature of Vista is that it maintains a central store of feeds, one that is used to supply a feed reader in the new version of Outlook but that can also be used by other applications. My thought was that this didn’t go far enough: I want my central store to be on the Internet so that I can feed-read from multiple devices — which I do, because I use Google Reader on both my laptop and my Treo 650. One of Microsoft’s major challenges is to maintain the importance of the operating system at a time when things are migrating to the Internet. Even in big corporations, people are starting to use Web-based applications no matter what the IT department says.

Some of my fellow guests had been using early versions of Vista. I could have too, but I’d rather not use beta software unless there’s a significant benefit for me or my customers. Unlike most people with a geek background, I prefer to use what the masses use, whenever practical. Otherwise I’ll lose touch with them. When I worked on (now, I tried to get content developers to sometimes use dialup modems instead of their broadband connections, so that they could experience the content the way the users did. It didn’t work: as far as I could tell I was the only person to sometimes use a dialup modem (and I wasn’t even developing content).

DISCLOSURE: Thanks to Microsoft for the freely flowing red wine, which fueled this post, and the marvelous tapas at Kultura Restaurant, which the staff were justifiably boastful about.