“Wow!” Microsoft has learned nothing about usability in twelve years

Ironically, this is the second time I’m writing this entry. The first attempt to write it involved using IE7 on my new Vista laptop. IE7 helpfully crashed on me losing everything I had written, so here goes attempt numero deux, this time using FireFox on Vista. (I also just downloaded Picasa using FireFox, since it was clicking the Picasa download link that crashed IE, and I wanted to give FireFox its fair chance to crash.)

Back in 1995 I was working as a “Usability Architect” and one of the things I would do was try to minimize keystrokes and clicks for users performing common tasks. Also around this time, Microsoft started pushing Windows (95 or 3.x, can’t remember) with an ad showing someone typing a copy command into DOS while announcing that now, with Windows, an operation that previously took dozens of keystrokes could be accomplished with a single click.

So, I counted the number of clicks required to perform this operation (using the “a double-click = 1.5 clicks” metric) and it turned out to be 47. More, in fact, than the number of keystrokes required to perform this same operation.

The reason I am reminded of this is the recent remarks made by some Microsoft apologists (although, surprisingly, not Paul Thurrott) arguing that Apple’s ad making fun of Vista’s permissions dialogs is unfair, since Mac OS X requires the user to type his/her password in the same situation.

Now let me just make this perfectly clear. I am using Vista for the first time today on a brand new Dell Latitude D620 (nice piece of hardware, by the way; no I didn’t pay for it so don’t tell me what I should have bought 😉 ), and Apple’s ads if anything understate just how dumb, annoying, and ineffectual Vista’s permissions dialogs are.

1) Unlike in the ad, the question isn’t always phrased the same way, and it’s not clear what the unsafe choice is. The ad’s annoying security guy is actually more usable and consistent than Vista’s permissions dialogs. E.g. sometimes you’re asked if you want to allow an action (e.g. when running a program), and sometimes you’re asked what to do (e.g. when downloading a file).

2) Unlike in the ad, sometimes you get asked to allow or deny something that isn’t clearly an action. E.g. when I was installing a piece of open source software (SciTE) which doesn’t have an installer, I got asked to confirm the actions of creating, naming, and selecting a folder in the “Program Files” directory.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of what happens when I create, rename, and then delete a folder (errrr directory) in “Program Files” under Vista:

I go into “Program Files” (which used to be harder to do!) and then right-click and pick “New | Folder”.
1) I am told that this action is denied. Would I like to “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”? I continue.
2) Windows needs my permission to continue (system modal!). “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

I rename the folder “test”.
3) Denied. “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”. I continue.
4) Permission! “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

And then to be tidy I select the folder and press DELETE.
5) Am I sure? “Yes” or “No”? Yes.
6) Denied. “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”. I continue.
7) Permission! “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

So, to create and name a folder in “Program Files” I need to click through four confirmation dialogs.

And might I add that every single one of these dialogs still has the major usability issue that has plagued Windows since version … 1(?). When you create a dialog box to confirm an action — “delete” say — instead of asking “Yes” or “No” you should say “Delete” or “Keep File” (say) so that the user doesn’t have to read the dialog text every freaking time.

Might I add that I have absolutely no idea what happens if I continue and then cancel or skip. (Edit: actually I tried all the permutations and essentially “skip” and “cancel” have the same effect … so why have skip at all? Indeed, why have two dialogs to ask the same question … it’s like each dialog is produced by a different team somewhere in Microsoft. It’s exactly like that. Funny how a bunch of open source developers can provide a better integrated (and more secure) OS than Windows.)

I’ll probably go into more detail on just how badly Vista sucks usability-wise later, but here are some little chesnuts to keep you amused:

1) It appears that IE either won’t resolve web addresses unless you’ve typed in the full “http://…” or takes a random (long) time to do so.

2) A lot of dialogs make Windows modal before they appear. E.g. if you save a picture from IE the “Save” dialog (sheet?) doesn’t appear immediately, but the window immediately becomes non-responsive (without visually indicating anything). Lovely.

(Again, inobviously locked up windows, especially file browsers (“explorer” windows), have been a blight on Windows since Windows 95 when “multitasking” was introduced. Indeed Mac OS 7 through 9’s “inferior” cooperative multitasking Finder never had this problem.)

3) Microsoft still hasn’t learned to “ask before the long operation”. E.g. when I tried to run a Unity demo (requiring a custom ActiveX control) I get the yellow warning bar in IE, when I ask to install it there’s a long pause, then it asks me to “Continue or Cancel”, then another long pause and it asks if I want to install the plugin. Putting aside the fact that two of these questions didn’t need to be asked, they could all have been asked before downloading the file. The most egregious example of this, of course, is when you install Windows — but thankfully I didn’t have to install Vista on this laptop.

Anyway, a more “realistic” ad might go something like this:

The Mac guy talks, does stuff, and isn’t interrupted, but when he tries to throw his cell phone away he’s asked whether he’s sure and if he is, to provide a password.

The PC guy talks, does stuff, but before each action he is asked a series of differently phrased questions such as “Permission to say bad things about Vista is denied? Continue, Skip, or Cancel.” “Continue.” The lights go off, a spotlight shines in his face. “Saying bad things about Vista is dangerous. Continue or Cancel?” “Continue”. Next, he tries to perform a common operation (e.g. breathe) and is asked “You are attempting to breathe. Run or cancel. If you don’t want to have to confirm breathing in future, uncheck this box.” Nearly blue in the face, PC unchecks the box, and then is immediately asked “You are attempting to breathe. Run or cancel. If you don’t want to have to confirm breathing in future, uncheck this box.”

That’s right, unchecking that box doesn’t work.

“You are coming to a sad realization. Abort, Retry, or Fail.”

Addendum

Let me just quickly say some nice things about Windows Vista.

1) Sleep mode actually appears to work. That’s right, I can close my laptop and it goes to sleep, and open it and it wakes up (into a PRESS CONTROL + ALT + DELETE to log in screen — why why why? Talk about dumb things that have been in Windows forever. It’s like wiring your house so that to turn on your lights you have to stick a fork in a power socket. At least it’s not “Start | Shut Down” any more, because the “Start” menu is the “shiny fake Aqua Windows button” now).

2) When you make changes to a directory they appear to more-or-less update automatically semi-instantly.

3) I like the way gadgets get a slab of the desktop to live in (versus the way Apple hides all your widgets in their own private Idaho).

4) Windows now has an Exposé rip-off! Sure, it’s ugly, less interactive, and less useful, but it’s there. Ugly because the “pseudo 3d overlapping fanned deck” layout isn’t very well done. Less interactive because when you point at a window it doesn’t tell you what app it belongs to. And less useful because it doesn’t appear to support drag and drop (but then drag and drop has always been barely half-assed in Windows). Once again Microsoft shows that when you rip off someone else’s ideas, it really helps to understand them.

Yes, these are back-handed compliments. What did you expect?

Microsoft to enhance Mac OS X’s Security

According to MacWindows, Microsoft just announced that it will be dropping VBScript support from the Universal version of Microsoft Office for Mac OS X. VBScript is a feature of Office that almost no-one uses, wants, or needs, which comes switched on by default, and which is a favorite venue for malware under Windows and cross-platform malware (e.g. it is the mechanism that allows most mail viruses to work). If you wonder what the “script” in the term “script kiddies” is, and were maybe thinking it’s, say, UNIX shell scripts … nope, it’s VBScript. Indeed, most Mac anti-virus programs are chiefly concerned with finding Office macro viruses, since there are as yet no actual Mac viruses for them to find.

Microsoft also announced — and this has been much more widely reported — that a Universal version of Virtual PC would be too expensive to develop and is dropping it; this is hilarious since they have already have Virtual PC for Linux and Windows (which are essentially equivalent to Parallels) and so it’s a pure business decision which has nothing to do with development costs. They simply don’t want to help the rats leave their sinking ship.

Macwindows also said: “One advantage that Microsoft could offer that noone else could is a preinstalled implementation of Windows bundled with the virtual machine software.” This is actually rubbish; the only thing that Microsoft could do that no-one else can do is offer Windows at an unbeatable price. Any vendor can buy Windows, install it on an image, and bundle it with their Virtualization software.

Windows on the Mac, Revisited

One of the comments on a recent post points out that he (or she?) has blogged on this topic before and in more detail. (I’m hardly the first to observe that WINE, Crossover, et al are, at least conceptually, a far better solution to this problem than Parallels or Boot Camp.)

However, on reading his comments, which I summarize below as five reasons Apple should do this and five reasons it shouldn’t (I’ve paraphrased and renumbered):

Reasons it Should

1. The hard work is done (WINE etc.)
2. Since they’re dropping Classic support…
3. Vista will not support EFI in first release…
4. Apple desperately wants to break into the Enterprise market…
5. Leopard seems to have few compelling new features

Reasons it Shouldn’t

6. Fear of Microsoft retaliating
7. Support would be a nightmare
8. Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit would be alienated
9. Not a new issue and they’ve never done it before
10. It’s not very Apple

Here’s my reaction to said reasons.
1. Agreed.
2. That’s just stupid. It’s not a reason.
3. Irrelevant.
4. Yes, but so what?
5. So, you know what’s in Leopard?!
6. Far-fetched. What could Microsoft try* to do that’s more malicious than “Zune”?
7. Absolutely true and a good point. Might have to be a free download “beta” like Boot Camp.
8. Possibly true.
9. Completely and utterly wrong. Aside from some horrible kludges (like Mac Charlie and the PC compatibility card for early PowerPC Macs) which were essentially low-end PCs that shared the Mac’s monitor, Apple has never had x86 CPUs in its machines, and Mac OS has never run on x86 CPUs.
10. Simply a matter of opinion, and I think far MORE Apple like than Boot Camp or Apple’s previous PC compatibility efforts.
* Actually, Zune is probably a gift for Apple, since the real victims are PlaysForSure licensees. But I doubt Microsoft considered Apple’s feelings.

Mentioned, but not enumerated, is a very important reason — the fact that a company which is on the cusp of developing a native Mac version of a program might decide simply to support the Mac’s Win32 compatibility layer instead. This is a real issue, but it’s not really clear that it doesn’t already exist because of Parallels and Boot Camp. If it’s a key productivity app, then chances are you’ll want it native. Photoshop native is going to kick pretend Photoshop native for the foreseeable future.

The Bottom Line

Apple’s core PC market is people who buy their own computers or can tell their company which computer to buy for them. The whole enterprise thing is never going to work out because enterprise IT hates, loathes, and fears Apple (subject of another blog post I think 🙂 ).

There are a certain number of people out there who want to use both a Mac and a PC for whatever reason. (I’m one of them.) You can only really use one at a time. I would argue that the vast majority of these people want to use their Macs for almost everything and their PCs for gaming and/or 3D apps (like 3DS Max) and one or two random Windows-only apps.

At the moment, Apple and Dell (say) are selling these folks two computers every X months for 1.7Y dollars. If Apple can produce a computer for Y dollars that serves all these people’s needs then their customers will be very happy, and either upgrade more frequently or buy a higher end computer. In my case I’d also save on desk space, power bills, fan noise, and carpet wear from sliding my chair from desk to desk).

If Apple is working on this, it’s doing a very good job of keeping it secret (e.g. it is either doing it from scratch — unlikely — or working on Open Source projects and either not pushing back its changes or somehow concealing its contributions or working with someone like Codeweavers and maintaining absolute radio silence). So it probably isn’t. That said, the solution I’m describing is going to happen whether Apple does it or not. So all the arguments against it are, in the end, irrelevant.

Zune!

I’m not exactly sure when the “Zune” products are coming out. Is it tomorrow? Or … October? It seems to me like Microsoft has just, effectively, told everyone shopping for a music player that they’d like you to buy a Microsoft music player … when it’s available, or an iPod if you want one now. Regardless, you should avoid buying anything with “PlaysForSure” since they’re guaranteed to screwed.

One of the writers for the Simpsons was (is) a fellow named George Meyer, who produced a newsletter named Army Man (“America’s Only Magazine”). One of the things he loves, according to a New Yorker profile, is products or statements which are lies in and of themselves (kind of like an oxymoron, but more blatant and not restricted to two words). Microsoft is a great purveyor of such products: “PlaysForSure” doesn’t, “Windows Genuine Advantage” isn’t, and so forth. (So is the Bush Administration: “Clean Skies”, “No Child Left Behind”, and so forth.)

Bill Gates’s Successor

There’s an interesting article in The Economist suggesting that Bill Gates is picking Ray Ozzie as his successor because Steve Jobs isn’t available. Entertaining suggestion, but since Ray Ozzie’s chief claim to fame is Lotus Notes, perhaps it should be taken with a grain of salt.

If you are unfamiliar with Lotus Notes let me summarize: it’s an email and collaboration program that, conceptually, is similar to a wiki but better (because you can grab those parts of the wiki that interest you and put them on your local machine, and then merge your changes back in later) but actually is much, much worse.

Make no mistake, conceptually, Lotus Notes was a brilliant product. Its chief advantage over any random wiki-software today is, essentially, defunct, since the cost of deploying Lotus Notes (estimated by Gartner in the mid-90s at $7000/seat/year) dwarfs the cost of, say, giving your employees wireless network access 24/7. Heck, it would probably cover giving them a satellite phone to access the internet. Having had such a strong base to build on and such a head start over the web, you’d think Notes might have made up for its lack of compelling new functionality with, say, ease of use or excellent platform support. But no … you can’t even get the latest Notes for Mac OS X.

Anyone who has used or administered Lotus Notes can tell you that not only is it actively user-hostile, but it doesn’t get better. They keep releasing new versions that just suck. It’s a piece of software that no-one who wasn’t forced to use it by their boss would avoid like the plague.

If this product accurately reflects the vision of the person who is Bill Gates’s chosen successor, Microsoft is headed for oblivion.