Was Vista Really a Flop?

Like many Windows users, I never upgraded to Windows Vista. But I never upgraded to XP either, and it — allegedly — wasn’t a flop. (Indeed, my top-of-the-line Dell Laptop purchased in 2001 came with a free upgrade to XP when I bought it — Windows 2000 was preinstalled — and I never redeemed the coupon.) I got Windows XP on the PC I bought in 2003 and switched its bubblegum UI off. With the exception of a work laptop and a copy of Vista Home Basic I installed on a VM for testing purposes, I’ve used XP ever since — but I’ve never upgraded to it.

The basic problem with Windows is that it doesn’t sell upgrades, it sells OEM licenses. Windows “upgrades” are driven by explosive increases in PC adoption — which have stopped being explosive — and hardware upgrades driven by explosive increases in PC performance — which has also stopped being explosive. Worse yet, for Microsoft, its foray into the console market (which has lost it money) has ripped the heart out of PC games market (most PC games these days are XBox 360 ports) which drove the graphics card market which, itself, ran into a performance wall two years after CPUs did. Instead of buying a new PC with a new GPU to run the latest, greatest games, we’re buying an XBox 360 or PS3 — neither of which do much for Windows upgrades or Microsoft’s bottom line.

Uncharted 2: not only are the best games these days running on consoles, they're running on Sony's PS3
Uncharted 2: not only are the most successful new games running on consoles, they're running on Sony's PS3

Even if we love Windows 7, most of us aren’t going to buy a copy unless it comes “free” with a new PC. (Microsoft is offering anyone vaguely associated with education in the US $29 Windows 7 upgrades — I have a coupon and no plans to redeem it.) And we’re not going to buy a new PC unless it offers some obvious tangible benefit over our old PC. E.g. runs some amazing game our current PC doesn’t run. Or is just insanely fast. But the hot new games all run on consoles (in fact, rather depressingly for Microsoft, they all seem to run on the PS3) and the latest PCs aren’t amazingly fast — even on paper. (It doesn’t help that AMD and Intel have both divorced CPU names entirely from performance so that it’s virtually impossible to figure out how fast a PC is from its listed components.)

The ridiculous Windows 7 Upgrade Chart (Again) -- Proof Microsoft doesn't expect (want?) many to upgrade?
The ridiculous Windows 7 Upgrade Chart (Again) -- Proof Microsoft doesn't expect (or perhaps want) many to upgrade?

The fact that upgrading to Windows 7 is such a clusterf*ck should tell us something — Microsoft doesn’t expect many people to upgrade existing machines and doesn’t care about those who bother. So Windows 7 will be a flop, or not, based on sales of new hardware. Who is going to be buying new PC hardware? Gamers? As a gamer my next major discretionary gaming expense will probably be a PS3 or next gen iPod Touch/Apple Tablet (not all App Store games are simple one-trick ponies — Diablo and FF-style games cost $5 in the App Store, $30 for the DS, and $60 for the PS3 and 360). Businesses? Sorry, but Word runs just fine on five year old PCs, and XP runs just fine on new boxes, so where’s the value?

So long netbooks. Your 15 minutes are about up.

From Either the Netbook goes or… on Tomshardware

Windows is in a lousy place. Its only growth market is Netbooks, and that seems to be about to implode. Sony seems to have finally gotten the PS3 game pipeline sorted out (except for the PSP Go fiasco). PC sales are pretty moribund and likely to stay that way — new PCs aren’t especially compelling, gamers don’t care about PCs any more, and the economy sucks. And Microsoft is in a lousy place: although the sidekick fiasco was monumentally incompetent you have to give Microsoft credit for handling it well, their new Windows Mobile is being ridiculed by usually friendly reviewers, and their not-so-secret and bizarrely named “Pink” project is apparently in a shambles. Ballmer is talking down Windows 7.

Microsoft could have released Windows 7 as Windows Vista SP2. Why didn’t they? Instead of bolstering their reputation for sticking with an initially failed product until they make it successful (as they did with Windows, Internet Explorer, Video for Windows Media Player, Microsoft Access, Visual Studio, and so many other products) they seem to be turning into Apple circa 1994 — producer of half-assed, ill-conceived products that are left in maintenance purgatory and eventually abandoned, or — worse — released (Pocket Windows CE Mobile, Windows Vista, Windows ME). Microsoft has always had its share of failed products, but they were generally bold attempts to screw with someone else’s core product (e.g. Microsoft Money) where Microsoft had little to lose and everything to gain.

If Microsoft had released Windows 7 as Vista SP2 they could have slowly turned Vista into a success and reduced the fragmentation of the Windows software market (oh good, so now I have to deal with XP, Vista, and 7). They could have bolstered their reputation for seeing through shaky projects to successful conclusions. Instead they’ve opted to run the risk of failing again in their core market while leaving Vista owners feeling cheated (even if they’re willing to pay for the upgrade, the nightmarish upgrade process will not go down well). Even if Windows 7 is some kind of home run — it’s not clear how this will serve Microsoft better than having made Vista SP2 a home run — or at least attempting to.

Malware… or how to make Windows XP Suck Less in 5 minutes

gpedit.msc lets you fix Windows Update
gpedit.msc lets you fix Windows Update in Windows XP making it even more better than Vista.

One thing I haven’t seen any coverage of in reviews of Windows 7 is whether basic OS behavior has been reformed. But I found the answer here:

In prior versions of Windows, updates requiring a reboot would pop up a dialog box requesting that the user reboot his machine every number of specified minutes. This dialog box was changed to allow the user to select a longer period of time (up to 4 hours) before being prompted again. The revised dialog box also displays under other applications, instead of on top of them.

From the Wikipedia entry on Windows Update — emphasis mine

(I love this entry. Much of it is so obviously written by Microsoft Marketing — yeah yeah go go ASP.NET. And no mention of the Blaster worm which nearly took down Microsoft’s update mechanism along with a substantial portion of the world’s Windows boxes.)

There’s a doohickey in the bowels of Windows XP (spoiler alert!) that lets you block what I believe to be the single most annoying features of Windows Update, which is the warning dialog requesting that you restart your computer (I’ve had to reboot my Windows XP SP3 desktop PC three times for updates in the last few days). It’s not mentioned in the official documentation, because this only covers getting to the control panel and choosing whether you’d like to be starved, beaten, or have electrodes attached to your genitals.

I’m guessing that the kinds of people who review Windows releases are the kinds of people who know how to configure it to be less annoying. This is a huge blind spot (kind of like the “UNIX is easy because the commands are all just two letters” approach to usability that dominated computer science until about 1995): most users, including me until five minutes ago, are living with Windows XP’s “out of the box” behavior, and that behavior is — essentially — worse than malware.

The default (and recommended) behavior of Windows XP is to update your computer automatically and without asking, and after the update is finished to reboot the computer quitting out of every program on the way — force-quitting if necessary. This is basically a slow motion “controlled” hard crash that Windows does to you with frightening regularity in the interest of keeping your computer up-to-date, and the main benefit of this being, supposedly, to protect you from malware which could cause your computer to crash or lose data. Who needs malware if you’re running Windows?

But the best behavior aside from ignoring updates that you can configure Windows XP to adopt is to nag you every 10 minutes with a system-wide modal dialog box requesting you to restart.

OK, I’ve wasted three minutes of your time, here’s the actual fix…

In order to disable this behavior, you’ll need to Start > Run… gpedit.msc, drill down through Administrative Templates / Windows Components / Windows Update and then enable and configure “No auto-restart…” and “Re-prompt for restart…”. This will give you what is — I’m taking a wild guess — the single biggest improvement to Windows in Vista and Windows 7. It’s certainly better than anything I’ve found listed here. (Of those, the “nag-free system tray” seems like the next best … remember how Windows fanboys were raving about how great Windows notifications were only a few years ago? Now they’re raving about being freed from them.)

Windows Vista — according to the quoted snippet — fixed this problem. I didn’t notice because Windows Vista is so infernally annoying across the board that minor things like Windows Update being less annoying apparently left no impression. Please note that — as far as I can tell — the recommended option is still to hard crash your computer at 3am.