Saturday, May 24, 2008

Steve Ballmer is a Funny Guy

I doubt that he really is trying to be as laugh-inducing as he is, but he makes me laugh on a regular basis. Most of the time it's by making himself look more than a little foolish. For example, I'm not the only one who enjoyed the video of his "Developers, Developers, Developers" hype. He dances at least as bad as I do. Sometimes I just shake my head in disbelief at events surrounding his leadership at Microsoft--times like a very unhappy Hungarian lobbing eggs at him, his training for the Chair Throw event at the next Summer Olympics, or his comparison of Linux to a virus. Today, I'm doing both.

Apparently, Windows Vista sales are really good in Steve's opinion. More and more often I hear about low opinions--often very vocal ones--about the latest desktop OS from Redmond. This article was quite an enjoyable read. Why? It shows just how much of the Kool-Aid he really has drunk. He's happy that Vista is selling really well because of OEM preloading it onto machines. I wonder what he would say if he had to depend on selling Windows than depending on OEMs to do the dirty work for him by not offering customers a real choice. Here's where I translate the marketing speak Steve used into real English:

Steve: "Application compatibility in Vista was not as high as many of our customers would have liked."
English: People didn't like that we broke as many programs as we did.

Steve: "I think we’re going through something of a process whereby Vista users are still getting used to Vista after moving from XP"
English: People are going to have to get used to all of the changes we made, whether or not they're good ones.

While there are those people who wanted it for whatever reason, many consumers who bought it with a computer don't necessarily know the difference between Office and Windows, but they knew something was wrong when their hardware wouldn't work and a comparatively smaller number of people don't want it at all. He really thinks that a lot of people like Windows Vista and wanted to upgrade it. Now that's funny.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What Vista could Teach Linux and Haiku

Once again, I am in the process of finding some hot sauce to go with the words that I'm eating. There was once a time when I said to myself that I'd never, ever install Windows Vista on my desktop machine at home. It's funny how circumstances have a tendency to change your mind. To make a long story short, I plonked down 65 clams to get an upgrade license to Home Premium and my computer now dual boots Vista and Xubuntu. I haven't forgotten or abandoned my love of Haiku or my liking for Ubuntu, but I will share with you a little food for thought, as in what Linux and Haiku could learn from Vista, both its successes and failures.

The Out-of-the-Box Experience Matters

This one is mostly for Haiku, but it could also apply to just about any Linux distro. Apple has got this one nailed, but I digress. Microsoft did well on the OOBE for Vista. From the unpackaging the CD (or DVD) to the "junk papers" included in it, the installation and ability to upgrade from within Windows, Vista at least gives you the impression that it is a well-polished piece of software.

The installer is nice-looking, clear, well-worded, and--dare I say it--usable. I can do without all the marketing-speak, but that's par for the course and easy to ignore. I think that Haiku could do more to reduce the amount of interaction needed to get an install done, but Redmond has certainly improved over, say, XP's installer.

Proper Hardware Support Really Matters

Driver support has been spotty in Vista. I know more than a couple of people who have been burned by unsupported peripherals after an upgrade to Vista. My desktop machine is about a year old, and -- unsuprisingly -- its game port is not supported. I have an old 3com 3c905b network card which I'm not exactly surprised isn't supported. Yeah, yeah, some of you are might be saying that it's up to the manufacturers to support their hardware, but I'll say it again: the technical details only matter to the technically-minded. Businessmen don't typically care unless it significantly changes profits, one way or the other. Nontechnical home users don't care. Many office workers don't either.

Some devices in Linux work perfectly out of the box. Others require some tweaking, and then there is the On Your Own realm where either a device requires a lot of playing, configuring, reconfiguring, swearing, forum scrounging, and possibly even code hacking to get to work. Of course, there are more than a couple devices that don't work at all, for whatever reason. The funny thing is that even between distros you find support for certain hardware or hardware-related features, such as suspend / hibernate, varying between distributions.

BeOS did somewhat better in this matter. It either worked or it didn't, and there generally wasn't anything in between. Unfortunately, there were occasions where it wasn't obvious whether a device worked and, as a result, remained a mystery without some digging around. An easier device manager app might be the solution to this. Hardware support for Haiku will be hit and miss in many cases for a while, but it should be easier to make it come around, thanks to many of the inroads made by Linux.

Place No Unnecessary Restrictions on Your Users

Vista has a variety of methods for getting in the way. You can't use GRUB (or any other bootloader, for that matter) without some hackery. The UI is comfortable, but slow. More steps are required to do certain tasks than in XP. There is much change for the sake of change. UAC makes me Cancel or Allow seemingly everything, and while Linux and its brethren have the occasions where you have to type in your password to do administrative tasks, this happens much less frequently in my experience than Vista. Filesystem permissions can give headaches from time to time, but they have nothing on the annoyance value that Vista's do. Using an upgrade license key isn't that bad unless you need to change the partition table, in which you will have no choice but to install Vista twice -- the key only works when installed from Windows and the partition table can only be changed when booted from the install media. Joy. It's things like this that make books like O'Reilly's Vista Annoyances necessary.

Eye Candy isn't Required, but it is Nice to Have

Believe it or not, I'm not even referring to a 3D-accelerated desktop experience, even though that is the direction that Vista took. Good looks aren't necessary for the experience, but it does help to initially draw someone in to take a second look and it makes working with the OS more enjoyable. One thing that I've felt in using Vista is that it feels like going on a luxury cruise: it looks pretty nice, has its annoyances, costs a lot of money, has a generally cushy feel to it, and it takes some time to get used to your surroundings. It also makes some people want to throw up. Don't get me wrong, though.
Let's just say good looks has enough value to make a requirement.

Linux has some distros that look good and others not so much. GNOME and KDE go in opposite directions in terms of general look and feel. GNOME is very conservative and KDE is brightly colored-- so much so that some would say it is garish.

The initial work that
Stephen Aßmus and others have done on the icons and general look is praiseworthy. The colors aren't too bright, but it does look nice and without shying away from the use of color. I'd say Haiku's in good hands on this one.

A Broken Trust is Hard to Repair

This has more to do with a company behind the software than the software itself. There are numerous instances in both XP and Vista where it shows that Microsoft groups users into two categories: geeks and clueless people, and it doesn't trust geeks without making any attempt to hide it. How? Let me see... Windows / Office Genuine Advantage and its WGA Notifications nagware, DRM in Windows Media Player, Trusted (ha!) Computing, the privacy-invading Windows Vista Customer Experience Improvement Program, and forced software activation, and even stealth computer updates by means of Windows Update, just to name a few.

Most of this stuff has been put into place because of software piracy in the warez scene and bootlegging overseas, even though Microsoft has made money by the truckload with Office and Windows. As a result, many existing customers have less trust for MS than most citizens have in the Internal Revenue Service here in the U.S. The sad part that Microsoft neither seems to care nor has any plans of changing this. Combine this distrust of its users with several botched software upgrades like XP SP3 and you have a reputation problem on your hands that even Redmond's spin doctors will have a hard time fixing.

Linux proponents vary in their opinions, which, considering the wide variety of its users and developers, isn't surprising. Many of them fall into the Richard Stallman camp which not only preaches software that is free as in speech, but has a somewhat-justified distrust of proprietary software.

My experience with the BeOS / Haiku community is that open source is good. Haiku is developed under the MIT license but bundles in software with other licenses. I remember asking Michael Phipps about the "what if someone grabs the source and makes a closed-source product with it" scenario and I liked his answer. It went something like, "So what? Haiku is still free. Call it a gift to the community. If some one makes a closed source version, Haiku is still free." If that's not goodwill, I don't know what is.


All-in-all, Vista's not a bad experience for most folks. It's just that, at best, it's not very compelling and at its worst, it's a nightmare. High cost, steep hardware requirements, too many choices of editions, a development cycle that went way too long, a company whose bureaucracy weighs heavily on software development, a lack of trust for its customers, and many other factors combine for a let-down with few positives. If Microsoft wants to head into decline, it need only continue its current behavior. However, it's unlikely that Linux's chaotic development into all directions without a clear vision for certain markets will cause it to become a Windows-killer, but that leaves opportunity for Haiku to find a clear niche. Only time will tell to see if anyone learns from Vista and Microsoft.