Windows and Performance

Microsoft recently launched a blog dedicated to the engineering of Windows 7, the current code-name designation for the next major release of the OS.  Earlier this week, they put up a post that introduced the team’s approach to performance, an issue that I believe to be a vital concern regarding the future of Windows.

For the most part, I don’t subscribe to the fairly harsh criticism that some have leveled at Windows Vista since its launch early last year.  I installed it both on my home desktop computer and my UMPC right after its public launch.  I have never given serious consideration to going back to Windows XP on my desktop system (which I have even upgraded to the 64-bit version of Vista) and even stuck it out on my under-powered TabletKiosk eo v7110 UMPC until I eventually upgraded to the must faster performing Vys S37.  I think the improvements in the overall user interface and feature set (particularly when it comes to Tablet PC functionality) do make Vista a worthwhile upgrade.

That said, I do also very much feel that the overall performance of the operating system falls short of what it should be.  I don’t have any huge complaints about the performance on my pretty heavily souped-up desktop system, but it definitely is pretty sluggish on the Vye and I’m certainly well aware that it would be much snappier with XP and that I’m unquestionably making a choice to compromise performance for features.  On the old eo, it was really pushing the edges of tolerability and I suspect that I probably would have eventually gone back to XP had I not just upgraded altogether.

Most of the Microsoft blog post was a high-level overview of the key factors involved with performance optimization (memory, CPU, and disk utilization; start-up, shut-down, and stand-by/resume speeds, base systems, and disk footprint) and is a decent read if you aren’t already highly familiar with all these concepts.  I think the most interesting part of the post, though, was the following quote regarding the overall issue of feature trade-offs versus performance:

On the one hand, performance should be straight forward—use less, do less, have less. As long as you have less of everything performance should improve. At the extreme that is certainly the case. But as we have seen from the comments, one person’s must-have is another person’s must-not-have. We see this a lot with what some on have called “eye candy”—we get many requests to make the base user interface “more fun” with animations and graphics (“like those found on competing products”) while at the same time some say “get rid of graphics and go back to Windows 2000”. Windows is enormously flexible and provides many ways to tune the experience. We heard lots on this forum about providing specific versions of Windows customized for different audiences, while we also heard quite a bit about the need to reduce the number of versions of Windows.

I think that these are completely valid points, but I am left with some uncertainty about whether or not they are yet coming at this subject from quite the right perspective.

I do recognize that there are a lot of differences in individual needs, but I also hope that Microsoft remembers that Windows is, in fact, an operating system.  In the constant need to add lots of new features and capabilities to the system in order to justify both the upgrade charges and the promotional push behind major new releases, it does often feel like there is an attempt to bundle too many features that stray quite a bit away from the core role of an OS.  Photo galleries, music/video players, video editors, and other similar applications all are becoming pretty major components of Windows (as well as Mac OS and major Linux distributions) and I can’t help but feel this is all leading to a serious loss of focus.

The concern about the number of versions of Windows strikes me as a situation where the company frequently tries to apply a marketing solution to what should be a technical problem.  I absolutely agree that they need to reduce the number of versions of Windows.  In fact, I think there should only be two current versions of the OS: Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008.  I think Vista has been hurt quite a bit by the confusion over all the different "editions" of Vista and which features are in which version.

For Windows 7, I think Microsoft’s goal should be to have only a single version of the OS that includes a robust system to allow the end user to easily add or remove features based on his/her needs and system capabilities.  The installer should do an on-the-fly hardware evaluation and identify a "best fit" feature set for any given system.  I also think they should spend some time carefully designing an installation wizard that would essentially interview the user to help determine a recommended configuration based on what features the user is likely to actually use.  It should also be easy to later add or remove features as the user’s needs change or as hardware is upgraded or removed.

Finally, I think they need to start backing away from the overall bundling concept.  I recognize that a lot of the reason for the various editions of Vista was to try to avoid the view that one is paying for unneeded features, such as Media Center for an office workstation or Remote Desktop for the typical non-networked home PC.  I simply think they picked the wrong approach.  What Microsoft needs to do is to recognize that the ubiquitously connected nature of PCs today makes an ala-carte solution for features such as these both feasible and probably preferable.  Basically, everyone should get the same core functionality and then should be allowed to pick and choose, and pay separately, for these types of add-on features. 

I really believe that Microsoft needs a bit of a shake-up in their overall focus and marketing approach for Windows if they are going to get past the shortcomings that seriously crippled the Vista launch.  While it was reassuring to read on their blog that performance issues are a key focus for the next version, I’m discouraged by the suggestions that they may not really be deviating much from the basically failed approach that they took with Vista.

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