Archive for the ‘Microsoft’ Category

Tablet PC and Over-sensitivity

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

I’m definitely a big fan of the Tablet PC concept.  Both of the UMPCs that I have used as my primary laptop computers over the last few years have had touch-screens and Tablet capabilities, so I am very aware of the value of those features.  I suspect it to be a feature that I will look for whenever I purchase laptops or UMPCs for myself going forward.

As useful as Tablet PC functions are, I also know that they haven’t really caught on all that widely.  It still isn’t a top-priority for most people when picking out a laptop and the number of models that feature it are still fairly low.  I do think they are starting to become a bit more mainstream thanks to the sudden surge in popularity for touchscreens in the wake of the iPhone, but there is still quite a way to go.

This has led to a justifiable paranoia within the Tablet PC user community about the future of the feature.  While I do think it is a concern that is based in reality, it also can result in some occasional major over-reactions.  The case in point was a posting by lead engineer Steven Sinofsky on Microsoft’s Windows 7 Developer’s Blog that included the following quote during a discussion of features being considered for modularity:

Some examples are quite easy to see and you should expect us to do more along these lines, such as the TabletPC components.  I have a PC that is a very small laptop and while it has full tablet functionality it isn’t the best size for doing good ink work for me (I prefer a 12.1” or greater and this PC is a 10” screen).  The tablet code does have a footprint in memory and on the 1GB machine if I go and remove the tablet components the machine does perform better.

This is a basically harmless, and completely reasonable, statement.  Certainly, there is no reason to have the Tablet PC components in place on a computer that doesn’t need them.  Obviously, this should apply if the necessary hardware (a touch-screen or active digitizer) isn’t present, but I can understand Sinofsky’s point that one might even want to remove all or some of the features when you do have the hardware.  To be honest, I don’t really use the inking features on my Vye S37.  The screen real-estate is very small and the touch digitizer just isn’t overly well suited for it.  I love having the touch screen as a navigational tool, but that doesn’t really require that all the other Tablet features be active.

Sinofsky’s fairly mild comment generated a minor uproar in the Tablet community, in what generally struck me as a knee-jerk reaction.  This quote generated rather intense responses from very communitybloggers such as Lauren Heiny and James Kendrick, among others.   Both Heiny and Kendrick are bloggers that I respect very much and their articles are worth reading, as are the rather varied and sometimes heated responses in their comment sections.  Sinofsky even responded directly in the comments section of Heiny’s article, basically saying that he was reading too much into it.

I’m not going to rehash those articles or the responses (I do recommend going and reading through them) here as the discussions do go down an interesting path.  The one point I really want to comment on is that I worry that this reaction might be falling a bit into "boy who cried wolf" territory.  At their root, these articles responding to Sinofsky’s posting seemed to be keying off of a concern that the Tablet features may be deemed unnecessary and ultimately dropped from later versions of the OS.  The problem is that Sinofsky never even remotely hinted at that in his statements.  He wasn’t talking about features that can or should be cut from the OS and he never said that the Tablet features weren’t useful.  He simply, and rightfully, pointed out that usage scenarios vary and Windows should be flexible enough to adapt.

I think that evangelism of the value of Tablet PC features is something that is still needed, but I worry that the message can be blunted some by overreacting to what should be pretty much non-controversial statements.  This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen prominent members of the Tablet PC community go on the defensive like this and I tend to think this kind of thing is a lot less useful than articles that work hard to explain the value of the features.

Windows and Performance

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

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.

Microsoft Updates Anti-Piracy System on Windows XP for Some Reason

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Yesterday, Microsoft announced a number of updates to the anti-piracy features of Windows XP Professional (as well as Tablet and Media Center editions).  They indicated that Windows XP Home was not included since it apparently isn’t pirated as often.

This announcement was made via a post to their Windows Genuine Advantage Blog, which described the updates in some detail.  In addition to some routine validation updates intended to detect more pirated keys, they also apparently made a number of more substantial changes to the user-experience on non-validated systems as well as some changes to make future updates more automatic.  The post summarized the reasons for the update as follows:

I’m excited about how this release balances our goals of providing a great experience to those who have genuine Windows and at the same time creating a compelling experience for those who have non-genuine copies to get genuine Windows.

The various items in this update seem that they might have made some sense as anti-piracy measures if they were part of the out-of-the-box product or included as part of a major service pack (such as the recently released Service Pack 3), but they seem like a colossal waste of effort as a basically optional update to a product that is officially discontinued at this time.

In all their paranoia about piracy, I really wonder if anyone at Microsoft actually did any analysis into the likely return on this investment.  Do they really believe that enough people will somehow have their minds changed about using pirated copies to generate enough additional income from new licenses to justify the cost of developing, testing, and deploying these updates?  This seems especially unlikely when the update is optional and, presumably, could probably be uninstalled (or at least defeated by reinstalling the pirated copy of the OS) if the new nag screens are too bothersome.

I’ve worked in the software industry long enough to know that piracy is a real concern and I do understand why company’s like Microsoft keep looking for better ways to deal with it.  I do also think that many companies get seriously carried away in that effort.  Microsoft’s current operating systems (and other software) have enough problems that it really seems that there should be far more important tasks for their developers to be focusing on than this.