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Vista vs. OS X?

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February 8, 2007

In early January, we posted a review of Vista, Microsoft’s new operating system. Written by senior editor Erika Jonietz, the piece first appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of our magazine. In the piece, Jonietz described her disappointment with the company’s new software–and confessed to having crossed that clearest of lines in the cultural sand: she went from being a Windows user to being a Mac user.

The piece is the most widely read story we have ever posted on our site; it continues to be viewed by thousands of people every day. Clearly, it struck a chord with a lot of our readers. In response to that reception, we’re encouraging readers to share their thoughts with one another about the look and feel of Vista and Mac’s OS X.

To help get a discussion started, we’ve asked our former Web editor Brad King to write a pro-Microsoft response to Erika’s review (see below). We encourage you to read both pieces, then post your thoughts in this comment section!

Microsoft’s Imperfect Perfection
Reviewers have been unexcited by Microsoft’s new Vista operating system. But despite its flaws, the O/S makes for good computing.
By Brad King

After five years and $1 billion, Microsoft’s Vista operating system is here. Gates and his lieutenants hailed the release of the O/S as a world-changing event, hoping that everyone from the hardened reviewer to members of the general public would fall all over themselves with praise for the feature-rich, aesthetically pleasing, and user-friendly package.

That hasn’t exactly been the case.

Most reviewers have treated Vista with, at best, a shrug; at worst, Microsoft and Gates have been skewered for creating a bulky, resource-hogging Apple knockoff. Even Technology Review’s senior editor, Erika Jonietz, a Microsoft user, described Vista as “terribly familiar” to any Mac OS X user and “a prime example of software bloat.”

Jonietz and the countless reviewers who warned users not to purchase any of the early versions of Vista are absolutely correct. Microsoft’s early software iterations are always glitchy. For the general user, upgrading to Vista (sifting through each option, optimizing the computer for one’s existing hardware) can be quite maddening.

But Gates understands this. We know this because he estimated that only 5 percent of the PC market would upgrade to Vista before those people purchased a new computer.

However, the fact that most people won’t upgrade to Vista until they buy a new PC isn’t an indictment of the company’s operating system–or even the company’s development process. It’s a testament to the Redmond giant’s ability to change and turn with an ever-evolving PC market that requires its developers to create tools that can be used by many highly various people.

The company’s software–and Microsoft is a software company that exists in a hardware-agnostic world–must be developed in such a way that it can conform to the needs of all of its hardware partners. It must power hundreds of millions of computers around the world, some for personal use, some for networking and data security, some for servers, some for gaming, and some for digital entertainment.

The only way to create a product that can serve so many purposes is to build it “broken.” In that imperfection–or, rather, incompleteness–there is room for customizing, tweaking, cajoling, and hacking, all of which ultimately make for a more personalized computing experience.

Dave Weinberger, in Small Pieces, Loosely Joined, argues that this type of imperfect code is precisely the reason for the innovation and expansion of the Web: “In the real world, perfection is held as an ideal we humans always disappoint; on the Web perfection just gets in the way.”

I have no idea if Weinberger would approve of Microsoft’s O/S development–and I certainly wouldn’t want to put those words in his mouth since Microsoft’s code is proprietary, which is a different matter altogether from Web protocols–but the underlying idea that creating imperfect code can be adapted by individuals is the same.

Which begs the question: if Microsoft’s O/S development is actually rational, why the uproar over the not-so-impressive release of Vista?

The most obvious answer is that Apple sets the standard very high for operating systems.

It would be pointless to argue that Microsoft does a better job at developing user-friendly interfaces and plug-and-play software. Clearly, this is Apple’s forte: Microsoft cherry-picks its design cues from Apple. Add to that fact Apple’s total control of the hardware and software environment upon which its software runs, and there is no way that Microsoft can compete against Apple in the development of an operating system that is truly integrated with its hardware.

But then we’re faced with this dilemma: if Apple’s product is truly superior to Microsoft’s, why do so many people still use inherently flawed software?

There are several answers, none of which offers a complete view: Windows is such a part of people’s lives that they are unwilling to change systems; PCs are cheaper than Apple computers; computer games are designed for the PC; and IT professionals who oversee corporate networks are trained in the Microsoft environment.

Each of those answers is true. However, I believe there is something more basic happening, particularly as the world becomes more technologically savvy. Microsoft’s operating systems leave room for improvements by individuals, by companies, by governments, and by countries. The system is set up to allow you to better optimize your computing experience to give you the results that you want.

Four years ago, when I was doing press for my book, I used an early version of the XP Media Center like a TiVo to record the news programs on which I appeared, strip off the digital-rights management, edit the clips down to bite-sized chunks, and create a DVD media kit. While I’m comfortable with technology, I’m by no means a hacker of any sort. With the assistance of Google Groups and the Hewlett-Packard online help center on my PC, I was able to do all this in less than an hour.

Today, that’s hardly a revolutionary idea–using your computer to record TV and create a DVD–but four years ago, with little formal training and limited technical skill, I could build my own user experience with a PC much more easily than I could with an Apple.

Of course, it’s not important that I found a way to make my PC work the way I wanted. Countless Apple-lytes can explain to me how their computer’s environment was optimized to do just that. But that misses the point: computer code is meant to be broken because from that unjoined code comes personalization that no company can give me. And Microsoft understands better than Apple that broken is better than perfection.

Brad King was Technology Review’s Web editor from 2004 to 2006. He is now an assistant professor of media informatics at Northern Kentucky University.

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