For the past eleven days or so, I’ve spent a meaningful amount of my computing day in Windows 7. It’s very much a rough draft of the operating system that will eventually ship: It’s missing major features and a meaningful percentage of the apps I’ve tried to use wouldn’t even install. Even so, I’ve been enjoying the experience. The preview version boots up quickly. It’s surprisingly stable. Best of all, it’s the most mellow and dignified Windows environment I’ve used in a long time, thanks to its minimization of pushy notifications and new tools for managing the System Tray and other venerable sources of Windows annoyances.
(Even UAC is surprisingly tolerable in W7: It’s amazing how much less aggravating it is when it doesn’t black out the screen and beep at you.)
I can’t give a verdict on Windows 7 until I’ve tried the final version, but I’m officially looking forward to it. But I’m also nervous that Microsoft will release a pleasing OS that gets messed up by the PC companies that use it. That’s because so much of the ugliness of the PC experience circa 2008 is caused by stuff that PC manufacturers pile onto the OS: icons that clutter up the desktop and System Tray, demoware that fills up the Start menu, and applications that bog down performance and waste your time.
(Check out this PC World feature from last year for some background on this scourge, including Test Center benchmarks that show that the junk robs you of some of the PC performance you paid for.)
Even utilities that serve no marketing purpose and theoretically improve on the basic Windows experience often degrade the OS. The last Lenovo and Toshiba notebooks I purchased both replaced the stock Windows Wi-Fi tool with their own networking utilities that layer on multiple levels of complexity for no clear purpose. (The Lenovo one tends to crash on me, too.)
In the past, Windows suffered from the broken windows effect–which traditionally refers to real windows in NYC housing projects, but hey, its name works perfectly in this case, too. The operating system itelf was so fundamentally disrespectful towards its users in so many ways that it wasn’t surprising that third-party applications picked up bad habits. (The reverse logic also works: Mac apps tend to be low-key good citizens, and that’s surely in part because OS X sets such a good example.)
I’d love to think that a more polite, less intrusive Windows will lead PC manufacturers to rethink their attitude. At last week’s PDC event, Microsoft said that it hoped PC manufacturers would rachet back the annoyingware on new PCs–but you gotta think that the company must tread carefully when telling companies how they can customize Windows given its past legal woes.
PC manufacturers presumably lard up their computers with extra stuff to add distinctive value to their systems (through apps that aren’t part of Windows itself) and squeeze more money out of their customers (through trialware and other marketing materials). These tactics are so pervasive that I’m not sure that many people in the industry realizes how self-destructive they are, and how much they could improve Windows by tampering less with it.
Here’s one tidbit that may be reason for optimism: Symantec, whose Norton Anti-Virus has long been the software equivalent of a potent medicine that tastes terrible, focuses on making its new Norton 2009 security products less of a system-sapping troublemaker.
Right now, the single biggest reason to choose a Mac over a PC is that OS X is simply far less of a hassle to use out of the box. Lots of folks are willing to pay a premium for the better experience. If Microsoft and PC manufacturers made a concerted effort, they could change the game pretty quickly. Windows 7 could be a sizable leap in the right direction, but I’ll remain a worried skeptic until Windows 7 machines start to ship…