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Has Microsoft Lost Its Way?

Boy... Things sure seem to be rocky at Microsoft these days.  No doubt you have heard all the scuttle over Vista, the lauded and much delayed new operating system that seems to be a step backwards for PC users.  Internet Explorer is loosing market share, despite improvements in version 7.  And now it seems that Microsoft's Office Suite is starting to take hits as well... And deservedly so in my opinion.

This rant has been slowly stewing in my head for a few months now... I wasn't entirely sure that my concerns were valid.  But, I think the more and more I read what's out there, the more I think Microsoft has somehow gotten off track.

Where did this start?

You may have seen my previous rant about Internet Explorer.  If not, I can sum it up pretty quickly: Microsoft bundled IE with Windows and seemed well on the way to a near 100% usage level.  However, this domination may have made Microsoft complacent to the point where they could foist a very poor product on the marketplace with no repercussions.  IE versions 5 and 6 were such products... Rife with security holes, very slow, and choosing to ignore accepted web standards.  A better alternative appeared in the form of Firefox, and the public started to realize that maybe Microsoft was mortal after all.

The far bigger issue in my mind was that lacking any meaningful competition, it seems like Microsoft decided to stop trying.  With something nearing 90% adoption of Windows among the general public, combined with the ubiquitous Windows Updater, Microsoft had no incentive to produce a "good" web browser.  People were going to take whatever they were given, and using Windows Updater, and holes could be filled in later.

Microsoft did introduce IE 7 which fixed many of the problems in IE.  And I actually think IE is now a pretty good web browser, although it still feels slower to me.  But, at this point I trust my Firefox browser more, and I'm used to how it works.  My suspicion is a lot of other folks feel the same way.

So does this sort domination lead to complacency company-wide?  Or was IE just a one time thing?

Vista

The Internet Explorer debacle may have just been a hint of things to come.  Next on the hit list is Vista, the five-letter-word of the information age.  Some have compared it to the atrocious and half-baked Windows 98 ME operating system.  Vista was delivered about two years later than initially promised, and had many of its initially promised features stripped out.  The hardware requirements are intimidating to say the least, and the marketing gurus at MS have seen fit to offer SEVEN DIFFERENT VERSIONS of the OS.  Now comes word from Information Week that performance tests indicate Windows XP outperforms Vista in virtually every benchmark.  In some tests, XP machines could perform tasks in half the time of Vista.

A recent survey of businesses indicates fully 30% intend to NEVER update to Vista... EVER.

What's really worrisome now is that some of the major PC manufacturers (Dell and Gateway among them) after trying to phase out XP, are now starting to offer the older operating system on "select" systems. That's not a good sign since most consumers get their operating system when they buy a computer.  Very few choose to buy Windows off the shelf and then install.  Personally I applaud the manufacturers for doing this.  Ramming Vista down the throats of consumers is not going to fix Vista.

A lot of tech gurus are standing by Vista, claiming it works fine and is just misunderstood.  I recently heard somebody on one of Leo Laporte's radio shows saying Vista is perfectly fine and stable.  That may be, but there is an oft used idiom that says "perception is reality" and in this case lots of people perceive that Vista has problems...  While I highly regard what Leo and his cadre say, I don't think they are even close to being typical computer users.

My personal advice: Avoid Vista.  If you are currently running XP, there is really no compelling reason to upgrade, and potentially many pitfalls.  Vista LOOKS GREAT, but other than that...  And from what I can gather, the first service pack is little more than a collection of existing hot fixes.

The Office Suite

What finally pushed me over the edge and gave me the momentum to write this was the latest Office Suite... Specifically Outlook 2007. 

I'm using a dual processor Dell workstation with plenty of RAM, Windows XP Pro, and a bottomless hard drive.  It may not be cutting edge, but it's a pretty stout machine.  It runs most every program very smoothly and quickly.  The lone exception seems to be Outlook 2007.  After installing Outlook, the performance degradation was immediately noticeable.  When starting Outlook, my machine would more or less hang for up to a minute while Outlook loaded.  Then, it would hang again, sometimes for a minute or two, while it checked my POP accounts.  I get a lot of email, so to stay on top of it I have my Outlook configured to check my POP email address every minute.  Needless to say, having my machine temporarily freeze up solid every minute or so quickly became very irritating.  Turns out, I'm not alone in this problem.  A quick Google search turns up lots and lots of complaints about Outlook 07.  I did a few of the suggested tips and tricks to try and ease the problem, and it did get a little better (turning off the instant search feature being a big one) but Outlook still performs like a pig compared to its predecessor... And as far as I can tell Outlook 2007 isn't fundamentally improved.  There may be some new anti-spam and anti-phishing filters, but beyond that...  In fact, I find the interfaces for all of the new Office products to be very counter-intuitive.

I finally gave up on Outlook and went with Thunderbird.  I should have made the switch long ago.  There's a few quirks I am getting used to but the performance improvement was immediate.  I feel like I got my old PC back.  There is also an add-in for a calendar, which was really the only compelling feature for Outlook as far as I was concerned.

Now I'm starting to wonder if I should be considering some of these open source programs that are similar to Office.  I used to think that was a crack pot idea, but now it's looking better and better.

So what's going on?

I've never been to Redmond, so I don't know what the corporate environment at Microsoft is like.  But here's what all of this feels like to me:

Microsoft has been losing touch with the "typical" PC user.  Vista seems to be designed for running on computers that just a couple years ago were considered very exotic.  Lots and lots of RAM, huge hard drives, hyper fast processors.  I don't know about you, but seems like most folks I know have a PC that's a few years old... Perfectly good machines, but not muscle bound monsters that the Microsoft engineers probably use on a daily basis.  In fact, Dell has made a killing offering affordable, entry-level PCs for home use.

Microsoft's other core constituency are businesses.  Hardware in a business my get upgraded more often than in a typical home, but I don't know of many places that replace their PCs every other year, much less every year.

Yet it seems like Microsoft is getting very good at producing slick looking products that use gobs and gobs of processor power and RAM, yet deliver few productivity gains.  Vista is very good for managing music and video files, and that's great.  But personally, I don't need to be able to do a lot of multi-media stuff.  I just need my computer to work cleanly and fast, and it seems like Microsoft is not delivering that to me anymore.

I wonder if they are testing any of their software in the real world anymore.  Or is it all being done in some lab somewhere? 

And it's not just in IE, or Vista, or Office... I still use Windows Live Messenger, and it huffs and puffs when it starts up... And that used to be such a nice lightweight little program.  Windows Live Mail seems to be the same way... Lots of huffing and puffing.  Looks nice but it's slow.

What to do

Keep this in mind: I'm not one of these Apple aficionados who claims that everything on a PC is evil.  I used to be a die hard Mac user, and they are great machines.  But in my line of business, most of my clients are on PCs, and there are still enough incompatibilities out there to make a Mac less than practical, at least for me right now.

And don't get me started on Linux desktops like Ubuntu.  I've tried to use it... It looks visually appealing but I can't figure out how to use it.  If I can't figure it out, that means lots of other folks can't either, which means it's pretty much useless.

I think the PC is still a remarkable platform with plenty of potential.  When I think about what I can do now versus what I could do just ten years ago, it makes my head spin.  But I find it very worrisome that Microsoft seems to be developing software farther and farther beyond my means to use it.

But for the first time in years, I am thinking about an Apple.  And for the first time in years I am telling others to think about them too.  I don't like the direction things are going at Microsoft, and if trends continue and Apple continues to gain traction, perhaps the incompatibility issue will fall away.  I don't know.  

 
 
 

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