Friday, March 16, 2007

Office 2007 and Windows Vista (Part 2 of the series)

I've been running Office 2007 and Windows Vista for several weeks now. While I think Office has made a marked improvement which will definitely make working with Office easier, I remain profoundly underwhelmed by Vista.

I've been working on integrating live SQL Server data into my Excel 2007 spreadsheets. In Excel 2003, this was a pretty difficult task usually involving rerunning a query I ran the last time I opened the spreadsheet. With Office 2007, I can link the file directly to the database. As long as I have access to the database, every time I open the spreadsheet, I'm met with the latest data from the database. This is accomplished in a much easier fashion than it was with Office 2003. Additionally, the new interface continues to impress me with how the new work flow-based design makes accomplishing creation of charts and organization of data much easier.

Office 2007 shows me that Microsoft does know how to innovate when they want to. This makes what follows all the more inexplicable.

Windows Vista is a profound disappointment. Microsoft had five years to really make Vista a cutting edge operating system. They managed to copy some nifty features here and there, set up an annoying security application, and tweak the interface to the point where I'm still not entirely comfortable with using the basic features like Windows Explorer. Then to top it all off, its wrapped up in a fancy wrapper that requires a $200 video card to make look nice.

Let's start with the nifty features. First, we have the improved search features. Searching is a major feature that needed to be improved. Microsoft did a decent job of improving the searching features. However, Spotlight in MacOS got there first and is flat out a better solution. Spotlight indexes off of content as well as metadata. From what I've seen so far, Vista indexes nicely off metadata, but doesn't appear to go any deeper than that. The search is now built specifically into the start menu so it doesn't take much effort to get started.

Second in our list of nifty features is the sidebar. This is a blatant rip off from MacOS 10.4 which introduced Dashboard and widgets. Admittedly, Dashboard is a rip off of something called Konfabulator that was available for Macs for quite some time. Sidebar and Dashboard function nearly the same. They both put some nice little programs like calendars, weather forecasts, and games on your screen with a relatively small memory footprint. One feature I wish Sidebar had was a keyboard shortcut to bring the Gadgets to the foreground like Dashboard does. However, its not that big a deal.

Third is the way Windows Explorer is now organized. While the previous versions of Windows Explorer have all contained the path information as text at the top of the screen, Vista changed that into contextual menus that allow you to click on the name of the folder in the path and select one of the other sub folders quickly and easily. Mac users will feel at home in Windows Explorer since the + and - signs indicating if a folder's subdirectory is displayed or not has been replaced with little triangles.

Moving away from the nifty features, we come to one of the biggest "improvements" in Vista, Windows Defender. Defender watches your computer for unauthorized program execution. Any program wishing to execute on your computer that isn't signed results in an alert on your computer. You are alerted to the program's attempted execution and asked if you would like to cancel the operation or allow. While applications like Office and Photoshop don't trigger this request and execute without interruption, applications like Eclipse (my Java editing environment) trigger it every time. Microsoft is going to need to allow open source developers to be able to sign their own applications or Defender will get shut off by those of us who just don't want to see that come up several times a day. As an alternative, they could give us the authority to create a "whitelist" of programs that can be run without the need for the alert. Turning off Defender leaves your computer exposed to malware just like an XP computer. So the choice is either have your computer become a serious source of irritation or leave it exposed and vulnerable.

Fourth is IE 7. I know that IE 7 is available for Windows XP, but even a glance at IE 7 shows that it is intended to go with Vista as it doesn't even match the XP interface. Like Vista, IE 7 is a bit of a disappointment. IE 6 has been around for several years and had stagnated the browser market such that Firefox was able to come in and steal a large amount of IE's market share away. Built in search (which defaults to Microsoft's substandard Live Search), and tabbed browsing are features that Opera, Safari, and Firefox users have become dependent on for several years now. IE 7 is now actually compliant with the CSS 1.0 standard. That brings a great deal of relief to those of us who build web pages for a living. Unfortunately, CSS 1.0 was replaced by CSS 2.0 before IE 6 came out. While it is a step in the right direction, it still shows Microsoft's commitment to standards and interoperability is virtually non-existent. What amuses me about IE 7 is that its standards compliance is throwing all sorts of problems into web sites that relied heavily on lazy designers and developers who built web sites without regard for the rigidity of coding standards. Now their sites don't work right (Blackboard, Inc. call your office) with the new version.

Finally, we come to Aero. Aero is the name of Vista's new interface "experience". You see this constantly on TV where the windows rearrange and you can sort through them like you're thumbing through a stack of photos. Make no mistake about this, its a huge memory hog and the vast majority of people won't be able to run it on their computers without a serious graphics card upgrade. It really is just a shiny piece of eye candy that is only marginally more useful than what comes up when you try to alt-tab through your open applications. The rest of the operating system features some nice fade in and fade out transitions for various windows, but again, if you don't have a high end graphics processor these features (if you're able to turn them on at all) will seriously bog your system down.

All in all, Vista appears to be a really cool upgrade from XP. XP has been looking dated for several years now and the cartoonish way the minimize, maximize, and close buttons were displayed only exacerbated the speed at which the interface ceased to appear fresh. The buttons are now shorter and more subdued. Inactive windows get a nice transparency that serves to increase the graphics processing power needed. The problem is that the improvements appear to really just be cosmetic.

After five years, Vista should have provided a powerfully secure platform with solid improvements to the user interface that can be handled without bogging the system down for important tasks like processing data or storing files. We're left with a lot of eye candy and it remains to be seen if Defender will really live up to Microsoft's claims that security is their number one concern.

Five years is an incredibly long time in the IT world. Those of us who are Mac users don't see anything in Vista that we haven't had in MacOS 10.4 for nearly two years now. We've had a more powerful desktop search app in Spotlight, mini programs called Widgets in Dashboard, and nice transitions when opening, closing, and minimizing/maximizing windows for quite a while now. Sure, Apple has had access to the proposed features for Vista (formerly Longhorn) and that probably did set the agenda for OS improvements likely since the release of Panther (10.3). Yet, Apple beat Microsoft to market on all these features and more. All the while creating the most successful online media store and playback devices that are second to none.

What really bothers me isn't so much that Vista isn't the quantum leap forward I was expecting. What bothers me is how little you hear in the trade press about how underwhelming Vista is. In my professional opinion, Vista is a stinging indictment against the argument that Microsoft is a company that is all about innovation and cutting edge software. What bothers me more is that those in the trade press who should know better have left these observations to those of us who are Mac users. The problem with that is that Mac fanatics have given those of us who advocate Macs over PCs for technological reasons a bad name and we're easily written off. MacOS 10.4 did deliver on almost all the new features of Windows Vista in April of 2005 and very few people in the trade press seem to have noticed. I simply don't believe that Microsoft is able to innovate in the Operating System game anymore. Vista upholds that belief and I grow more and more concerned for the future of the technology industry when it comes to operating systems.

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