Category Microsoft

What Microsoft has contributed to music…

First, please note that the laptop in this (intentionally absurd) ad is a MacBook Pro. Second, one of the characters actuall says “Microsoft, huh? So it’s pretty easy to use?” Really.

Frozen Brown Zune

But that characterization may be unfair based on just one project. After all, they did release the Zune – a 30GB brown media player which stopped working for two full days when it was a leap year.

Click on for some choice samples of that Songsmith magic!

UI Design and Microsoft Windows

Four days ago, Microsoft unveiled the pre-beta of Windows 7 at PDC and offered up quite a few user interface changes meant to streamline the aging operating system. What they came up with was a taskbar that mimics the styling of the KDE on Linux and further extends the broken window preview concept introduced in Vista. Needless transparency is at every corner, another UI metaphor taken the the extreme since the introduction of Vista; and of course, more ideas from OS X have made their way into Windows, although implemented less intuitively.

I want to take a bit of time to really nail down the problems that Windows has with usability and UI design that seem to never be addressed, or just seem to get worse with each revision. This is not meant to be the usual Windows v. Mac argument that happens so often — rather, it’s a summation of the fundamental interface issues that plague Windows and prevent it from being a truly usable operating system.

One thing that OS X, and iPhone in particular, have demonstrated is a full understanding of the spatial relationships that must exist in computing. While the animations and visual effects present in Mac OS make for a great in-store demo, they serve a greater purpose – they’re visual cues that show where windows emerge from and move away to, as well as establish relationships between the windows themselves. Perhaps the quintessential example of this is Exposé. When using Exposé, you can easily view the desktop, all application windows, or just the windows related to the foremost application. It’s a useful feature that is implemented perfectly. When invoking the ‘view desktop’ key, all windows visually slide to the corners of the screen and the corners dim to reflect the temporary view scenario.

Viewing all windows or a single application’s windows dims the background, bringing focus to the windows you called upon. Each window slides into view so you know where it came from and where each will return once you’ve completed the interaction. Exposé takes a difficult UI design issue and offers an elegant and simple solution that works better than in any other OS I’ve seen to date. Minimizing and maximizing windows to and from the dock illustrate the same concept of spatial relationships and managing lots of individual windows in a graceful manner.

In the same vein, Windows suffers from one key UI design flaw – it is incapable of hiding applications. Windows offers no way to simply “hide” an application and its windows, nor does it offer a simple way to minimize a single window. This is crucial to being able to use more than a handful of applications at once and maintaining an uncluttered workflow. For example, say I’m using three Microsoft Office programs, Firefox, iTunes and Skype. In this scenario, each application has two windows open, so we have twelve windows in total. I want all of these applications open, but not all of them are relevant to the task at hand, so I’d generally have to minimize everything in Windows and rely on Alt+Tab to let me work. The taskbar would be full of individual windows squished together and navigating around is just plain cumbersome. Vista made this slightly easier by adding window previews into the application switcher, but the UI problem remains. Mac OS and other desktop environments have solved this long ago by allowing one to simply hide an application and all related windows, via menu item or keyboard shortcut, such that they aren’t visible until called upon from the dock and won’t show up in Exposé. It’s a simple idea that makes using ten to fifteen applications at a time extremely easy. Without this, Windows remains particularly unwieldy when the information you need is scattered in different programs and you have five or more Explorer windows open.

Which leads us to the culmination of the problem: Windows wasn’t originally designed to multitask effectively. As it stands, Windows retains the antiquated taskbar that lives at the bottom of the screen which becomes nearly unusable once you amass more then six windows open at a time. Some developers have tried to get around this problem by offering the option to minimize to the system tray, but it still reflects a generally poor and ill-conceived interface design. The answer to this is not increasing screen real estate as many suggest – this only encourages continuing a poor design paradigm from Microsoft. Windows has never had a great way to organize and present multiple windows. When Windows 95 came out, the taskbar and Start menu were revolutionary as a way to keep different processes in check and accessible quickly, but the flaw in the ultimate utility of this was exposed when protected memory and powerful computers made multitasking possible and painless. In its current form, the threshold of how many applications one can use at a time quickly is rather low. Some may argue it’s that there isn’t a need to keep programs open, but that is an idea borne of the usability limitations inherent in Windows.

And this speaks to the general problem that Microsoft faces today – they’re unwilling to innovate. Microsoft has such a large install base worldwide that breaking compatibility and instituting a more functional UI would draw ire from business customers and users that are set in their ways. Apple faced this same issue with the transition from OS 9 to OS X but they solved it in the most logical way they could which was allowing users to continue to boot the older OS for legacy applications. The reason that I feel this isn’t such a big problem for Microsoft is their success in the virtualization market. With Windows Server 2008, they included Hyper-V which is their superb virtualization environment where you can create virtual machines and run any x86 or x64 OS you wish. If Microsoft truly wanted to fix Windows and create a 21st century OS, they would redesign Windows and offer virtualization of Windows XP and Vista environments for older applications that haven’t been updated. This is the way enterprise has dealt with the interfacing with older database systems that don’t fit in their current infrastructure and it’s why Citrix is company with yearly revenue measured in the billions of dollars. Microsoft has demonstrated that they try to keep backwards compatibility when they can, but programs still break between revisions of Windows yet and there is little payoff in terms of security and usability. To put it plainly, Microsoft needs to quit ‘half-assing’ change and pull an Apple.

Howto: Install Windows Vista from a USB Drive

Have you ever needed to install Windows on a computer that doesn’t have an optical drive? I ran into this issue recently when I needed to install Windows Vista on my newest laptop, a Lenovo ThinkPad X200, and thought it would be useful to share the rather simple process here. You can do it from either a USB 2.0 flash drive or a USB hard-drive (the ideal way).

What do you need? A 4GB or larger USB flash drive or hard-drive and a computer with a BIOS that supports booting from a USB device. Almost every computer made in the past three years or so supports this feature. Also, you’ll need your Windows Vista or Windows Server 2008 install disc or ISO (for this, I used a licensed copy from my MSDN subscription).

  • Open the Disk Management console (run “diskmgmt.msc”)
  • Format your flash drive as FAT32 and set the partition as active/primary.
  • Copy the entire Windows disc to the USB storage device – the easiest way is by running “xcopy D:\*.* /s/e/f E:\” at the command prompt (where D: is your optical drive/mounted ISO and E: is the USB flash drive.).

Note: If you are using a large external hard-drive, you’ll want to create a partition smaller than the drive itself since FAT32 has certain size limitations. In my case, I chose to make a 6GB active partition and left the rest unpartitioned.

Remember, this is not only useful for computers with defunct or non-existant optical drives – you can also use this for installing Windows on multiple machines quickly as you’ll find it significantly quicker than reading off a DVD.

I have not tested this with Windows XP, however I see no reason why it would not work. If you encounter issues where you cannot boot successfully from the USB drive after the copy, you might need to run the “bootsect.exe” from the command line. Check MS Knowledgebase for more detailed information on this.

Windows Vista, Audio, and Network Speeds.

There seems to be a curious issue present in Windows Vista (RTM and SP1 equipped machines) where audio or video being played back in Windows Media Player will have a significantly adverse effect on network performance. In my case, every device on my network is equipped with gigabit ethernet and as a result, I get exceptional network throughput when transferring files and backing up across the network to my RAID array on the server. However, when I plan music on the computer running Vista SP1, the network performance will drop by about 80% on a gigabit link. This issue is not present when using a different application such as VLC or Apple iTunes 7.

click for larger imageThe screenshot shown to the right illustrates the issue. The initial section showing 38-42% network utilization is the network file transfer being conducted without Window Media Player playing back audio. The immediate drop-off in speed to about 9% network utilization is what occurs after playing an MP3 file located locally on the machine in Windows Vista. Closing WMP allows the transfer to resume at full speed and as said before, this issue is not present in other multimedia applications like iTunes.

There is a workaround that has been discovered by geek Courtney Malone. It involves a simple registry edit which can be done by following these steps…

  • Open Registry Editor by using keystroke “Windows+R” and typing “regedit”
  • Navigated to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\AudioSrv
  • Edit the value of “DependOnService” by double-clicking the item
  • Remove the line referencing “MMCSS”

What you’re accomplishing here is disabling the “Multimedia Class Scheduler Service” which is designed to give multimedia and mission critical tasks priority on the network. This is a standard Windows service, but we can’t simply disable it by opening the Management Console Snap-in because it is linked to Windows Audio (which of course controls all sound on the machine). This workaround will solve the issue, although Microsoft has added a bit of control for the end-user over how aggressive MCSS will be if you’d like to keep it around. You can read about that here.

Customer Support Failure: Microsoft Xbox (Part 1)

Last week I wrote about a better than expected experience with a company, and now it’s time to take it in a different direction. I’ve mentioned the issue I’ve been having with my Xbox 360 a couple of times on Twitter, but I’ll detail the story thus far here.

About five weeks ago, my Xbox 360 stopped retrieving an IP address from my router. I waited until the weekend to start troubleshooting it. I powercycled all the devices involved (Xbox, cable modem, AirPort Extreme) and tried again. Nothing. I then proceeded to to reset the firmware of the router, tried plugging the Xbox 360 directly into the modem, hard reset the modem, cloned the MAC address of a different device onto the 360, manually assigned the 360 an IP address rather than using DHCP, and many more. Nothing worked. So, I reluctantly called Microsoft Xbox support on Sunday (20 July) to see what could be done about this. I was walked through extensive troubleshooting steps provided to me by the Xbox Live representative, and even though I had already been through all of them, I ran through them once more. After an hour and a half on that call, being placed on hold repeatedly and embarking on remedies that made no sense, I was told to call back after I had contacted my ISP to check with them why the issue was occurring. Rather than do this, I elected to borrow another Xbox 360 console from a friend and try that. After plugging it into my normal network configuration and tossing my hard drive onto it, everything connected just fine which shows there is absolutely nothing wrong with my home network or internet connection.

I called back about an hour after the previous support call had ended. After more holding and futile support remedies, I was told the issue would need to be escalated to Microsoft for “investigation” since they were hung up on the fact that I was using an Apple AirPort Extreme (oh noes, an Apple product!). They informed me that it would take about seven business days to completely this, and while this seemed like an extraordinarily long time for such a simple issue, I said I’d wait for a call.

Two weeks had passed without a call, so I called Xbox customer support a third time on the 3rd of August. The support representative looked into my case, placed me on hold, and came back after ten minutes to tell me that a supervisor would call me in three to five business days after they had looked at the case because it was still “pending” with Microsoft. I had other things to do that day, so rather than argue it, I said fine and waited. Another week passes without a call. A week after (10th of August), I phone once more to check on what the status was and again, I was told that I would receive yet another fictitious phone call within two to three business days. Yet another week passes without any action.

Frustrated and frankly, quite angry, I called customer support once more last Sunday. I was calm and polite throughout but became increasingly unnerved at the fact that I was receiving the same story yet again. I asked vehemently why I should expect a different outcome with the “wait for a call” routine than what I had seen over the past month, and I was simply told that it would be taken care of in two days by a manager. I ended the call and stewed for a while – thankfully I have the loaner Xbox from a friend so I could take out the frustration with some Call of Duty 4.

Welp, it’s Thursday now, four days after the last call and I have (surprise, surprise) have not received a callback. I’ll be calling back tomorrow and will not accept a callback or brush-off as an acceptable solution. I’m floored that such a simple issue can be taking this long and that the investigation of said issue is being treated as though it involves a completely different company. I’ll post again with the outcome, which will hopefully, be more positive than what I’ve experienced thus far. Astonishingly, this has not soured my opinion of the Xbox brand and I’d still recommend it to anyone as I truly think it is the best gaming experience. I just hope my case is an anomaly amongst tens of thousands they work through.

DRM! Silverlight! Yes!

Silverlight: Yes please!

In order to watch a few events of the 2008 Olympics that I wanted to see from nbcolympics.com, I was forced to install Microsoft Silverlight on OS X. I had resisted for quite a while, but I guess the Beijing Olympics are the huge foot in the door that Microsoft has been looking for. After installing, I was pleased to see that there is a whole freaking tab just for digital rights management. I’m glad that the competitor to Adobe Flash makes it clear out of the gate what it’s about – keeping the content provided in control and a user experience second. Kudos.

The problem with Windows software developers.

The independent and smaller software developers for the Mac platform are the best in the business – they’re committed to the operating system and identify with the experience that the end-user has come to expect. On the Windows side of the aisle, this isn’t the case. Windows developers, as a community, seem horribly fragmented and do not identify with the same goal. Each brings a product to market to fulfill a gap they believe they can fill, however just how an application will work and interface with the system and other software is almost always an afterthought. Consistent GUI? What’s that? Every program believes that it either will look as bland as possible or it will try and reinvent the wheel yielding a clusterfuck of a UI.

This morning, I was looking for a Quicksilver-inspired Windows application to use in my coming experiment (details to come soon – I have to check with Amnesty International to verify whether or not it falls in the realm of torture), and I found a new one that tries in their own special way to do the same. Dash is one that really caught my attention as it seems to best capture the basic nature of Quicksilver’s search, but it led me to another facet of the Windows developer problem which is how they market their software. Take a look at the seven reasons they suggest I use Dash at their product page. Item two on that list (because everyone loves reading lists) is “Reduce Repetitive Stress Injury”. Seriously, go look, I’ll wait… Rather than the pithy “act without doing” tagline adopted by Alcor, the developer of Quicksilver, Dash takes it in the opposite direction and is positioning this as a marvel of modern medicine. I say this in jest, but the problem is that it’s not addressing a problem they can solve or the strength of their product – it strikes me as something they pulled out of their butt to fill the empty space on the site.

And then there’s price. Dash is set at $50.00 except if you purchase now, you can get their “pre-release offering price” of $19.95 saving you $30.05. Let’s skip right past how this is on par with infomercial level “buy in the next thirty minutes and get a second free!” silliness and look at how it’s they’re establishing value. Software isn’t designed to be inexpensive and offering excessive discounts can make it seem as though you’re diminishing the worth of a product; a great example of this is Transmit from Panic Software for the Mac – it’s an FTP client, but it’s billed as the FTP client. As such, Panic doesn’t discount the software to entice those who undervalue what they offer, which is a fantastic user experience and just well-designed software. Cyberduck and Fugu are free, but I saw the value in the product that made $29 palatable. What the makers of Dash are doing is, in my opinion, either mispricing their product or using used car salesman tactics to win over customers. Ignoring the fact that Quicksilver, a vastly superior product to this knock-off, is completely free – Dash is selling an application at their ‘regular price’ that pushes it into the range of what full-fledged productivity apps cost. Launchbar, a product similar to Quicksilver for Mac is priced without the gimmicks, at $19. Fair.

I could continue, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll end this here. Windows developers and software vendors have so much to learn from the Mac developer community about creating better applications, but even more importantly, about marketing. If it can be summed up in a sentence or two, it would be this – stop selling simple consumer apps the same way Microsoft and Oracle sell enterprise CRM software. Home users don’t want to see how many different ways you can say the same thing on your “features” page, they want to see you solve a problem they have and do it elegantly.