My brand-new-out-of-the-box Windows Vista machine could not access www.facebook.com. A nearby XP machine could, but the Vista machine couldn't. I went back to Circuit City to try out the other Vista demo machines, and they could access other sites but not Facebook, either. And that honeymoon feeling that you get when you buy a new computer and expect it to solve all your problems, was over for me. Having built my latest career on helping people access Facebook where they were blocked from it, by some cosmic joke was Vista now blocking me from getting to Facebook on my own machine?
I know, another article bashing Vista, what could be more banal. (Kids! That word, meaning "trite" or "unoriginal", is pronounced "ba-NAHL". If you say it the wrong way like I did in an interview, it sounds naughty and you sound stupid.) But in my own random survey of 30 Vista users on Amazon's Mechanical Turk service (a handy way to check these things), three quarters (23) said the only reason they were using Vista was that the PC store they went to didn't sell XP machines any more, and about half of all respondents (14) said that they would go back to Windows XP if they could. So I don't want to get a bunch of e-mails with Ron Paul links in the signature saying "Nobody has to use Vista if they don't want to!" (I'm aware that a survey of 30 people is too small to be scientific, but it's enough to get a ballpark figure for about $5 on Mechanical Turk.) Besides, the more people write testimonials to what they found frustrating about Vista, the more likely it is that some future version will keep what is good about the new OS, while providing a less frustrating interface (suggested name: "Vista 98").
It turns out the Facebook issue was not really Microsoft's fault -- www.facebook.com had a broken IPv6 record, and Vista defaults to using IPv6 where XP used IPv4, so that's why the host wasn't working. (In case you run into this with any other Web sites on Vista, I fixed the problem by disabling IPv6 in network settings and rebooting.) But it was one more example of something that used to work pre-Vista and then stopped working, and every case like that adds up to the overall frustration of switching to a new system, regardless of whose fault it is.
I hasten to add that I am not some partisan Microsoft basher. I like XP just fine, never more than when I went back to it after a few days on Vista, and I still think for that matter that Vista would be easier to switch to than Linux. Having been involved for years with free speech activism, I run into a lot of people in the same circles who are strong Linux advocates, apparently because the concept of "freedom of speech" is closely aligned with "making every file search as simple and stress-free as a Hamas hostage negotiation". So every year or two I'll try out the latest version of some Linux distro to see how long it would take to get used to it. In 2005, full of optimism, I cheerfully booted up the latest version of Shrike, then tried to find a directory and discovered I could not right-click on the hard drive root dir and specify the name of a directory I wanted to search for (that only worked for files, not directories). I posted a query to a Linux newsgroup, and a respondent told me that the solution was to open a command prompt and type "man find", which I am aware is a polite way of saying "screw you, newbie", but which I dutifully followed anyway and got an output screen of which the first paragraph was:
find searches the directory tree rooted at each given file name by evaluating the given expression from left to right, according to the rules of precedence (see section OPERATORS), until the outcome is known (the left hand side is false for and operations, true for or), at which point find moves on to the next file name.
and that was all my Linux for that year. Maybe I'm overdue to try it again. (Microsoft gives away their Virtual PC program that makes it easy to try other operating systems; I think it's a ploy to make us appreciate Windows more.) Now, I love the concept of a freely-distributable, freely-modifiable operating system, and I've recommended Linux to people when you need it to do something cool that Windows can't do, like bypassing Windows security by booting a PC from a CD. And it's done a lot of good for organizations like the One Laptop Per Child program, which can keep their costs down by using a free operating system. But to this day I've never heard an answer to one question: Since even Linux advocates admit that it's harder to use, what can you do with Linux that you can't do with Windows, to make it worth switching over to? If I was nervous about Vista because some of the interface had changed and some of my old programs no longer worked, it wasn't helpful to tell me to switch to a system where all of the interface would change and none of my old programs would work.
So, I wanted to like Vista. I knew that eventually everyone would have to upgrade anyway, so, not wanting to be left behind, I wanted to switch to Vista because of the same factor that spammers use to get your attention: "Other guys are improving themselves, why aren't you?" But there were some things I ran into almost immediately:
Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer no longer have the "File / Edit / View" menu bars across the top of the window. Was this a big problem under XP? When the menus gave quick, two-click access to most actions that you could take within the application, was there a grassroots movement to have them removed? I did eventually find that you can hit the "Alt" key to bring the menus back, but why put people through that frustration? The most annoying feeling while using a computer is being yanked out of thinking about what you're doing with the computer to having to concentrate on how to use it.
Perhaps the idea was to steer users towards using the buttons on the toolbar, but there aren't enough buttons to cover all the options located under the menus. If the UI designers wanted to steer users gently towards using the buttons, my suggestion would have been: Whenever the user picks something under a menu that corresponds to something accessible from the toolbar, display a dialog box which says for example, "In the future, you can print faster by clicking the printer button on the toolbar", along with a picture (and a "Do not show this message again" checkbox -- important!).
- Windows Explorer also did away with the "Up" button that lets you browse from the current directory to the higher-level directory. Again, probably not in response to a groundswell of users demanding for that button to be removed, when it took up about one square centimeter of screen space. Supposedly Windows Explorer makes up for this by displaying the entire path to the current directory in the address bar, so that if the path is "C:\Financial Records\Chris Pirillo\ Pectoral Real Estate\", you can click on "Chris Pirillo" to go one directory higher. The trouble is that I frequently give my directories extremely long and descriptive names like (this is a real example) "Flash-Player-22.214.171.124-beta2.downloaded-2006-03-20-from-labs.macromedia.com" so that I can keep track of where and when I got each piece of downloaded software, in case I ever need to go back to a previous version that the software maker no longer makes available because they're trying to steer me away from it (ironically, "Vista syndrome"). With a directory that has a long name like that, the higher-level directories aren't visible in the address bar, so I had to locate it manually in the left-hand tree view panel. OK, knock off the violins, the point is that I didn't have to do that in XP.
- I have an older monitor, so I wanted to turn ClearType off. The IE7 help file describes how to do this in IE, but that didn't work for me no matter how many times I tried, and my eyes were aching by the time I found out that in Vista it's a default system-wide setting that overrides IE's setting until you change the system-wide one. I would have suggested putting one line in the IE7 help file: "Note: if your operating system such as Windows Vista is set to use ClearType system-wide, you must disable this as well to disable ClearType in IE."
- Virtual PC, which worked on all versions of Windows XP, is not supported on Vista Home Premium. I need Virtual PC (for reasons other than Linux-bashing), so this was a deal-breaker.
- Telnet no longer installed by default. Even though I use a different telnet program for regular use, telnet.exe was handy to test whether a remote machine was reachable on a given port. (For example, in a command prompt, type "telnet www.yahoo.com 80" and when the command prompt screen goes blank, that means the machine www.yahoo.com is accepting responses on port 80, the standard port for Web traffic. Try connecting to port 81 instead, and you get no response on that port. This can be useful when diagnosing problems with Web servers and other programs.) Even though it's not hard to get telnet back, why would they go to the trouble of removing it?
The aforementioned Facebook problem. This seemed so startling at the time that I almost stopped everything to write an article just about that, musing on Microsoft having so much power that all PC stores were now exclusively stocking computers running an OS that, at the time anyway, couldn't access Facebook. But then I asked another bunch of users on Mechanical Turk, and all respondents using Vista said they could access Facebook after all. Of course, this wasn't a random sample, since users who bought Vista and couldn't access Facebook, probably would have returned their machines a long time ago, but I'm still not sure what caused it to work on some machines and not others -- all I know is that Facebook was inaccessible until I disabled IPv6.
I know Facebook is reading these articles, since in November I wrote about how you could circumvent Facebook's system of verifying that users were real high school students, by doing the following: "(1) create a profile of a non-overweight girl and sign up as a member of a high school network, pending confirmation; (2) search for several boys in that network and send them friend requests; and (3) wait for at least one of them to confirm you back". Shortly afterwards, Facebook changed the verification system, so that now, if you're confirming someone who is a pending member of a high school network but no one else has confirmed them yet, Facebook warns you, "Only check this box if you're absolutely sure that you know this person." So, whichever of Mark Zuckerberg's friends is reading my articles: Clever idea, and, keep the IPv6 records working.
That was as far as I got before I stopped trying to get used to Vista and started taking notes for this article (working title: "Vist Vucked"). From the Mechanical Turk users who responded to my survey, the other most common reported problems were: software compatibility, hardware compatibility, difficulty with the UI, and running too slowly. Presumably the first two problems will improve over time, but the UI will always be hard to switch to as long as users can't find functions that were easy locatable in the old interface, and if it runs slower than XP, that will always be a factor no matter how fast your computer is. (However fast it runs Vista, you'd always be able to make it run even faster with XP instead!)
The best things I've heard about Vista have been that (a) it is the most secure Windows ever (which Dave Barry says is like calling asparagus the "most articulate vegetable ever"), and (b) it features better multimedia integration. To which my responses were: (a) the number of incomprehensible warnings that Vista flashes at a user whenever they look at the computer funny, does not make it more secure, because users will condition themselves to just ignore those warnings, and (b) I hate watching TV on my computer anyway.
Since TV/PC integration is a major selling point for Vista, I thought this last issue was worth looking harder at: Do people really want to use their computers to watch TV? My computer monitor is in an office where I sit up close when I'm working; but TV feels more comfortable to watch from several feet away, and in my office I can't even scoot my chair back that far. (And if I lived with family, I doubt they'd want to crowd into my office to watch a movie.) In fact, I like the psychological separation of the TV set in the living room from the distractions of the computer in the office: I go in there when I'm done with everything in here. The only way I'd regularly download and watch movies would be if I had a way to send them wirelessly to my TV, but a wireless PC-to-TV converter and the corresponding receiver together cost about $200.
Seeking more validation of my opinions from strangers, I did another survey of 30 Mechanical Turk users, asking if they would rather drive to a movie rental store or download a movie online for the same price. Almost half (14) said they'd rather drive to the movie store, citing the comfort of watching the movie on their TV as opposed to on the computer. Another fourth of the respondents (8) said they'd download the movie but only if they could send the content to their TV to watch, and only the last fourth (8) said they'd actually watch it on their computer monitor. So the future of convergence between PC and TV will probably be not in all-in-one systems but in devices that link the PC in your study with the TV in your living room, and since there's no household name yet for PC-to-TV linkage, the field is wide open for some lucky company to make a product that becomes synonymous with the concept, the way "TiVo" is easier to say than "Digital Video Recorder". Maybe that will be a boost for systems like Vista. If that happens at about the same time that a Vista successor is released that makes the interface easier to switch to from XP, I'll bet that will be the tipping point that gets people switching voluntarily. (Of course many people will switch by then just because they need a new computer and they couldn't find one with anything but Vista on it.)
Anyway, I was only trying a new Vista machine because the hard drive on my old computer died, but after all the data had been recovered, I just installed a new drive in the old machine and went back to XP, while my Vista machine was returned to its perch, gargoyle-like, on the shelves at Circuit City, waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting wretch with dreams of self-improvement through newer computer purchases. The only remnant of Vista that I have left is IE7, which was installed by my Windows XP restore disk and can't be removed, and which is incompatible with some sites and programs that I need, so I've been using Firefox more and getting to like it. That's lucky, since I've already offended the loyal software-logo-wearing constituencies of Vista and Linux, and wouldn't want to deal with the Firefox crowd too. As my friend Anne Mitchell says, "Admitting you hate Firefox is almost as bad as admitting to being Republican." (Except that when Firefox screws with a page, the chat logs don't end up on national television. Ba-dump-bump!)