I played around with a friend's Vista machine the other day, and it certainly is clear just how much Microsoft was influenced by Mac OS X. Some would say that Microsoft has once again stolen the Mac UI, but in this case I think that "imitation is sincerest form of flattery." What I found most interesting, however, is that based on my few hours of usage it appears that Microsoft has still learned almost nothing about usability. Say what you will about the "lickable" Mac OS UI, no one argues that the Mac is difficult to use. "Yeah, its easy to use, but there's not much software for it." For Windows, the comment is the opposite "Yeah, it may not be that easy to use, but there's tons of software for it." If you think about it, though, those arguments are canards. If you can find useful software on the Mac, it makes little difference if you have only two or three choices between specific apps. Likewise, if 99.44% of the software available on Windows is either irrelevant or badly written, what difference does it make that there are so many choices? The same is true for Linux. For regular people, it used to be that Linux was not only difficult to install and use but also of limited usefulness. Now, however, with some truly excellent distributions, regular people can install it and use some great software. Tech-heads have found Linux useful for years, of course, but I'm talking about just regular people. I still don't think I would send my parents a Linux machine, no matter the distribution, but that is more a comment on their absolutely minimal technical skills and not about Linux.
But back to Vista "innovations." I found the UI to be better looking than XP or 2K, but I also didn't find that the UI made my experience any better. The transparent windows were interesting, but I'm not sure why they are there, as I can't really see what's behind them. So despite the visual changes, it is still Windows underneath all that eye candy, with drivers and DLLs and install "wizards" and peculiar compatibility problems. Here's an example: I tried to install a wireless print server on my friend's network, but could not get all three of his Vista machines to see the printer. One could, but only when it was connected to the wireless print server by an Ethernet cable. All three machines had wireless connections into his separate wireless DSL router, but although the wireless printer server claimed that it successfully joined that network, none of his machines or my XP laptop could see any of its printers wirelessly. I think I'm going to recommend that he just get an Airport Extreme.
Windows has suffered from odd design, well, forever. I'm sure you've heard the "click" sound that that Windows plays when you navigate in Windows Explorer. Double-click a folder icon--CLICK. Click the button to move up a directory--CLICK. Click the Back button--CLICK. On my work laptop where I don't need to listen to music or other sounds I simply mute my audio. But my home PC is a game machine, and muting and unmuting it is inconvenient. And now that I'm keeping my iTunes library there, I find myself navigating folders quite a bit. The CLICK sound rapidly became overwhelmingly annoying, and I'm glad that Google provided me a solution within seconds (Control Panel -> Sounds, Speech, and Audio Devices -> Sounds and Audio Devices - > Sounds tab -> scroll down to Windows Explorer -> click Start Navigation -> select "None"). Although I used Google, I suppose that eventually, maybe, I might figure out on my own how to turn that off. Maybe. But beyond the difficult way to turn that off, my question is, why? Why even have that sound? How on earth does it assist us as we navigate around Windows or navigate the web in Internet Explorer? Does anyone really, honestly believe that that CLICK sound enhances the user experience? Probably someone, somewhere does. It is, after all, the default behavior in Windows 2000 and XP. I admit that I'm assuming that, as it has been a few months since I've had to install Windows. But I certainly didn't turn that on so I think my assumption is reasonable. I can't remember if Vista also clicks (my friend had no speakers on his machine) but from what I experienced of it, it hasn't improved the overall user experience. Better looking, maybe, but better? No.
Design, design, design
Bad interface design is far too common, things that detract from the user experience, that require the user to click too many times, that require them to hunt for and puzzle about what they need to do. Dream Recorder 2.0 (http://www.dream-recorder.com/) is an example of some Mac software that has some UI problems. In concept, though, it is almost brilliant. Point a webcam at yourself while you sleep. Dream Recorder periodically takes pictures of you during the night and in the morning presents you an analysis of your sleep pattern--when you are in light sleep, dream sleep, and deep sleep--determined by your body motion. It can do a lot more, though, such as detecting your snoring and playing a sound to help interrupt that, detect the end of a dream cycle and gently wake you up and then record your spoken description of the dream, and more. I am particularly interested in recording my dreams, as well as understand (and I hope improve) my sleep patterns. I registered the demo and have been running it for a week now, but although I find the concept intriguing the application has so many small bugs and UI problems that I really don't know if I will purchase it after my trial 30 days. One problem is its custom user interface. Sure, it looks kind of interesting, but frankly its controls are not at all intuitive. Getting started requires some reading, not so much because of the complexity of the topic but more because nothing is labeled, icons are not intuitive, and there is no sense of "If you do this, you will accomplish that" in the UI. I have collected statistics and images and movies for a week, but none of the statistical reports display anything meaningful, either just some bars or often nothing at all. Unfortunately, I cannot tell if I am doing something wrong or if the software is failing. The software detects my snoring, but it doesn't classify it as snoring at all, just "sound." It occassionally captures what it thinks is snoring, but it lasts only a second or two and is so quiet I cannot tell what the software really thinks it has captured. I realize that the developers can't give medical advice, but I am not able to draw any conclusions from the data it presents. I have to chalk this one up to a great idea that just isn't executed as well as it could be. With some UI redesign and bug fixes and better user education, it could be a great piece of software, but if it cannot assist me in improving my sleep patterns then what is the point?
While poking around YouTube, I came across some amusing videos about Vista's UI and its relationship with Mac OS X, or perhaps "inheritance" might be a better word. For Apple's own view, search YouTube for "Apple WWDC 2006-Windows Vista Copies Mac OS X." Like you, I'm always stumbling over amusing or amazing videos on the web. For a very funny video of a web-based advertisement Apple released after Vista proved to be a flop, look on YouTube for "Don't Give Up on Vista Ad" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kxDxLAjkO8). Searching for "Vista install in 2 minutes" reveals one that doesn't disappoint. But if you aren't in the mood for that kind of humor, you'll probably be impressed by a music video by an aspiring young director using The Bird and the Bee song "Again and Again." Just search YouTube for "Apple Mac Music Video" and you'll see three months of extraordinary effort (and in the comments someone points out that he appears to upgrade from 10.4 to 10.5 at around the one minute mark).
More Wireless Fun
My mother now has a laptop, but unfortunately she has been unable to connect it to their wireless network, some relatively generic Netgear device. My father has somehow misplaced the information needed to authenticate with the wireless router. If I were closer, I would simply reset the router and reissue shared keys for their two computers, but it isn't something I can do over the phone with them. I know, it really should be a fairly straightforward process, but again, they are about as far from technically minded as you can get and yet still be able to type. Funny that my father is a science fiction writer, but being a fiction writer and historian his involvement in technology is much more theoretical than practical! However, I will be visiting them shortly and if they cannot find some local help, I will get things going for her. And yes, I'm thinking about Ethernet. The router is on the second floor and my mother's machine is at the other end of the house on the first floor. However, the distance is of course far, far less than Ethernet's 100 meter limit and I can have 33 meters of Cat5 e cable shipped to them for less than US$30. It might be worth doing that, actually. I need to check whether my internal wiring here in San Francisco is Cat 5 or Cat5 e, too. I have not yet made the move to gigabit Ethernet, but perhaps it is time. I still have a Netopia (Motorola) 2247NWG-VGx wireless ADSL2/2+ gateway where my DSL comes in, but it has a four-port 10/100 switch on it so I could just hang a 10/100/1000 switch off one of them. The NETGEAR GS105 looks like a decent option, but I am sure there are lots of other manufacturers. But it looks like I should also install an Airport Extreme. I have two printers, one black & white and one color, and I would also like to share a hard drive between my various machines. At the moment, My iTunes/iPhone music library is on a PC disk, the boot disc of my Pentium 4 gaming box, actually, just because it has 500GB of space and none of my Macs are modern or suitable to run 24x7. So perhaps hanging a drive off an Airport would simplify things. And when I upgrade to Leopard, probably very soon now, I will want to use Time Machine, and here things get a bit complicated. Apple doesn't officially allow Time Machine to backup to a wireless shared drive via an Airport Extreme, though that was recently added as an unsupported function. How can something so critical be available but unsupported? Makes no sense to me at all. However, it sounds like a great thing to be able to do. Perhaps I will just have to go straight to Apple's Time Capsule, probably the cheaper 500GB version, and perhaps someday hang something like a Western Digital 1TB "Home Network Storage" device on it via Ethernet.
We're all familiar with CAPTCHA systems, meaning "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." I recently joined a website for board game enthusiasts (www.boardgamegeek.com) and was interested in their CAPTCHA system. As expected, they required me to visually interpret a graphic and enter a series of characters. Their system required me to identify two separate strings of letters rather than just one. I don't really see the additional usefulness of that, compared to a single string of the same length as the two separate one, for example, so I dug a bit more and learned that some people may be using the second string of characters to have a human evaluate a low-quality word image from an OCR project via the reCAPTCHA project (recaptcha.net). From their site: "About 60 million CAPTCHAs are solved by humans around the world every day. In each case, roughly ten seconds of human time are being spent. Individually, that's not a lot of time, but in aggregate these little puzzles consume more than 150,000 hours of work each day. What if we could make positive use of this human effort? reCAPTCHA does exactly that by channeling the effort spent solving CAPTCHAs online into "reading" books." Very clever! That certainly seems like a worthwhile system to me, and a huge amount of human labor that can be channeled into something beneficial. Of course, CAPTCHA systems aren't foolproof. CAPTCHA's inconvenience is marginal, and if it assists in preventing bots from joining websites and even digitize more books, I don't mind the typing. Unfortunately, I read recently that some Russian hackers claim they can defeat Yahoo's CAPTCHA system about 35% of the time. That isn't good. And determined hackers can get around CAPTCHAs by, for example, setting up a pornography site, taking CAPTCHA graphics from legitimate sites, and using their own human visitors to decode them.
To get the best equipment in a game like World of Warcraft , you need to spend a lot of time in various dungeons, and that means you need to get together with other people. Your efforts require coordination, teamwork, and in particular time. And it helps to have a fast, modern computer. I don't have cutting edge hardware, but my lack of time is the big reason why I am more of a single-player gamer, so when a friend recently suggested I try a web-based game with minimal time and system requirements, I was intrigued. For the last couple of weeks I have been playing Ikariam (ikariam.com) which is something like Civilization or Age of Empires, but requires only a few minutes at a time to play. In fact, at my level of play, it takes a half a day for something I do to complete, so the time involved is really quite minimal. I have about twenty of my Warcraft and "real life" friends playing on the Gamma server. What I don't yet know, however, is what the point of it all is. With AoE or Civ4, it is possible to conquer the world, but Ikariam's design seems more like the World of Warcraft model, where things never end, where you simply grow in power. If so, I will likely grow tired of it, and move to games like Mass Effect or Fallout 3, which are more like highly visual, interactive novels. I miss the cerebral element in games like WoW. I crave something that makes me think, makes me exercise judgment, make moral decisions, and not just mindlessly kill monsters. In that regard, Ikariam makes me think more. But it still lack an "endgame."