Windows Vista changed the way many users thought of Windows. For better or for worse, Microsoft spent several years doing damage control over an overwhelming amount of pushback from the users prompted extended support for Windows XP. A lot of users made the leap from Windows to OS X, including LockerGnome’s own Chris Pirillo. This migration lead to a renewal of the great debate between the two operating systems, furthering the divide between camps in this pseudo-religious war. I’m a switcher, but not because of any incredible failure on the part of Microsoft.
I switched for work. Final Cut Pro is one of the few editing platforms out there that has a grasp on the industry. If you can’t edit in Final Cut Pro, you may find it hard to get a good job doing video production. I have few regrets about making the transition. The vast majority of the things I need a desktop computer for are easily accomplished on either platform. That said, I’ve recently started a slow and gradual transition back to the world of Windows in part because I enjoy the freedom that Windows offers in terms of hardware options and a wider selection of native software. Windows 7 was, in my opinion, a great release. It improved greatly on many of the shortcomings found in Windows Vista and has worked very well for me on several mission-critical applications. In short, I like it.
My experience living in both worlds has left me wondering what I would look for in a perfect operating system. What set of features would create an environment in which I could thrive without actively seeking greener pastures elsewhere at every setback. Here are five changes that I believe would make Windows a better operating system.
Windows has a fairly decent UI. The task bar has undergone some significant revision over the past few versions, and in general I’m fairly happy with it.
That said, I believe that more users would enjoy an easily customizable UI. Linux has a big advantage in this camp, with an easily modified interface capable of mimicking Windows, OS X, and even becoming something entirely its own. Opening this up to designers and creating an easy platform for customization could go a long way toward appealing to a larger potential user base. I’m sure many fans of Linux would appreciate this long-overdue feature.
Currently, you can experience a touch of customization through a third-party program such as Stardock’s WindowBlinds. Unfortunately, your ability to modify Windows is still very limited.
The Metro theme may be the best thing since sliced bread for a lot of users, but not for everyone. Give me the ability to alter Windows as much as I can in Ubuntu or Fedora. If Microsoft can do that, I’m sure it’d have a lot of eager switchers from both platforms eager to give Windows another shot.
Dedicated App Store
I’ll start this section by stating that I am not a fan of forcing users to go through a single app store to install software on any machine. It’s the right of the user to decide what software should (or should not) be installed on his/her system. What would prove a value-add to Windows is a dedicated app store that manages the updates, sales, and downloads for the user. This would be a benefit to developers wishing to make their software available to a wide market with the extra push of an app store every user has an opportunity to view. To the average user, having an app store that makes locating trustworthy software and purchasing it easier is certainly a bonus.
Both Linux and OS X have implemented integrated app stores on various distributions with great success. Users enjoy the ease of use these app stores bring, making the process of finding good software and installing it a simple as possible. It’s only natural that an app store would appear to be a good thing for Windows.
It looks like we may see a built-in app store with Windows 8, though with so many users dragging their heels from one version to the next, I’d expect to see it appear on Windows 7 via a service pack.
Hot Corners, Spaces, and Mission Control Equivalent
One of my favorite features of OS X is also the one that I end up using the most throughout the day. Hot corners give me the ability to instantly see every open window and switch between them with a click rather than having to ALT+Tab through a stream of windows hoping the next one is the one I need. While I’m certainly happy that Microsoft has opted to make switching between applications easier with the Aero interface, I’d be happier to see built-in support for hot corners and a Mission Control-like interface. If Microsoft wants to really push gadgets, this could be best done in a dashboard setting like it is on OS X Lion.
In addition, having multiple desktops available with a single click is also a great feature for folks like me with a dozen windows open at any given time. With a swipe of my mouse on OS X, I can switch from a cluttered desktop to one with a single application running, allowing me to concentrate on the task at hand without having to close all the other windows one by one. Yes, you can shake a window and make something similar happen, but there’s something dynamic about being able to instantly switch between desktops that makes my workflow easier. I have a video editing desktop, a writing one, and a media consumption one. That works for me, and I’d like to see it as a built-in possibility on Windows.
The snipping tool in Windows Vista/7 is a pain to use. With OS X, I can hit a single hotkey combination, click and drag my cursor, and as soon as I release the key, the image is taken and saved to my desktop. The snipping tool in Windows adds steps to the process that I’d like to eliminate with a single toggle. I don’t want to have to manually save each image if I don’t want to; I want it to happen automatically.
I use partial screenshots a dozen times per hour while I’m working. Having to stop what I’m doing to tell the snipping tool to save each file (as a GIF, JPG, PNG, etc.) before I can move on to the next throws a wrench in an otherwise quick workflow.
Make Killing Unnecessary Tasks Easy
Even with Windows 7 having been a significant leap forward in terms of optimization over Windows Vista, I’m still not happy with how many processes are chewing up clock cycles in the background. A simple user setup (like a wizard) would be a great way to ask users what they want to have running. If your users don’t want media center processes crunching away in the background, they should be able to opt out without having to search the Web for how-tos so they can navigate an endless sea of options to do so.
Microsoft could start with 10 simple yes or no questions that tell it everything it needs to know to kill or keep most of these background processes going without having to seek out each individual one and deal with it manually. I use Windows for gaming and not media consumption, which means I tweak my OS to meet my specific needs. If Microsoft can work out a way to make that happen intuitively so every user can understand how to make it happen without needing a college education in software design, a lot more people will be happy.
I’m not saying this because I’m not capable of doing it. I’m saying it because the last thing I want to do tonight is talk my relatives through optimizing their machine because one program or another is acting a little more sluggish than it used to.
I’m sure a dozen or so people will comment on this article and let me know about a vast array of third-party applications that accomplish everything I’ve asked for here and more. Unfortunately, that’s the very root of the problem with Windows. If my grandmother can’t figure it out without having to search the Web for a third-party program that may (or may not) work without breaking some other process, it’s not a viable option for most people.
I’m a huge fan of Windows, and this article isn’t intended to bash the operating system in any way. I think that Microsoft is headed in the right direction with Windows 7/8. The trick to convincing users to switch back from OS X will fall on making things easier. Every click you have to make to get a simple process done should be like a slap in the face. If I can’t accomplish something in two actions or less, it isn’t intuitive and will cause trouble for most of your users.
In the world of operating systems, simplicity is key. It was this simplicity that brought Microsoft out of the slump it fell into with Windows Vista, arguably the most complex version of Windows to date.
The Metro interface is designed with simplicity in mind. The ball is in Microsoft’s court whether or not users will be forced to live predominantly in the more complex Aero world or Metro. I’m anxious to see how this plays out as the Windows 8 grows closer to a release candidate.
Do you agree? What changes would you make to the Windows platform? Would these changes convince you to switch back?