Windows 7: Microsoft's three missed opportunities
At least it's not Vista
The verdict is in: Windows 7 is a job well done. Yes, there will be a few Windows XP diehards and those who've fled to OS X and have no intention of returning, but overall Windows 7 is more responsive, prettier, and more usable than Windows Vista.
That said, it is not perfect, and Windows 7 comes with its own set of annoyances and missed opportunities. Here are three of the biggest.
First is multi-touch. It is a big deal, since in the post-iPhone world the advantages of controlling a touchable device without the clutter of a stylus have sunk home. Microsoft claims it has made "touch a first-class way to interact with your PC alongside the mouse and keyboard", according to the official Engineering Windows blog.
It is true that the foundations are laid, with a touch gesture API that means there is no barrier to developers writing excellent touch-control applications, and this will further improve in the forthcoming .NET 4.0.
But has Microsoft made Windows itself touch-friendly? I tried Dell's Latitude XT2, one of the few currently available Tablet PCs with a multi-touch display, and installed Windows 7. I had no quibble with the hardware, once the latest driver from N-Trig was installed, and scrolling up and down in Internet Explorer with a sweep of the finger is a good party trick, complete with inertia effects.
Can you stab it: a crowded Windows 7 task bar
Unfortunately, the fun soon wears off if you try to use Windows without keyboard, mouse or stylus. Microsoft has only gone half-way. The taskbar is a delight for touch users, until it fills up and you try to stab a tiny scroll arrow with your finger. The on-screen keyboard is not bad, except that it does not always pop-up when you need it - the Sticky Notes application is an example - and dragging it into view is a hassle. With practice you can get around, but it is not the delight that it should be.
The problem is that Windows needs more applications and utilities designed specifically for touch. These will come, eventually, if multi-touch Windows gains sufficient momentum. However, it risks ending up in the same expensive niche that has afflicted the Tablet PC, or being sidelined by something like the rumored Apple Tablet, if that turns out to do a better job for usability.
The second big issue is Microsoft's revised notification area. I've been working with the final build for a few weeks and watching other users, and - frankly - I have strong doubts about what Microsoft has done.
In order to make Windows quieter, Microsoft gives the user control over which applications are allowed to show icons and/or notifications, and icons are hidden by default. Although the intentions were good, I have seen users befuddled by the non-appearance of applications that use the notification area. I also suspect that the benefits are temporary.
Vendors will copy what Microsoft has done with Live Messenger. This used to live in the notification area, but now occupies a slot on the taskbar instead. Since it typically runs in the background, it appears there even if the user has not chosen to pin it. Undoubtedly the Messenger team did this because the notification area is now too hidden. Other vendors will follow suit, and the taskbar will be as noisy as the notification area used to be.
Third, Windows 7 has failed to solve a number of long-running annoyances in Windows. These include the fact that file extensions are still hidden by default, and although as George Ou observes this is not as big a security problem as it appears, it is still irritating, especially since hiding the file extension prevents users from changing it if they need to.
Another irritation is Windows 7 has reverted to the My Documents abstraction for a folder that is usually called Documents. Windows Vista actually corrected this. The abstraction is too frail, and some applications show one name, some the other, and some both.
Arrange and grouping options aren't helped by Microsoft's menu allergy
Microsoft's menu allergy also causes problems. IE's menu is hidden by default, and some features are hard to find without it. An example is when managing the new and very useful Libraries feature, which lets you combine several folders into one view. Oddly, a library does not merge its folders into one list by default.
To do this, you need to figure out that there is both an Arrange By and a Group By option, which do different things, and that you have to Group By None. Since the menu bar is hidden, users might not find Group By at all: you have to right-click in the narrow left margin.
None of these are deal-breakers, nor should they cloud the genuine improvements Microsoft has made in Windows 7. It is the best Windows yet, and Windows Vista will soon be forgotten. What Windows 7 demonstrates, though, is that although Microsoft has made progress in usability, there is plenty still to do. ®