Technology at its Worst

Every once in a while, a completely ridiculous activity is needed on a computer, and it seriously makes me question my entire profession. In the past 16 hours, I’ve had two fully baffling user experience situations that have almost had me ready to toss my computer.

Microsoft’s User Experience

The first involved Windows. I run Windows 7 in a virtual machine (VM) on my MacBook Pro. I do this every day, and usually, I just close the lid at the end of the day to go home, leaving OS X and Windows simply running while the lid is down. Everything suspends, no big deal. OS X rarely needs to be restarted, but I reboot about once a month or so (usually as part of my monthly password reset). Windows on the other hand, needs to be rebooted about once a week, usually once it reaches a point where it’s mostly non-functional. Yesterday I decided I’d actually “shut down” my Windows VM, leaving only OS X running so that today would be a fresh restart. So at 4:30pm, I click Start > Shutdown.

Windows tells me it needs to update my computer (with whatever stuff it downloaded in the background), and it begins immediately applying those updates (without prompting me, I might add), and I can’t shut off or unplug my computer while it’s doing so. Swell. Bad user experience there, Microsoft. If you want to hijack my machine to apply updates, do it at the beginning of my day, not the end. I’m almost never in a rush to start working, but I’m always ready to go home at the end of the day. If I were using a desktop, that might be fine. But on a laptop, you need to flip the process around. I’m shutting down because I’m ready to leave… with my computer.

And so, I sat. For 15 minutes waiting for Windows to do its thing. That 15 minute delay also translated to me being caught by a train on my way home, contributing to an extra 25 minutes on my drive. All in all, a 20-minute drive home at 4:30 that should have had me home by 4:50, resulted in a 75-minute trip, and I got home at 5:45. My kids are visiting my parents, except for the youngest, Noah, who, although exhausted, greeted me with a smile an numerous hugs, just before going to bed. Thanks to Microsoft’s dumb implementation of an update, I lost out on a good hour that I could have spent with that little guy, and instead just kissed him goodnight and watched him go.

Adobe’s User Experience

The second bad experience involves Adobe. In fact, I’m still sitting in the middle of this experience right now. I decided I needed to test Adobe Dreamweaver temporarily to see if some of the problems I’m having with my current code-editing tool could be alleviated for the next few weeks by switching to another platform temporarily. My current development environment is actually causing errors and code problems.

One such crazy feature (that can’t be turned off by the way, due to a bug) is “quote completion.” This means that when you type a quote, like “, the program automatically adds a second quote, but leaves your cursor in the middle, like “|”. So in code, if you want to type: $fred = “sample”; you would start typing the characters: $fred = , but as soon as you type the first quote, the program automatically adds the second, and you see this on the screen: $fred = “|” with your cursor flashing where the vertical line is. You can then proceed to type the word sample, and you’ll see this: $fred = “sample|” with your cursor flashing at the line.

Now the problem is, in code (for this particular language), the semi-colon is necessary at the end of the line. Normally, you would have just typed your ending quote and then a semicolon. But because the quote was inserted, you have to either delete the quote, then type the quote and a semicolon, or use your right arrow to move past the quote and then type a semicolon. In other words: automatically inserting the quote saved me no keystrokes whatsoever, and in fact, made me have to rethink the process of typing that line of text, making it slower and harder to type. Pain in the neck.

Anyway… back to Adobe. I decided to download a trial of Dreamweaver. You’d think it would be a simple process. Go to Adobe’s site, find the trial, click a download button, wait for the download to finish, then install it. At least, that’s how it should be. Here’s how it really went. (Incidentally, I’m going to put “DBC=#” throughout, meaning “Dialog Box Count” every time I’m prompted with a dialog box that I have to answer):

  1. Since I was using Chrome, I just opened a new tab and typed “Dreamweaver trial” in the address bar, and got Google search results. The first result took me straight there.
  2. On the page it talks about downloading the trial, but there’s no download button. It turns out that the download button is a Flash object, and I have a flash blocker installed, so the button doesn’t appear. I have to click a blank space on the page to activate the download button, which I can then click.
  3. I get a notice that there’s an Adobe Flash update. [DBC=1] I do the update, which also requires me to answer Windows’ prompt [DBC=2] that I need to be an administrator to do this. When complete, I have to close the Flash installer [DBC=3]. The Flash update reveals nothing new for me.
  4. I then restart my browser and repeat steps 1 and 2 [DBC=5].
  5. I click the download button, and get a Flash dialog [DBC=6] telling me that I must use the Adobe Download Assistant (I’ll call it “ADA”) to download Dreamweaver, and that the download assistant will launch automatically. This is an Adobe Air application.
  6. The ADA starts to launch, but I get a notice [DBC=7] that there is an update to Adobe Air. I start the update, which prompts the Windows dialog again [DBC=8] asking me to prove I’m an administrator. The update runs, and then tells me (after three dialogs [DBC=11]) that I can now run ADA.
  7. ADA launches. I get a notice [DBC=12] that there’s an ADA update as well, and I can’t download my program until the ADA update is applied.
  8. I download the ADA update, close the updater [DBC=13], which relaunches everything. It’s been about 10 minutes by now.
  9. Once ADA finally launches, it tells me that I need to sign in to my Adobe account [DBC=14] to download my program. I sign in. I forgot the password on my first attempt, but got it on my second.
  10. Once I sign in, I have to accept the new terms and conditions for ADA [DBC=15]. I agree to the terms.
  11. ADA just sits there looking at me, not downloading anything. It’s recommending various applications like Photoshop that I can download. I don’t want that, I want Dreamweaver, but that’s not in the list.
  12. Then a dialog pops up [DBC=16] saying that Adobe Air has now finished updating (I had thought it was done in step 6, but apparently it was still updating in the background). This triggers another Windows dialog [DBC=17] asking for confirmation of the changes because I have to be an administrator. ADA restarts as a result.
  13. ADA then prompts me [DBC=18] to log in to my Adobe account to complete my download. I log in again. Again, ADA just sits there, not giving any indication that it’s downloading Dreamweaver. It’s a good 15 or 16 minutes by now.
  14. I close ADA [DBC=19], and go back to the Adobe web page and repeat step 2 again. This causes step 5 to happen again [DBC=20]. Then ADA launches.
  15. ADA again prompts me [DBC=21] to log in to complete my download. I log in.
  16. Now it sees that I’m trying to download Dreamweaver, and begins downloading the file. It’s going to take about 15 minutes, so I start writing this blog entry while I wait. I’m now basically done, and there’s still about 10% more to download.

All of that–21 dialog boxes confirming my actions–just to download a single EXE file to test an application. And then from there (now that the download has just finished), I have several dialogs to step through including yet another Windows prompt asking me to confirm that I’m an administrator.

And people wonder why I’m trying to eliminate using computers and somehow run my entire life off an iPad which typically has only one prompt when I want to do something.

On Microsoft’s Surface…

For those who didn’t see it, Microsoft’s mystery announcement yesterday was the introduction of the Microsoft Surface–their “answer to the iPad.” You can watch the video here.

Personally, I think last night’s presentation was a step in the right direction for Microsoft, but only a step, when what they really needed was a jump. RIM introduced their PlayBook too early, and look where it got them. Microsoft tried this once before with the HP Slate. And it crashed and burned. And while I don’t think Microsoft should be more “Apple-like” in its culture, it definitely needs to take more cues from Apple in its strategy. Apple’s $500+ billion value is evidence of this. They’re worth double what Microsoft is worth, and they have less than 10% of Microsoft’s market.

The presentation was decent. Good, even. They did several right things: Announce the product, as they did. Focus on the business usage, as they did. Acknowledge that they came late to the game, as they did. But they should have also acknowledged that Apple achieved something in this market that they couldn’t. When the economy was going down the tubes, Apple was still selling strong, because they had brand loyalty, and people who use Apple products are passionate about them. Microsoft should have accepted that reality, and taken a stand that they’re looking to compete, and that they are committed to competing in every way. And that means making a few changes to Microsoft’s old way.

Here’s what they should have done to nail that:

What Microsoft Missed

  1. Emphasize the Windows Marketplace ecosystem. Show how it integrates, seamlessly, with the OS. Perhaps it’s obvious to some people, but not to average consumers who are used to the iOS App Store’s simplicity.
  2. Set a release date. The fact that this is still months away was a bad call. Building up hype 5 months in advance may as well be a year. They’ll miss the Christmas rush, and with Surface Pro coming out 90 days later, Apple will have a fourth iPad model at the same time Microsoft will be releasing their first professional tablet.
  3. Set a price. Saying you’ll price competitively is nonsense. It’s competitive if it’s competitive. When it doesn’t exist yet, it’s not competitive. And if you can’t do a feature-by-feature comparison, it’s hard to be competitive, or to measure a competitive price. They could argue that $1,000 for the product is competitive, because it has “USB and HDMI.” But who wants to pay more than what they pay for the highest-priced iPad?
  4. Integrate 3G/4G. Apple did it, so Microsoft should too. Not having 24/7 connectivity on a business device is bad news.
  5. Show the feature comparison. Not to single out Apple, but with Apple’s retina display and 10-hour battery life, I would think that knowing the exact screen quality and battery life would matter to most people.
  6. Make it a portrait and landscape device. If you watched the video, did you notice that the screen never rotated into portrait mode? What if I want to work on a long document? The iPad’s portrait mode plus a keyboard makes it a perfect 8.5×11 ratio for editing a full document, and on retina, it’s crystal clear, like real paper. That shortcoming in the Surface might be a fundamental flaw.
  7. Get Ballmer’s vacuous stares out of the presentation. Leave up the people who can actually smile and not look like they’re searching for Apple employees in the crowd. All kidding aside though, Ballmer’s hard-nosed, out-of-touch, corporate mentality introduces an element of Windows that may attract business users, but as the traditional business model is moving into a more “freelance” or “entrepreneurial” mindset, that kind of corporate rigidity is losing favor with people. There’s a reason why the relaxed atmosphere of companies like Google and Facebook are highly sought after.

But… to credit Microsoft, they did some things very well.

What Microsoft Nailed

  1. Those covers, and the keyboard. Assuming it works (none of the testers were apparently allowed to use the keyboard), it looks like a game-changer. I would love a soft-touch cover like that for the iPad. Rethinking the input devices (something that I think Microsoft has been a leader in for many years; they made great mice and great keyboards) is a wise strategy, and really helps to bridge the PC and tablet market in a way Apple never did. Apple’s keyboard solution was more of an afterthought product, rather than an integrated solution. Microsoft nailed this on an all-in-one product.
  2. The magnesium casing. That’s slick, and tasteful. Their focus on the strength and lightness of design was critical, if this tablet is to compete with the iPad. Furthermore, it raises the standard from the cheap form factor of other devices (laptops and PCs) that are made from cheap plastic and sharp metal.
  3. The kickstand. No need to buy lots of extra accessories: the stock products from Microsoft cover all the bases. Well done. It locks the device into a single landscape orientation (meaning, you can’t flip it upside down), but that might be a result of the tablet being a landscape-only device anyway. On my iPad, I am forever rotating it from one landscape side to the other, depending on how I’m using my case. If I want to hold the iPad in landscape mode, my case is only comfortable in one orientation. But when I want to use it as a desktop tablet with slight elevation, I need to rotate it the other way for the case to be in its propped up mode. The kickstand eliminates that constant rotating.
  4. A better presentation. Finally, Microsoft has started to show some artistic culture, and it wasn’t a “PowerPoint presentation.” I don’t know… maybe it was using PowerPoint, but it didn’t feel like it, and that’s the point. It didn’t feel like a presentation from 1995. It felt like a metro-infused art gallery. Notice the minimal text during the talks. One and two word sentences. Unfortunately, the speakers’ enthusiasm still felt a little forced, like they were trying to communicate a culture they hadn’t fully adopted yet, but it’s better than they’ve done before.
  5. A consumer and a pro version. While Apple’s “one product fits all” approach is good for Apple’s culture, Microsoft’s statement that Windows has always been “all about choice” is a good statement to make (though in the past, that would be a lie, as was proven with Internet Explorer: Microsoft did not want anyone to choose another browser). The point is, they’re providing choice, but not too much. Just two. Great call.

All in all, a job well done. We need a price, and a launch date. Microsoft has been notorious in the past for failing to meet their targets (they even started their own presentation 40 minutes late), but it’s time for them to step up their game and meet some deliverables.

Well done, Microsoft. Keep it up.