Sorry Redmond: Too Little, Too Late

I was recently asked in a tweet, “Have you completely abandoned Windows now?” I realized, with some genuine surprise, that not only had I stopped using Windows in any meaningful way, but actually stopped using it the moment I got my hands on my first (modern) Mac in 2008. So, in the aftermath of last months much-anticipated release of Snow Leopard, I find myself thinking about the move I made between operating systems, and my experiments since then with Microsoft’s latest offering.

First, a little background. I flirted with Macs in high-school Graphic Art lessons and then again, very very briefly, in the late 90s when a colleague handed me a PowerBook and said “Here, you could use that if it’s any good, but I don’t know if it even works…” It did work, but to be honest, it really wasn’t any use to me at all. Anyway, even if I had wanted to use the Mac, everyone I knew was working on a Windows PC of some flavor or other, and though the PowerBook had a working copy of Microsoft Office (such as it was in those days) incompatibilities were an ever-present problem.

Here’s an example of a conversation I had, many times, with the one person I knew who used a Mac;

Gloria: Liam, that file you sent me…
Liam: Yes, the Word document.
Gloria: It doesn’t work properly. I’ve lost all the formatting.
Liam: What do you mean, you’ve ‘lost’–
Gloria: It’s a mess.
Liam: Did you open it using Word?
Gloria: Of course I did! Look, will you just paste the text into an email for me, yeah?

I used to think the problem lay not with her computer, but more with her inability to use it. I later saw for myself, however, that she was absolutely right. Word documents created on a Windows PC didn’t fare well in Word on her Mac. Crazy.

The short of it is that I used Windows for everything and I had no compelling reason to want to switch. At home and at work, even on the road with my Windows Mobile devices through the years, I was 100 percent a Microsoft customer. Throughout those years, every experience I had with the Mac was a bad experience. And it was usually, as in the example above, related to the same tedious issue — incompatibility.

By 2005 I’d certainly heard about Mac OS X, though the closest I came to it was reading Paul Thurrott’s reviews and opinions on his SuperSite for Windows. He spoke of a decent OS, but reassured me that I was missing nothing. Then Apple released the iPhone and, despite my aversion to all things Apple, the Geek in me couldn’t resist and I bought one.

The experience on the iPhone was simply amazing, far better than any I’d had on any other device in… well, forever. It made me question my assumptions about the Mac. So in the summer of 2008, I wandered into the Apple Store on London’s Regent Street and spent a half hour pratting-about on different machines. I left with a MacBook. And on that very day, Windows died for me. Leopard was a breath of fresh air.

But let me be clear; I didn’t switch because I felt the Mac was a superior platform. Honestly, I feel that, for the majority of people, it’s no better or worse than Windows at the mechanics of making email, word processing and web surfing possible. I switched because it offered a far superior experience in doing those everyday things. When I think about Windows and where it fails for me, it always comes down to that same issue; experience.

Despite the “XP” in its 2001 OS name, it was only with Windows Vista that Microsoft finally seemed to “get” that user experience matters. Yet, beyond Vista’s eye candy there’s not a lot in the way of a unified, cohesive and organic experience that makes me want to use it as my everyday computing environment. This isn’t blind fanboy-ism talking; I used Vista since its Longhorn days right up until last summer, so I know I gave it a long-enough evaluation!

The user experience in Windows 7, too, has not changed since Vista, save perhaps for the addition of some fiddly new UI gimmicks (Aero Peek anyone?). To me, 7 ‘feels’ just like Vista did. I keep moving around the OS hoping to have an epiphany; “Aha! There’s the cohesive, rewarding experience I was searching for!” — but it just doesn’t happen.

I want to like Windows 7, but after trying various beta builds for the last year and repeatedly doing my best to enjoy it, I found myself feeling relieved whenever I returned to the elegant lines of Mac OS X.

I don’t hate Windows 7. I don’t think it’s shoddy, unattractive or fundamentally flawed. But just as Thurrott would say of Snow Leopard, when it comes to Windows 7 there’s just not much there. Windows 7 is a perfectly capable operating system that looks nice and gets the job done. Ultimately, however, it’s just not very interesting and, for recent switchers to the Mac, it’s too little, too late.

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