Technology December 2006

Microsoft Reboots

A preview of the new versions of Windows and Office
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Microsoft is the United States of the computer world. Everyone relies on it, and everyone resents it. OK, this may be an overstatement in each case. But there is more than a joke similarity between Microsoft’s and America’s burdens. Each enjoys the benefits of its dominance but also has assumed the thankless job of maintaining a complex international order. No one loves a hegemon.

In a few weeks Microsoft is scheduled to release new versions of the two products that are the basis of its superpower role. These are its Windows operating system, whose upcoming version was known as “Longhorn” through its many years of development and will go on sale as Windows Vista; and the Office “suite” of programs, including such stalwarts as Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Excel. Windows and Office are what make Microsoft so profitable—they are believed in the industry to account for most of the company’s roughly $12 billion in profit—but they are also what have made its product-development cycles so drawn-out and ponderous. Google, eBay, or Yahoo can tinker with their internal code, or float new programs on an experimental basis, and no one else’s software breaks as a result. But tens of thousands of hardware and software companies design their products to match Microsoft’s announced standards, and hundreds of millions of users assume that the programs will work on any oddly configured computer in any corner of the world. Microsoft cannot do anything by surprise—or very fast.

From the archives:

"Inside the Leviathan" (February 2000)
A short and stimulating brush with Microsoft's corporate culture. By James Fallows

The team in charge of Office turns out a new version of its programs every three years or so. (Disclosure: in 1999 I worked on the team preparing “Office 10,” as it was known inside the company. The current standard, Office 2003, was known internally as “Office 11,” and the forthcoming Office 2007 is “Office 12.”) At least half of each product cycle, eighteen months of the three years, is given to testing the software and looking for bugs.

The effort to design Longhorn/Vista has been so vast, complex, and frequently delayed that it has gone on for half as long as Google has existed as a company; it will probably be the last version of Windows to be released as one comprehensive offering. From now on, Microsoft is expected to release smaller, more targeted upgrades for specific markets.

Of Microsoft’s two new products, Vista and Office, Vista is by far the more important, but oddly it pre­sents users with a less interesting set of choices. Vista is important for Microsoft as a source of new revenue, and it is important to the entire technology industry in the same way. The debut of a new operating system usually leads to a surge in PC sales, as people who have been waiting to upgrade buy machines with the new software installed. Since each version of Windows has required more memory, faster processing chips, and better video displays to show off its new features, component makers like Intel and AMD prosper when Microsoft puts a new Windows on sale.

But ordinary PC users don’t have to spend much time thinking about Windows: when you buy a new computer, of course you should get one with Windows Vista installed. And until you buy a new computer, it’s not worth the time and cost to upgrade. You should get Vista the next time you buy a new PC, because it will already be installed, tweaked, and configured—a job in itself. Also, the minute a new operating system appears, its predecessors start becoming obsolete, so there’s no sense in looking for minor savings by buying computers preloaded with software (like today’s otherwise admirable Windows XP) on which the clock is ticking.

But you shouldn’t (in most cases) upgrade until you get that computer, because your current system probably can’t show off what the new Windows does best. The problem with upgrading is not so much the difficulty of the process. With great nervousness born of past botched upgrades, I put a CD containing the Vista upgrade code into one of my machines—and it worked! After an hour or so of churning and processing, my desktop showed all the same programs and all the same settings, only with a different operating system underneath. But because that computer is two and a half years old, Vista’s most advanced and interesting features simply could not run on it. (Vista installs in an intelligent, modular fashion, adding as many components as a particular PC can handle.)

Ninety percent of the sex appeal of Vista is its new “Aero” desktop theme. This offers convenient icon-size gadgets on the desktop—a clock, a calendar—like those of a Mac. Its overall look is far sleeker than any previous Windows incarnation and, gasp, seems even more modern than the Mac. One example: when you have a large number of programs running, it can be hard to remember which is which. But if you run your mouse along tabs at the bottom of the Vista screen, a thumbnail version of each window comes up, as if you’re riffling through a pack of cards, and lets you quickly find what you’re looking for.

Or so I understand from online demos; the graphics card in my Thinkpad T41 can’t run Aero. (If you do buy a computer before Vista-equipped ones are available early next year, make sure it says “Vista compatible,” and ask about Aero.) The version of Vista my computer will accept has a number of stolid, sensible changes under the hood. The “Start” menu is far better organized and makes finding and launching the right program much easier. There are several utilities that help you keep track of files you are synchronizing between desktop and laptop computers. The most important operating change is a new indexed search system, which allows quick retrieval of information from e-mail and almost any kind of file. There are countless other engineering improvements. Two drawbacks: Vista doesn’t seem overall any faster than XP, and the version I used came with a security system I quickly came to hate. It is so protected against “malware” and viruses that routine tasks become chores. I’m told that later releases are much less overaggressive on the security front.

Office 2007 is a different matter. Most people will probably wait to get new computers before buying this upgrade, but anyone who likes “interesting” and elegant software should consider getting it sooner.

Many of the changes in Word, Outlook, Excel, and the rest are strictly visual—but if you think that’s a minor factor, you haven’t paid attention to the Mac. Each of the programs simply looks better than before—nicer typefaces, better colors, a much less clunky effect overall. As opposed to the familiar drop-down menus, like Format/Paragraph/Line Spacing, the programs present a “ribbon” across the top of the screen, with commands likely to apply to the work you are doing. Efforts to outguess the user have often been embarrassing in the past—think of “It looks like you’re writing a letter”—but the ribbon’s choices seem sensible. Better still, Microsoft has taken pains not to irritate anybody who likes the way the programs work now. I am a pro-keyboard, anti-mouse guy, and the new Word is designed to recognize all the keystroke combinations I have used for years to change formatting or open a file. The new programs store documents in a completely new XML-based format, which takes about half as much space as existing .doc or .ppt files and has other technical advantages. To avoid transition glitches, Office 2007 programs will be able to store files in either old or new formats, and Microsoft will post free converters on its Web site, so that older Office programs can open files in the new format. The new programs can also save files directly as PDFs.

Two touches in Word that writers will appreciate: a well-designed word-count utility, which keeps a visible running tally of your overall document length or a selected portion of it, and an improved system for side-by-side comparisons of different versions of a document.

OneNote, Microsoft’s new, Mac-like data-management system, has been improved in several ways. For instance, it has a built-in OCR (for “optical character recognition”) system that interprets the text in photos, graphics files, handwriting from a tablet computer, or even words from audio and video files, and then lets you find that text with a fast indexed search. It has been connected with the other Office programs in a very useful way. For example, you can with a keystroke “print” a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, an e-mail, or any Web page (including from Firefox) directly into OneNote, where it is stored. For me, this has made OneNote an easy one-step repository for information I want to look at and deal with later.

Outlook has also been significantly improved. But as OneNote has become Microsoft’s all-purpose destination for reference data, Outlook is improving as a central site for “action” items. The new version makes it easier to take incoming e-mails and convert them to their actionable essence. This one saying “See you for lunch on Tues” should really be on your calendar, and that one saying “Get this report done by Tuesday or else!” should really be a task—with a deadline. The indexed search utility also makes Outlook more convenient to use. It includes a system for color-coding messages or tasks based on categories—red ones to be dealt with today, green ones to worry about next week, whatever else the user wants. An improved daily-calendar

display goes a long way toward giving a unified view of the appointments, deadlines, and other obligations you have in the current day and the days ahead. Anyone who travels internationally knows the bizarre and annoying way in which Outlook has until now handled time-zone shifts. If you list an all-day event—“Dad’s Birthday”—while you are in Chicago, when you get to Frankfurt it will be converted to an appointment stretching from, say, 5 a.m. one day to 5 a.m. the next, Frankfurt time. This bug has at last been fixed.

There is more to say, but here’s what you need to know for now: when you’re buying a computer, get one with Vista, and before then, give the new Office a thought.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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