Microsoft is reportedly hard at work finalizing the outlines of the next version of Windows, “Windows 7.0.” (That’s right, I’m not talking about Windows Vista; I’m talking about Vista’s replacement.) Windows 7.0 is slated to appear in the 2012 timeframe, but Microsoft has to bring its vision of that far-off Windows version into sharp relief early because of Windows’ position as the bedrock upon which all other Microsoft offerings rest. So, believe it or not, if an idea doesn’t make it into Windows 7.0 soon, it won’t appear at all.
Given that, I have a modest suggestion for the “common engineering criteria,” a set of prime directives for all parts of Windows. That suggestion is this: “Windows, please don’t interrupt me.” I suspect that once I clarify what I mean, you too will clamor for a more polite Windows.
Here’s what the start of a day at the computer looks like for me. I log on to my laptop, which of course takes about a minute. Windows displays my desktop, the Start button, the Start menu, and so on. I’m probably going to do a bit of work in Microsoft Word, so I click Start, All Programs, Microsoft Office—and things stop. It seems as if the Start menu always lets me have about two or three clicks, and then it stops responding. After a second or two, it adds insult to injury by collapsing the Start menu, as if to say, “Ha, ha, fooled you, silly human!”
Then, for the next two minutes or so, a parade of message balloons pop out of the system tray, telling me that a variety of utilities and hardware are now online, as when the HP Wireless Assistant pops up a fairly pointless “Hi there!” balloon. Still more utilities nag me about something: HP ProtectTools wants me to initialize my security chip (which Vista has already done for me, but the utility hasn’t figured that out), BitLocker wants me to re-enable it (which I will do once I finish experimenting with my BIOS), my Huey color calibrator wants me to recalibrate it (which involves moistening small suckers and attaching the device to my laptop screen, something I’m never thrilled about doing), and occasionally iTunes or Adobe announce in breathless tones that I absolutely, positively must update my software right this minute, and while all of this is happening, the system blithely ignores my mouse clicks. Finally, after a while (one never knows exactly how long Windows remains in user-ignoring mode), Windows starts responding, and my work day begins, although with me in a somewhat grumpy mood.
I understand that applications need to announce things, or at least I understand why those applications’ designers feel that they need to announce things. I understand that logging on takes time, and I’m OK with that: Throughout my nearly 35 years of interacting with computers, I’ve usually worked on fairly modern systems, and by their nature, such systems push the capabilities of the computing hardware upon which they sit. What I don’t understand is Microsoft’s need to pop up a desktop as quickly as possible but then render it useless for several minutes. To wit, I offer three suggestions for Windows 7.
Give me the option to disable all balloons. Perhaps after flipping a registry bit, Windows 7.0 might trap all popup balloons and redirect their text to some log (call it the Balloon Text Log). Or, better, perhaps let me redirect that balloon text to the Balloon Text Log by holding down the left shift key when I first log on?
Just leave up the “now logging on” messages and don’t give me a desktop until it’s truly ready to respond to my commands.
How about exploiting multithreading and processor affinity? Almost every computer nowadays has at least two cores. Why not make the code that responds to my Start menu choices a completely separate thread, and dedicate one of the processor’s cores to responding to my commands until everything that’s going to start up has started up? It would mean that all the little system-tray utilities would take longer to start up, but they’d do it in innocuously, sort of like those modern TV shows that seem to run the credits subtly across the screen for the first 15 minutes or so.
Think about it, Windows team: A system’s perceived responsiveness largely decides whether people like a new OS or not. Chase away those “My computer’s got a desktop but it’s ignoring me” blues once and for all, and Windows 7.0 could be a monster hit!