Thursday, June 29, 2006

Seattle: Good and Bad

I just got back from a week-long vacation in Seattle with my two nephews, my girlfriend, and two of her kids. Seattle's a nice town; we had very nice (re: dry) weather while we were there, had a fun time.

The things we liked best were:
  • The food. Two-pound crabs? Thirty-ounce prime rib? Yeah, we indulged. Great food, especially the seafood.
  • Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The boys and I loved this. Not just SF movies, not just SF TV, but also lots of SF literature -- even if the boys had never read any Clarke or Bradbury . The best part was the huge screen with all the different spaceships from different media (from the Rama cylinder to the Millennium Falcon to the Planet Express ship from Futurama), and the interactive information about each ship.
  • Game On. The Pacific Science Center was host to the traveling Game On exhibit, chock full of videogames from Pong to the latest Xbox 360 titles. A fun way to spend an afternoon.
  • The Museum of Flight. I wasn't sure the nephs would like this, but they did -- and so did I. Lots and lots of aircraft from different eras, and a fair amount of (interesting) behind-the-scenes stuff, too.
  • The Space Needle. Good view. What more to say?

What didn't we like? Here's a short list:

  • Experience Music Project. Good premise, poor execution. There simply wasn't much there, there. Aside from the Jimi Hendrix room and the fun interactive instrumental jam area, it was a big letdown. Where was the history? Where was the music? The place was poorly laid out (which way to turn?), had little to no content, and cost way too much ($20/each). Underwhelming, to say the least.
  • Nintendo Welcome Center. Okay, so it wasn't really advertised as a tourist attraction, but you'd think Nintendo's U.S. headquarters would have a little something to show to visitors. All we found was a combination customer service desk and smallish gift store. Game over, Nintendo.
  • The streets. This is one of the most confusing cities I've ever visited, and that's saying a lot, given that I've traveled to both Boston and Milan. Streets change names every few blocks, major streets veer off into minor streets, street signs are obscured by foliage, just a real nightmare trying to find your way around. (It took us four tries to find our hotel -- and it was just a few blocks off I-5!)

We also liked our hotel, the Residence Inn at Lake Union. Nice location (centrally located and on a beautiful lake), very large facility, fun pool to play in, roomy rooms to sleep in (we did two-bedroom suites), free breakfasts every day, and a free dinner on Wednesday. The free meals almost made up for the bread we spent at the expensive dining establishments (Daniel's Broiler and Chandler's Crab Shack) we enjoyed across the street.

All in all, a very good vacation. Everyone enjoyed themselves, my nephs got along fine with my girlfriend's children, and the good points outweighed the bad. Seattle -- not a bad place to visit.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Windows Vista: What Not to Like

I'm a writer by trade, and one of the many things I write about is technology. I typically don't blog about my work, but I'm making an exception today because I've found a new technology which is more annoying than helpful. I'm talking about the next version of Microsoft's operating system, Windows Vista.

I get to beta test Vista because I'm writing a book about it. I'm used to using unstable beta software, of which Vista definitely is, but aside from the expected early bugs, there's some very serious things wrong in the general design of the thing. I wish I could be more positive (I do have books to sell, after all), and I know that Vista will sell a lot of copies (because that's the only operating system you'll be able to buy after January 2007), but I think Microsoft fucked up royally here.

First, to start off on a positive note, let's discuss the things about Vista that I like:
  • Aero interface. The new Aero interface is nice. It's cool looking and 3D-like and translucent, and all that -- just like the Mac. Finally.
  • Internet Explorer 7. It has tabs. I like tabs. And, once again, Microsoft catches up to a competitor (Firefox), which is a good thing for us MS users.
  • Windows Media Player 11. Nice. Really nice. Better than iTunes nice. Much easier to use than previous versions, much easier on the eyes (big album art throughout), and it works well. This is now the best music player program on the market, bar none.
  • Windows Photo Gallery. If you need sophisticated photo editing, stick with Photoshop. But if you need simple touch ups (brightness/contrast, cropping, red eye removal, etc.), having it built into Windows is a good deal. Excellent addition to the Windows suite of products.
  • Windows Media Center. With XP, Media Center was a separate OS SKU. With Vista, it's built into the operating system -- everybody gets it. And if you're using a living room PC, you want it. The changes to Media Center in Vista are minor (new colors, horizontal scrolling instead of vertical scrolling, etc.); it's the fact all versions of Vista (save for Home Basic) come with it that's the big thing.
  • Better networking. MS changed the whole IP stack and redid the networking internals, and it shows. With XP, home networking tended to be a bit hit or miss -- computers disappearing from the network, shared folders showing up (or not) at random, that sort of thing. With Vista, networking simply works. Everything's where it's supposed to be, no unpleasant surprises.

So that's the good. (And note that most of the good things aren't really part of the operating system per se, but are rather accessory programs.) Now let's look at the bad -- the really bad:

  • User Account Control. Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that users have too much control over their PCs. All that control makes for sloppy security; users can install any program they want (even malicious ones), delete important files, you name it. Well, in the name of increased security (isn't everything, these days?), Microsoft has taken away the user's ability to do these supposedly administrator-level operations. It's all called User Account Control, and what it means for the average user is that you're now prompted (often twice!) whenever you try to install a new program, delete or move certain types of files or folders, or even empty certain files out of the Recycle Bin. It's a HUGE hassle, being prompted to confirm all this stuff that you do on a daily basis. In addition, many existing programs just assume that they have administrator rights (to write files, etc.), and simply won't work with UAC. In other words, users get a significantly worse experience under Windows Vista -- and people aren't going to like that. I recommend right now that Microsoft either turn off this invasive feature, or start staffing up their tech support lines; this one is going to catch the company a lot of flack. My solution? Turn off the damned UAC for your main account, which then makes Vista work just like XP, in terms of administrator privileges and the like. A bad, bad, really bad idea.
  • Windows Explorer and file management. In Windows Vista, Windows Explorer is back. That's not a bad thing. What's bad is what Microsoft has done to the Explorer window. First, there's no menu bar, which means no File menu. (Although you can display the menu bar by pressing the Alt button -- but what users are going to know or remember that?) Second, there's no task pane (like XP had), so all the obvious operations are no longer obvious. Instead, Vista has added an Organize button, which displays what is pretty much a mashup of the old task pane and File menu. But this is less than intuitive, and is a major step backwards in usability for non-technical users. Why hide the common file management tasks (copy, delete, move, rename, and the like)? Stupid, stupid, stupid. What was Microsoft thinking?
  • "Streamlined" Start menu. The old Start menu grew and grew and grew with each new program you added. Messy, but easy enough to figure out. The new Vista Start menu is "streamlined," which means that folders are collapsed until you click on them; they don't expand outwards, they grow and shrink within a very limited space. Neater, I supposed, than the old method, but harder for users to figure out. Another step backwards in the ease-of-use department -- and another example of Microsoft changing something that worked, for no apparent reason.
  • Sleep mode from the Power button. To help speed up shutdown and startup, Microsoft essentially is steering users away from powering down their computers. Instead, when you click the Power button (which you think would shut off your computer), Windows goes into Sleep mode. I hope Vista Sleep mode works better than XP Sleep mode (which was problematic, at best), but it's disingenuous to take something that users expect to do one thing (turn off the PC) and make it do another (leave the PC on while Windows goes to sleep). Misleading, it is.
  • Instant Search. In itself, this isn't a bad thing. Microsoft puts little search boxes all over the place, to better find files, programs, and the like, and this function appears to work better than the lame XP search. But I think Microsoft is wrong in thinking users are going to want to search for everything this way; some people, after all, like to organize, and searching instead of browsing -- while a Google conceit -- isn't the way most folks approach all their tasks. As I said, not necessarily a bad feature, just one in which Microsoft places too much emphasis.

I can go on and on, but basically I find Vista underwhelming. Once you get past the pretty interface and the improved applications, there's little there, there. And the security-related changes interrupt the user experience rather than enhance it; security should be invisible, not invasive. (And I do understand that Microsoft is reacting to a lot of bad press about Windows security holes; making users jump through hoops just to do their daily tasks is not an acceptable solution, however.) People are going to complain a lot about this, trust me.

Should you upgrade to Vista? No, not on your current PC. (You can, after all, download Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Media Player 11 separately for XP.) Yes, if you're buying a new PC -- if only because you'll have no choice; after January 2007, all new PCs will come with Vista pre-installed.

Will you like Vista? On the surface, probably yes; the Aero Glass interface is pretty cool. After you get to use it, maybe no; the User Account Control security is just too invasive -- and will crash too many of your old programs. I'd like to think that Microsoft will recognize the error of its ways and change or disable UAC before Vista ships to the public, but that's probably hoping for too much. Microsoft knows what's best for us, after all.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Catching up

For those few demented individuals who actually read this blog, I owe you an explanation for the lack of recent posts. Well, actually, I don't owe you anything, but you're getting one, anyway.

First, I've been busy professionally. I just finished writing a big-ass book about Google, and am starting two new books right on the heels of that. I've also been very busy with an online project that I can't mention at this time, but it's very time consuming in a lot of ways and a very big deal. You'll know more in a few weeks.

Personally, I've been spending a fair amount of time commuting between my home in Indianapolis and my girlfriend's home in Minneapolis. That's 600 miles each way; it's a good thing I like to drive, and a have a car that I like to drive. I try to keep as normal a schedule as I can while up there, but the traveling alone takes two days (one each, up and back) each trip. Then there's the whole bit about spending time with my girlfriend, either in person or on the phone, and the simple fact is that something has to give. Hence the lack of blog postings.

I'd like to promise to keep a better posting schedule, but the hell with that. I'll continue to post whenever I damned well feel like it, or whenever I'm particularly annoyed at something, whichever comes first. That's the only promise I'll make.

(I have, BTW, been keeping up on my reading, viewing, and listening. Make sure you take a look at the books, DVDs, and CDs listed to the right of these postings -- they're as up-to-date as anything.)