Seeing Through Windows

Here's my short list of tall orders for any major new version of Windows.

by Illustration by: Scott Menchin

Windows XP is a nice upgrade. But when do we get something that's really better?Illustration by: Scott Menchin

You can almost feel the bipolar sense of anticipation and dread building: Microsoft is about to release a major new version of Windows, the operating system software that makes most of our computers run -- or halt, depending on the operating system's whim. We'll be getting lots of new housekeeping functions in Windows XP, some "enhanced reliability," and probably an improved Internet browser, depending on the U.S. Justice Department's capriciousness.

That's all just keen. But will we get the improvements we really need? Well, let's see. I've got 18 years of MS-DOS and Windows operating system experience under my belt, so I've got some consumer background in the field. And if I was designing a new version of Windows, I'd have a short list of tall orders. My Top 5 new features would include:

1. Instant on. As anyone who's ever booted up a Windows PC (or a Mac, for that matter) knows, loading the operating system and thereby making the computer suitable for human use takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r. With each new rendition of Windows, the problem seems to get worse. No surprise there, since Windows gets bigger with each version as Microsoft ardently attempts to bury competitors and/or offer the consumer more. (Insert your own Microsoft bias here.) You can simply leave your PC on 24/7, but that's an energy-wasting cop-out. What the world needs is a version of Windows that's partially or entirely encoded on a chip, so your PC turns on as quickly as your television. And there's no reason why operating system upgrades couldn't be as simple as inserting a new memory card into a slot.

2. Self-analysis. Improved reliability (read: doesn't crash as much) may be the single best thing about Windows XP. But borrowing the better programming from Windows 2000 hardly scratches the surface of what an operating system could do to prevent meltdowns. Forget the so-called soft landing stuff about shutting down programs or drivers that aren't behaving properly. Let's analyze and change the behavior. Nearly every time I've had a serious problem with Windows, I've spent an hour or more on the phone with Microsoft technicians who check my settings, analyze the problem, and, usually, fix it. My question is, why aren't my gigahertz computer, advanced operating system, and high-speed Net connection doing this? If this analytical ability and knowledge base is within Microsoft's walls, why isn't it in my OS?

3. Internet intelligence. An updated version of Internet Explorer? That's nice, I guess, but frankly I'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference from the old version. Today's Web browsers either open my pages correctly or they don't, and the rest is eye or ear candy. I'd like something a little more substantial, like an Internet intermediary that actually tries to help me get to the information or services I'm after. If my browser sees that I'm booking a flight from New York to Chicago on American, for example, why doesn't it use all that untapped bandwidth to automatically find similar data from several other sites and list it conveniently for me?

4. Mac compatibility. I have virtually no choice but to use Windows. My company deals with dozens of other companies, nearly all of which use Windows. So choosing a Mac would be an act of self-punishment. Heck, we often have trouble simply sharing Word or PhotoShop files between PCs and Macs, despite their alleged file compatibility. At this stage of the game, with Microsoft having won the holy war, why not simply have Microsoft and Apple collaborate on a true Mac mode that's fully compatible and even gives you the Mac interface if you prefer? (Apple could delude itself into thinking this is good advertising for the Mac.) This would make life easier for both parties, and have the side benefit of riling up the Mac zealots who treat their computers as religious artifacts rather than mere hardware.

5. Open Windows. Microsoft plans Home and Professional versions of Windows XP, with an increasingly harsh enforcement policy about installing either on more than one computer. How about a free and open version of Windows instead? The "free" part might mean libraries, nonprofits, and struggling families could have a bare-bones version of Windows. The "open" part might mean a community of programmers connected via the Internet could customize Windows for their (or our) very particular needs and wants, much like the way they do with versions of Linux. Windows XP costs, and it's largely closed.

So is Windows XP bad? Certainly not. In fact, it's better than any consumer version of Windows to date, mainly because it incorporates so much of the professional versions that preceded it (for a full review, see the new Firsthand department in this issue). But Microsoft is thinking small with Windows, and giving us far less than the technical tour de force it's capable of producing.
Even so, I'm steadfastly against the idea of prohibiting Microsoft from selling Windows XP, as the attorney general of New York State is pondering at this writing. Antitrust violations or not, I don't want any more New Yorkers moving to Florida, my state.

You can contact Chris O'Malley at chris@popsci.com. He'll respond after he restarts his PC.