Why Windows 7 will be better than Vista

Microsoft's new OS is being shaped by data phoned home from users' PCs

On the elevator to my hotel room, a 20-something man, too tanned and relaxed to be in the tech industry, spied the massive logo on the shopping bag-like tote that Microsoft doled out at its Professional Developer's Conference. "Windows 7, huh?"

"There's always another one," I said.

Without missing a beat, he replied dryly, "They need another one." This gentleman is not a registered PC. Ironically, my tote's straps were tied around the handle of a less ostentatious rolling bag that cradles a new unibody MacBook Pro. Some things aren't worth getting into in an elevator.

It's really difficult for a savvy user not to bring a cynical, or at least skeptical, viewpoint to Windows 7 after the foot-shooting that was pre-SP1 Vista. What many end-users will see in Windows 7 is an effort to Mac-ify Windows, right down to enabling multitouch gestures on Tablet PCs, and copying Apple is instant, certain buzzkill.

[ See Tom Yager's first look at Windows 7 | Join the Windows 7 conversation in Randall C. Kennedy's Windows Sentinel blog | For more news from Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference, check out InfoWorld's special report ]

Apple claims that Microsoft is suffering a drought of original ideas. Reading between the lines, Microsoft counters that Vista, before Service Pack 1 (it's proud of SP1 and later), was a mess for many reasons, but in part because every yahoo on the Internet was invited to transmit his gripes and fantasies directly to Microsoft product managers, who were then duty-bound to take them seriously.

Look, don't listen

That probably works when you're architecting the next rev of SQL Server, because the only people who supply feedback are those with specific expertise. Poll the public at large about what it wants from a client operating system, and you end up with a lot of data that can't be parsed definitively. I've put that too kindly. It's like trying to diagnose a hypochondriac's true ills based on self-reporting of his perceived ailments. It just wastes the time of people who have better uses for it. It's better to tell the patient to shut up and get the story directly from his body and blood.

For Windows 7, Redmond is telling the rabble to put a sock in it, and is instead wiring Windows 7 for more of what it calls "telemetry." Telemetry is the data that unmanned sensors like satellites, planetary rovers, and weather instruments send back to a place where the data is stored and analyzed. When you click the check box in Media Player, Office, or Windows that invites you to help Microsoft make better products, your PC becomes a highly detailed recorder and reporter of your system's state and your usage patterns -- data that gets shipped to Microsoft.

How detailed is this telemetry? Analyzing opt-in telemetry from millions of users, Microsoft determined that a substantial percentage of them change desktop backgrounds fairly frequently. Analysis revealed seasonal and periodic patterns in these changes, so one of Windows 7's features lets you schedule desktop background changes. It's a small thing and a poor example, but Microsoft's telemetry says that people will use it if it's exposed in a friendly way. Let users' usage patterns, not the users, tell the story. Apple never asks customers what they want; it watches what customers do. This delivers an interesting benefit: By analyzing what people do, you can identify workflow snags and spot common work-arounds. Fairly simple enhancements based on this data make it appear that the vendor has been reading your mind. How could they know exactly what I need?

They didn't waste their time, or yours, asking you what you need.

Search to anywhere

A more significant example of a telemetry-inspired Windows 7 feature is search. Search has been integral to Windows Explorer since Clippy, and yet telemetry indicated that users still spend an inordinate amount of their workday looking for and organizing information. Windows users are just resigned to it. Windows 7 creates Libraries, somewhat akin to OS X's Smart Folders, where data-sharing a project, type, or other criteria can be grouped.

Microsoft also observed that when users search, they want to search all of the sources that they can access regardless of their location. All of the search hits show up in one list, roughly Internet search engine style but better formatted (and without the ads), and the hyperlink in each search hit takes you to the data wherever it lives. Microsoft doesn't credit all of its innovations to telemetry, but one of the features of Federated Search that seems clearly based on behavioral data is that hyperlinks pointing to locations behind the company firewall automatically set up the equivalent of a task-specific VPN session without requiring user interaction.

Microsoft isn't just watching end-users; it has analyzed the patterns of interaction between users and their help desks and found what we in IT already know: Support staff wastes an inordinate amount of time on problems that users can fix themselves, and waiting for a fix is unproductive time for users as well.

See Dick crash

At its current pre-beta milestone, Windows 7 self-diagnoses and treats a variety of common ills, along the lines of the troubleshooting wizards scattered throughout Vista. What's different in Windows 7 is that the troubleshooters are scripted in PowerShell, making them modifiable and extensible by IT staff. When a user calls the help desk with a more complicated problem, instead of asking the user what they did in order to try to replicate the problem, a client-side activity recorder accumulates UI actions and screen shots at relevant intervals, so they can be shown to an admin or a help desk staffer.

When asked, a user can't retrospectively report the steps that led to a failure. So don't ask. Have them do it again, record it (not watch it via Remote Assistance), study the telemetry, and you'll know. When you find a solution, you can push fixes out in the form of registry patches, replacement code, or global policy changes. Microsoft somehow discovered that fixing what's broken once you figure out what it is happens to be an IT pain point.

Outrage over Microsoft's analysis of user behavior is senseless. Every move you make on the Web is tracked in excruciating detail. Commercial sites use analysis of statistics and usage patterns to change their design and to personalize presentation to target specific groups. There, telemetry is not opt-in and the data gathered is far from anonymous. It's the cost of opening your browser, and if that data weren't collected and analyzed, Amazon, Google, and InfoWorld.com couldn't change as your needs do.

Recommended
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies