Technology

Vista's Many Turnoffs


Microsoft's new OS has a surprising answer to the question, How many geeks does it take to shut down a computer?

How many ways should you be able to shut off a laptop? How about nine? Microsoft's long-awaited Vista operating system, launched for business customers on Nov. 30, includes that many options, according to programmers familiar with the software. That's two shortcut icons and a shut-down menu with a full seven options.

The number of choices has some techies chortling at what they see as the sheer absurdity of it all—and others astounded that the software giant could come out with something so unwieldy after years of development. Critics say that Vista, for all its capabilities, could end up being too complex for the average consumer. After all, how many features do you need for the computer equivalent of a light switch? "I'm sure there's a whole team of [user interface] designers, programmers, and testers who worked very hard on the OFF button in Windows Vista," writes Joel Spolsky, a New York software developer, on his blog, "but seriously, is this the best you could come up with?"

Insider Insight

Debate over the issue has gained momentum on the Net in recent days, as a growing circle of people weigh in with their opinions. One big reason is the participation of a person who says he worked as a programmer for Microsoft (MSFT) on the shut-off feature. Moishe Lettvin, who now works at rival Google (GOOG), described in online postings the inner workings of the development process at Microsoft. He says that the involvement of dozens of people, operating in too many teams, led to what he calls "the lowest common denominator."

Microsoft executives were not available to comment for this story. However, its supporters point out that each menu option—switch user, log off, lock, restart, sleep, hibernate, and shut down—does do something slightly different. "Restart," for example, shuts off and then immediately reboots the computer. "Sleep," on the other hand, puts the computer in a lower power state, saving battery juice while enabling the user to quickly resume activity. That's different from "hibernate," which saves work before, essentially, shutting down.

Still, Spolsky, author of the Joel on Software book and blog of the same title, takes Microsoft to task for poor design. The company, he maintains, should have copied a page out of rival Apple's (AAPL) book and made Vista's user interface more streamlined and intuitive. Instead of burdening the user with too many choices, the computer should detect how long it has been neglected and select the optimal state automatically, says Spolsky. "There are always good reasons to have sleep and good reasons to have hibernate, but most people—they just don't care about these things," says Spolsky, who is now the chief executive of Fog Creek Software, a software company that designs IT solutions such as bug-tracking systems. "But Microsoft has a specific way of designing software where they never want to eliminate an option that users have had in the past. They always want you to have 37 different flavors."

Too Many Cooks

Lettvin, who says he worked at Microsoft for a total of seven years from 1994 to 1998 and 2002 to 2006, posted his explanation of how the Vista feature evolved on his personal blog. He says that he worked on a eight-person team focused on Vista's laptop user experience, which included the shut-down menu. In his blog, he describes a situation akin to having too many top chefs slaving away over the same chicken broth.

Along with Lettvin's team of eight, there were two other teams involved in the shut-down feature, says Lettvin. That's not counting what Lettvin calls the additional management layers between the developers. In total, as many as 43 people worked on the feature. "Twenty-four of them were connected sorta closely to the code, and of those twenty four there were exactly zero with final say in how the feature worked," wrote Lettvin. "Somewhere in those other 19 was somebody who did have final say but who that was I have no idea since when I left the team—after a year—there was still no decision about exactly how this feature would work."

In an e-mail to BusinessWeek.com, Lettvin stressed that he didn't intend for his post to receive such a wide audience and that Google had nothing to do with his venting. "I didn't wish to offend my former colleagues or any Microsofties at all, for that matter," he wrote. "I described a very specific scenario that is emphatically not applicable at all to Vista as a whole." In fact, Lettvin thinks Vista is "gonna be pretty amazing."

Spolsky, however, can't resist using Microsoft as the punch line of his ongoing jokes. In a Nov. 24 post, titled "how many Microsofties does it take to implement the Off menu?," Spolsky argues that a bloated organizational structure with too many engineers working on small problems likely contributed to Vista delays and unnecessarily complex designs. "It is very hard when you are the engineer, and a feature is your life, to accept that nobody else cares," says Spolsky.

Versatile Power Usage

Still, Microsoft's main barrier to simplicity may be that somebody always cares. The company is, after all, designing a system employed by the majority of computer users around the world. The company undoubtedly has some customers who prefer one shut-off feature over another. In fact, more tech-savvy consumers may want to choose "hibernate" over "sleep," rather than wait for the computer to gradually figure out that they are not coming back and burn battery power in the process.

IT professionals may be particularly sensitive to shut-off issues that can reflect their company's culture and bottom line. Some, conceivably, may want to program the computers to always "hibernate" to ensure power is never wasted and their companies save money. Others may want to keep the computers from hibernating so that employees rarely have to spend time "waking up" their devices.

In a sense, Microsoft's operating system has to be all things to all people—at least, all PC people. Perhaps then it isn't excessive to have nine ways to say goodbye. After all, there could have been more.


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