Robert McLaws: Windows Edition

Blogging about Windows since before Vista became a bad word

October 2009 - Posts

  • An Open Letter to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

    Dear Mr. Ballmer,

    Let me start by saying that I’ve admired your company since I was 10 years old. I think what Microsoft does for the industry, and the world, is amazing. I think Windows is, and has always been, the best operating system on the market.

    However, I have to take issue with your recent statement that Vista beta testers failed you. The testers did not fail you sir, your development and beta processes did. Your feedback mechanism is notorious for closing bugs entered within a matter of hours. This would normally be an amazing thing, if they were actually getting fixed; however most were closed “No Repro” without contact from the person trying to repro, or worse: “By Design, Won’t Fix” (which is like a giant slap in the face).

    In addition, many beta testers sounded very public warnings that Vista wasn’t ready. In fact, my post on the matter (the year my Windows MVP wasn’t renewed, BTW) gave specific causes for alarm, along with specific, actionable options for adding another Beta to the cycle. This post garnered half a million page views (my single most-viewed piece EVER) and my opinion was echoed by many major tech heavy-hitters, including Scoble, Ed Bott, Chris Pirillo, Marc Orchant, Dwight Silverman, Paul Thurrott (though he took several potshots at me in the process) and others.

    Fortunately for you, Steven Sinofsky & crew have done a fantastic job cleaning house on the engineering side. Adding internal testing to the planning mix had a drastic positive effect on the quality of the product cycle, and showed that the Windows Team truly does respect the term “Release Candidate”. The only complaint that I have about the Windows 7 Beta engineering process is that there were too few builds released to testers to validate the work that was going on.

    However, many issues with the tester feedback loop still remain. The general feeling from the tester community is that Microsoft only likes us when our feedback is positive, and couldn't care less otherwise. And that drives an animosity that will not be beneficial to Windows (or Microsoft as a whole) in the long-term. My personal opinion is that Scott Guthrie still runs the best teams at Microsoft, and his community engagement methodology is one that every Microsoft team should strive to emulate.

    So, with all due respect, Mr. Ballmer, before you go insinuating that beta testers didn’t do their jobs with Vista, maybe you should look into how your own people kept you insulated from the screaming we were all doing about how bad Vista was. We tried to warn you, it’s not our fault the message was not relayed to your bubble.

    Robert McLaws
    Early Windows “Longhorn” enthusiast and satisfied Windows 7 customer

  • Changes Needed for Media Center in Windows 7 SP1

    I *love* Windows Media Center. It’s my favorite part of Windows, and in Windows 7, it’s fantastic. There are a lot of improvements, and hopefully soon I’ll be able to post some of my favorite parts.

    But I just spent the last 2 hours trying to fix my Windows Media Center installation at home (tried a number of different options before I ended up rolling back using Windows Home Server), so I figured now would be the best time to talk about the improvements that WMC needs by the time the next Service Pack rolls around.

    Improving Reliability
    The WMC database is by far the most brittle aspect of Windows Media Center. For whatever reason, Microsoft decided to use a lightweight database to power the whole system. Series recordings, configuration data… you name it. It’s all stored in a DB file in C:\Windows\ehome. If that DB file is corrupted in any way, you are completely SOL.

    Such an event happened on October 2nd. I’m not the only one that experienced the issue, which means Microsoft distributed corrupted Guide data. Microsoft said the only option was to re-run the initial setup, and I’m sorry but that answer is unacceptable. It takes nearly 20 minutes to run the “Configure My TV Signal” process. I shouldn’t need to configure my tuners and blast away my Recording settings in order to clear out and re-download the Guide. But that is the only option that Microsoft puts on the table.

    The Media Center needs to move the WMC database to a more robust engine that is capable of transactional rollbacks if an update fails. It also needs to store the Guide in a completely separate database file, so that Guide corruptions do not affect all of the other settings.

    User Interface Changes
    I run my Media Center in a headless configuration, because I don’t want those gigantic OCUR tuners on my entertainment center. The main problem with that setup is that I can’t run the aforementioned “Configure My TV Signal” wizard on an Extender. Whatever the technical reason for that decision is, accessibility trumps all. I shouldn’t have to lug a monitor into my office closet to configure my TV tuners.

    And while the team is improving the UI, there needs to be an option to backup and restore your Series Subscriptions without downloading a 3rd party program. ESPECIALLY if the WMC database is so brittle. Yes, I know there are free/cheap options. We’re on like the 5th iteration of the platform at this point, it’s time to start building in better options for recovering from problems.

    And finally, there needs to be a richer notification system for headless Media Centers. If the Guide won’t download, the only way to find out is to RDP into the system. While that’s not a terribly big deal, it’s not the best user experience. There should be UI for reading Media Center errors, and a queuing process for showing serious ones, for example like Windows Update restart notifications.

    Windows Media Center is a fantastic platform, and Microsoft has pulled out all the stops to give it the potential to really hit the mainstream. The next update (which unlike the TV Pack 2008, needs to be available to everyone) needs to focus on improving the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor).