NY Times vs. MS Windows Vista

People often wonder why I am so adamantly opposed to the established journalistic media outlets. Often people will claim that some papers, such as the “illustrious” New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, are exceptions to the continuing trend of soft journalism. But I contend that these two papers may actually be some of the worst offenders – perhaps even using their long standing positions of being “above reproach” to allow for even greater lack of professionalism and to allow bias in their reporting.

In a recent New York Times article “They Criticized Vista. And They Should Know” author Randall Stross, professor at San Jose State University, uses skewed anecdotal evidence and out-of-context examples in a blatant attempt to bias the reader against Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows Vista. Whether this has occurred simply because the author does not understand the material, because the New York Times has its own political agenda or because they have been paid to reverse-advertise by the competition I cannot say. But for some reason the “illustrious” New York Times is using its position as a media outlet to serve to the detriment of honesty and to mislead the readers who have been mislead into paying for what proves to be little more than a tabloid.

Mr. Stross begins his article by presenting the issue of Vista’s slow adoption rate. He acts as though its adoption rate is unexpected or not appropriate for a new operating system. However, given Windows XP’s presence in business, longevity, stability and feature set it is not surprising or unexpected, in the least, that Vista – not having yet reached Service Pack 1 – would have a very slow adoption rate. Each new operating system generation has to contend with a lesser and lesser value proposition to people updating and it has been seven years since the last major round of Microsoft operating systems – almost an eternity in the IT industry.

Vista also has a new kernel architecture (the first of the Windows NT 6 family as opposed to the NT 5 family that we are used to with Windows 2000 – NT5, Windows XP – NT5.1 and Windows 2003 – NT5.2) and therefore has many hurdles to cross that have not been seen since the migration from Windows NT 4 to Windows 2000. Additionally, this is the first major NT to NT family kernel update to hit the consumer market. Earlier NT family updates happened almost entirely within businesses where these processes are better understood and preparations happen much, much earlier. This is the first major consumer level change since users were slowly migrated from the Windows 9x family (95, 98 and ME) to the NT family (2000, XP) which happened over a very long time period. Users should recall the large number of headaches that occurred during that transition as few applications were compatible across the chasm created by the new security paradigm.

Mr. Stross takes the approach that Microsoft needs to answer for the natural slow adoption of a new, somewhat disruptive technology, but this is ridiculous. Vista market penetration is expected to be slow within the industry and no one is wondering why it hasn’t appeared on everyone’s desktops or laptops yet. Vista technicians are still being trained, bugs are still being found, issues still being fixed, applications are still being tested and Service Pack 1 is still being readied. I have Vista at home but I am an early adopter. I don’t expect “normal” (read: non-IT professionals) to be seriously considering Vista updates themselves until later this year.

Our author then asks the question “Can someone tell me again, why is switching XP for Vista an ‘upgrade’?” Actually, Mr. Stross, in the IT world this is what is known as an “update”, not an “upgrade”. An update occurs when you move from an older version to a newer version of the same product. An upgrade occurs when you move to a higher level product.

Windows XP Home to Windows Vista Home Basic is an update. Windows Vista Home Basic to Windows Vista Home Premium is an upgrade. Windows XP Home to Windows Vista Home Premium is, in theory, both. Please do not mislead consumers by claiming that Windows Vista is an upgrade. It is not. Windows Vista is simply the latest Windows family product for consumer use.

If you have Windows XP and it is meeting your current needs why would you go the route of updating? I have no idea. I think that people need to answer that question before having unreasonable expectations of any new software product. Windows XP is still supported by Microsoft and will be for a very long time.

If I may make a quick comparison, moving from Windows XP Home to Windows Vista Home Basic is like moving from a 2002 BMW 325i to a 2007 BMW 325i. This is not an upgrade. It is simply an update. Just a newer version of the same thing. Sure, some things change between the versions but no one would consider this to be a higher class of car. If you want a higher class get yourself a 760i.

Mr. Stross goes on to regale us with horror stories of Vista updates gone wrong. In each of the cases what we see is a confused consumer who felt that, contrary to Microsoft’s recommendations and contrary to any industry practice, they could simply purchase any edition of Vista and expect any and every piece of software that they owned to work. This is not how Windows, or any other operating system, functions.

In the first example, Jon A. Shirley – former Chief Operating Officer, President and current board member at Microsoft – updates two home computers and then discovers that the peripherals that he already owned did not yet have Vista drivers. Our author does not mention whether or not Mr. Shirley checked on the status of these drivers before purchasing Windows Vista nor does he complain about these unknown third party vendors not providing Vista drivers. It is implied in the article that it is Microsoft’s responsibility to provide third party drivers. It is not. Drivers are the responsibility of the hardware manufactures. Hardware compatibility is the responsibility of the consumer. In neither case is Microsoft responsible for third party drivers. It may be in their best interest to encourage their development but they are not Microsoft’s responsibility.

In the next example we see Mike Nash – Vice President of Windows Product Management – who buys a Vista-capable laptop. This laptop would have been loaded with Windows XP but capable, as stated, of running at least Windows Vista Home Basic when it would become available. It is absolutely critical to keep in mind that Windows XP Home’s direct update (not upgrade) path is to Windows Vista Home Basic.

When Mr. Nash attempted to update his laptop to Vista we are told that he was only able to run a “hobbled” version. What does “hobbled” imply? We can only assume that it means that he can run Windows Vista Home Basic as we would expect. What has handily been done here is that one version of Windows Vista has been considered “hobbled” and another is considered “not-hobbled” even though consumers must pay for the features between the versions – an upgrade. It a BMW 325i hobbled because the BMW 335i has a bigger engine but requires more fuel?

It is also mentioned that Mr. Nash is unable to run his favourite video editing software – Movie Maker. It is true that the edition of Movie Maker that comes with Windows Vista has some high requirements that may have kept Mr. Nash from being able to run the version of Movie Maker included in the Windows Vista box. But Microsoft makes a freely downloadable version of Movie Maker for Windows Vista specifically for customers who have run into this limitation. So this is not even a valid argument.

It is implied that Microsoft mislead consumers by stating that the laptop was Vista-capable, but we are not told that Windows Vista did not install successfully nor work properly. What is being done here is the application of unreasonable expectations on Microsoft. Microsoft has stated extremely clearly since long before Windows Vista was released to the public that there would be different versions and that many of the features had specific hardware requirements beyond the base requirements. The features in these higher-end editions were upgrade features not included in the basic Windows Vista distribution.

This begs the questions “Could Microsoft have done more to inform their customers of the Windows Vista requirements?” Perhaps. But the answer is not as easy as it seems. As it was, these requirements were incredibly well known and publicized. The issue that we are dealing with is consumers, including some inside of Microsoft, who did not check the well publicized details and had unreasonable expectations in this situation. Much like the often heard story of the purchase of a video game that requires an expensive high end graphics card that the purchases does not posses. That application has higher requirements than Windows Vista Home Basic so why shouldn’t Windows Vista Ultimate Edition not have higher requirements too?

It is unfortunate that so many consumers have difficulty understanding computers enough to be able to purchase them effectively. It is also unfortunately that many choose to ignore requirements that are clearly stated because it is too much effort. But in neither case can Microsoft be held to a higher level of expectation than any other company in the same position. If a Linux based desktop operating system was being purchased the same problems would have applied. Some features would require a more powerful machine and some are very complicated.

A key issue here is that because these two pieces of anecdotal evidence come from high-ranking Microsoft insiders we treat them as if they are more important than normal consumer issues. The fact is that these two Microsoft employees did not do the same level of consumer diligence that I would expect of anyone buying something so expensive and complex as a new computer. Computers are complex and desiring to “future proof” your purchase requires some careful forethought and planning.
We are also not seeing the whole picture. Perhaps Mr. Nash and Mr. Shirley were purchasing Vista intentionally without putting in any forethought to see what problems the least diligent segment of customers were likely to run into and were using this information to allow Microsoft to attempt to fix their problems even though it was not Microsoft’s responsibility to do so. In this case Microsoft should be being praised for being willing to put so much effort into fixing things that are not their problem just because it makes for happier customers.

I am most unhappy that this article’s use of two pieces of out-of-context anecdotal evidence and using them as a basis for the implication that Vista is not yet finished – by calling it “supposedly finished” without any justification whatsoever. This is called “leading”. Clearly Windows Vista was finished, shipped and is used by many people. But now the reader is lead to believe that it is not finished even though it is not actually stated by the author. This is not the job of journalism – to decide on a verdict and indicate to the reader the way in which they should think. While not strictly lying the intent is to mislead ergo making the intent – to lie.

Even worse is the blatant falsification that “PCs mislabeled as being ready for Vista when they really were not” which is completely and utterly untrue and clearly intentional defamation and libel. It is never said that Windows Vista did not run on any machine stated here as being capable of running Windows Vista. It is simply implied that some upgrades to higher editions of Windows Vista were not possible.

The article wraps up with a look at the timeline of the decision process in the labeling of machines as being Vista-capable. We can see that internally Microsoft was torn as to which direction to go but chose, in the end, to label all machine capable of running Windows Vista as being Vista-capable.

I understand that there are many reasons why Microsoft may have wanted to mislead consumers (for the consumer’s own good) into buying overpowered new hardware just to feed the coffers of their hardware partners by only labeling a machine Vista-capable if they were able to run the high-end, expensive upgraded versions that would only be of interest to more affluent or intensive users.

Nevertheless, Microsoft resisted misleading consumers and labeled the computers accurately and did not use the Vista release as an opportunity to push hardware prices higher. They labeled their computers honestly and accurately. Labeling them in any other way would actually have been misleading and would have been of questionable intent.

At least poor consumers were not told to buy expensive computers just to find out that a much less expensive model would have sufficed to run Windows Vista! Microsoft would most definitely have been accused to misleading customers in that case. Those customers for whom the price of the computer was most difficult to manage were the ones protected the most.

The article ends asking “where does Microsoft go to buy back its lost credibility?” But the real question is after so blatantly attacking Microsoft without merit, where does the New York Times and San Jose State University professor Randall Stross go to buy back their credibility?

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