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Bill Gates Is Just Now Learning What the Dogfood Tastes Like

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 26, 2008

Big to-do in the blogosphere over an email leaked by the seattlepi.  The email was written by Bill Gates and it is a long rant about Windows usability.  Welcome to our world, Bill G.

I won’t bother reprinting the thing here, as so many others have already done so.  But you can catch the drift from one of the first passages:

I am quite disappointed at how Windows Usability has been going backwards and the program management groups don’t drive usability issues.

Here is an unpleasant news flash for you, Bill:  much of what you complain about, having to reboot in the middle of installs, pregnant pauses, and stupid questions asked by WIndows of the user, are nothing new.  They do not represent any “backwards” steps.  Rather, you are just now becoming familiar with what Microsoft hath wrought.

Just today I had the temerity to enter a phone number for the first time into Outlook.  Why the first time?  I had copied my contacts over from another machine and this was the first time on this new laptop.  Up pops a window demanding to know what area code my machine would be calling from.  Putting aside that it is a laptop that travels between two area codes every day and Outlook would only let me enter one, why did it need to know this?  So I cancelled.  Up pops another nasty window telling me this was a really bad decision and would I confirm it.  I did, and the two windows went away but then the original window demanding an area code immediately came back.

Any Windows user knows these Microsoft products are rife with these kinds of problems.  One of the Enterprise Irregulars remarked that it was too bad Bill couldn’t switch to a Mac.  A friend remarked that anyone who has seen the funny commercials with the Apple guy talking to the IBM guy knows exactly why this is happening.  Microsoft has no corporate values around user experience.  They have a lot of other corporate values, many are quite good (such as being ruthlessly efficient fast followers), but user experience is just not one of them despite how much Microsoft may protest otherwise.

I remember well interviewing one time with Jim Allchin, who was running the whole Windows group there.  I came in as a self-professed UI expert, and he looked at me with some disdain and asked what I thought the worst UI problem in Windows was.  This was before Windows XP, so after a moment of reflection I replied that I thought that setting a program’s parameters was a mess.  One never knew whether to look in autoexec.bat, config.sys, or some other arcane place.  It was just a disaster.  In my mind, I liked the Mac’s resource fork idea. 

Allchin was mystified by this and finally annoyed.  He thought I’d cheated and responded that he didn’t think those things were even part of Window’s user interface so I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about.  I was pig-headed then as now, and suggested that since they were part of the user experience they bloody well were part of the user interface and should be dealt with.  The meeting ended immediately at that point as Mr Allchin was not much into listening to such outlandish viewpoints.  Perhaps therein lies the problem, for who at Microsoft was interested and in a position to do much about it?  Who would stand up to the Jim Allchins, and what future could there be in doing so?  Could you imagine engaging Steve Ballmer in a discussion of UI niceties?

Amusingly, XP did introduce a much more comprehensive control panel, device manager, and the registry, so someone evidently did try to do something there.  Even though it had nothing to do with Windows user interface.


3 Responses to “Bill Gates Is Just Now Learning What the Dogfood Tastes Like”

  1. marketblog said

    I am writing this from my brand new MacBook Pro, after 20 years as a PC user (I’m a financial economist, researcher and teacher). What a pleasure it is to work on a stylish, fast machine and the stable Leopard 10.5 OS. My only disappointment with the Mac, believe it or not, is caused by Microsoft. They deliberately omitted VBA from Office 2008 for the Mac — a purely anti-competitive business practice that belies Gates’ approach to Windows and Office. Otherwise, all my PC Office files run great on the Mac — I don’t even have Windows loaded on the machine, and never will.

  2. Jeff Tomlin said

    While I agree with the spirit of this post, your title and opening suggests this is a recent happening (Bill Gates is Just Now…). I wonder is you realize this email was sent from Bill back in 2003? But it does however make you wonder why MS never did learn to eat their own dog food??? (or maybe they just don’t have a very sophisticated palate!)

  3. smoothspan said

    Jeff, welcome!

    You’re right, BUT: even 2003 is very recent by Microsoft standards for Bill Gates to be discovering these problems. What was he doing the whole time Windows has been around? What about the whole time Windows and the Web have been around?

    One has to conclude, as I have, that the company just doesn’t care much about User Experience. They want the veneer of it: Windows is just like Mac only better. But the trouble is they confuse moderately pretty static screen shots with what the actual dynamic experience is like. That implies the decision makers haven’t been eating the dog food for a long long time.



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