Our tribute to Microsoft's biggest flops
Windows Vista is great, right? Well, we all use it. But we'd like to ditch user access controls (UAC) - and what's with Aero? And as you'll see, it's not a new thing. Here then, is our loving tribute to Microsoft's operating systems biggest flops and flaws, from Windows 95's Active Desktop onwards.
In November 1985, Microsoft released Windows 1.0. And thus began Windows' 22-year reign (to date) as the world's most popular, most irritating computing platform.
Which Windows features have been responsible for the most angst? We tallied this list of offenders. Our roster includes several kinds of worsts: simple bad ideas, good ideas gone wrong, and a few ideas that started out terrible but eventually became surprisingly decent.
Here's our run-down of worst Windows features, from 20 down to number one.
In a day in which half a terabyte of hard disk costs only around £50, it's easy to forget that megabytes of storage were once a rare and precious commodity, and disk-compression utilities felt slightly miraculous.
Microsoft's DoubleSpace was introduced with DOS 6.0 in 1993; after a patent suit by competitor Stac Electronics, it was replaced with a non-infringing twin, DriveSpace, which was part of Windows 95.
DriveSpace did indeed squeeze about twice the amount of stuff on to a disk, but the risk was immense, since data recovery was much tougher if something went awry. Windows XP was the first version without DriveSpace support of any sort - by then, nobody noticed or cared.
19. Windows Movie Maker
Windows Me (Millennium Edition) introduced Windows Movie Maker 1.0, Microsoft's answer to Apple's then-new iMovie video editor.
You could say it was a tad bare bones. It didn't do titling or effects, offered a grand total of one transition effect, and could output video in only a proprietary format.
Version 2.0, which came with Windows XP, was the first respectable one - although even it didn't live up to the Windows XP commercial it was featured in, which showed XP users flying Superman-style to the beat of Madonna's "Ray of Light". As for Windows Vista's Movie Maker 6.0, our biggest question is this - what happened to 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0?
18. Web TV for Windows
New versions of Windows always seem to come with at least one much-hyped feature which instantly sinks into obscurity.
Windows 98 had the decidedly lacklustre WebTV For Windows - which, confusingly didn't have much to do with Microsoft's WebTV set-top box. Instead, it let you watch the tube (via a tuner card) and peruse TV listings.
It also offered interactive TV features through Intel's short-lived Intercast service. It was slow and unstable, clashed with Windows 98's screen savers, and locked up regularly even when nothing else was running. Fun bonus: the software also introduced a security flaw that could allow hackers to take over your PC.
17. Shut Down
Some people gripe about how long Windows takes to boot up. Us, we're more aggravated by how long it takes to shut down - and how often it seems to just give up before it's completed the job.
Microsoft says that shutting down works better in Vista, and it seems to - but we still get puzzled by the array of different ways to end a Windows session. Here's a fascinating and revealing blog post by a former Microsoft developer who worked on Vista's Shut Down menu.
Paint has been bundled with Windows since version 1.0 back in 1985, and it's changed remarkably little over the decades. (That's the Windows 3.0 edition, known as Paintbrush, in the image.)
With Vista's real photo-related features living in a different app called Windows Photo Gallery, it seems a safe bet that Microsoft won't ever bring Paint into the new millennium. If you want a taste of what Paint should be in 2007, check out the superb free photo editor known as Paint.net.
15. Windows Aero
Transparent Windows borders! That let you see the stuff beneath them! The Aero user interface, which Microsoft touted as one of the major breakthroughs in Windows Vista, are (mildly) cool when they work as advertised.
But the upside of Aero seems tiny given the hardware oomph required. For PCs with less-than-potent graphics (including ones on sale today), Aero is a machine-choking headache. In fact, Vista sometimes decides on its own to turn off Aero without telling you. Don't worry - you're really not missing much.
14. Active Desktop
You could make a case that Active Desktop (which originated as part of Internet Explorer 4.0's Windows Desktop Update and became part of the OS with Windows 98) was a decent idea a decade too early. Part of the short-lived "push" fad of the mid-1990s, it piped web content directly to your Windows wallpaper, where it would sit and auto-update itself.
That's the same basic idea as current OS enhancers such as Yahoo Widget Engine, Apple's Dashboard, and, come to think of it, Vista's Gadgets. But in an era of slow PCs and even slower dialup connections, Active Desktop was famous mostly for making Windows run like molasses.
13. Windows XP Search
It's kind of astonishing: Windows users had to wait nearly a quarter century, until Windows Vista, for an OS with really good search features.
Windows XP Search may be the worst of all, with an interface that's as patronising as it is sluggish and confusing. You search with the help of a talking dog who even Microsoft's own site says some people "loathe".
After user campaigns against the irritating pooch, Microsoft was sensible enough to make sure Vista was a canine-free zone.
12. The Microsoft Network
Never used the original version of MSN, which shipped with Windows 95?
Consider yourself fortunate. Dating from the pre-web days when AOL was the hottest thing online, MSN 1.0 tried to bring a Win 95-style interface to online services - forums, for instance, were shortcuts that sat inside desktop folders.
But the whole thing was unintuitive, sparse on content, and excruciatingly slow (connection speeds initially topped out at 14.4kbs). And by the time it debuted, it was already an anachronism, forcing Microsoft to reinvent MSN as an ISP and purveyor of web services.
11. Windows Explorer
If your memory stretches back to the pre-Windows 95 age, you remember Windows' File Manager. You might even miss it - Windows Explorer, even in Vista, lacks some of the features File Manager had, such as the ability to use wildcards to filter a view down to documents of a certain type.
Then there features that Explorer has always needed and never gotten, like the ability to print a list of the files in a folder. As often happens, a third party has done what Microsoft hasn't: VCOM's PowerDesk is a worthy utility that's exactly what File Manager should have evolved into.
10. Windows 95 USB
Today, it's hard to imagine living without USB. Back in 1997, it was hard to live with it.
Windows 95 predated the USB standard, so support was added via a patch known as Windows 95 OSR2.1. When we tried it out with early USB peripherals, they worked only sporadically, and sometimes trashed the PC - and OSR2.1 managed to trash our Windows 95 machine so badly that we had to reinstall the operating system from scratch. Twice.
Windows 98 did add built-in USB support, but in a form that was far from fabulous. Bill Gates famously managed to crash a PC during an onstage demo when he plugged a USB scanner into it.
9. Windows Genuine Advantage
Is Microsoft entitled to fight pirates? Absolutely. But Windows Genuine Advantage, which makes you do a piracy check before downloading software from Microsoft.com, and displays nag notes if it thinks your copy of Windows is stolen, leaves millions of Microsoft customers caught in the crossfire.
The first version with the nagging "feature" got installed with security updates and was famous for mistaking legit copies of Windows for stolen ones. To this day, trying to download software from Microsoft in Firefox is a miserable experience.
And to add insult to inconvenience, Microsoft's marketing for WGA says it's all being done to help customers verify that their software isn't counterfeit. Er, thanks, guys.
8. End Task
A program hangs. You type Ctrl + Alt + Del to bring up the Task Manager, then click End Task to kill the app. Nothing happens. You try again and again, and it eventually works. Or doesn't.
Why is such a basic operating-system need so flaky in 2007? We're not sure. Especially since Mac OS X's equivalent feature, Force Quit, manages to work perfectly every time.
7. User Access Control
Nobody can say that the idea behind user access control (UAC) is crummy. If the computer is about to do something that's potentially risky, it makes sense to verify that the PC's user wants it to happen.
UAC in practice, however, is incredibly clunky, from the alarming screen blackout to the often cryptic dialog box asking for permission, to the way UAC gets in the way of humble tasks that aren't particularly risky.
We hope that Vista gets a more polished UAC someday - this version is so annoying it's tempting to just disable it and take your chances with attackers.
6. Windows Update
There are lots of things you can criticise about Windows XP's approach to software patches. But when we asked around, the biggest complaint by far was how the OS' Windows Update feature (also known as Microsoft Update) pops up a dialog box nagging you to reboot your PC and continues to do so every 10 minutes until you obey.
Ignore it, and the machine may reboot if you walk away for a moment, sometimes destroying unsaved data in the process.
That dialog box is in desperate need of a button marked "I'll Reboot When I'm Damn Well Ready - you hear?" Windows Vista's version doesn't offer that, but it does allow you to wait up to four hours before being pestered again.
5. Messenger Service
Just perusing the article in Microsoft's Knowledgebase about Windows Messenger alert service (no relation to the Windows Messenger IM client) is enough to make you shudder: "If advertisements are opening on your computer in a window titled Messenger Service, it may indicate that your system is not secure... some advertisers have started using this service to send information via the internet, and these messages could be used maliciously to distribute a virus."
Windows XP SP2 disabled it by default; Vista eliminated it. Good riddance.
Hey, you've just installed a program! A network cable is missing! You've got icons on your desktop you're not using!
Windows is constantly alerting us to stuff it thinks we should know, usually by means of word balloons that pop up from the System Tray. (Which, incidentally, is more accurately called the TaskBar Notification Area.)
An amazing percentage of these messages are painfully obvious, irrelevant, or just plain inaccurate. Never have so many computer users been distracted from their work by interruptions so useless.
3. Internet Explorer 6.0
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Microsoft fought the browser wars against Netscape with all it had. With Internet Explorer 6.0, released in 2001, though, it seemed to declare "Mission accomplished".
For five long years, IE barely changed, even as competitors such as Firefox and Opera showed there were plenty of ways to make browsing better.
At the same time, attacking IE 6 security holes became a full-time occupation for an army of hackers - and patching them up turned into part-time work for everyone who used the browser. Internet Explorer 7.0, released in 2006, is a passable upgrade, but wouldn't the world have been a better place if it had shown up two or three years earlier?
2. The Registry
Ever wonder why the national grid is so flakey that a single lightning strike can wipe out hundreds of households? We ask the same thing about Windows' Registry - why did Microsoft put so many vital pieces of Windows configuration data in one place, where a minor problem with that single file can turn into a full-tilt PC disaster?
You can back up your Registry religiously. You can run Registry cleaning utilities. You can edit the Registry very, very carefully, should you dare to edit it at all. But you can't eliminate the possibility that it'll bring Windows to its knees.
1. ActiveX Controls
For years, ActiveX - the technology which dates all the way back to Windows 3.0's OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) - had not one but two majorly pernicious effects on computer users. Folks who use websites that run ActiveX applets on their PCs open themselves up to security risks, since an ActiveX control can do pretty much anything it wants on your PC once you'd told it to run.
And the fact that ActiveX runs only in Internet Explorer in Windows stunted the growth of alternative browsers and operating systems for years.
ActiveX controls still exist, but with some exceptions - mostly related to Microsoft "benefits" such as Windows Update and Windows Genuine Advantage - it's easier than ever to ignore them. Thank goodness for that.