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Switched On: Microsoft needs to smarten up startin' up

Ryan Block, @ryan
11.16.05
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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Windows Vista logo smaller

Its marketers describe its benefits as being clear, connected, and confident. No, it's not a new antiperspirant, but Windows Vista. By confidence, Microsoft means functionality that could also be described alliteratively. Reliability is promised from an improved driver model that may require you to throw out your old hardware. Resilience should help Windows avoid spyware on peer-to-peer networks fought by major record labels so that they can install their own. And responsiveness should keep your system performing smoothly and minimize delays. For example, Microsoft notes that Windows Vista should start up and shut down as quickly and reliably as a television set.

The latter goal is laudable since, while most PCs have more than enough horsepower to handle everyday uses, many encounter bottlenecks when they're starting up or waking from standby mode. The problem is simple contention. A large number of processes are initiated when Windows starts and even fast PC processors and fast hard disks get overwhelmed. The problem is exacerbated if you run little system tray programs, especially if they hit the already taxed hard disk, or you don't have enough RAM and rely too much on virtual memory. Backup and file synchronization programs as well as search programs that need to update their indicies can add minutes to startup times.


The classic Mac OS had a similar problem managing little startup programs called extensions and control panels (INITs and cdevs for the old-school ResEdit hackers). Power users had almost enough time to master Newton handwriting recognition as they waited for the colorful icon parade to pass on their startup screens. These hacks became so popular that they would sometimes fill two or three rows (although this was long before the days of 30-inch HD Cinema Displays). Third parties and eventually Apple responded with management programs that let you toggle certain extensions and create extension sets; Mac OS X merely dispensed with the troublesome conflict-prone architecture. At least you could hold down the Shift key and compliant extensions would stop loading. Also, one didn?t expect to launch any applications until you saw the desktop and the programs mostly loaded.

The problem today is that Windows practically ignores user input as it fulfills its predetermined startup mission. How many times has someone turned on her laptop desperate to check e-mail only to wait as Windows addresses secondary concerns like loading fax and instant messaging programs? What Microsoft should do is interpret an attempt to launch a program as high priority and postpone all those background tasks that ?need? to occur at startup. That would greatly enhance perceived responsiveness.

In Windows Vista, Microsoft will try to get around the problem by redefining what it means to be ?off? ? a new standby state preserves the contents of RAM to the hard disk, meeting hibernation at the half way point. Microsoft will also introduce a new rapid restart mode that Windows enters whenever it encounters an error so serious that it needs to restart. If executed well, these will be welcome improvements. However, at some point, resource-sucking startup processes will need to be restarted. Windows should be more considerate about when.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.
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