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A message many consumers can sympathize with

For many consumers, it can seem like it is you against the technology. Indeed, the very technology that is supposed to make our lives easier can seem to complicate things. This is especially true when new versions of software are released that, while they may have more features, typically introduce interface changes that may confuse users and can also have bugs in all of those new features.

This is especially relevant at the moment, with the recent release of Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Microsoft's impending release of Windows 7.

Despite the fact that Apple's Mac operating systems are typically known for their reliability and easy of use, Snow Leopard has not been without its problems. Most notable is a recently discovered bug that could cause the administrator account's data to be deleted. This, however, requires some unique circumstances and isn't exactly easily reproduced unless you are really trying to cause it. On the other hand, there have been compatibility problems, which has far greater potential to affect the experience of users. In addition, Snow Leopard does not come with Rosetta installed by default. While this results in a smaller default installation (as Apple has touted), it also means that the user has to install Rosetta before they can use any of their old PowerPC applications.

Also affected by Snow Leopard are those users who can't upgrade to Snow Leopard: those still using PowerPC Macs. Some of these users feel as if they are being "left behind" by Apple. While Windows users could theoretically install Windows 7 even on a relatively old PC (it has been demonstrated running on Pentium II PCs, although I wouldn't recommend using such a system for day-to-day work), even Mac users who bought PowerPC computers more recently cannot upgrade. It should be noted, however, that more and more applications are Intel-only, so Apple is not alone in this move.

On the other hand, Windows 7 presents its own unique problems. Although Windows 7 seems to at least be faster and more responsive than the much-derided Windows Vista, the difference doesn't appear to be by that great. Worse yet, Windows XP users will still face some of the incompatibility problems they experienced (or would have experienced) with Vista.

Users coming straight from Windows XP may still have problems finding some things due to the differences in the way things like the control panel are set up. While I feel that Windows 7's way of doing things is actually better, those who are used to doing things the Windows XP way will undoubtedly have problems.

The Windows 7 taskbar definitely has the potential to confuse users. While it is possible to switch to the classic taskbar, quite a few inexperienced users may not realize this is even possible, and may be thoroughly annoyed by the new feature.

Another problem is that while Windows XP Mode can help on the software compatibility side, the processor must have hardware support for virtualization in order for it to work. This has the potential to confuse the consumer even more considering the fact that Intel's budget processors typically do not have support for hardware virtualization, and support for virtualizating even among distinct product families can be inconsistent. AMD has been far more consistent, which could prove the be beneficial to the company. If retailers fail to make it clear to users which PCs are XP Mode compatible and which ones aren't, many users with old software could be especially angered when they find out that their new (or existing) computer with a copy of Windows 7 that supposedly supports the feature can't run it.

Of course, what many users are failing to realize is that Windows XP had the same kinds of problems when it was first released. It was criticized for its instability as well as its incompatibility with many old DOS applications as well as some older Windows apps. Of course, Windows XP improved greatly with service pack releases, and XP is currently the most widely used version of Windows.

Of course, there is no real solution to these problems. If new operating systems didn't include any new features, the companies that produce them wouldn't be able to sell them using their current business models. And, when you think about it, the thought of not having moved on from Windows 9x to Windows XP is absurd now. Somewhat ironically, the time between the release of Windows 95 and the release of Windows XP was a bit over 6 years, while the time between the release of XP and the upcoming release of Windows 7 will have been 8 years. While this is a testament to the quality of Windows XP, only so much life can be had out of an operating system in the consumer market. On the other hand, the lifecycles of some products are ridiculous. It's not Microsoft's fault that hardware vendors don't bother to create drivers for newer operating systems. It's also not Microsoft's fault that many of these drivers are subpar, and can be the cause of "Windows" instability; consider that if Microsoft were to enforce stricter standards, even fewer device makers might create updated drivers for new operating systems. Apple only avoids these problems because of the limited set of hardware on which OS X runs.

There are, of course, some ways to alleviate some of these problems.

One interesting possibility would be a subscription-based operating system. This could offer vendors a way to not force people to buy a completely new operating system every couple of years while still having a valid business plan. Newer elements could be modularized and added to compatible systems in the future, while underlying modules (such as those relating to drivers) could remain the same if compatibility would be broken by an update. This, of course, would introduce its own problems. Not everybody has an internet connection, and those who don't would likely be forced to call in. At any rate, it would likely require some time to renew the subscription. It could also anger consumers and make them feel as if they don't really have control over their computers.

As far as processor virtualization support goes, the key would be more consistency across product lines and at least being consistent when using such a feature (or a lack thereof) in order to segment the market. Intel has announced that hardware virtualization will be added to some additional processors.

In the end, consumers can do a few things to keep their experience is positive as possible. Before buying a product, check for reviews online. For example, go to Google and enter the name of the product you are thinking about buying and "review". It is even better if you can enter the specific model of the product that you are looking at buying, to see if it might be an older version and/or might have problems not present in other iterations of the same product. Also, proprietary formats, particularly connectors, can be a headache if there is not enough industry investment into them. Look into these technologies carefully, and be wary that they might not work with every device, and if they break, you might not be able to replace them easily.

Finally, don't forget one important fact: there are people out there that would be happy to help you, whether you are a beginner or seasoned veteran in the tech world. Chances are that there is a forum for your product (or type of product) where you can get help from others. Doing so can make what would otherwise be a major problem into a learning experience, and you just might find that the technology isn't so unfriendly after all.


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