Microsoft's "out-of-box experience" priority means no roles for Windows 7.
I had hoped that Microsoft would take a role-based approach to Windows 7. But, there won't be roles, according to a Saturday blog post by Steven Sinofsky, senior veep of the Windows and Windows Live Engineering Group. He gave some pretty good reasons.
In the post, Steven explains that customers well received Windows Server 2008's role-based approach. "The desktop PC (or laptop) is different because there is only a single PC and the roles are not as well defined. Only in the rarest cases is that PC dedicated to a single purpose," Steven writes.
"In nearly every study we have ever done, just about every PC runs at least one piece of software that other people do not run," he continues. "So we should take away from this the difficulty in even labeling a PC as being role specific."
Steven regards the PC for the unique device that it is. Most products are created to do one or two things. The PC is unusual in that it's like a Swiss Army Knife that can do many things pretty well.
Steven is best known for his role working on Microsoft Office, where with versions 95 and 97 a role-based installation process didn't work well. He explains:
"We thought we could have a setup wizard ask you how much you used Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access, or a taxonomy that asked you a profession (lawyer, accountant, teacher). From that we were going to pick not just which applications but which features of the applications we would install. We consistently ran into two problems. First, just arriving at descriptors or questions to 'categorize' people failed consistently in usability tests...Second, we always had the problem of either multiple users of the same PC or people who would change roles or usage patterns. It turns out our corporate customers learned this same thing for us and it became routine to install everything.'"
For Seven—as I assume for previous Windows versions—Microsoft is very concerned with what Steven called the OOBE, or out-of-box experience. "For Windows 7 we are working closely with our OEM partners to make sure it is possible to deliver the most streamlined experience possible," he writes. "This goal would run counter to introducing a 'profiling' or wizard help [to] gauge the intended (at time of purchase) uses/usage of a PC."
He's right that the out-of-box experience is crucially important. First impressions can make or break the emotional connection to a product or brand. Microsoft's big problem with Windows Vista is one of bad first impressions. Consumers brought home shiny Vista PCs, only to find that their existing scanners, printers and other devices wouldn't work. There were no drivers, and for some hardware there still are none. Businesses ran into a rash of application compatibility problems. Both customer groups dealt with increased complexity, like User Access Control prompts or changes to the user interface.
"Our context for the out-of-box experience would be that we don't want to introduce complexity there, where customers are least interested in dealing with it as they want to get to the excitement of using their new PC," Steven asserted. He's right. Microsoft doesn't want to do that.
Still, I'm taken aback a bit, because of Windows Vista SKUs. Microsoft's five major versions absolutely assign functional roles and monetary value to them. Business for small and midsize operations; Enterprise for large businesses; Basic for low-cost computing; Premium for most consumers; Ultimate for everything in the box.
With these assigned roles come feature decisions that don't fit well with many customers. Large businesses wanting Vista Enterprise must purchase through Software Assurance. Small businesses looking for BitLocker encryption typically would need Ultimate, since most wouldn't want or meet the volume-licensing requirements.