The greatest advantage of the Windows ecosystem is that there are so many choices.
The biggest problem with the Windows ecosystem is that there are so many choices.
Ironic, isn't it?
The sheer number of choices means you can almost certainly find exactly the PC you want. In the notebook category alone, you can get a two-pound ultraportable or a 20-pound desktop replacement, or anything in between, with or without Tablet or touchscreen features. You can opt for a system with a battery life of 6-8 hours or one that will run like a bat out of hell for 80 minutes. If you prefer a desktop, you can take your pick of giant towers, midsize towers, small form factor cases designed to fit in AV equipment racks, or all-in one designs, with a dizzying range of expansion options. For a Windows PC, you can spend $500, $5000, or anything in between.
All those choices give you a practically infinite number of hardware and software combinations. And that's where the problems begin. All those choices also offer a correspondingly large chance of encountering problems from the unexpected interaction of parts that weren't designed to be used together.
That, in large part, is why Windows Vista has struggled for the past 18 months.
The good news is that the ecosystem has finally settled down, and stable Vista drivers are now available for virtually all of the components that go into a 2008-vintage PC. But getting those drivers to users is still a problem, because of the way the OEM business model works. Understanding this process goes a long way to explaining why there's no such thing as a universal Windows experience. Here's the broad outline of how a Windows PC comes to life for a consumer:
- OEM engineers design the system using mostly off-the-shelf parts and standard components. Some of those parts are universal: you need a CPU and matching chipset, plus video and audio subsystems, networking capability, and a storage controller. The desire to keep prices down creates a powerful economic interest to consolidate as many of those functions as possible on the motherboard, especially for notebooks and budget desktops.
- OEM engineers create a hardware package for all those parts. For desktops, this used to be a beige box. Today, there's more attention to design and the beige box is mostly a relic. Notebook designers have to pay excruciating attention to detail to find the right balance of cost, weight, performance, ruggedness, battery life, and coolness.
- Software engineers combine the operating system, hardware drivers, and utilities (plus system firmware) into a system image. The choice that most people will notice is the operating system, but getting the right drivers and associated utilities for the components chosen in Step 1 is far more important in terms of getting a system that works well. Drivers for some components are part of the base OS. In other cases, drivers and associated utilities are provided by the supplier of the component. For example, many motherboard designs (desktop and notebook) use audio circuitry from IDT (formerly SigmaTel), which in turn provides a driver as part of its deal with the system maker. Graphics subsystems are most likely to use chips from Intel, Nvidia, or ATI, which provide drivers designed for use with that specific chip.
- Marketing adds branding and additional software and services. The branding involves putting the company logo and support contact information on the Windows Welcome screen and possibly adding some custom wallpaper or screen savers. The additional software in this step consists of fully functional, fully licensed programs (purchased from third parties or developed in-house) and intended to add value to the system. Common add-ons in this category are CD/DVD burning programs and DVD players. For build-to-order products, the customer might be offered a choice of products to preinstall at discounted OEM prices. Microsoft Office and various antivirus programs are the most popular examples of this category.
- Marketing adds trialware. The developers of these programs pay a fee for each installed copy and may also pay a spiff (commission) for each user that pays to convert the trialware program to a fully licensed copy. If the OEM goes overboard, these programs earn the label "crapware."
- The OEM sells the finished product to consumers. If the finished product is sold through the retail channel (Best Buy, Costco, any of a gazillion mail-order vendors), the software image on the finished system may be many months old. For a build-to-order product from a company like Dell, the software image is far more likely to be up to date.
- The OEM provides updated drivers and utilities to customers. Remember, many of the component suppliers want nothing to do with end-user support. If they produce a new, improved driver or utility package, they make it available to the OEM, which in turn gets to decide when and how to deliver it to customers.
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Most people think step 5 is where OEMs go wrong. Yes, an OEM that gets aggressive with its crapware bundling can produce a PC with a miserable out-of-box experience. But long term, I think the weak links are in steps 3 and 7, where the OEM decides which drivers to use initially and which ones to make available as updates. Outdated drivers are a special point of pain during major transitions in the Windows platform, such as the move to Windows Vista/Server 2008 over the past 18 months. The trainsition in 2001 and 2002, when Windows XP introduced a major change in driver models, was also particularly painful, although that memory seems to have vanished from the collective consciousness lately.
So why are OEM-supplied drivers a problem for consumers? Because that's where OEMs are likely to try to cut costs, especially if they have a large number of products to support. If they feel the original driver they shipped for a system component is good enough, they might ignore updates from the supplier of that component. If the outdated driver results in severe issues, they might be forced to provide an update and give it to customers who contact them for support. But in other cases the problem is merely annoying and won't trigger support calls. A flawed driver or app (or a clash between different software components that otherwise work just fine) can drag down performance and reliability. Customers who experience this sort of problem are likely to blame the operating system or third-party software, when the real culprit is a driver.
Eventually, the pool of available components is stocked almost exclusively with mature parts that have stable, working drivers for the current Windows version. That's why XP is so well loved today. It went through its awkward phase more than five years ago, and today most XP drivers just work. The Vista/Server 2008/Win7 ecosystem is approaching a similar inflection point.
But OEMs have to be conscious of the existence of the latest, best drivers and motivated to integrate them into the system images for new products, or customers wind up running last year's OS. That was the case with a new notebook I began testing this week (I'll have a full review of this otherwise excellent system later this week; for now, let's allow them to remain an anonymous example of the larger problem here.)
- The system was a configure-to-order product, shipped in May 2008 using an Intel 945GM graphics adapter.
- The installed video driver was dated March 30, 2007, more than a year old and, more importantly, known to be problematic with Windows Vista.
- Intel has produced numerous updates to its Vista graphics driver for this part in the past year, the most recent of which was released in April 2008. There were other updates in February 2008, and in December 2007. Any of these Intel-supplied drivers should work just fine with my new hardware. Unfortunately, the OEM has configured this system to reject any video driver except those it supplies directly. (I can hack the Setup Information file to use the Intel drivers, but that's a laborious tweak that's beyond the skill level of all but the most determined hackers.)
- On its support site, the system maker offers a tested, approved graphics driver update that it received from Intel in November 2007. The download package from the OEM is dated February 2008. I know from personal experience that this driver will offer significantly better performance and be less likely to cause stability problems on Windows Vista than the one that was shipped with the product. But the description of the updated driver simply says it fixes a problem with DVD playback.
- The system maker doesn't offer automatic updates, and it hasn't made this signed driver available through Windows Update, either.
So as the proud new owner of this notebook, I'm being saddled with inferior video performance and the possibility of stability problems because the system maker is too distracted or stretched too thin to allow its engineers to make this piece of hardware work optimally.At least I know where to look for the updated driver. What is the nontechnical customer expected to do? And as a buyer, how am I supposed to know that two shiny new notebooks on display alongside one another at Best Buy, both built this month, are going to offer me very different experiences because one has stable current drivers and the other is using last year's buggy code?
If history is any guide, over the course of the next year or two, the Vista/Server 2008/Win7 family is likely to become the reliable option on new hardware compared with Windows XP, as component suppliers focus their scarce driver development resources on the newer platform and run the older program in maintenance mode.
Meanwhile, caveat emptor. I'll be providing some specific examples from two large PC makers in a follow-up later this week.