A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

Summary: As a longtime Microsoft-watcher, I’m as fascinated by the company’s missteps as I am by its successes. Anyone who worked at Microsoft in the first decade of the 21st Century knows the company made many missteps and wrong turns. How the company responded to those mistakes had an indelible impact on products that are on the market today and those that are planned for the future.They say every mistake is a teachable moment. So what has Microsoft learned from its miscues over the past decade?


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    One of the great failings of Windows XP was a default security model that gave the primary user account full administrative powers over the operating system.

    In its documentation for IT professionals, Microsoft recommended that administrators configure standard accounts for users, to limit the amount of damage they could do if they were tricked into installing a malicious piece of software. But many Windows programs were written under the assumption that the user had full administrative privileges and wouldn't run under a standard user account.

    So, for Windows Vista, Microsoft decided to get serious about tightening the screws on user account permissions. In the process they went too far, alienating users and creating the single most mocked, misunderstood, and despised Vista feature of all: User Account Control.

    During the darkest days of the Vista era, I wrote a lot of posts about UAC. including one extremely popular set of instructions for taming UAC. That post included this succinct description:

    The biggest misconception I hear about UAC is that it’s just another silly “Are you sure?” dialog box that users will quickly learn to ignore. That’s only one small part of the overall UAC system. The point of UAC is to allow you to run as a standard user, something that is nearly impossible in Windows XP and earlier Windows versions. In fact, with UAC enabled (the default setting) every user account in Windows Vista runs as a standard user. When you try to do something that requires administrative privileges, you see a UAC consent dialog box. If you’re an administrator, you simply have to click Continue when prompted. If you’re running as a standard user, you have to provide the user name and password of a member of the Administrators group.

    What went wrong? For starters, there were way too many consent prompts—some of them in a cascade for a what should have been a simple task.

    And it didn't help when a Microsoft executive publicly and proudly admitted that the point of the feature was to "annoy users." David Cross, a product unit manager at Microsoft, made that admission in a speech at a security conference:

    "The reason we put UAC into the [Vista] platform was to annoy users — I'm serious," said Cross, speaking at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Thursday. "Most users had administrator privileges on previous Windows systems and most applications needed administrator privileges to install or run."

    Cross claimed that annoying users had been part of a Microsoft strategy to force independent software vendors (ISVs) to make their code more secure, as insecure code would trigger a prompt, discouraging users from executing the code.

    That might have been literally true, but the subtlety was lost on exasperated Vista users, who felt personally offended at being used as human targets in a sniping war with third-party software developers.

    Microsoft toned down UAC dramatically in Windows Vista Service Pack 1 and gave it a complete overhaul in Windows 7. And the bad publicity did indeed shame the most egregious software offenders into cleaning up their act. But the damage was done. Today, UAC may be far less annoying, but its reputation has never fully recovered. Microsoft learned a key lesson: features with this much disruptive potential need to be designed carefully from Day 1.

  • When people ask me what's the stupidest thing Microsoft ever did with Windows, I have an easy answer.

    I even used that word back in June 2006, when I wrote Microsoft presses the Stupid button:

    When you’re the Evil Empire, it’s only natural to get a bad rap for everything you do. Microsoft gets bad-mouthed a hundred times a week for things that would be perfectly acceptable coming from anyone else. Given that level of criticism, it’s easy to ignore the times when they’re just completely, egregiously wrong.

    The uproar over Microsoft’s new Windows Genuine Advantage authentication software, which is now being pushed onto Windows users’ machines via Windows Update, is one of those occasions. Someone at Microsoft just pushed the Stupid button. And things aren’t going to get better until they stop pushing it.

    But over the next two years, they made it worse, with activation servers that failed and unfairly branded innocent Windows users as software pirates. The program hits its low point, not surprisingly, in Windows Vista, when Microsoft released its toughest version yet:

    Microsoft denies that this is a "kill switch" for Windows Vista ... Technically, they're right, I suppose. Switching a PC into a degraded functionality where all you can do is browse the Internet doesn't kill it; but it's arguably a near-death experience.

    I long ago lost count of the number of words I wrote about Windows Genuine Advantage and product activation, but I don't regret a single one of them. I know they made a difference. Microsoft removed the "kill switch" in Windows Vista Service Pack 1, and in Windows 7 the activation experience seems to finally work.

  • For as long as Microsoft has made operating systems, it has had a complicated relationship with its customers.You might think of yourself as a Microsoft customers, but roughly 90% of all copies of Windows are sold by PC manufacturers, who in turn resell those machines to end users like you and me.

    That creates the potential for a conflict if the interests of the PC makers aren't in alignment with the needs of the customers who will eventually buy those PCs. And there is no better example than the mess Microsoft made when it was getting ready to launch Windows Vista.

    The new, whizzy Aero graphics in Vista demanded up-to-date hardware. But Intel was still selling the older 915 graphics chipset, which wasn't up to the challenge, and PC makers like Sony and Dell were continuing to design notebooks built around those chipsets. Microsoft initially wrote specs that would have disqualified those PCs from earning a Vista logo. Intel demanded that Microsoft bend the rules, and Microsoft eventually caved.

    Microsoft created a new logo that defined these graphically challenged PCs as "Designed for Windows XP / Vista Capable." In its public pronouncements, executives danced around the limitations: "PCs with the Windows Vista Capable logo can run the core experiences of Windows Vista," said Microsoft's Will Poole at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in 2006.

    And that's when the lawsuits began.

    The exhibits that came out during discovery were particularly embarrassing. The worst was an e-mail from Jim Allchin, who said, "I believe we are going to be misleading customers with the Capable program." According to CNET's Ina Fried, he was described as "apoplectic" over the decision.

    Several years later, I was offered an opportunity to give Microsoft some free advice on how to fight Vista criticism. "We're sorry" is a good start, I said.

    "Microsoft could admit that they screwed up when they put Intel’s interests over those of their customers in the 'Vista Ready' and 'Vista Capable' logo snafu. It would be nice to think that some heads rolled for that one."

    It’s worth noting that Steven Sinofsky, who’s now in charge of the Windows development effort, was harshly critical of the decision at the time. All of the executives who were named in the most damning bits of evidence have left Microsoft. I don't think that's a coincidence.

Topics: Operating Systems, Microsoft, Software, Windows

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  • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

    I still find myself annoyed at that damn search dog. Words cannot describe how much hatred I have for that dog.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • All IT people hated it...

      @Cylon Centurion ...but you wouldn't believe how many end users still ask me if there is any way I can put it back. Seriously....
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)


        A lot of users with kids tell me they found it "cute", but I for one, am glad he is gone.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

      @Cylon Centurion Got to be better than Clippie though surely?
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)


        I'll take Clippy any day. :D
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

      @Cylon Centurion
      And to make it worse Win7 search still defaults to the dog....

      My biggest beef that keeps me from moving way from WinXP is the total lack of backwards compatibility on ALL post XP MS products. With Win7 I cannot use most of the programs I've purchased, written, or have become very proficient at without using a program like VMware. Even the Win7 XP emulator restricts to 32bit.

      MS has taken the arrogant lazy position of FORCING us to ugrade our older programs (if there is a 32/64bit product to be purchased/re-learned) or SCREW US! This is not some new MS arrogance issue --- MS has always required upgrading hardware/software each time a new OS comes out or you get bogged down with the slows or will not work syndrome. So MS I've now taken the position of SCREW YOU --- unless future MS OS's are fully backwards compatible (or free patches) to 8/16/32bit programs. [And NO Cloud crap - big brother knows enough and many places I go have no internet, I'll stick with my HD, thank you!]

      I design/build/program EE Test Stations - we do not connect to the internet due to the obvious security/mal-virus-etc issues, hence we are sticking with WinXP. If MS does not overcome their jam-it down our throat methods I'll switch to Linux!
      N6JSX, MS-EET
      • Your credibility is destroyed immediately


        This is ridiculously untrue:

        "Win7 search still defaults to the dog."

        You're either clueless or trolling. I honestly dno't care which, but it would be nice if you would cop to it.
        Ed Bott
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

        @Kuby I don't know what you are talking about. I've never had a problem running programs that I had on XP on Windows 7. Are you still running DOS programs? Seriously, it might be time to upgrade that software.

        I run Linux on a few of my machines, and I'm not sure why you believe the experience for backward compatibility will be any better there. Every time there is a kernal update, seems like I have to go get updated versions of my software, so again, what are you talking about?

        I'm afraid, you misrepresent the Linux community with this type of babble, and frankly, we don't want you here.
      • It was probably crap to begin with

        @Kuby Honestly, I've got applications that were written in 1996 which were originally written for Windows 95 that still work fine today. The only issue I have ever had was some extra gyrations to set up 32 bit data sources for them when using 64 bit Vista or Windows 7. And those work arounds were pretty easy once we figured out what the issue was.
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)


        I *really* wish that zdnet would put a "Like" button in the comments as I would surely click it for your comment above.
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

        @Kuby, actually not all builds include a virtual machine that allows backward compatibility. For backward compatibility with XP (unless you are a high level expert) you will need a second virtual machine loaded. I returned a new laptop purchase for this exact reason.
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)


        I fail to see your argument. In no way, shape, or form does the search dog appear in Windows Vista or Windows 7.

        Also, ALL operating systems require the purchasing of new hardware. Try running Linux on that old 8-bit processor you're running and see what happens. :)

        Progression, my friend. If you're coding your own apps, then you should have upgraded the coding. It's not Microsoft's fault your software is falling out of date. purchased or otherwise.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)


        Wow, buy an Apple and tell me how you feel. All my hardware works on XP->Win7. Don't mistake a manufacturer's unwillingness to write device drivers with windows not working on your hardware.

        Mr Jobs made sure old hardware got shut off, forever... When a new version of his apps came out, the previous ones stopped getting fixed; period! You have XP working for 10 years, without paying for any fixes or upgrades. Ask a MacOS user about that.

        Some people need to look out of their caves now and then.
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

        @Kuby <br>Mr. Kuby, I was the same as you for about a day. I use to have (for example) this photo enhancing/manunipulation program--Picture it 2001. I thought I could not make it without this program. Then I found Photpscape, makes PI 2001 look like a kindergartner vs a PHD. Much better and about 1/4 the real estate. And the best thing, it's free, as in water and beer! There are several others to numerous to mention, including Open source and people just programing for the heck of it. You will be surprise what you can find if you "Bing" free software. You can spend months in an orgasmic frenzy! Try it--you will like it! I guarantee but will not stake my life on it!!
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

        @Kuby :

        Very badly written XP programs have problems running on Win 7. But even badly-written ones can run if you create 'shims' that correct incompatible behaviours using MS-provided tools.
      • RE: ...FORCING us to ugrade our older programs...


        Now you know why, after reviewing our computing needs; our 1000+ employee company <b>kicked Microsoft to the curb</b> and switched to Linux.
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

        @gomigomijunk - what Linux programs do you have to upgrade with each kernel update? I can't think of any that are required because of a kernel update. Device drivers are different, and modules that plug directly into the kernel as a kernel extension may require updates as they are usually specific to a particular version of the kernel.
      • Not fair comment.


        You say:
        " MS has always required upgrading hardware/software each time a new OS comes out or you get bogged down with the slows or will not work syndrome"

        Thats a horribly misleading statement. It makes it sound as if Microsoft creates an operating system then the hardware manufacturers have to cobble up better hardware they wouldn't have bothered with if Microsoft hadn't created a more complex operating system.

        Not an accurate depiction at all. First off, facts are facts. We know how fast hardware improves and its a fact various bits of hardware, be it memory, hard drives, CPU's or video cards have a much much faster turn around time then any MS operating system. Look at XP. By time Vista came out hardware had been upgrading for many years.

        Then let us not forget that practically every major bit of software will often take more resources to run in their most current versions as opposed to versions that are 3,4,5 years or more old.

        You have the situation entirely backward. Software manufacturers look to the state of hardware as some indication of how much load their program can reasonably put on a modern system when they are developing the program. Sure, Office 2010 for example isn't going to run as hot on 5-10 year old hardware, but then again, why would anyone develop a major program restricted by wanting to make it run on hardware thats years old? Operating systems in particular last for years and there has never been a case where 2-3 years after a Windows release that even whats considered low end modern hardware is significantly more then whats needed to run the OS.

        How would one justify that? It quite frankly makes no sense.

        Try thinking about that. Design an entire operating system with all the related costs, cut it where ever you have to to make sure it will never have a problem running on what would be hardware thats middle of the road 5 years ago. It would be considered to be junk hardware by most, but do it anyway. And the end result may be more streamlined, but in many respects its actually going to be considered to be more stripped down.

        If that was the case Windows would be a lot more like Linux has been and at that point why would one want Windows when Linux cost zero. Sure, Linux users have no issue with that but Linux enthusiasts are not of a breed that generally appreciates any of the differences Windows brings, much unlike the 90% of the world that uses Windows.

        Where is the mileage in creating an OS like that? People get used to, and love massive backward and forward compatibility with all the popular hardware and software that Windows brings along with the many user friendly aspects to the OS and the more features added, well, it makes for a more complex OS.

        Its pretty hard to justify paring down a newly designed OS because it will be sluggish or even stall on 5 year old hardware. Maybe.

        And further, its not at all unusual that someone who gets some good hardware can still get great performance out of their computer even if they install a newly released OS 4-5 years after they bought the hardware, perhaps less so agreed, as the quality of that hardware goes down.

        And I really don't know what your software complaint is about. I now run Windows 7 and everything that I have that would run under XPSP2 still runs fine on Win7. Agreed, there are likely programs out there that will not, butt if you think one huge company is going to stymie their product development due to rare issues like that you have got to be kidding.

        If you want to go with Linux, certainly be my guest. I've used Linux before and I think its alright. Impressive in many ways for an OS. But for the long term, its not for me, its no Windows thats for sure, and if thats a good thing for you then boy, you SHOULD go to Linux. Give it a go, its free, there are plenty of choices and it works well.

        The one place I can agree with you is the no cloud crap. I don't even get why some people entertain the idea. Sure, like anything there are people in this world of 7 billion that the cloud may be the better way. But for many people, they could store all the stuff they would use in the better part of a lifetime on a $100 HD. And it will be even cheaper for those buying hardware next year, and even more so as time goes by. At least then, so long as your computer can start, you always have access to your stuff. And of course, if the comp don't start, the cloud wont help with that anyway.
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)

        @Kuby AFAIK the dog doesn't exist in Windows 7. The search is either in the start menu or next to the address bar in an Explorer window. And I've never seen an option to bring the dog back either.

        To be honest, I've had no major issues with compatibility, and the minor issues I've had were easy to fix.

        If you're really having so many compatibility issues, may I suggest double checking your Data Execution Prevention settings? Older software often wasn't aware of DEP.

        Being somebody who takes security seriously enough to stay off the 'net, I wouldn't be surprised if you switched DEP to the stricter setting at one time and forgot about it.

        "And NO Cloud crap - big brother knows enough"

        Indeed. Try looking up your ham radio call sign in a search engine. You'd be surprised how much info is public.

        Former ham, Computer Science graduate, A+ Certified.
      • RE: A decade's worth of Windows mistakes that changed Microsoft (for better and worse)


        .......Can I get some of what you're smoking ???

        You have to be nuts to think that MS is forcing you to update your s/w every time there's a new Windows release......

        ......It's plainly evident you don't know what you're talking about.

        ......sort of like the one person in a particular newsgroup that STILL uses Windows98 because XP runs "too many services"

        ......or another newsgroup loser that is a full on Lintard, beyond belief, and has never personally used XP, Vista, *or* Windows7, yet claims to know all about all Windows OSs because he 'reads' about it.