Users won’t wait for the perfect Vista

If a vendor doesn’t finish a piece of software to your complete satisfaction, maybe you can shame them into tying up the loose ends. Better yet, just do it yourself.

A group of Microsoft enthusiasts is taking that approach to Microsoft’s Longhorn operating system. You’ll remember that Longhorn was the codename for Vista for several years, and in its original incarnation it looked a lot different than what was actually released this year. These enthusiasts, part of the Web site, are calling their project Longhorn Reloaded — a name that evokes an image not only of Matrix sequels but also fresh ammunition to use against the much maligned Microsoft.

They claim that Microsoft didn’t come through on its original vision of Vista (no pun intended), and to a large degree they’re right.

Fairly early on in the development process, Microsoft said it was going to make some significant changes, most importantly, it would ditch (or delay) plans for a brand new Windows File System, WinFS, and use the Windows Server 2003 kernel instead. Longhorn Reloaded is aiming to right these perceived wrongs. According to the Web site, “To put the projects aims simply, we aim to finish off what Microsoft started before the operating system was cancelled. It is a modification of Windows 6.0.4074, which was originally released during the 2004 Windows Hardware Engineers Conference.”

At press time, Microsoft execs hadn’t officially responded to Longhorn Reloaded — the first beta appeared online late last month — but one can only imagine they’re not thrilled with the prospect. On the one hand, it’s a compliment: the joejoe folks must surely have liked what they saw in the original incarnation of Longhorn.

The fact that they care enough to complete it must tell Microsoft that they were on the right track. On the other hand, it’s a slap in the face: You couldn’t pull your stuff together, so we’re going to do it for you. What’s slightly ironic in all this is these Microsoft programmers are taking a note from the open source camp, where a DIY approach to software is not only commonplace, it’s encouraged.

It also begs the question, if Microsoft software is considered unfinished or flawed, what else out there needs a tune-up? In theory, practically everything. Software releases are predicated on the idea that they’re unfinished, hence the seemingly limitless number of upgrades and point versions.

If users start taking matters into their own hands, many of these upgrades could find their way onto desktops without the involvement of the original software publisher. It sounds ideal — faster upgrades that are not only user-tested but user-written — but it’s a recipe for disaster. Consider the amount of forking that would go on, with different divisions of users racing to get their upgrade out there first.

But clearly user-driven software is a reality, with seemingly no one cowed by the idea that proprietary software is copyright-protected. The open source community already has a mechanism to deal with its software upgrades. It may not be perfect, but it works.

Microsoft may have a vision for Vista, but a lot of other users are choosing to look the other way.

Much like every other software maker out there, it has to recognize that users respond to software in a fundamentally different way than they did when Windows 95 was released. The sooner that happens, the better off we’ll all be.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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