When Microsoft launched Windows XP in late 2001, they made a big deal about the changes to the user interface, which were the biggest revamp since Windows 95. I found it surprising, coming barely a year after the mature and evolved Windows 2000 interface.
The changes were controversial, with many people hating the new “Fisher Price” appearance. Personally I quite like it but then I'm fortunate enough to have a 17" TFT screen, which means that it doesn't look so cartoonish running at a resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels. And the Windows XP Start menu is a big leap forward in usefulness.
Talking of the Start button, someone in the Windows shell team has been reading about Fitt's Law, which states that the time taken to acquire a target is a function of the distance to, and the size of the target. This means that the Start button now extends all the way down to the bottom left hand corner of the display area, so you can slam the mouse down there in an approximate fashion and be guaranteed of hitting the button. Previous versions of Windows left an annoying two pixel gap around the edge, meaning that this didn't work. Interestingly, if you switch to the Classic theme under Windows XP, there's still the two pixel gap, the mouse pointer will actually snap to the button even if you're not on it. Which is a hack but it works.
I think the Windows XP UI was a bit rushed. When time is tight, attention to detail usually suffers. I present my evidence below.
Exhibit A: The Welcome Screen
- The stunning Welcome screen was new with Windows XP. You can associate a picture of a flower or a yellow rubber duck with a user, just as you can with that groovy Mac OS X. Cool. However, I'm left wondering why it prompts To begin, click your user name instead of the more obvious Click your user name to begin.
- When I used to install Windows NT, I always used to set it up so that a user account would be locked out after three failed logon attempts and logon failures would be audited to the security log. Okay, I'm paranoid for a home user. The Fast User Switching feature breaks this.
To see this in action, log on as an administrator and run the Group Policy Editor (gpedit.msc). Then expand the Computer Configuration node followed by the Security Settings node. Expand Account Policies and click on the Account Lockout node. Set the Account lockout threshold to three invalid logon attempts. To enable auditing, expand the Local Policies node and click the Audit Policy node. Set Audit logon events to Failure. Now if you use Fast User Switching, you should see a string of Failure Audit entries in quick succession in the security event log:
—It seems using Fast User Switching leads to multiple failed logon attempts. How Puzzling. Don't forget to undo the changes you made using the Group Policy Editor unless you want the security log to eat your disk.
Exhibit B: The Help and Support Center
- Firstly, aren't help and support two words meaning the same thing? And as my locale is set to English (United Kingdom), why doesn't localisation extend to spelling center the correct way for me i.e. centre?
- Now try this: search on the term user accounts and then pick the topic Require users to press CTRL+ALT+DELETE before logging on. It tells me to click on the Advanced tab of the User Accounts Control Panel applet. Can you see this tab in the picture below?
Exhibit C: Window Widgets
- Why are there now three different styles for the standard window manipulation buttons in Windows XP? The whole point of having standard widgets for every window is that they're…doh! Standard. The top two sets of buttons pictured below are from the Microsoft Management Console (mmc.exe) and the bottom set is from a Command Prompt:
Exhibit D: Notepad
- My copy of Notepad used to have a greyed-out Status Bar menu item under the View menu, but I've just fired it up to take a screen shot of this and magically it's now working properly! One of the recent Windows updates that I've installed must have fixed this on the sly. You'll just have to take my word on this one! Hey, everything I've told you so far has been true, hasn't it?
Exhibit E: Calculator Icon
- Along with the other accessory programs, the Windows Calculator got a funky new icon for Windows XP. Unfortunately its shadow is strangely clipped in the bottom left hand corner, as the magnified picture below illustrates:
Exhibit F: The Start Menu Context Menu
- The new style Start menu helpfully maintains a list of the most recently used applications and you can pin your favourites so that they're permanently displayed. The context menu offers an option to remove items from the list, but I find the capitalisation to be a little strange:
Exhibit G: Disk Properties
- Why can Windows no longer draw pie charts properly? Compare this screen shot from Windows 98 with the Windows XP equivalent and notice the outline of the pie:
—This visual bug has been present since at least Windows NT 4.0. Those NT guys may know how to write an operating system kernel but it seems the Windows 95 team had the edge on pie charts.
Exhibit H: Windows Explorer
- Why after eight years is Windows Explorer still so crap at remembering how I want my folders to be displayed? I want My Computer to show icons in groups, arranged by disk type and displayed as Tiles. I want the Recycle Bin auto-arranged by date deleted at Tile size. I want the system32 folder to by auto-arranged by name and displayed in detail view. And I want my photos to be displayed as thumbnails. I don't want much, do I?
Windows XP has an infuriating habit of throwing away my viewing preferences on a regular basis. I don't care if these settings are saved in the registry, an INI file or even in some sexy XML database integrated with the file system, I just want them saved and retrieved without fuss!
The Windows 95 user interface was a comprehensive and successful attempt to put right many of the irritating inconsistencies and annoyances (and there were many) found in Windows 3.x. I can't help feeling that successive paint jobs in the guise of Windows 98/Me/2000 and now Windows XP—and also a distracting flirtation with trying to turn the desktop into a Web browser—have taken away from this original aim.
There are many things that Windows XP gets right, and I shall be writing about some of them in future. That said, the Windows XP user interface feels rushed to me, as I hope I've illustrated. Microsoft need to re-focus for Windows Longhorn and pay much greater attention to detail.