Bill Gates finds Windows unusable.

Big surprise?

Here’s an internal Microsoft email written by Bill Gates, which allegedly came to public view due to a lawsuit. From this Seattle PI blog post. It’s long, but definitely worth at least a skim:

—- Original Message —-
From: Bill Gates
Sent: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 10:05 AM
To: Jim Allchin
Cc: Chris Jones (WINDOWS); Bharat Shah (NT); Joe Peterson; Will Poole; Brian Valentine; Anoop Gupta (RESEARCH)
Subject: Windows Usability Systematic degradation flame


I am quite disappointed at how Windows Usability has been going backwards and the program management groups don’t drive usability issues.

Let me give you my experience from yesterday.

I decided to download (Moviemaker) and buy the Digital Plus pack … so I went to Microsoft.com. They have a download place so I went there.

The first 5 times I used the site it timed out while trying to bring up the download page. Then after an 8 second delay I got it to come up.

This site is so slow it is unusable.

It wasn’t in the top 5 so I expanded the other 45.

These 45 names are totally confusing. These names make stuff like: C:\Documents and Settings\billg\My Documents\My Pictures seem clear.

They are not filtered by the system … and so many of the things are strange.

I tried scoping to Media stuff. Still no moviemaker. I typed in movie. Nothing. I typed in movie maker. Nothing.

So I gave up and sent mail to Amir saying – where is this Moviemaker download? Does it exist?

So they told me that using the download page to download something was not something they anticipated.

They told me to go to the main page search button and type movie maker (not moviemaker!).

I tried that. The site was pathetically slow but after 6 seconds of waiting up it came.

I thought for sure now I would see a button to just go do the download.

In fact it is more like a puzzle that you get to solve. It told me to go to Windows Update and do a bunch of incantations.

This struck me as completely odd. Why should I have to go somewhere else and do a scan to download moviemaker?

So I went to Windows update. Windows Update decides I need to download a bunch of controls. (Not) just once but multiple times where I get to see weird dialog boxes.

Doesn’t Windows update know some key to talk to Windows?

Then I did the scan. This took quite some time and I was told it was critical for me to download 17megs of stuff.

This is after I was told we were doing delta patches to things but instead just to get 6 things that are labeled in the SCARIEST possible way I had to download 17meg.

So I did the download. That part was fast. Then it wanted to do an install. This took 6 minutes and the machine was so slow I couldn’t use it for anything else during this time.

What the heck is going on during those 6 minutes? That is crazy. This is after the download was finished.

Then it told me to reboot my machine. Why should I do that? I reboot every night — why should I reboot at that time?

So I did the reboot because it INSISTED on it. Of course that meant completely getting rid of all my Outlook state.

So I got back up and running and went to Windows Update again. I forgot why I was in Windows Update at all since all I wanted was to get Moviemaker.

So I went back to Microsoft.com and looked at the instructions. I have to click on a folder called WindowsXP. Why should I do that? Windows Update knows I am on Windows XP.

What does it mean to have to click on that folder? So I get a bunch of confusing stuff but sure enough one of them is Moviemaker.

So I do the download. The download is fast but the Install takes many minutes. Amazing how slow this thing is.

At some point I get told I need to go get Windows Media Series 9 to download.

So I decide I will go do that. This time I get dialogs saying things like “Open” or “Save”. No guidance in the instructions which to do. I have no clue which to do.

The download is fast and the install takes 7 minutes for this thing.

So now I think I am going to have Moviemaker. I go to my add/remove programs place to make sure it is there.

It is not there.

What is there? The following garbage is there. Microsoft Autoupdate Exclusive test package, Microsoft Autoupdate Reboot test package, Microsoft Autoupdate testpackage1. Microsoft AUtoupdate testpackage2, Microsoft Autoupdate Test package3.

Someone decided to trash the one part of Windows that was usable? The file system is no longer usable. The registry is not usable. This program listing was one sane place but now it is all crapped up.

But that is just the start of the crap. Later I have listed things like Windows XP Hotfix see Q329048 for more information. What is Q329048? Why are these series of patches listed here? Some of the patches just things like Q810655 instead of saying see Q329048 for more information.

What an absolute mess.

Moviemaker is just not there at all.

So I give up on Moviemaker and decide to download the Digital Plus Package.

I get told I need to go enter a bunch of information about myself.

I enter it all in and because it decides I have mistyped something I have to try again. Of course it has cleared out most of what I typed.

I try (typing) the right stuff in 5 times and it just keeps clearing things out for me to type them in again.

So after more than an hour of craziness and making my programs list garbage and being scared and seeing that Microsoft.com is a terrible website I haven’t run Moviemaker and I haven’t got the plus package.

The lack of attention to usability represented by these experiences blows my mind. I thought we had reached a low with Windows Network places or the messages I get when I try to use 802.11. (don’t you just love that root certificate message?)

When I really get to use the stuff I am sure I will have more feedback.



(emphasis mine, of course.)

Following that, you can witness(PDF) the ineffectual, hot potato email thread that ensued. This is how big corporations manage to do nothing. I’ve never worked in a large company—by choice—but even I sense echoes of familiarity in the political tapdancing:

Bill’s situation is worse than my personal experience but still, this aspect of the system needs to be looked at carefully and become a sign off item for each release.

And:

So I take from this that we have lots of opinions and input. However, no one appears be saying that we, WMPG, are chartered and/or should own this.

And:

But, if you want nothing revolutionary and want to band-aid (which is fine and understandable) then I agree with your plan to give it to Dave.

I believe that there’s only one path to excellence and that is to have (or be) an incredibly strong leader. Someone whose taste and opinions are deeply understood by every single person in the project or organization. Someone who doesn’t wiffle-waffle all the time based on market surveys or what the competition is doing. Somebody who deeply knows and isn’t afraid to share.

The “What Would Steve Jobs Do?” line is an old joke, but it’s also one that people can answer faithfully (those who work creating things at Apple, anyway). And the answer isn’t always something nice. I once saw Jobs throw a digital camera off the stage at a keynote, in a little infantile fit of rage, nearly hitting one of his support staff in the head. My friends who used to work at Apple complained about his horrible temper. You don’t have to look hard, here on the web, to find Apple alumni talking about how the dreaded thing finally happened to them: the laser eye of the Steve turned to them, or they got caught with him in an elevator.

Nevertheless, Steve Jobs represents a cohesiveness of taste and vision.

Bill Gates does not.

What does Bill Gates want? Other than “money” and “crushing the competition” and (as of late) “being a philanthropist,” who knows? Until today, I wouldn’t have expected to read the above email and come to the conclusion that it was legitimate. I didn’t expect to hear about Bill Gates complaining about the uselessness that is Microsoft’s web site.

I’ve read that many Microsoft employees fear being on the receiving end of a Bill note, just as much as many Apple employees fear bearing the brunt of a Steve harangue. But considering that the products Microsoft puts out are so bad, while fear and respect of Bill was high, I would have guessed that those dreaded Bill emails would have a different sort of content. Because if they were about usability, then what’s left to explain the total breakdown of action? And yet here is one about usability that the average Joe User can relate to.

But the difference is that at Apple it works, and at Microsoft it doesn’t. Why?

3 Comments

  1. Jake says:

    Umm – you dont think steve jobs as ever blasted an apple project to get it to work better? the steve jobs worshiping is so nauseating. history will likely remember bill gates as a key factor in solving the AIDS epidemic, steve jobs will not be remembered at all.

  2. Monkey Majiks says:

    It’s nice to see that some of the flack Bill gets isn’t his fault, but more the product of an overly bloated company attempting to achieve a common goal, but obviously moving in many different directions to achieve it.

  3. Amy says:

    Jake, I’m not sure where you got the idea that I’m worshipping Jobs. And I certainly didn’t claim that he doesn’t bash products. I suppose you didn’t actually read the post.

  4. Terry Schmidt says:

    This is a wonderful article. Remove the "Microsoft" and "Apple" references and put any large corporation in this scenario and you will most likely come up with the same result. Large corporations (most of the time) all suffer from the "We’re too big to make a change" syndrome. By the time you get through all the red tape and meetings everyone has lost sight of the original problem. Ultimately, little, if anything, is done to rectify the situation.

    Imaginary result to this problem based on my experience in a "large" company:

    Bill Gates: Website sucks. Fix it. … Hot-potato-pass-the-buck policies engaged … Final Solution: Make Moviemaker better.

  5. gist says:

    This is a very surprising portion of exchange. I think it’s fair to assume that Bill expected whom ever he pointed this at to recognize the exposed situation and correct it because they ought to care enough to want to do so.

    As a single designer amongst a dozen developers, I feel like there is an element of over-zealous developer-ness in this somehow. What I mean by that is, some times developers just make sure things work, not that they make sense from a usability stance. Designers can do the exact opposite and over design something before consulting with a Developer oriented mindset to make sure they aren’t being ridiculous, so this isn’t a Developer attack.

    Maybe windows got so big, so fast that it was necessary to just make things work. Apple was so small for so long that it was crucial and acceptable to make things work really well from a wholistic stand point. It can be tough to be both minds. Or maybe the mind sets of the companies were just differently focused. Maybe Apple is just betterCOUGH.. but seriously, people will always be differnt, there will always be different points of practice and execution.

    The most surprising part about this email to me is how nice Bill is. I don’t think I’d want him as a boss. If I received this email I’d totally brush it off a little. There doesn’t seem to be any level of urgency for correction towards the obvious awkward situations of usability. There ought to be more fire for the usability if it was truly a concern. (based purely on this singular instance.)

    *The above comment relating to Apple/Jobs, worship and, my favorite, who will be remembered in history… it is completely outlandish and stupid.

  6. Rev. Dan says:

    I’ve always understood it to be the case that Microsoft is less of a originator of technology than a refiner. Microsoft regularly buys all kinds of technology either to kill it or to integrate it into their suite of products. Early versions of Microsoft products are usually pretty lame then they get refined to the point of almost being good then they turn to bloat.

    Apple seems to be the opposite. Jobs seems to enforce a cult leader status that Gates never really had. Some people label that as being "visionary," it sounds heavy-handed to me. ./shrug

    I don’t know that Gates has ever been particularly "visionary" as much as he has been smart at assembling existing pieces and getting user feedback. Microsoft has always seemed to be a customer-survey based refiner vs. Apple’s "Steve says you’ll like it so you will" innovator.

    On the plus side for Apple is that there’s more of a focus on usability and UX and has been, since the beginning. Jobs is legendary for demanding that engineers shave seconds off of boot times, for example, and (perhaps melodramatically) ranting about "saving hours of human life."

    I personally don’t think I’d want to work for either of ‘em. Mega-corporations just suck the life out of people who want to be badass because they’re not filled full of people who have drive and passion to do excellent work… they’re filled full of people who want steady jobs. There are obviously exceptions and this is a very sweeping generalization but people who want to take risks and have influence over a company’s products gravitate towards smaller environments where they can be more effective.

    To me it’s the same kinda thing as people who are in software development for the money and those who are in it because making things is empowering. I’m definitely on the empowerment/personal badassness side of the fence and the fact that I get paid well is a plus, but I’d still be involved with software if it didn’t pay well.

  7. rainer says:

    So, seems like Bill is finally getting an idea about what he did to mankind… Microsoft’s research has never been about technology – it was always about marketing. That’s the difference to apple.

  8. Amy says:

    On the contrary, it seems like Bill Gates does care about the usability – at least enough to write this marathon-like email.

    So why did nothing change?

  9. swissfondue says:

    The main thing I get out of this email exchange is that Bill is as frustrated as any Microsoft user can be, but he can’t get his organization to change. Throw people out, stamp on some heads, make it happen you wimp.

  10. Daniel says:

    I think it would take a book-length polemic to answer your question, since I suspect the answer is a combination of (mostly) corporate culture and technological debt that comes out of each organization’s unique history; histories that were formed due to core differences that were decided very early on. Those decisions that allowed Microsoft to dominate for so long are also the ones that have created the bloat and complexities that are leaving them drowning in terms of usability.

    For the record, I have more issues with Mac’s usability (GASP), but am not about to start THAT thread right now (as amusing as the dog pile would be).

    I think it is going to be a long timeline, but I actually see MS’s biggest threat to be Linux and Apple’s to be their own success and having to eventually replace Jobs (again).

  11. John Athayde says:

    Nothing changed because the culture encourages finger pointing and a complete lack of ownership. "It’s not my problem" or "we aren’t the owner of that" was ENDEMIC at my previous employer. My job was created because the SVP of Marketing was sick of hearing that. So I came in and built things insanely quickly (i launched my first product 2 weeks after my start date and the CEO loved it).

    Of course, that cancer of "it’s not mine" spreads and I ended up leaving after a long string of projects that got redone by the CEO or shelved or cut down from the right idea to a crap idea. And I’ve been unlearning my self-preservation tactics picked up over two years.

    A good culture has to encourage failure. At least eradicate a fear of failure. Try it. Did it work? No. What did we learn? This. Do it again.

  12. windows_fan says:

    even the windows guru bill gates gets problems with his own software? maybe it’s a sing that something should change?

  13. Bluepaper says:

    Could I just point out the date that the email was sent? This is early 2003, 6 years ago nearly. Every company. Every product. Everything man made, has it’s problems and follies. And why? Because it’s made by humans, and no one is perfect. I admire Bill Gates for seeing, noting and telling people about these problems, because if he didn’t who would?

  14. Matt says:

    I was a little late getting on the iPod train. As a novice user I am amazed at how seamless and self explanatory it was, and how easily iTunes was downloaded with Windows Vista of all operating systems! Unfortunately I could not afford a Mac so I got a Dell. My next computer will be a Mac because I REALLY can’t afford to be inconvenienced on a daily basis by a computer and software that doesn’t work with it’s own developer’s software and website, which is frustrating to say the least, as I am sure Bill can testify to, and has.

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