Making Computers Easier to Use: Where Do You and Windows 7 Fit In?


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How easy is it for you to use Windows 7, versus say, whatever you are normally used to? This is a question that has decided the fate of not just entire households, but entire businesses when it comes to a proposed Windows 7 migration. I have noticed that one of the biggest preconceptions about Windows 7 is that it must be extremely difficult to use and understand, despite its rave reviews. This must be due to the fact, as some would contend that so much time has gone by since the release of Windows XP. Another preconception I have found is that driver support must be a problem, especially if you use the 64-bit version. Are these quickly becoming stereotypes? How fair are these statements?

I look at these statements with interest from a different lens. For an IT department, writing off Windows 7 as too difficult for employees to use and impossible to upgrade to may be statements that are easier to make to senior management, than, say, actually upgrading an entire business. For home users, it may be a good way to rationalize hanging on to that old computer for just one more year.

Through my use of Windows 7, I have found that the ease of use is roughly the same as Windows XP. I have not had any issues with drivers, as most of my hardware is new, and I haven’t used Windows XP, except at work, since the RTM (release to manufacturing) of Windows Vista. Many of us in the technology fields share a commonality – whether we have certifications, awards, experience, or not – we have a skillset that less experienced computer users don’t have. Therefore, it may be hard to judge what exactly constitutes ease of use.

Who are these people, who consider themselves skilled in other areas, but not in computers? According to some studies, it’s a large chunk of the workforce and a majority of consumers in the industrialized world. This group is complimented by the baby boomer demographic: People born from the 1940s to the 1960s view computers as difficult to work with. This is quickly becoming the oldest generation living today. Outside of that, a majority of people born in developing nations, where the tools necessary for widespread home computer use has been lacking, share a lack of confidence about ease of use. In some cases, due to trade imbalances and a variety of complex political and social issues, it could be argued that people in the developing world have been deprived of this technology and innovation. How can it be possible, though, that so many people around the world have a lack of confidence in their own abilities in general, especially with computers?

It is safe to say that many, if not most, jobs in the United States and Western Europe must require at least a basic to intermediate level of understanding on how to use computers – and more specifically, word processor software, basic file and database retrieval, and in many cases data entry.

It has amazed me, personally, to see the CEO of a business, which has made millions – if not billions - of dollars due to savvy business skills and entrepreneurial spirit, know absolutely nothing about computers except how to navigate Windows Explorer and write e-mails in Outlook. This strange dichotomy, to a computer person, almost seems like something from outer space. Then again, one could argue a business owner in such a position can, quite literally, afford to pay someone else for their ignorance. When we realize that many business moguls alive today lived without powerful desktop computers capable of inconceivable floating-point operations and immersive graphic user interfaces, the idea is not so far-fetched. In fact, many business owners such in my example are uniquely aware of their own limitations, keen on the capability these computers have when placed in the right hands, and have a vision for their business where computers play a central role. They can also recognize, as pragmatists, that they better serve their business by focusing on what they know and delegating computer, MIS, and IT responsibilities to others.

In a younger world, the new workforce is expected to have intermediate to advanced level of computer skills. College entrants are expected to be computer proficient, to know how to use online tools to their advantage, and the idea of not having a laptop to conduct research or write reports has become alien in academia. It is noted that the Internet itself was nurtured by large universities before it became generally available, and ultimately accepted, by consumers around the world.

The older segment of the workforce may need similar skills, but this requires that a company with older employees engage in skills training. If the boards of directors of a company, or their own CEO, do not know much about computers, they could receive poor advice from an understaffed IT department. “We need to come to an understanding that the majority of our employees will never be able to learn Windows [insert whatever version here]”. This could be considered an easy out for many IT departments, unless the marketplace and nature of the business demands fundamental change. One area where accountability and free market economics takes a back seat pass, at least as we can confirm it, is in the United States government. Many government computers in large urban areas continue to run Windows 2000 or Windows XP – unpatched. Viruses continue to be a daily occurrence and threat. Many of these departments are inundated with bureaucratic wrangling, are also understaffed, due to the competitive nature of the private sector and the mindset of information technology experts – who may not want to find themselves locked into a public service position at a low base salary for several decades. Ironically, it may be the federal government, which many perceive to be as inept, which comes out with the policies necessary to keep public computer systems around the country up to date. Local municipalities, state, and city governments may be less likely to have implemented end of life cycle practices.

So when we consider all of these possibilities, how is it possible that some people still fear Windows 7, and is that fear justified? From an objective standpoint, it is not difficult to see how budget restrictions can prevent large organizations, or even individual people, from upgrading to Windows 7. When market forces begin to demand faster computers, people will gradually latch on to the new operating system. While the base system is markedly improved from Windows XP, with advanced security features and enhanced stability, Windows 7 could be considered just as easy – if not easier to use – than Windows XP. The area where people may be getting confused the most is in driver and software support.

For one thing, Windows XP uses an older graphical display driver model for video graphics cards. Older computers with integrated video graphics cards or video cards that just don’t cut the mustard may have trouble under Windows 7. While the base operating system and the majority of its functions will still work under Windows 7 – in some cases even outperforming Windows XP – extremely old systems will have difficulty rendering the transparency effects known as Aero which have, by now, become well known to enthusiasts. Therefore, Windows XP users with old school games and graphics cards, may not be too pleased when it comes to their Windows 7 experience. To placate this group of people, “XP Mode” was created, which allows a virtual instance of Windows XP to run side-by-side with Windows 7 using Microsoft Virtual PC technology. This prevents any lazy IT department from saying “our software won’t run on Windows 7”. However, on older systems, graphics issues will still create a gap, often requiring upgrade.

The mindset under which people approach device drivers is confusing to computer technicians, consultants, and IT gurus who have worked in the field. As it seems, most people believe that Microsoft itself is 100% responsible for driver support. This is not the case at all. When your old Epson (or insert any brand name here) printer or scanner doesn’t work in Windows 7, it is very well due to the fact that the manufacturer, in our example, Epson, has not designated development time to create the proper device drivers for the next version of Windows. While Microsoft has written and co-authored tens of thousands of compatibility drivers, not every device will work with these, and even if they did they would not be performing very well. It is almost always up to the manufacturer to support their hardware. Such is a problem with old Windows XP peripherals being brought up to par with Windows 7. Since Windows XP was released in 2001, Windows 7 is nearly, but not quite, a decade older than Windows XP. Hardware manufacturers had plenty of time to see where development was going, and most Windows Vista drivers will work under Windows 7. Therefore, if your printer, scanner, or USB turntable doesn’t work under Windows 7, this is a very rare instance, and is usually due to the fact that the manufacturer of these peripherals probably wants you to buy a new one. It may seem lowdown, dirty, and rotten, but these companies make most of their money by consumers buying new products. They do in fact spend (and lose money) by supporting discontinued models.

What about software? Many people in the workplace and at home approach Microsoft Excel and other spreadsheet applications with a sense of fear and loathing. It is as if this one program has become the bane of the workplace – the new abacus; the confirmation that, at the start of the day, a mountain of paperwork must be created – but this time with dreaded formulas. How then, could one ever learn to use Excel 2010 when Excel 2003 is still being learned? Much development time is spent on making programs easier to use. In Excel 2010, for example, it is far easier to actually print out and display reports in an easier way than it could ever be in 2003. The ribbon menu, which was so harshly criticized in Office 2007, is now seen as a welcome upgrade in Office 2010, after feedback and Q&A testing showed how to make it right. Still, I have gotten the sense that many people approach their programs emotionally, and not logically. The ones that provide entertainment are innately good, and the ones that are used for productivity are just terrible. This sort of stigmatism can prevent entire offices from upgrading their software for years on end, especially when senior management adopts the same mentality.

Readers who know me would not be surprised to see me advocating the latest and the greatest as far as software and hardware. It has always been my opinion that more can get done and be enjoyed on a computer when it’s being used to its fullest resources. While my vision of future offices running the latest version of every operating system and processor may be a bit far-fetched, it becomes clear to me that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I emphasize that the middle I am talking about does not lie somewhere between 2010 and 2001, but in finding middle ground with people who are truly intimidated by their computer – worried they may damage it at any time or that they do not have the skillset to properly use it.

People can have confidence in their ability to use computers, and Windows 7, once they realize that their skills are not limited to what they have learned in grade school, high school, or college. New skills can be developed at any time, so long as a person is willing to pursue it. That motivation must come from within. This is particularly important for older readers. One needs only to understand the basis, and importance of logic, in order to draw a parallel between how a computer works and how the human mind can also function. What interests me, and perhaps others, is that we, as a group of collective individuals, may soon find that an operating system, or computer system itself, is limited in only what we put into it. Accessible from a computer today is the sum of all human knowledge on the Internet – as well as movie rentals and all of Vanilla Ice’s music videos. Truly, the opportunities are endless.

So do I believe Windows 7 is easier to use than Windows XP? Absolutely. Conventional wisdom and the facts tell us so. It is up to the end-user to challenge themselves to something new – and not to fear the unknown. It appears that many people are doing just that. This year, Windows 7 became the fastest selling operating system of all time.

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