For months now, Microsoft Corp. has been putting inexperienced computer users in front of machines and turning them loose on Chicago, its new version of the Windows operating software. If enough of these guinea pigs find a feature obscure or hard to use, it is redesigned or discarded.
Such testing isn't new, of course. But by focusing so strongly on usability, Microsoft has set a new standard for software development. The payoff: Chicago looks like a home run. And its success could assure the software giant a dominant role in PC operating systems for years to come.
Chicago's emphasis on convenience is everywhere in the preliminary version, now in the hands of some 15,000 reviewers. The "user interface" borrows the best tricks from Apple's System 7 for the Macintosh and IBM's OS/2, then adds a few wrinkles of its own.
AUTOMATION. A new approach to file management, for instance, makes it much easier to retrieve a document--even if you can't remember exactly what it's called, or where you put it. The eight-character limit on file names, a frustration to users since the birth of the PC, is gone. A "task bar" across the bottom of the screen tells you what programs are running and lets you switch from one to another without using obscure combinations of keys. And frequently used programs can be set up so that they are automatically pulled up and ready to launch when the PC is turned on.
Changes beneath the surface should make Chicago even easier to use than previous PC operating environments. Windows has been crippled from birth by the limitations designed into MS-DOS, which provides its underlying power. Windows, for example, has never been able to use a computer's random-access memory effectively because MS-DOS was designed on the assumption that no machine would ever contain more than 1 million characters' (1 megabyte) worth of memory. This causes Windows programs to report regularly that they are out of memory--or worse, to crash--even on machines with a hefty 16 megabytes of RAM. Chicago finally dumps the arbitrary limits.
Chicago--along with a "plug and play" hardware standard co-developed by Intel Corp.--also allows computers to recognize accessories as they are installed and to reconfigure themselves automatically. No longer will you have to think about mysteries such as "IRQs" and "I/O port addresses" to get a Soundblaster card or a CD-ROM drive working.
Will this be enough to make computers simple enough for the rest of us, particularly the 70% or so of American homes that remain computerless? That depends in large part on how Microsoft and its rivals in the software industry respond.
NO EXCUSES. For Microsoft, the top priority must be to make sure that Chicago is free of major bugs--even if that means delaying delivery into next year. Certainly, the current test version is far from ready. I needed help from a systems administrator--and several Microsoft technicians--to get a computer loaded with Chicago to work on a Novell NetWare network.
Microsoft and other software publishers should also avoid using Chicago as an excuse to build bigger programs bloated with rarely used features. Unlike Windows 3.0, whose 1990 introduction pushed buyers into a new generation of hardware, Chicago should run happily on any computer that handles Windows 3.1 well. But if obese programs are developed that require hardware upgrades, the computer industry will needlessly create a bunch of unhappy users. And why turn a home run into a foul ball?