David Pogue is the weekly personal-technology columnist for the New York Times and an Emmy award-winning tech correspondent for CBS News. With 3 million books in print, he is also one of the world’s bestselling how-to consumer-technology authors. In 1999, he launched his own series of comprehensive, witty computer books called the Missing Manuals, published by O’Reilly Media. While Pogue writes many of these books himself, he also has a core of hand-picked authors for the series. Missing Manuals now number 30 titles, including Pogue’s upcoming Windows Vista: The Missing Manual. Here’s a recent conversation with David, where he explains why he wrote the book, and what’s new in Windows Vista.
Q: What sets Windows Vista: The Missing Manual apart from other books about this new operating system?
Pogue: First of all, it’s written by a writer, not an engineer. It’s humorous and it’s unafraid to identify certain features as dogs. And it tells the reader what each feature is for. We don’t include minimum-wage explanations like, “Freen Diopter Slider: Use this slider to adjust the Freen Diopter.” This book would tell you what the heck a Freen Diopter is, if there were such a thing, and why you’d ever want to adjust it. This is a literate, liberal-arts book written for people who are not computer professionals. It brings everything back to the real world and provides lots and lots of examples. We include copious screen shots illustrating every step.
Q: Would you say this book is for technologically challenged people or for those who are more techno savvy?
Pogue: It’s for audiences from beginner through advanced intermediate: Home users who buy a new computer loaded with Windows Vista, and corporate workers who get a Vista PC plunked on their desks. This book offers very little for system administrators, network engineers, and programmers. I come from the perspective of an ordinary user. I am not one of the insiders. In fact, I’d never even touched a computer until senior year in college. So, in everything I do, I try to bring that point of view.
Q: When people go out to buy a new computer, how do they know it will run Windows Vista? What do you tell them?
Pogue: Not to bother. Wait to buy a PC that has Windows Vista preinstalled. They’ll save all kinds of time and hassle. Vista is extremely greedy in its appetite for horsepower. Most Windows XP computers probably won’t be able to run it — at least not all of its features. Microsoft says that less than 5% of its customers actually upgrade an existing PC to a newer version of Windows. Everyone else gets Windows preinstalled on a new computer. The number of upgraders may be especially small this time, since Vista has such high horsepower needs.
Q: What is it about Windows Vista that’s most attractive to the general user?
Pogue: Above all? Security. Microsoft has spent five years sealing doors and caulking the windows of Windows in an attempt to stanch the flow of viruses, spyware, and the other ickiness that makes life a living hell for today’s PC fans. An incredible amount of Windows plumbing has been rebuilt as a result. Most of it is stuff you won’t see, and there’s still no guarantee that hackers won’t get through. But what is guaranteed is that they’ll have a lot harder time doing it.
Vista represents a radical change in Microsoft’s thinking. An astonishing amount of it has been rewritten and redrawn to look more like Apple’s Mac OS X, right down to terminology and wording of menus. I’ve counted 40 features so far that are modeled on Mac OS X, in part or completely. The result is that many of the new features are much more streamlined, more elegant, and less confusing than the older parts.
Q: What are some of the new features?
Pogue: The instantaneous whole-computer Search box is a good example, and so is the Sidebar, which is a collection of single-purpose, low-horsepower “gadgets” like stock trackers, unit converters, weather reports and so on. The built-in digital-photo editing tools are nice, too.
Q: Microsoft says that Vista will be a breakthrough user experience. Just how does it differ from Windows XP visually?
Pogue: Quite radically. The visual makeover is huge — even the main system font is different, which I think is the first change in that typeface since Windows 3.1. Shading, shadows, color, and transparency have been given serious thought for the first time in years.
At the same time, being less afraid to rework things in the name of better design means that Microsoft has moved around, renamed, or taken out a lot of stuff. Veteran Windows aficionados will feel like they came home from college and discovered that their parents rearranged their rooms while they were gone. That’s why my book has an alphabetical “Where’d It Go?” appendix to help people figure out where everything went.
Windows Explorer is dramatically different. All kinds of new options are available for grouping, sorting, rating, previewing, and hiding icons in a window. An Explorer window used to have a menu bar across the top and a task list down the left side, but now you can have various panes and toolbars on all four sides of a window, and two layers of them at the top. It’s going to take some getting used to.
Q: What would you say Microsoft is trying to accomplish by doing all of this?
Pogue: After years of clunking along, piling features upon features without much thought or care about beauty, elegance, or coherence, Microsoft has gotten an Apple-like religion of doing things right. Vista is beautiful, and presents a much less technical, geeky personality. Unfortunately, it means that many familiar features have been altered — simplified, thrown out, renamed, or moved around. Vista is much better than previous versions of Windows, but it’s going to be very confusing to anyone used to the old way of doing things.
And it doesn’t help that Vista comes in five different versions, each with a different subset of features! In Windows Vista: The Missing Manual, each feature description has a subheading that identifies which version of Vista it’s in, so readers don’t go crazy wondering why they don’t seem to see what’s being described.
Q: The book is wonderfully detailed, but why do you break your neck to be the first Windows Vista book out the door?
Pogue: Someone has to figure out what Microsoft moved around and suffer through the transition. But it doesn’t have to be you. We’re trying to save other people the time and the effort! That’s what our Missing Manuals are all about. I have a little author’s guide that I send as an initiation to each Missing Manuals author, and the first paragraph reads, “Don’t you dare write about anything without explaining what it’s for.” Just as important is explaining everything with coherence and wit. That’s what computer books are for — to help people understand their system, not put them to sleep. It doesn’t hurt to entertain them along the way.