In sharp contrast to competitors such as Apple Computer and the various open source groups working on Linux, Microsoft has worked for years to really think through the whole user experience in Windows, a phrase many people confuse with the more simplistic user interface. But the Windows user experience goes well beyond the controls, windows and other onscreen elements with which you interact and encompasses, literally, your entire experience with the system. That is, the user experience includes such abstract concepts as how you feel about the system, how you react to actions onscreen, and how the system reacts to you. It's more than technology, in other words. It's about the relationship you have with the PC.

And let's face it: Most people today don't have very positive experiences with computers. How many times have you been in a store or bank and been told "the computers are going slow today," and accepted that excuse with an air of resignation? How many times has your Windows 9x-based PC frozen up on you and forced you to hard reset the machine to get it back? How many times has something inexplicably gone wrong with a computer, even though that action was just working perfectly a moment before? The utter unreliability of computers has been a problem Microsoft certainly has contributed to, but much of it also has to do with the wide and impossibly complex range of PCs out there, each with its own unique hardware set up and buggy drivers. As the OS vendor of choice, of course, Microsoft has a bit more responsibility and need to fix these issues than any other company as well. Fortunately, they're working on it.

And again, in sharp contrast to other companies and organizations, they doing it holistically, thinking through the ways in which people actually use computers and try to solve problems. It's not enough for a feature to be available if the user can't find it or doesn't know it's there. Software shouldn't break other software. The user should be in control. And so on.

Microsoft's history of holistic software development can be seen in many of its projects over the years, some popular some not. There was the Microsoft Bob social experiment (an utter failure, which is sad, as the Bob interface was a great UI for kids); the friendly (yet ultimately annoying) Office Assistant, which attempted to provide users with help when it appeared they needed it; the inductive UI work most recently seen in Windows XP's task panes and Office XP's task panes and Smart Tags; and the roles-based administration in Windows Server 2003, among others.

Compare this to Mac OS X, an operating system Apple has been trying to get off the ground for several years. Because it was based on entirely incompatible technologies to its previous OS products, Apple needed time to bring that OS up to speed with Windows, and the company wisely chose to focus on core technologies and features in its first few releases. In late 2003, Apple released Mac OS X 10.3 ("Panther"), the fourth OS X version and arguably the first that's suitable for mainstream use. With about 10 million users, Mac OS X is hardly in the same league as Windows, which boasts several hundred million active users. But Panther is a modern OS using proven UNIX technology, and it's aimed a consumers, technical users, and creative types, so it's a good comparison.

How does Apple market Panther? Apple pushes technology above all, technology like its new Finder, the Expose anti-clutter tool, the iChat AV instant messaging application, the (admittedly excellent) iApps, and the derivative Fast User Switching feature. In each case, Apple touts the superiority of its technology, with Windows the usually unnamed recipient of the many child-like barbs you'll find on the company's Web site. But there's absolutely no user experience in OS X. Instead, Apple's OS provides just a classic graphical user interface, with no friendly utilities or tools to guide you through various processes. It's a desktop OS, plain and simple, and no amount of graphics technology can change that simple truth. You pretty much have to know what you're doing to use OS X. Otherwise, you'll just find yourself endlessly mousing around. To a beginner, it's almost as unfriendly as a command prompt.

Now look at how Microsoft markets Windows XP. You'll quickly notice that Microsoft's message is less about technologies and more about what the company calls "experiences." That's because Windows XP actually addresses core usage scenarios, or what we might call the user experience. So Microsoft's slogan for the current Windows generation is "Do Amazing Things: With Windows XP, Yes You Can." XP experiences include such things as Music & Video, Games, Digital Photography, and Home Movies. The company also touts XP's task-based, visual design, and the top ten reasons XP is superior to previous Windows versions. While there are still technologies and applications behind these experiences, of course, Microsoft has thought through how users will interact with the system and provided hooks in the OS to aid users along the way. It's this attention to detail that makes XP a solution for the masses, while Mac OS X is very much for the technical elite.

Microsoft isn't standing still, of course. Looking forward to Longhorn, the company is working to take its task-based work, its holistic approach to PC/human interactivity, and its years of research to deliver a product that is both more technically competent and easier to use than the competition. Naturally, there will be advanced technologies in there: Windows and controls with which to interact, and UI elements, just like any other operating system. But if Longhorn is successful, it will delight you and not frustrate you. It will be a system you look forward to using and not one you put up with.

So what makes up the Longhorn user experience? There's the UI, of course, driven by the Avalon low-level graphics engine and the Aero user interface, which will provide the end user controls and the look and feel that so many people will simply think of as Longhorn. It includes new document types, provided by the underlying system, which third parties can easily integrate into their own solutions; these document types provide exciting new features such as scaling, zooming, pagination, and various flow styles. It includes new system notifications that don't get in your way, again with seamless hooks for third parties. It includes deep digital media integration, with glitch free playback, even over networks. It includes new inductive user interface features, of course, to guide users through tasks with which they're not familiar. And it includes speech technologies, so users can interact with the system more naturally. All of these things and more make up the Longhorn user experience, working together to deliver the most immersive computer operating system ever.

And virtually none of it is available now. Cute, eh? Sure, the low-level stuff is there in the current pre-alpha builds, but we have to wait several months at least to see the core of the user experience, the Aero look and feel. This look and feel was first revealed here, not coincidentally, on the SuperSite for Windows back in August 2003. And we got another look at it at the PDC 2003 in October 2003. But Microsoft is honing Aero, refining it, and, yes, hiding it from the competition so they can't be ripped off mercilessly in the months before Longhorn is finally released.

Next, we'll look at the user experience elements that are available now in Longhorn 4051.