Whether you like it or not, if you buy a new Windows-based computer after January 30, you're going to get a taste of the future. The consumer version of the new Windows, called Vista, hits stores and computers at the end of the month, replacing Microsoft's somewhat antiquated Windows XP as the latest incarnation of the company's ubiquitous operating system.
This time around Microsoft has taken unprecedented steps to make sure that even the most techno-phobic users can get what they want and need out of the software. They've recruited 50 ordinary families from around the world to test the software and help the company shape it into a user-friendly and intuitive system that's as good for grandma as it is for the grandkids.
"We wanted to make sure that our key customers were involved from the beginning," said Trish Miner, research manager for the "Life with Windows Vista" program for Microsoft. "We also wanted to make sure that everything they wanted to do they could do easily."
Miner credits the families who were picked from focus groups and through various online methods, with identifying over 800 bugs in Vista during the two year program, but also says they helped make the software what it is today by finding things they liked and didn't like about it.
Families like the Regans of Germantown, MD.
"That company [Microsoft] is filled with computer technology people," said Melissa Regan. "I think they're [consumers] going to benefit much more greatly from me, I'm a social worker at home with three kids."
The whole Regan family, Chris, Melissa and their three children, had regular meetings with Microsoft employees, had a direct hotline to their own personal technical support and even had a feature on their desktops allowing them to communicate directly with the Vista team whenever they encountered something they liked or wanted to see changed.
"It's been very personable and just a very pleasurable and exciting experience," commented Chris Regan. "We're almost disappointed that the program is coming to an end."
Though Chris spends a lot of time at work on a computer, Melissa says she wasn't much of a user before the Vista program entered her home. She was and is however, an avid digital photographer and likes to upload and burn CDs for family and friends filled with her favorite pics.
When she had difficulty figuring out how to burn her CDs, she let Microsoft know about it.
"I was looking in particular at that area in Vista and I wanted it to be easy to use" she explained. "I really hammered Microsoft with e-mails because I wanted a 'burn button' right there in front of me. So they put that in! I was so excited to see this burn button added -- they really listened to what we wanted."
The Regan's say they feel like they played an instrumental role in shaping Vista experience and point to the addition of the "burn button" as proof Microsoft was truly interested in their input.
"Each of our families can tell you something they feel was improved in Vista because of some feedback they gave this," said Miner. "To be honest, it's one of the greatest projects I've worked on at Microsoft. Our families have just been so committed and so dedicated and so helpful."
Cameron Abbott and his wife Kim were also involved in the program. He says Vista's come a long way since they entered the program in August 2005.