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.
"When we got it, it was called 'Living with Longhorn' -- that was the code name for Vista," Cameron explained. "You had to be pretty tech savvy to use it -- it wasn't really user friendly."
But Cameron was dedicated to the program and determined to help make Vista more user-friendly than any Windows program before it -- even at the risk of upsetting his wife.
"I took the machine to Orlando on vacation with my family and my wife almost killed me," he said jokingly. "But I was working with Microsoft on a problem and I felt that I had given them my word."
Like a dotting dad, Cameron gushes when asked what he thinks about the final product.
"It's very exciting knowing that I made a difference in the way it works," said Cameron. "Now that I've been released to talk about it, I'm excited to tell everyone I can about it."
This isn't the first Windows program in which developers have reached out to the public for help in crafting the final product. In fact, it's pretty common for software makers to conduct a "beta test" -- a test of the product when it's usable, but not complete -- that's open to the public.
The idea is to put it in the hands of the product's target audience and see how -- and if -- it works.
But the length of the "Living With Vista" program, coupled with the credence placed on user feedback makes it pretty unique in the software space and Microsoft is hoping that will lead to a more intuitive experience when the long awaited operating system is finally unleashed on PC market.
Obviously Microsoft does go around and shows off early betas to us, but we're in the industry," said Lance Ulanoff, editor of reviews at PC Magazine. "But there's no downside to doing this. I don't know how I feel about them trotting these families out right now though -- it seems a little silly."
Having spent some time playing around with Vista, Ulanoff attests that whether it was the involvement of the families or not, something seems to be working -- even if he does compare it to the company's arch rival.
"It's elegant, it's smooth and it's rather familiar in that some of it seems a little 'Mac-esque' -- and I mean that in a good way," he joked. "Vista's geared towards users who may still be uncomfortable with technology -- who are still a little intimidated by PCs."
Miner believes the inclusion of families like the Abbotts and Regans will translate into a more positive experience and ultimately a successful and well received operating system.
"We're very excited about the fact that it's going to be released," said Miner. "We're also very excited about the improvements the families have helped us make."
Windows Vista will be preloaded on most Windows-based personal computers after its release at the end of January.
If you're happy with your current Windows computer and want to upgrade to Vista, Microsoft provides a small program you can download and run to make sure you're machine is compatible with the new software available on their Web site.