Meet Microsoft’s antidote to Vista (software)
REDMOND, Wash. | Julie Larson-Green hopes you’ll like Windows 7. If not, well, now you and a billion other people know whom to blame.
Microsoft Corp. is counting on Ms. Larson-Green, its head of Windows Experience, to deliver an operating system that delights the world’s PC users as much as its last effort, Vista, disappointed them. She’s in charge of a wide swath of the system, from the way buttons and menus work to getting the software out in January as scheduled.
Given Microsoft’s history, Ms. Larson-Green’s plan seems downright revolutionary: Build an operating system that doesn’t require people to take computer classes or master thick manuals.
“We want to reduce the amount of thinking about the software that they have to do, so that they can concentrate all their thinking on the task they’re trying to get done,” Ms. Larson-Green said in an interview.
Microsoft relies on Windows for half its profit, which helps fuel money-losing operations like the pursuit of Google Inc. online. Windows was still profitable after Vista’s 2007 launch, but its poor reception dinged the software maker’s reputation at a critical time. Vista was designed for powerful, pricier PCs just as nimble rivals like Google were releasing Web-based programs that could run on inexpensive computers. Microsoft appeared to be clinging to an endangered world order that spawned its operating system monopoly.
What’s more, Vista’s initial incompatibility with many existing programs and devices, and its pestering security warnings, exposed Microsoft to ridicule in Apple Inc. commercials that helped Macintosh computers gain market share. Businesses didn’t give up Windows, but many delayed upgrading to Vista.
Microsoft’s executives have since distanced themselves from Vista, acknowledging its flaws. Now the company needs Windows 7 to widen that distance even more.
You probably don’t know her name, but if you’re using Office 2007, the sleeper hit of the Vista era, you’re already familiar with Ms. Larson-Green’s work. She was the one who banished the familiar system of menus on Word, Excel and other programs in favor of a new “ribbon” that shows different options at different times, depending on what a user is working on. It seemed risky, but it was grounded in mountains of data showing how people used the software.
Focusing on real customers might seem obvious, but Microsoft’s programs more often have reflected the will of techie insiders.
One reason is that Windows’ dominance relies heavily on third-party software developers who keep churning out compelling new programs. To give those developers as many options as possible for reaching PC users, through the years Windows spawned confusingly redundant features. For example, you can tweak antivirus-software settings by opening the program; by clicking on shortcuts from the desktop, task bar or “Start” menu; by responding to notifications that pop up uninvited from the bottom-right corner of the screen; or by poking around in a control panel.
Another bit of dysfunction stemmed from Microsoft’s corporate structure. Windows employs thousands of people divided into groups that focus on search, security, networking, printing — the list goes on. With Vista and earlier versions, each group built the best solutions for its isolated goals. For example, two separate groups added similar-looking search boxes to Vista’s control panels and its Start menu. Yet typing the same query into both boxes produced completely different results.
Ms. Larson-Green, a 16-year Microsoft veteran, grew up in tiny Maple Falls, Wash., about 100 miles north of the software maker’s headquarters in Redmond. She waited tables to put herself through Western Washington University, then took a job in 1987 answering customer-support calls at Aldus, a pioneering software company in Seattle.
During six years at Aldus Corp., Ms. Larson-Green worked her way into software development and earned a master’s in computer science on the side. However, she credits her waitressing and customer-service work for making her good at her current job.
“The primary things that help you create a good user experience are empathy and being able to put yourself in the place of people who are using the products,” she said. “User interface is customer service for the computer.”
Ms. Larson-Green, 47, is engaging and eager in person — to the point that in one interview, she couldn’t keep from repeatedly interrupting her boss, Steven Sinofsky, as he sketched the history of Windows. However, while giving product demos onstage, she lacks the showman’s panache that a surprising number of Microsoft employees display. At a developer conference last year, she seemed nervous as she showed off Windows 7’s new features.