Windows Vista vs. Mac OS X: The Startup Sound Debate

Opinion: Microsoft has crafted a new startup sound for Windows Vista's Aero experience along with a complicated back story. But Apple's Macintosh has long used sounds to alert users to system problems at startup time and this Vista ditty may be hea

Windows Vista will come with a new startup sound and other soundscape elements in its Aero interface. However, while Redmond execs tell the world how "cool" Windows has become and the great meaning behind the sounds, Window XP users may just add the charge of "ear candy" along with "eye candy" for the new interface.

Microsofts hype machine for Vista hit new heights recently with blog postings, press stories and even a radio feature flogging the new startup sound for Windows Vista.

In the Windows Vista team blog, Jim Allchin, the soon-departing co-president of Microsofts Platform Products & Services division, on Nov. 9 offered the back story for Vistas new startup sound and soundscape revamp. He said Vistas audio is "cool."

"While the Windows XP sounds were appropriate at the time Windows XP was built, they were very Western and literal (e.g., you could tell that the sounds were played by a piano and other western orchestral instruments). The Windows XP sounds were not consistent with the interface design goals of Windows Vista, so we overhauled the sounds to complement and blend with the softer, cleaner Windows Aero Glass theme and user interface elements for Windows Vista," he stated.

According to Allchin, the new startup sound is about 4 seconds long and contains several musical symbols: To parallel melodies are played in an intentional "Win-dows Vis-ta" rhythm; and the sound consists of four chords, one for each color in the Windows flag. Allchin didnt say which chord went with which color.

(For a bonus point, without looking at your screen, what are the colors of the Windows flag and in which order?)

"Sounds are obviously an important part of how people interact with their PC. The idea is to use your ears to get information from a sound without even thinking about it. For example, certain sounds on our PC tell us when we have a new e-mail or instant message," Allchin observed.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here to read an interview with Jim Allchin about Vista development.

But theres much more meaning in these sounds. A spiritual meta-meaning, in fact.

Earlier in the summer, blogger Robert Scoble interviewed Steve Ball, the group program manager for the Windows Audio/Video Excellence team, the guy in charge of this auditory experience. Ball dubbed this startup sound "a spiritual side of the branding experience."

He said the sound is a "brief, positive confirmation that your machine is now conscious and ready to react." When your machine is done cold booting, "this gentle sound will come out telling you that you can log in," Ball said.

Ball said it provides another piece of feedback: whether your sound is on or off.

Guys, come on. Its just a startup sound! No revolution here.

Of course, in the enterprise, most users have their sound turned off or turned way down. And given the stuff that many users might watch now and again, thats a good thing.

At the same time, IT managers are trying hard to keep the A/V use under control, and are cranking up the settings of QOS (quality of service) appliances that put a stop to music and video apps and preventing them from consuming all the bandwidth on the network and bringing actual useful non-streaming work to a halt.

Certainly, for some members of the Windows installed base, Aeros audio soundscape will be "ear candy," alongside its "eye candy" visual interface. Telling customers that this audio feature is "cool" may prove a less-than-compelling counter to the Windows XP inertia.

/zimages/7/28571.gifThe key to Vista success will be its improved security, says eWEEKs Larry Seltzer. Click here to read more.

A number of longtime users recently wrote me following my column asking the question whether Microsoft can beat the "eye candy" rap for Vista. Many of them say they have trouble seeing—and perhaps now hearing—a reason to move to Vista.

Reader Mark Goodale, whos followed the rise and falls of Microsoft OS upgrades since the DOS days, said that these OS upgrades fall into two classes: versions that mostly improve reliability of the platform and ones that are drive-by features. He puts Windows Vista into the feature-driven camp and said its "eye candy" is no reason to move away from Windows XP.

"Microsoft has really dropped the ball in terms of informing the general public as to why they need Vista. ... The reality of the situation is, they cant. Ive not heard of a single feature of Vista that fills the role of something one just cant do with XP Pro," he said.

For what its worth, Macintosh has had a startup sound from the beginning. But its sound offered a meaning beyond branding and the simple notification of whether or not your audio circuitry is dead or the sound is turned on.

Even with the first Mac, following its startup chime, users might unhappily hear the "Chimes of Death." These sounds were an audio error report that the hardware had failed some of the hardware checks, especially memory. Later, depending on the chord sequence played, musical users could identify which bank of RAM was having trouble.

Over time, the engineers put different sounds for this RAM test: chimes, drum beats, flute tones and breaking glass. I believe the sound of breaking glass may still be a warning sound—it was used on PowerPC Macs, but may not have made the Intel transition.

The Berlin-based electronic pop group Transformer di Roboter created a song using samples of Mac startup sounds. You can hear it here.

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