January 9th, 2009

After a very long time, Microsoft is finally catching up with Apple on a key technology: simple network setup.

Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows 7 OS will allow users to link their PCs to their other devices, as well as to computers owned by family and friends, in just three steps using a feature called Home Group, a company rep said Wednesday at the CES 2009 show in Las Vegas.

“For most consumers, setting up a home network is way too complicated,” said product manager Charlotte Jones, during Microsoft’s CES keynote presentation. “But, in Windows 7, there’s a feature called Home Group, and it sets up a home network very easily.”

We’ll have to see if the new system is actually simple to use, or if it’s just hype. I’ve had to add Windows computers to Windows networks many times before, and it has often been very difficult to do. Any networking using a Windows computer, in fact, tends to be fraught with roadblocks. Just recently, I was reconfiguring a friend’s WinXP computer and wanted to hook it up to my apartment’s WiFi network. No can do: I only found options for WEP passwords, not the (more secure) WPA password my home network uses. Just one example, and maybe the ability was there, but I couldn’t find it after a concerted effort. At my school, there are several networks and I always have trouble setting up connections. The network setup wizard is confusing and difficult to navigate.

Macs, on the other hand, have been about as simple as you can get–you don’t even need to try very hard. I am able to join new computers to WiFi and Ethernet networks with extreme ease. Setting up networks is almost as simple; with Apple’s AirPort, you just plug it in and it works; setup is required only if you want password protection, and the software to do this is easy to use. Same goes for sharing devices–it was a snap to make my non-network printer available to all computers on the network, even for our iPhones. With Mobile Me, I found it ridiculously easy to access my iMac from my work office using my MacBook Pro; it just showed up in the window’s sidebar, and presto–I could access files from across town. As for media sharing, Apple has had music sharing working simply in iTunes for years, and video sharing and syncing is similarly supported. In fact, I have found it much easier to set up Macs on Windows networks than it is to set up Windows machines! All of this has been true since as long as I can remember with OS X.

So if Windows is finally, a decade later, able to catch up, then huzzah for them. But this is yet another example of Windows lagging behind Apple in OS functionality.

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