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Windows 7 testers want their voices heard

Microsoft is trying to reassure the hundreds of thousands of people testing the new operating system that their feedback matters. At the same time, don't expect huge changes.

Although the enthusiasts that are testing Windows 7 have been generally positive on the product itself, some feel Microsoft has been less than eager to receive constructive criticism.

The issue came to a head last month in regards to changes Microsoft was making to make its controversial user account control feature less annoying. While the company did eventually make some shifts to address security concerns raised by testers, for some, the notions has lingered that Microsoft just isn't all that interested in user feedback.

For its part, Microsoft is now trying to make a challenging point. It is trying to reassure the hundreds of thousands of people testing Windows 7 that their feedback matters. Engineering Chief Steven Sinofsky wrote a lengthy blog posting on the subject asserting that Microsoft takes in every piece of feedback it gets. At the same time, it is also true that the vast majority of suggested changes won't make it into the final version.

There are a number of factors at play. First of all, while the loudest chatter right now is coming from hard core techies, Microsoft is also designing for a broader audience that includes tech novices and first-time computer users as well as businesses, whose needs are also different. In some cases, Microsoft is making choices for the many, even though they may irk the few.

Second, although Microsoft is paying attention to all of the e-mailed suggestions, it is also keeping a close eye on what its hard data is showing--it gets reports on what is and isn't crashing. Many of the things it is most actively working to fix are the kinds of things that are affecting a broad swath of the user base.

Finally it is getting a little late in the game. Microsoft has already pronounced the beta version as feature complete and the bar is quickly raising as to what types of issues would actually merit a design change at this point.

"We are toward the end of the process," said Mike Angiulo, who leads the Windows PC Ecosystem and Planning team.

But some might say their feedback was never really solicited. After all, it was only last October that Microsoft first offered a test version of Windows 7 to a broad public audience.

Part of the underlying discrepancy, I suspect, is also an expectation gap. While it's probably true that Microsoft is open to feedback, the level of changes that it is interested in making probably differ from the kind of suggestions many people are interested in offering.

Microsoft does look for broader input, but it tends to solicit that earlier in the process and from a more limited group, such as the 3,600 people that went through Windows 7 usability testing as part of the product planning process.

That's not to say Microsoft isn't making any changes between the Windows 7 beta that was released in January and the release candidate version that will be made publicly available at some point in the not-to-distant future. However, the changes may seem minor and relatively few and far between.

One of the tweaks that Microsoft expects to make, for example, is to slightly shrink the size of the icons on the new taskbar to aid enthusiasts that want lots and lots of programs to reside there. For another, Microsoft plans to add a number of keyboard shortcuts that map to various new elements of Windows 7's graphical user interface. That's the kind of change that is easy to make, because those that want it can use them while everyone else won't even know they are there.

"That's a no-brainer," Angiulo said.