The startup sound in Vista …

I’m on the phone with Steve Ball, group program manager for the Windows Audio Video Excellence team (basically, the team that builds the stuff that plays audio and video in Windows).

First, a disclaimer, before I left Microsoft, I got an intimate view of the process that Microsoft is going through in finding the startup sound (famous guitarist Robert Fripp was working on it).

The idea here (to both paraphrase Steve, and pass along the goals here that I learned) is that Windows Vista should present a common, and beautiful, face to the world. I could go more into it (I think what they are trying to do will be apparent in the shipping release, but isn’t quite there yet — even the new sound isn’t in current builds).

Anyway, let’s go into what Steve just told me on the record: 

“The bottom line is that the rumors, stories, speculation about the new Windows Vista sound are true,” Ball said, “but with a number of extreme qualifications.”

The current plan, he tells me, is that there will be a pre-wired sound that plays when the system is ready for you to logon. This is the plan of record for quite a few months.

You can do other things with your attention and your eyes during cold boot without feeling like you have to watch and wait.

This will be a non-customizeable sound, and that’s been part of the plan for Windows Vista for many months, he said.

However, the plan might change and Steve Ball is reading all the feedback, both on blogs, and in the newsgroups for beta testers, and his team is considering all of this stuff and still has not made final decisions (although they’ve spent a lot of time already arguing this stuff out and are heading down a path of making this a non-customizeable sound that can’t be turned off, just like the Xbox has today).

“Why the hell would you want to do this in the first place?” he told me is a common question. It boils down to two sides of the coin.

1. A spiritual side of the branding experience. A short, brief, positive confirmation that your machine is now concious and ready to react. You can turn on your Vista machine, go eat some cereal, while your machine is cold booting and then this gentle sound will come out telling you that you can log in. You won’t need to wait for your machine to startup, he says.

2. Volume control in a Windows machine is a wild west. A mess. The startup sound is designed to help you calibrate or fix something that got out of wack when you startup your machine. Let’s say you muted your machine, and you don’t hear your startup sound, you know you aren’t ready to listen to stuff. The Xbox has a hard-wired startup sound. There is one way to mute it: to turn down the speakers that are connected to your Xbox. Same will be true for Windows Vista.

It basically helps you realize your machine is ready to watch a video like, Ze Frank, without fidgeting with anything.

To add to that these sounds may be included in a bunch of the marketing that Microsoft is doing and will become very recognizable as “Windows Vista.”

QUESTION: Why don’t you give advanced users the ability to turn this off via a registry setting or something like that?

Steve: “we’re considering just that.”

“Did you know that Sony has a built in sound?” he said. “Did you know that Toshiba has one?”

We went on to talk about the audio experience, how it’ll be a lot nicer than they were in XP and the emotional experience of how sounds will fit into the overall experience of using your computer.

A little bit about Steve. He’s an accomplished musician and cares, more than anyone I know at Microsoft, about how the community perceives Microsoft and its products.


This part is MY opinion, not Steve’s:

My own editorial? I can see this from both sides. As an advanced user I want control of everything on my computer. It pisses me off when companies assume they know me better than I know me.

On the other hand, now that I’ve spent the time with Steve and heard the market research, legal advice (yes, lawyers are involved here — they love having trademarked pieces of media experiences that can’t be copied), experience and UI teams (have you sat through user testing? I have, and decisions like these are made because of feedback of normal, everyday users, not just geeks like me and you).

Translation: I’m withholding judgment until I see the final product. This isn’t an “evil” feature like SmartTags that demands an instant pull-out, but it isn’t nice not to listen to your most influential and experienced users either. So, it’ll be interesting to see how this one goes.