The dumbing down of Computers
You bring your garbage out to the road. You go back inside your house, take off your coat, your winter boots. You pick up a cup of coffee, sit down to read…. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. It’s the garbage man. He’s standing there holding some lemon rinds and egg shells. “Are you sure you want to throw this out?” he says. You say, “yes, of course.” You go back to your table and your coffee and resume reading. There goes the doorbell again. It’s the garbage man again, and this time he’s holding a broken toaster. “Are you sure you want to throw this out?” You nod. A few minutes later, it’s an old magazine, a pair of leaky boots, a shriveled old sponge. Are you sure you want to throw them out?
Of course I am, you idiot. Why do you think I put them in the garbage?
Of course, in real life, the garbage man doesn’t do that. He doesn’t go through your garbage first to see if you might have made a mistake. Once his truck is in front of your house, your garbage is gone, and you’re never getting it back. Is this so unmanageable?
Obviously not. Yet, this is what Microsoft Windows does whenever you want to throw a file away. “Are you sure you want to throw that out?” Yes, yes, yes.
It tells you something about the world of computers nowadays that Microsoft, which is a very market-savvy company, keeps putting stuff like this in their operating system. Think about the “my documents” folder, and the fact that the dos prompt defaults to the Windows directory, the least useful place for a user to be. Think about Windows 98 and Windows 2000 which have added “my pictures” and “my music” as defaults, as if the user is so stupid, lazy, and trivial, that he will be keeping all of his precious files in these three locations, named, as if by a child, “my” stuff.
Think about the fact that when you go into Explorer and try to look at drive C:, Microsoft presents you with this nebulous thing called “desktop” and then “my computer”. What is “my computer”? I don’t know what Microsoft thinks it is. It wants you to think that your disk drive is attached to something that keeps everything together for you. What Microsoft has done is make the operating system king of your computer. If you want your data, you don’t go looking on Seagate’s 10 GIG hard drive anymore. You go looking in “my desktop” for “my computer” which has “internet explorer” on it as if it was something apart from the software provided by Microsoft, and “printers” as if they existed in the ether and could be invoked only by an application provided by—you guessed it—Microsoft. And there is your hard drive: a mere subsidiary of the true ruler of the universe: Windows! It looks like you could lose a hard drive or two and hardly miss it: you’ll still have “my desktop” and “my computer”—right?
In the old days of DOS, and the present day of Linux, you booted up to a hard drive, which had everything on it: your applications, operating system, software, and – most importantly—your data. You made a copy of your data because sometimes the hard drive—the thing that your data is actually, physically, on—could occasionally fail. But today, in Windows, your data is stored in some labyrinthine network of secret passages, hidden grottos, and camouflaged tunnels. Can you find it? Oh, you can probably find your letters to grandma in “my documents”. But if you think that is neat and you like Microsoft and think it’s great, let me ask you this: where is your e-mail? Do you know? Can you back it up? I thought so. When your hard drive fails, my friend, you will start over from scratch. But then again, a short memory seems to be a requisite of joining the on-line world nowadays.
When you use Windows Explorer to go look for your e-mail files, it doesn’t show the full names of the files, their size, or the dates they were last used. It shows you a stupid picture of what the file is supposed to be like. Windows no longer shows you the extensions of the files, because it supposed to be able to tell you what kind of file it is. In fact, if you rename a file’s extension, Windows doesn’t have a clue what it is.
Windows doesn’t show you “hidden” files: it wants you to leave them alone, and let Microsoft tell you what should or should not be on your computer. Double-click on a certain file, and suddenly Windows is trying to drag you onto the Internet. Haven’t signed up with an Internet Service Provider yet: Microsoft will take care of it. Just click here—or don’t click “no”—and you are hurtled onto MSN, but make sure you have your credit card ready.
With every new release of Windows, the nuts and bolts of your computer are becoming more and more invisible, and you are less and less able to control what is on your system and how it works. With every new release, your expensive hard drive is polluted with more and more hidden functions, routines, and settings designed to manipulate, cajole, and annoy you into doing something you didn’t think of yourself. With every new release, the idiotic short-comings of Windows become more and more embarrassing:
- – it crashes frequently, even while running Microsoft games, like “Age of Empires” or applications like “Outlook”
- – it can’t back up your data. It has no idea of where your data is. It has no means of backing up your documents, e-mails, bookmarks, or anything else, efficiently. As a result, most people don’t back up anything.
- – It is SLOW, SLOW, SLOW, as molasses, as they say. Don’t believe me? Get out an old 486 computer running Windows 3.1 and play with it for a while. You’ll be astonished at how quick and responsive the computer is compared to Windows 98.
- – It is getting more and more difficult to program for Windows—the operating system is becoming enmeshed with applications, making it extremely difficult to produce efficient, reliable applications.
- – Microsoft deliberately creates file incompatibilities to drive everyone to upgrade. If one person in your office starts using Office 2000, before you know it, other users will be complaining because they can’t share files anymore. Access will not allow two different versions of the application to run on the same computer: the result is that applications have to be redeveloped for the new version.
- – Windows is bloated beyond belief. Does Microsoft every throw anything away? I suspect that when the garbage man comes to Bill Gates’ door with a handful of rotting fruit, Gates says, “yes, actually, I did change my mind about throwing that out…”
- – Windows is often just plain stupid. I installed a network card once, but Windows failed to find the correct drivers for it. Strike 1. No big deal. I installed the updated driver for the network card, but Windows wouldn’t install it because it couldn’t find the card. Strike 2. Annoying, perhaps. Then I decided to remove the card and try a different one. When I told Windows to delete it, it asked for a driver disk. After accepting the driver, it said, “do you wish to remove the card?” Yes, you moron.
- – Does Microsoft think that people only use CD drives to install software? If I want to install software, I’ll tell it to install software. In the meantime, I’d like to be able to change disks without having the computer come grinding to a halt while it checks to see if something should install itself from drive d:.
- – When you try to export a file from Outlook, it asks for the Office 2000 CD, but it checks drive a:. Does it think Office 2000 comes on a floppy disk now? When I tell it I want to browse to the files, it dumps me into “My documents”—good place to keep my copy of Office 2000, don’t you think?
In short, the computer is becoming like television. The Internet was a bold, amazing, astonishing innovation in communications technology that promised the world a new means of building networks of communities reflecting the rich diversity of cultures and intellects on this planet. Microsoft’s vision the internet: the “shop” button on your browser.
Now, you may have rightly observed that my opinion is not an isolated one and you may have asked yourself why, if Windows is so bad and so annoying, does everyone use it. The answer is really quite simple: like many other “power users”, I make a living trying to keep Windows systems running smoothly. People pay me, fairly good money, to solve the endless myriad of problems created by Microsoft’s sloppy programming, so I have to understand their products as well as I can. It is also true that there are some dazzling applications that run only on Windows—Adobe Premiere, Sound Forge, Audio Catalyst, Paint Shop Pro, etc. There is a growing number of good applications for Linux, but they can’t match some of these applications at the moment.
But power users are not like salesmen. To a salesman, millions of people buying defective products is nirvana. When the product breaks down, you simply sell them another one.
Computer technical support people see this as wasteful and stupid. They like things that work well, like hard drives, video cards, and RAM. They admire efficiency and durability. They hold reliability in high esteem. It’s part of their nature: that’s why they hack. To play with fascinating technologies that do cool things, like send music over the internet.
Why is Windows so popular if it’s so bad? I have explained that in detail in a previous rant, but, in a nutshell, to reiterate: Microsoft Windows was probably the worst graphical user interface ever developed, but it triumphed in the marketplace by leveraging it’s position when Microsoft’s version of DOS came pre-installed on every IBM computer. Only someone who has never read the news or any books on the history of the computer would really believe that Bill Gates is a technical genius. He is a marketing genius—I grant you that—though a lot of Microsoft’s success is also due to practices which, as the Department of Justice has observed, were blatantly illegal. The final factor in Microsoft’s success came as a result of the first two reasons: the network effect. Everyone wants compatible software. Everyone wants to be able to “borrow” their friends’ applications. IBM compatible computers were about 30% cheaper than the superior Apple McIntosh, and it was easy to copy software. That’s why Windows is on every desktop.
As wonderful and magical as computers are today, they could be twice as wonderful, three times as magical, and reliable to boot, if OS/2 or Geoworks, or the McIntosh, or the Amiga (a brilliant little machine way ahead of its time) or Linux had triumphed instead of Microsoft. The magic and wonder, my friend, comes from the hardware improvements, which have been astonishing. Sound cards, hard drives, video cards, monitors, CPU’s, RAM—all have improved at an astonishing rate. When you can record a ten-minute piece of music into a digital format onto a hard drive, edit it, and then compress it into an eight MB file—that’s impressive. And you know what—none of those functions related to this process were produced by Microsoft! Not one! The digital sound quality came from Turtle Beach (since adopted by Creative Labs). The compression codec came from a German company, Xing. The software came from Audio Forge and others (only dilettantes use the built-in Microsoft software for this). And the Internet, of course, came from the U.S. army. And yes, Al Gore played a big role in creating it by promoting it to Congress because, yes, he was visionary and understood the potential of the idea. The browser was invented by Tim Berners-Lee. Microsoft didn’t even see it coming until Netscape had 90% of the market.
When Microsoft does try to compete with real software companies, it generally does poorly. Of all the Microsoft products available that were developed in house, only Excel was superior to it’s competition (Lotus).