Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why Using Windows Is Like Being A House Cat

A lifetime of using computers has left me with the ability to click the Start button. What happened and what does it all mean?

One of the more surprising findings of a study of cats found that their brain shrinks the longer they are house pets.

This got me thinking with what is left of my brain.

I have been using computers since university, and personal computers since they were invented. From poring over articles in Popular Science about the IMSAI Altair, to lusting after a SOL 20, to actually owning one of the first Osbornes, I have been acquiring and using the machines for more than 30 years.

Along the way, I have learned many languages (FORTRAN, BASIC, COBOL, APL, dBASE) and any number of operating systems (CP-V, CP/M, DOS, Windows). I was very comfortable with the ins and outs of batch files, memory managers, and other arcane skills need to get things to run. I actually made my living as a programmer for some period of time, and wrote commercial packaged software for managing contacts back when that was unusual.

Today, my computer runs Windows. Why? Because after a while, it was just too hard not to. As my favourite applications fell by the way side, and as the hardware I wanted to run evolved, there was really no choice - one had to run Windows.

One of the professed design goals of Windows is to hide complexity from the end-user. No need for config files, no need to understand or learn, just click on things until something happens. And I suppose it is hard to argue with the approach. Why should you have to have a degree in rocket science just to boot a computer?

Which brings me back to the cat.

I don't think I can actually write a program to save my life anymore. Like a well-fed house cat, my skills have atrophied and shrunk to the point of vestigial memories.

I have moments of lucidity when I attempt to recapture the glory days, when slinging code separated the men from the boys. I try and install the latest greatest Linux distribution on an old PC, and settle in with some 1000 page "Learn LINUX in an hour" bible.

Many times, I actually end up with a working system on which it is possible to start one of the included applications. A very old version of Netscape. Or a Tetris clone.

When I try and install some new application, it usually doesn't work because I haven't put some file in the right directory or edited some obscure configuration file. Right now, I have lost the taskbar on my GUI interface. I don't know why, and I sure don't know how to get it back.

So I switch back to my comfortable Windows XP machine and use it to look up tech support for Linux. The irony is not lost on me...

But even house cats have frustrations.

I mourn the loss of skills, but I also mourn the loss of functionality. When I was running DOS and WordStar and dBASE, I had no trouble writing letters and using mail-merge to send out our annual Christmas letter. In fact, WordStar even had a dictionary (not spell checker) and thesaurus which contributed to better writing. Today, one is left with American dictionaries and a mail-merge process that is a frustrating series of compromises that belie the progress we are supposed to have made.

Now we have the all conquering Microsoft Outlook and it's hideous mishmash of menus and rigidity. Want to store data with your own labels and field types? Forget it. Want to figure out where your data is? Good luck. Need to export to another program? No chance. Unless of course it is a virus that wants access to your address list. That apparently is easily done. Want any choice of programs to use to accomplish a task? Forget it. All innovation has ceased if Microsoft has released a program in that category.

But I am a house cat, and my brain hurts from all this thinking. Better roll over and go back to playing Solitaire.

No comments: