Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I just believe things should work properly...

This is not a blog post about the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Partially, this relates to a congenital inability to spell the word vacuum that will always haunt me. Partially it is because as fine as that machine is, and it is a fantastic vacuum (I'm practicing now and making myself type vacuum a lot), I can't quite summon up the blogging passion.

But Microsoft Windows can. See I'm a long-time Mac user. Been there since the early days of the 128K "skinny Mack" and the 512K "fat Mac." Remember those times, when memory was measured in some obscure and miniscule unit called the Kilobyte? Modems were slow, screens small, and disks floppy...

Anyway, I stray. The point is, I find that my little MacBook works properly. Provided I don't do something jackass stupid like assigning three applications to respond to the same hotkey combination or such, it does what it is supposed to. I can slow it down by running a dozen different applications including a few good memory and CPU hogs at once. I can crash it, occasionally, by throwing excessively weird combinations of network access at iTunes and then killing the network.

But overall, things work properly. To misrepresent Yokihiro Matsumoto (creator of Ruby), it embodies the Principle of Least Surprise. The Mac (I'm not actually talking about Ruby here) does more or less what you expect. And it, for the most part, does things in an order of convenience that relates to the order in which you will need to do them. Obviously needed features are obvious to access. Obscure but occasionally cool features are obscured. And there are just a few cool "power tricks" out there, hidden away but documented if you look for them, that you can really get the system rocking if you want.

And then there's my XP machine at work. Its a nice little Lenovo laptop, not too far off my MacBook in terms of spec's. But oh, oh, the trials. I'm not even talking about Windows XP SP2 itself -- which should have a certain B-52 like robustness (but as we've rather sadly learned, even they can crash). I'm talking about the applications.

Ever have the dreaded phantom paragraph problem in Word? Where there is some paragraph marker that, if you delete it, suddenly causes your entire document to reformat into some obscure font? Hey, when I chose select all and then changed my font, I really did mean select all! Or sometimes there is the close cousin, the paragraph of steel -- you simply can't get the space to go away, no matter what you do. Select and cut, select and delete, backspace over it, select it and type other characters and then delete them. In the end the solution sometimes ends up being simply shrinking the font size way down -- though sometimes that doesn't stick until you type a few characters and then set the type color the same as the background color because if you erase those letters the space returns to its original size.

Half the time, I end up just copying and pasting the text into a new document. That's a robust solution! Its a good thing bytes come cheap...

And then there is a moment to truly test your manhood (or womanhood): creating a table in Word. Half the time, once established, it refuses to let you grow (or shrink it). And woe betide the person who doesn't realize that what they are typing in isn't a table, but an embedded Excel document.

Its rather a joke at the office because I keep threatening to throw my Lenovo out the window. And one day I will. And it will probably be Outlook that does it. I manage a couple of mailboxes and some shared calendars. Fine enough -- but the degree of gothic square dancing required to create make this work is infuriating. And I suppose that some people like the whole concept of Outlook -- that the mail is served from a central location. Nice if you are hoteling and don't have a laptop or your computer gets stolen or you get fired. But I'm left with a puny storage allocation and an inability to read mail whenever the network is feeling funny. Or the outlook server. And then I get to quit outlook and restart it.

Yesterday, for three hours, I couldn't send mail. Oh, it appeared to be sent, it just never arrived. Why? I'd filled up my disk quota. I had to poke around until I finally realized this -- no thanks for the warning, guys. Half of what I sent later showed up, the other half I had to re-send. And occasionally Outlook apparently gets so frustrated with itself that it crashes the entire computer and will only reconnect to the server if I do a full restart.

For various reasons we run Internet Explorer at work -- it is the "officially supported" browser and if I try to use Firefox it keeps throwing me dialog boxes that force a sign-in because I might be some intruder, I guess. Anyway, I also find that IE7 is returning to the days when we used to call it "Internet Exploder" just for fun. Ironically, one of the sites that causes it (and any related instances) to immediately crash is the Apple website! But also a few other totally innocuous ones. Don't ask me why -- it just vanishes.

My old XP box at my old job would periodically span an infinite number of browser windows, too. They would just start appearing -- I gut up over 50 of them one time. The system would then hang and they would all vanish suddenly. No one ever could figure out why. They just stood around and kinda' laughed. This was at an IT school. These people were instructors. You'd think they'd have known (or cared) what was going on. The behavior may be as much as symptom of that place's culture, but the sort of fixed-focus backup-and-re-image approach to troubleshooting is something I see too often among windows hacks. It'd be like bringing your car in for busted wiper blades and having the mechanics install a new engine and transmission and tell you to clean out your glove box.

But the overall situation is just that dreaded designed-by-committee feeling. Microsoft, I'm convinced, can't say no to a focus group's feature request. Oh, six people out there might need a certain feature...so we'll try to build it in. This isn't just a bloatware issue regarding memory and performance. It is about UI. As you pile on more and more things, you need more and more layers of menu, dialog box, tab, and drop-down to access them. That or you run the risk of creating excessively complex sets of options at any given level. And both XP and Office 2003 suffer from all of these.

I'll give Microsoft one thing -- Office 2007 is a lot better. It trades away the equally pain-in-the-ass to access everything approach of '03 for a highly customizable interface. I loved it for the brief period I was using it -- loved at least as compared to '03. That was once I got over the learning curve of setting things up the way I wanted. Which means that I suspect it will be judged a complete failure. Because most of the other people I know hated it. That's because the original release forced them into habits that they'd gotten so used to that the novelty (and pain) of an innovative approach was unfathomable. Understandable, too, because in many ways the elaborate routines and workarounds demanded by the software are hard to unlearn!

People often say that the Mac approach requires the user to learn to do things in the Mac way. This is, in some ways, absolutely correct. Windows, with its 86 ways to do anything, is great if you need to use way number 71 or 83 or even 29. But the Mac, with only a few ways to do the same thing, makes way number 1 or 3 or 8 so much easier... It is a false advantage, then, to say that Windows offers more options to get things done -- because that implies greater flexibility or convenience.

Well, I'm feeling better for this. There's nothing like forcing other people to read about your woe, I find, to ease the sole. Thanks for listening!

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