Monday, May 25, 2009

On Computers

To err is human. To really screw things up requires a computer. ~ Little sign above my computer in the den.

I confess, I am a complete, total, computer junkie. Always have been, always will be. This is just a rant on computers since 1982, when I bought my first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III.

I confess to being a programmer wanna-be too. When I got the TRS-80 I bought all the books on BASIC programming that I could. I grabbed BASIC program listings wherever I could find them and typed them in, saved them to the tape cassette drive, and was utterly entranced when they ran, and performed some useful or entertaining task. I learned the ins and outs of BASIC programming this way.

A year or so later I got my first PC clone with a floppy drive. A succession of more powerful computers, bigger hard drives, and faster modems followed. One day a client who was a Microsoft programmer (back when Microsoft was small) gave me a copy of QuickBASIC, a BASIC compiler, and I was off to the races!. I could write real programs that ran from DOS like commercial programs!

A bit after that, I stumbled on to a book by Jeff Duntemann called Complete Turbo Pascal. I read it in a single sitting. After flailing around with free form of BASIC, I was totally taken by the logic and structure of Pascal. Later I found Bob Ainsbury's Technojock's Turbo Toolkit, and I was in heaven. I wrote a couple of shareware programs with Turbo Pascal 4 and TTT and joined the Association of Shareware Professionals. I wrote a couple of small utility programs and most of a word processor that I never published. The main thing was I truly enjoyed the process of creating programs, the mental challenge.

I never got into C. I am pretty sure I remember reading some of Warren Keufel's articles in Doctor Dobbs Journal, although of course I never understood any of it.

For me, the zenith of PC computing was running Desqview over DOS with the QEMM memory manager. I ran a dial-up BBS called Pascal Alley for quite a few years, while programming in Turbo Pascal in another window. My word processor was XYWrite III, spreadsheet was Quattro Pro, and most of my other programs were shareware programs.

Windows ruined everything for me. Why do I say this? Well, besides the fact that it is an OS that never really quite worked, and still doesn't, the ascendency of Windows spelled the end of the tidy little personal computer that I once understood. DOS was orderly and comprensible.

DOS programs did not get "installed" or have to be "uninstalled." You simply copied them to your hard drive and they ran. Settings for programs were in human readable text files called ini files. Environment and startup commands were in autoexec.bat and hardware drivers were in config.sys. Programs came with usable user manuals. I was a happy camper. I wanted a more powerful computer, a faster modem, a slicker new program maybe, but I sure did not want to throw away everything - nothing was broken that needed to fixed.

Windows introduced a level of complexity that just took the "P" out of PC" for me. I subscribed to PC Magazine for many years. I still have stacks of back issues in the basement that I need to throw out. The first dark clouds on horizon were when PC Mag started shilling Windows 3.1. There would be a feature article after feature article on Windows 3.1, screenshots, praise for this wonderful new way of computing - and perhaps a sidebar on Desqview, which, you know, actually worked, but was sort of brushed aside. Never mind what a slug Windows 3.1 was! Never mind the frequent crashes and lockups! While PC Mag reviews dismissed out of hand many fine programs for the smallest bug, they somehow were able to overlook all of the shortcomings of Windows. Windows 3.1 was the hottest thing, the future of computing. Just a few problems, like it kept freezing and crashing for just about everyone.

Well, Windows 95 was going to fix all those annoying crashes and freezes. Of course it didn't fix anything. And with Windows 95, we got the annoying "registry," that mysterious non-human readable file to hold system and program settings. So it is now harder to check and change these settings, and woe unto you if you mess them up! You now you need a registry checker / cleaner program as well. Well, just wait for Windows 98! And Windows 98 Second Edition was actually pretty good, if you were able to handle all the device driver issues. Now, let's see, am I supposed to plug this USB device in and then insert the disk, or am I supposed to install the software and then plug in the device? Woe on you if you did it in the wrong order! How do I undo what I just messed up?

OK, never mind, Windows XP will handle all those gnarly device driver issues automatically! And XP seemed pretty cool at first. Then you notice that your computer starts taking longer and longer to boot, longer and longer to load programs, to the point where the computer hardly runs after a year, and a fresh install is the only answer. Never mind, Vista is out! Oops, my old computer is not powerful enough to run Vista, and it breaks my favorite programs.

The real problem though is the vulnerability of all versions of Windows to exploits. And it is of course your fault, dear Windows user, if your computer gets infected! You are not practicing "responsible computing" if you don't buy and keep your anti-virus, anti-trojan, anti-spyware program suites up to date, if you don't automatically install the Microsoft security patch du jour! Windows it seems is just brimming with code that allows the buffer overflow exploits tormenting users these days.

Are you going to bet on Windows 7 to fix all this? Truly, the Emperor has no clothes! I truly cannot understand how so many folks can be content with this mess! A funny side note. I love the new little netbook computers. Seems like Microsoft is planning on replacing the XP Home OS that comes on many netbooks with a stripped down Windows 7, betting that folks will pay the bucks to get the "full functionality" of Windows 7. Newsflash! People do not buy netbooks to have a tiny little computer with a 7" screen so they can buy an expensive OS! They buy netbooks to have a cheap little computer! The $299 price is the draw. Do yourself a favor when you get your netbook, the best OS for a cheap computer is a free OS! It is called Ubuntu Linux!

Windows also spelled the end of the usable user manual. The Windows "Help" files are not usually very helpful. Thick, expensive third party books, and I have bought a ton of them, sometime are useful but as often as not just regurgitate what is in the non-Help system. If it weren't for Google coming along, most of the time, my Windows computers would have been broken due to something stupid I did that I could not find how to recover from in the non-Help system.

So I put up with Windows right through the end of 2006. I don't really know why, but I got a bug up my behind between Christmas and New Year and went out and bought three Macbooks - one for Austin, one for Lydia and one for myself. There is no turning back! Now our desktop is an iMac with the big screen. No long waits to boot, no degraded performance, no anti-virus, no anti-spyware. It is slogan - but it is true. It just works. There is just a ton of open source free software for the Mac too. What I save by using NeoOffice, a free open source office suite, instead of Microsoft Office, more than covers the price difference in buying a Mac in the first place.

Which brings me to the so-called Apple "premium." Microsoft can't stand those clever "I'm a Mac. I'm a PC" spots - which make us Mac types smile, because the point of each one is always oh so true. So Microsoft has this campaign attacking the Apple "premium." Why, they ask, would you pay more for an Apple branded machine, when you can get a PC that is feature for feature equal for hundreds less? Aha! They cannot talk about the OS, only the hardware! I did not originate this thought, but in truth, there is not an Apple "premium" - there is a Windows "discount"! Yes, you can get a great piece of hardware for a lot less, but then you have to use Windows!

Now our home is almost a Windows free zone. I have several vintage PCs - I bought them all before I closed my law office, which is now five years ago, so that tells you something about how long I keep computers going. What to do with these guys? They are dual-boot machines with Ubuntu Linux and whatever version of Windows they came with, mostly Windows XP Home. I would completely get rid of Windows but there are two little Windows programs that we like well enough to keep the Windows on them. Ubuntu Linux is a completely viable free alternative to Windows. Ubuntu Linux is a topic all unto itself, which we may save for another day!

1 comment:

  1. Hear Hear! I learned early, when I bought my first "IBM" style (as we call them back then) personal computer. I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out how to turn it on before resorting to the thick manual. This was when cars were starting to be designed to be intuitive. Your hand should naturally find the windshield wiper switch without a long visual search on a rainy night.

    I gave away the IBM and bought a Macintosh Lisa. I couldn't fit the box in my BMW 318's trunk so I had to take it out to bring it home. Thing took 8 minutes to restart! Still it was a miracle compared to the IBM. Dozens of Mac's later I still admire the effort to make them intuitive for ease of use.