The Death of a Thousand Sting
by Robert A. Jung
January 17, 1998
Well, it had to happen: I've been assimilated.
Not willingly, mind you -- I'm still merrily humming away at home with my Quadra 660AV. But my office computer has fallen, a victim to the Microsoft Mentality, and my Quadra 800 has been replaced by a Digital PC clone. The Information Technology guys (outsourced, naturally) insist that it's to increase productivity, though they were surprisingly quiet when I asked them what studies they did comparing Macs to PCs.
Still, when life gives lemons, I try to make lemonade. "How bad can it be?" I asked myself. "If nothing else, you now have a direct, hands-on access to Windows 95. You can be an open-minded observer, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of Windows with facts and experience, instead of secondhand reports and propaganda."
So I put a polite face on things, and after the IT folks delivered my computer and hooked it up, I sat down to see what Windows 95 was really like.
And you know? It's still not as good as a Mac.
* * *
First, let me clarify what this essay is not. I'm not going to say that a Wintel PC is all but useless, or that it's a waste of metal, or other such propagandistic hyperbole. When you get down to it, a desktop PC running Windows 95 is still a computer, and thus it can compute -- you can write documents with it, you can calculate spreadsheets with it, you can surf the world-wide web with it.
On the other hand, that's not saying much. A Yugo and a Mercedes are both automobiles, yet you don't hear people calling the two comparable and equivalent. There's a difference in quality between the two, the difference between a cheap box on wheels and a precision-crafted driving machine. As with a lot of things in life, it's the little things that make the biggest differences.
I'm also not going to talk about the technical differences between the two operating systems. Yes, Plug & Play is still a joke on Windows 95, and the Macintosh still doesn't have pre-emptive multitasking. But it doesn't matter; for this essay, I'm going to look at things from the view of an everyday user -- the John and Jane Smith of Anytown, USA, who's buying a pre-loaded computer for their own use. After all, how many times in a week do you deal with "geek issues" like cache speeds or bus width?
What I am going to talk about are the day-to-day annoyances of Windows 95 -- the grab-bag of glitches, quirks, and nuisances that make my typical Wintel PC workday feel like an eight-hour struggle with a temperamental mule. These are almost all problems with the Windows 95 GUI (graphical user interface); not surprising, actually, when you consider that the GUI is the part of Windows that people work with the most.
By nature, these irritations could be considered "nitpicky" or "minor." That's not too surprising, either, because any major problems in Windows 95 would have been caught and removed before the product was shipped (yes, I'm ignoring the comedic potential of that line, I know). But to dismiss this essay as a collection of trivial hair-splitting complaints is to miss the point, as I will explain later.
And remember, these aren't second-hand rumors or whispered nightmares; these are all firsthand, honest-to-goodness complications in Windows 95. I can't go through a day at the office without hitting most of these problems -- and neither can most anyone else, I'll bet.
* * *
With all that in mind, take a peek over my shoulder as we sit down at the PC and explore Windows 95...
And if that's not silly enough, drag two folders with files in them from your hard drive to the Recycle Bin. Now try to get one of them out. Surprise! The folders are gone, and all of the contents are dumped in the bin, unceremoniously mixed together like so much electronic gumbo. If you're going to toss away several folders, better make sure you get the right ones -- otherwise, get ready to go fishing.
There's an option to hide extensions, and some Windows users use this to avoid this nit. But that brings up a new grouse -- you can now have multiple files with the "same" filename! With extensions hidden, PICTURE.GIF, PICTURE.JPG, and PICTURE.BMP all appear as PICTURE on the desktop, happily sitting in the same directory! And since most Windows graphics programs will associate .GIF, .JPG, and .BMP to the same program (and thus file icon), you'll have a fun time trying to sort out which is which. Worse, with the extensions hidden, there's no easy way to access (or change) them, so you'll have to do things the long way.
With either extensions on or extensions off, you're caught between a rock and a hard place.
If you think that above example sounds confusing, it's no less clear doing it live. And that's one of the recurring themes of Windows 95; you are forced to work the way the computer wants you to, instead of what best suits your own style -- the machine controls you. It may sound somewhat Orwellian, but that's all part of a typical day with Windows 95. I won't even begin to ask about what long-term effects this sense of helplessness might induce.
And I feel obligated to reiterate that this is not a sloppily-written garage-brewed program, but Microsoft Word 97, the flagship program of the most influential personal computer software developer in 1997. Is it that unreasonable to expect a company of Microsoft's size and scope to make their own product work elegantly on an operating system that they developed? (Feel free to provide your own punchline)
These are just a few examples, of course. Needless to say, a Mac user never has to deal with this sort of inconsistency or risk. Identical operations work the same way in all programs, so there's less time lost learning Yet Another Interface, and fewer changes in mental gears in the middle of a job.
Why is this a big deal? Because they don't act the same, but the similarities mean you'll probably confuse the two. For instance, you can close a dialog box by pressing Alt-F4 -- but if you did that with a window, you'll end up stopping your application instead. If the two aren't going to work the same way, why do they look the same?
And to add insult to injury, even dialog boxes don't always work the same. To use an example, the "Find..." dialog in Word 97 can be covered by windows from other applications -- but the "Help Topics" dialog supersedes everything on the screen. Why? Don't ask; it's Windows.
On my Mac, anyway. On the PC, my flying fingers are often interrupted by the keyboard's ALT key. Y'see, the ALT keys are right next to the space bar; if I'm not careful, I might accidentally brush one of them while I'm typing. This immediately throws Windows 95 into "menu mode," where my keystrokes stop going to my current document -- and activate the menus. If I'm lucky, I only have to stop typing, press ALT again (to exit menu mode), and continue from where I left off. If I'm unlucky, my next few keystrokes might throw my work into a tizzy -- maybe I pressed the keys to open a new file, or repaginate the document, or change the formatting of the characters.
(Some Windows users actually dare to call this nuisance a "feature," since it lets you access the menus without a mouse. I'm hard-pressed to buy that argument when I remember that I've yet to have any mouse for any computer die on me after all my years as a user...)
To be fair, this annoyance was introduced back in the days of Windows 3.1. But instead of correcting the problem, Windows 95 compounds it! In addition to the dreaded ALT key, my extended keyboard also features a "Contextual Menu" key and the "Windows 95" key -- all of which have the same horrible one-touch behavior! The bottom two rows on my keyboard now form a minefield of work-interrupting panic buttons.
Worse, the price for all of these keys are paid by my ever-shrinking space bar, which now barely exceeds a minuscule three inches. I'm sure all the touch-typists in the audience are shivering already.
Guess again! Unless you're running a very slow PC, Windows 95's window manager will bite you by scrolling the window downward at MACH 6. By the time you come to a stop, you'll find that you've seriously overshot your intended ending position, and highlighted a lot more text than you wanted. With any luck, you'll then waste even more time finding where you were originally and re-doing your selection.
This problem is so bad that I've completely given up on using the mouse to select blocks of text, though I do occasionally forget and get stung again. My officemate wishes he had a slower computer, so he won't have to deal with this aggravating nuisance. It's not the computer, Mark -- it's Windows 95. Macintosh users don't have this problem, since the Mac's smarter (and friendlier) windowing system handles scrolling selections at a more humane speed.
If you're a Windows novice, your instinctual response may be to click on the file, then use a "Make Copy" command from the menu. Sorry, but there's no such thing. There's a "Copy" command, but it simply copies the filename into the clipboard and doesn't duplicate the file. Slightly more savvy users may try right-clicking on the file, in hopes that the contextual menu will have an answer. A good guess, but you're still out of luck.
The correct answer? Drag the file with the right mouse button. After you finish the drag, a second contextual menu will appear, and one of the operations there is "Duplicate Item." This is the only way to duplicate the file, and if no one had told you the answer, you could easily spend days or weeks without tumbling to the answer. Needless to say, I can't remember for the life of me when I have ever encountered anything that obtuse with the Macintosh.
There are lots of these "hide and seek" games peppered throughout Windows 95, so be prepared to spend some time finding them all. For instance, the "Sound" control panel does not let me change the volume of the sound output; for that, I have to hop over to the "Multimedia" control panel instead. And yet, something as important as the Associations list (which tells Windows 95 what file extensions go with what program types) doesn't even have a control panel to take care of it. Instead, the controls are hidden in the "Options" dialog box, under the "View" menu for directory windows.
When I asked a long-term Windows 95 guru why these controls were laid out in such an unintelligible manner, his only response was to shrug hopelessly and say, "I can't tell you." On the other hand, it explains why those "Windows for Dummies" books are so popular; they reveal the counterintuitive places where these features are hidden...
I could go on and on (like the graphics glitches, or the simple-minded behavior of shortcuts, or -- believe me, it wasn't easy deciding when to stop the list) but I won't. There are more than enough examples above to demonstrate my point, which is that Windows 95 is loaded with countless inconsistencies, peculiarities, and annoyances that -- while they're not downright "user-hostile, certainly fall into the category of "user-antagonistic."
* * *
When the Windows PC was installed in my office, I also got a booklet from the IT staff -- "Surviving Week One With Windows 95." It's a fair-sized book, covering the differences between Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 in everything from manipulating windows to saving files. Steve Jobs was right; this isn't an operating system upgrade, it's a brain transplant. Perhaps Microsoft could have eliminated a lot of confusion if they had simply called Windows 95 a totally different name...
And, of course, the title is rather daunting, don't you think?
* * *
As I wrote before, none of the aforementioned problems are crippling or severe. They range, at best, from trivial idiosyncrasies to small quirks, with a few minor predicaments tossed into the mix. And indeed, to pick any one of them and use it as an argument against Windows 95 would be considered trivial nit-picking by most people.
The thing to remember, though, is that these quirks are not in isolation. Instead, they're all present, all the time, ready to interrupt the flow of your work with their haphazard demands. And don't be fooled by the apparently minor nature of these problems. If you're using the Wintel computer for work (as I am), then you're spending close to (if not more than) forty hours a week playing with these peculiarities. If you use a Windows PC at home as well, add in another twenty-five or thirty hours to the mix.
It doesn't take much brain power to realize that all of these factors quickly add up. Just think about your own computer use in a week -- how often do you type on the keyboard, or rename a file, or use a program's "Open" and "Save" dialog boxes? And if you're going to be using a computer for up to seventy hours a week, do you really want to spend all that time tiptoeing around Windows 95's wanton collection of screwball demands and work-interrupting nuisances?
* * *
Whenever I talk to my Wintel-using friends and co-workers about these problems, their responses fall into three general categories:
(And please, let's not hear that old myth about the dearth of software for Macs. For most everyday uses -- the types of tasks that John and Jane Smith of Anytown, USA would require for their own needs -- there are more than enough choices on the Mac to fit their needs. And on the off-chance that there's a program you must run that's only on a PC, there are software emulators and hardware cards that let you do the job, many of which run Windows 95 software better than a PC can.)
This argument falls apart at the inherent hypocrisy involved. If these "real men" don't need such comforts, why are they using computers in the first place? Toss out those spreadsheets and compilers and word processors -- let's give these digital frontiersmen their punch cards and abaci and typewriters already! Not that they would surrender their PCs, of course; the whole point of using computers is to do things better and faster and more efficiently than you did before. But then, why shouldn't an operating system/user interface be subject to the same demands for improved efficiency?
* * *
Users of Windows computers are often confused at the loyalty Mac users show their computers, and now I see why. After all, if my only experience of computing was with a temperamental, unpredictable, and eccentric machine like a Windows PC, I wouldn't feel any affection or respect for it, either. And I may very well assume (incorrectly) that Macintosh computers were just as unreliable or irritating, and then wonder why those Mac users were so faithful.
Of course, Macs aren't as erratic or counterintuitive as PCs are, and that makes all the difference.
The numerous flaws in the Windows 95 interface are a constant reminder to me that the PC on my desk is little more than a glorified appliance, and a flawed one at that -- the controls for a typical microwave oven are better designed than the Windows GUI. And while the Macintosh interface isn't completely perfect (ejecting disks before System 8 was rather quirky), it doesn't have even a quarter of the snafus that Windows does. In countless ways, the Macintosh behaves as you'd expect a computer to, unobtrusively removing the little irritants so you can do things better, faster, and easier.
Actor Richard Dreyfuss said it best: "There are no psychological gestures of failure in [the Macintosh]. It has only your good will at heart."
* * *
Some of the skeptics in the audience may be asking by now, "The PC can't be that bad, Robert. Surely you are getting some benefits from your new computer, right?"
That's hard to answer. As I wrote above, when you get down to the basics, the Wintel computer in my office is a computer. And it can do things a computer should do -- I can send e-mail, and write a report, and compile programs, and access files on the company network. But again, there's the same difference between a Yugo and a Mercedes; they'll both take you places, but one does it with fewer hassles and problems than the other.
And while the new PC is faster than my old Mac (naturally, what with 233 MHz versus 33 MHz), I certainly don't feel more productive with it. If anything, I suspect the increased number of interruptions I now experience in a typical workday may have lowered my productivity somewhat. At the very least, I know my morale hasn't improved any...
I'm sure that there will be some people who enjoy their PCs; just don't count me among them. I have better things to do with my time than to decipher the latest Windows quirk, and I'm willing to pay a little extra for that privilege (you get what you pay for, as the old saying goes). With my Mac, I work better, get done sooner, and feel less frustrated in the process; who wouldn't want to be in a situation like that?
(Windows users, apparently. *Grin*)
* * *
Oh, wait. I've just thought of two benefits that I've reaped since I got my new Windows PC:
Permission to post article provided by Robert A. Jung