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Huw Collingbourne and Johnny Depp were swapped at birth. If Johnny wants to start writing this column, Huw is all ready to star in films about pirates in mascara

June 2004

Ten years ago, Huw Collingbourne saw the future of computing. He’s still waiting for it to arrive. This column first appeared in PC Plus issue 217.

 

I have great news for you, folks. According to Microsoft, forthcoming versions of Windows will be “reliable, easy to install and configure, easy to learn because of a new user interface and easy to connect and manage.” Now the bad news: I am quoting from the reviewer’s guide which Microsoft gave me back in May 1994 at the time it was developing a product code-named ‘Chicago’ and which later became Windows 95.

I was inspired to go and seek out this old reviewer’s guide after receiving a book this week called ‘Degunking Windows’. This aims to guide the reader through the tricky business of cleaning up all the mess that accumulates on your PC’s hard disk or which causes applications to crash. I seem to remember snoozing my way through lots of presentations back in the spring of ’94 in which over-excited Microsoft folk tried to persuade me that disk-mess and application crashes would soon be a thing of the past.

This got to me to wondering what other promises were made back then. As it is now ten years since I first installed the beta of Windows 95, I thought this would be as good a time as any to see how it, and successive versions of Windows, have lived up to the promises….

PANE KILLERS

Let’s start with the user interface. The Windows 95 reviewers guide has a long section extolling the wonders of the “neat, clean and logical” user interface. There will (we are told) be only a few graphic objects visible on screen at any time – namely, the My Computer, Network Neighbourhood and Recycle Bin icons plus the Window Taskbar. The Taskbar’s mission is “to make 95% of what a typical user wants to do with the operating system easily accessible at all times,” and it will “make switching among multiple applications as simple as changing channels on a TV set.”

Meanwhile, file management and browsing would be done all in a single window since dual pane views, with the directory hierarchy on the left and files on the right, are deemed to be “intimidating an unintuitive.” This is why, when you double-click the My Computer icon, a single window displays both directories and files.

Well, that’s the theory. But in practice? My Windows desktop, far from being “neat and clean”, is overflowing with application icons. The Taskbar succeeds reasonably well in making it possible to switch between applications but this feature has been undermined by the multiple document windows of Microsoft Office which fill up the Taskbar unnecessarily. Windows XP tries to fix this problem by giving the user the option to group application windows into popup lists (you can right click the taskbar to set this option). This, however, is inconvenient and inelegant.

As for the single-pane file browsing - sometimes you see it, sometimes you don’t. When you double-click My Computer, you get a single-pane view but when you open the Explorer, you get a two-pane view. Logical? I think not. Marks out of ten? I’ll give it five.


Why do you see a one-pane window when you click the ‘My Computer’ icon but two panes in Explorer? It’s all quite logical – apparently….

 

SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM

Just as important as ease of use, is ease of maintaining and configuring the system. Prior to Windows 95, this was largely done by placing system-wide settings in two initialisation files, Win.ini and System.ini, while individual applications stored yet more settings in their own INI files. Microsoft, in its wisdom, decided that numerous initialisation files were bad and that a single monolithic configuration database was good. Enter The Registry. This is claimed to make your system’s settings “easy to manage and support.” Easy, did they say? Maybe that’s “easy” as in “brain surgery is easy”. Well, yes, if you are a brain surgeon, perhaps. But for the rest of us…?

Other improvements promised for Windows 95 include robustness so that crashing applications don’t bring down the operating system, better network and mobile computing support, easier configuration of printers and simplified installation of fonts. In fact, while Windows 95 itself was not itself tremendously robust, Windows NT/2000 and XP are significantly better. These days, the main security problems which plague Windows are those nasty little infections that it catches from the Internet. The Internet was such a minority interest back in ’94 that I don’t think Microsoft had even given it serious thought. So, I’ll award Windows a score of nine for system management. But deduct five for the horrible, unmanageable Registry, giving a grand total of four out of ten.

I am still hoping that new versions of Windows will finally live up to the pre-publicity for Windows 95. In particular, let’s get rid of that damn’ Registry, ban forever cascading menus and sort out the mess of icons and buttons that breed like rabbits over the desktop and Taskbar. Sort out the Internet security issues while you’re at it and I might even stop lusting pathetically after a nice, snazzy-looking Mac.

FAN DANCING

I don’t know if you’ve ever received any fan mail. If you happen to be Madonna or David Beckham, the answer, I feel sure, will be in the affirmative. If, on the other hand, you happen to be an accountant, taxi driver or tax inspector, your fan mail may be less thick on the ground. Where fan mail is concerned, computer journalists generally fall into this latter category. Rare are the days when my inbox is groaning under the weight of flattering missives praising my finely honed programming prose or reminiscing fondly about a particularly juicy spreadsheet review.

Even so, every once in a while I do receive fan mail. The message generally begins with something along the lines of, “Are you really Huw Collingbourne? THE Huw Collingbourne” (as though the world were full of us!), “The person who…” What? Climbed the Matterhorn, walked on the Moon, streaked naked across the lawn during the Queen’s Garden Party? Nope. My claim to fame is far more mundane. The message continues… “who wrote The Golden Wombat of Destiny?”


This is where it began for me. In the early ‘80s I wrote a game which people (amazingly) are still playing today!

Ah, has it all come to this, then? All these years rambling away in the pages of PC Plus and nobody cares a jot. But for a PC adventure game which I programmed some time back in the early ‘80s I am idolised by the masses (http://www.darkneon.com/wombat.html). I should be pleased, I suppose, apart from the fact that the fan mail invariably progresses to tell me that the writer first came across the game sometime shortly after potty training and they are amazed to find that I am still alive.

I wasn’t the only adventure game writer from those days who went on to do more boring things. A contemporary of mine, one Graham Cluley, wrote a cracking adventure called Jacaranda Jim (www.grahamcluley.com). I now see that Cluley is a computer virus specialist working for Sophos. I wouldn’t mind betting he gets more much fan mail about Jacaranda Jim than about anti-virus software.

I always intended to write a successor to The Golden Wombat but life, alas, got in the way. So when I received an email from a modern-day game programmer a couple of weeks ago asking permission to write a sequel, I was happy to agree to it. It is odd to think that a fictional world which I created almost twenty years ago is now being populated by someone else. This never happened with my spreadsheet reviews….

GUNK ON THE MENU

Now, getting back to that book on ‘Degunking Windows’. This starts out by asking the obvious question: where does all the gunk come from? The answers it gives are that it comes from users who save files all over their hard disks, from temporary files which aren’t as temporary as you may think, and from spam, cookies and applications. The application gunk is precisely what I complained of earlier - and which Microsoft, back in 1994, told me wouldn’t happen: namely, a desktop filled with icons and a start menu overloaded with cascading menus.


‘Degunking Windows’ not only has a snappy title but it even has a fab cover showing a typical happy Windows user

Much of ‘Degunking Windows’ is devoted to simple stuff such as cleaning up your desktop and uninstalling programs that you no longer need. But it also goes much further, even into areas where I personally would fear to tread. The very chapter title ‘Cleaning and Tweaking The Registry’ sends shivers down my spine.

Overall this is a pretty good book. However, some of the techniques it mentions could be damaging in the hands of a novice users so, if you buy a copy be sure not to let your granddad get his hands on it. (‘Degunking Windows’ by Joli Ballew and Jeff Duntemann, Computer Manuals, www.compman.co.uk, £18.99).

Finally, just as I began writing this month’s column, I received a copy of Xara’s new MenuMaker 1.1. This is a program for designing interactive menus and navigation bars for web pages. It comes with about 300 ready-to-use samples of all kinds: 2D, 3D, plain, fancy, metallic and so on. You can change the text, fonts, colours and backgrounds without ever having to get your hands dirty with HTML or JavaScript coding. The program itself generates all the code and graphics and it even integrates with Microsoft’s FrontPage or Macromedia’s Dreamweaver. This is a great program which, at around £14, is terrific value. For even more power, Xara’s WebStyle 4 (about £40) integrates the features of MenuMaker with tools to design 3D headings and logos, dividers, backgrounds and various other types of web graphics. MenuMaker and WebStyle are available from www.xara.com.

And Finally...

Last month I wrote about an unusual brainstorming tool called IdeaFisher. This aims to spark off ideas by helping you to find associations between words and phrases - for example, you start with ‘cat’, then you link to ‘cat burglar’, ‘Midnight Caller’, ‘Nightmare On Elm Street’ and so on. IdeaFisher provides an alternative method of brainstorming by asking you a set of questions related to a specific problem such as Story Writing or Product Development. The basic IdeaFisher software costs around £70 and you can buy additional question modules for about £30 each (www.ideafisher.com or www.ideafisheruk.com).


Copyright © 2009 Dark Neon Ltd. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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