If you’re a computer technology enthusiast who keeps an eye on developments in the field, especially someone who has been an enthusiast for many years then you’re probably not very happy with the way things are heading.
Everything that computers once stood for, everything that once made them great and exciting as a hobby has been hijacked by big business who are intent on controlling what goes on in your computer and turning you into a ‘user’, i.e. someone who doesn’t understand or even care what is happening inside their computer.
It’s not difficult to pick out the one phenomenon that people like to complain about, the one thing that people love to hate and accuse as being responsible for all the computer world’s biggest problems. I speak, of course, of Microsoft, and more specifically, the Windows Operating System.
I had a first encounter with Windows 8 over Christmas, I was not impressed. What were Microsoft thinking? Don’t they have a quality control department? Don’t they test the software before releasing it? (perhaps not, look at Windows Vista!)
Can you imagine the conversation that took place?
Marketing guy : “We need something novel and innovative to differentiate this operating system from the previous one!”
Programmer (making a joke) : “We could give it a mobile phone interface, they are really popular these days”
Marketing guy (being serious) : “Great, that’s a really good idea! We’ll do it!”
Programmer (in panic) : “Hang on a minute, it wasn’t a serious suggestion!”
Marketing guy : “Nonsense, I think its a great idea ….. ”
Windows just keeps getting worse and worse. Far from benefiting yourself by upgrading, you are taking a big risk every time you upgrade to a newer version. You will find it takes up more disk space and RAM, the applications you use might not work (or they may work fine but you need to buy a new license because your hardware has changed) and the most absurd thing of all is that nothing will be different.
Windows 98 did not have any significant improvements over Windows 95, nor did Windows 2000 improve significantly on 98. XP was a little bit more stable but Vista got back to the usual standard, nice shiny graphical interface behind which the software was riddled with bugs, apart from all the bugs it took up far more computer resources and memory to do what is essentially the same job at the same speed.
Vista was just the Alpha version of Windows 7 and so the public could pay for the privilege of testing it and finding the bugs for Microsoft. Windows 7 was better but now they need something new to try and make people want to upgrade their PC.
What few people seem to realise is that this is just what the computer industry wants. The hardware industry produces faster machines with more memory and more disk space whilst the software companies produce bigger, slower more bloated software to neutralise all these advances. The users end up having to upgrade all the time just to continue doing the same things as they were doing with their old hardware and software.
You already know all this. It has been repeated time and time again by many people in the industry, and so it would be rather fruitless to dwell upon it yet again. So how did things get this way?
Windows has been a messy, bloated operating system from its very first version. The very first versions of Windows (versions 1.0 and 2.0) were awful, they worked intermittently if at all. But by the time it got to version 3.0 Windows was relatively stable and usable.
And back then it was understandable.
Understandable in a technical sense, that is. In the early 1990s, in the age of Windows 3.0 and 3.1, Windows could be mostly understood. A power user could identify every single file that Windows shipped with and what that file’s function was (and Windows came with a lot of files). Windows 3.x was an operating system that a normal human being could comprehend. Furthermore, it did not do much ‘behind the scenes’ work, at least not nearly as much as Windows 95 and beyond.
When Windows 3.x did something, you probably already knew about it, because you would have ordered the computer to do it yourself. At that time it was the user in control of the computer, not the other way round.
Windows 95 changed all that. Windows 95 did a lot of things ‘behind the scenes’ in a way that was simply annoying. There were little things constantly going on inside your computer which you didn’t know about and hadn’t asked for. Sudden, brief periods of hard disk activity, even when nobody is using the computer, was a sure sign of this.
I still remember the day in August of 1995 when Microsoft released Windows 95, the advertising promised it would change the face of computing forever, and indeed, it did just that.
On that day, reading about the new features of this revolutionary OS, I felt an impending sense of doom for my hobby. It seemed that computers, as a whole, were becoming ever more automated. User friendliness is all well and good but it seemed to me that control was being taken away from the users, more and more of the inner workings of the machine was being hidden and ‘protected’ from the owner of the machine.
As time went on, the trend of increasing user-friendliness began to take on new and sinister facets. Foremost among these was the trend towards corporate domination. As the Internet continued to grow in mass popularity and operating systems became increasingly elephantine and incomprehensible beasts, users seemed to be losing control over their computers, and the computers (or more specifically, the companies who wrote the operating systems running those computers) seemed to be reversing the role, controlling the user rather than the other way around, by spying on the user’s browsing habits and preventing them from having direct control over many aspects of their computers.
Although this was largely a software trend propagated by inflexible operating systems, it also had an effect on the way hardware was designed, by hardware companies manufacturing non-standard, under-documented hardware that was deliberately difficult to reverse-engineer to the user’s own preferences.
Before Windows 95 it was possible to put together a homebrew interface to some weird device you built yourself and control it from the computer with a little program you hacked together yourself.
Most hardware which you bought to connect to your computer had understandable well documented interfaces, so that if you wanted to do something unusual with them you would write a program to control it yourself.
After Windows 95 all hardware had to be controlled through a ‘device driver’ and this was not the domain of the home constructor. If you tried to access your hardware directly the processor generated an exception and halted your program. Around this time manufacturers increasingly started to hide the details of their interfaces. Computers were moving away from being a hobbyist device and increasingly enthusiasts were forced out.
There was a general dumbing down of people’s knowledge. One example of this is Microsoft’s ‘Internet Explorer’ program, which is just a web browser but in the minds of many people the World Wide Web became synonymous with the Internet. There is a lot more to the Internet than the World Wide Web but nowadays many people don’t even know anything other than the web exists.
Microsoft, and people who side with Microsoft will say that this is done to make the computer easier to use. The end user does not want to know about all those silly little technical details.
The user is just that: Someone who uses the computer, and wants to use it with a minimum of complications doing only the things that the software authors allow them to do and nothing else. Yet the truth is that most people who used computers back in the early nineties had enough expertise to get into Windows 3.1 and use it and its applications without many complications.
Now there are many more people using computers and increasingly users are deliberately excluded from the technical aspects of computing. The main people who try to persuade users that learning about the technical aspects of your computer is ‘too hard’ are the people with a hidden agenda. The software company that wants to convince you to buy their new software because it is more user-friendly.
The problem is further inflamed by the software vendors interests in concealing the inner workings of their software, afraid that other companies and technically savvy users might copy their ‘intellectual property’. They don’t want people to understand and so documentation has become trivial, lacking any depth, it is mostly on how to use the software, rather than anything that an enthusiast would want to know.
Apart from playing games a 5-year old computer running a basic set of applications could do everything that a ‘normal’ person wants to do with their computer. The typical human’s needs have already been surpassed long ago, and that leaves the computer industry with a big problem. They have to try to stimulate artificial demand using hype and advertising. Novelty is king. And so we end up with an operating system with a stupid mobile phone interface which does a very good job of excluding the user from any of the technical aspects of the machine whilst enforcing corporate DRM and controls on anything you do with your machine.
The role of advertising in the computer industry is exactly the same as it is for the rest of the retail industry, it is there to make you dissatisfied with what you already have so that you will go out and buy something new even though it might not be necessary.
Linux is starting to look more and more inviting with every ‘innovation’ perpetrated by Microsoft!