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Windows: We've Come A Long Way

Once upon a time, Operating Systems used to be the 100,000 lines of code that kept your computer running, your files available on the hard disk, and which loaded and executed programs at your will (or, sometimes not). Depending on the size of the computer system they were running on, they may also have implemented multiple user sessions, timesharing, quota management and a number of different features, suited for making the end user believe that he was the only one using the computer and not just one out of one hundred.

Nevertheless, the system required users to know massive amounts of information about the system. It required the user, for instance, to know the difference between "mkdir" and "mkfs". The first command creates a new folder in your file system, the other command wipes out your file system along with everything in it, and doesn't even stop to ask if that's what you wanted to do. While the catchy slogans today declare "What You See Is What You Get", these systems were "You Asked For It, You Got It".

How far we have come. Today we have computer systems that aren't run by engineers in white coats, but actually used by elderly people whose previous experience with technology narrows down to repairing engines. Not without due questions, though, but they do use it.

I would like to think that Microsoft Windows, as of today, has matured to the point where it can almost be used by ordinary people. And, for most computer systems, this is a very good grade indeed. Linux, to name a random competitor, has not.

When you poke around beneath the surface of these two huge operating systems, you inevitably find odd things - strange quirks, inherited restraints, designs locked into paradigms of user interface thinking since long gone - but I do have to say, that with Windows XP, some of these things are actually improving. I've seen things change under the hood in the past few years that have made me appreciative of Windows, and this comes from a guy who once ran a BBS called Organized Programmers against Object-Oriented Programming.

Still, we have a long way to go.

Sometimes, I like to ask myself questions - radical questions. Like, "why does the operating system need to be visible at all". Why should I be able to access C:\WINDOWS at all? My friends are quick to point out "because you want to see what is going on", or "because you want to replace some things" or similar answers. Of course, I buy those arguments, because the way Windows is designed these days, makes it necessary that you see what is going on.

But let's compare it to a dish-washer. I have a dish-washer at home, which I frequently use. It's great. It has six little buttons on the top panel, with which I can select washing programs. It has three little status indicators, to show me when things go wrong (like, if it needs extra salt). Beyond that, I don't need to know anything about it. It just does its job.

Why should my computer be more difficult than that? My computer should be what it's set out to be: A personal computational tool; an organizer of documents; a play-station. It's a magnitude or two more complex, I admit, than a dish-washer; but the same inherent functionality is the same: It is designed to carry out a specific set of tasks, and if it does that, then all is fine. Beyond that, everything else is unnecessary. An end-user should be able to write documents, view and organize holiday pictures, and even write complex software, with the same ease as we load the dish-washer and turn it on. The fundamentals - the operating system, or the control program that drives the dish-washer - should never be seen; nor should it need to be seen.

This is where everybody (especially hackers) start yelling at me. "Are you crazy", they say. "It'll never work - it's too complex", "I want control over my computer". Excuse my profanity when I say: Bullshit. All of that is simply because someone didn't THINK long enough before building it.

I think it's time to get radical - not only with UI design, but with stability, functionality, and powerful easeability; until we one day build a computer that does simply what it's supposed to do.

Windows was a good first step - an insufficient, badly constructed beta, mind you - but still a good first step. Now let's take the next one.


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