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Windows Me Annoyances by David A. Karp

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Chapter 1. Making the Most of Windows Me

Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach every time you are about to install new software? Does the expectation that the installer will overwrite all your settings and disable other software on your computer make you want to chuck the whole system out the window? Have you calmly accepted the fact that your new operating system will most likely contain more bugs than improvements?

Why fight it? Why not simply join the masses and slip into the mind-numbing abyss of acquiescence, feeling powerless whenever technology isn’t as seamless as it is promised by software marketers? Because you know there’s a better way. You know there’s more to Windows Me than what’s mentioned in the documentation, such as it is, and in Microsoft’s press clippings.

The purpose of these rants, as well as the goal of the entire book, is not to complain or to criticize. The idea is to acknowledge the problems and shortcomings of the operating system—and the software that runs on it—in an effort to overcome them. If users had a large selection of operating systems from which to choose, the point would be almost moot; each user would simply choose the most appropriate and least annoying software available. However, the real world isn’t like that, and most computer users using Microsoft Windows are doing so out of necessity, rather than choice. That puts Microsoft in a position to control what we see and how we work. Realizing you’re not alone is the first step to improving your experience with Windows Me and regaining control of your machine before it assumes control of you.

While nobody’s particular requirements, preferences, and annoyances will be the same, everyone can benefit when light is shed on the inner workings of an operating system. A little knowledge can be dangerous, but a lot of knowledge can keep your system running smoothly and make your Windows experience relatively aggravation free.

What’s Wrong with Windows

There are many reasons that software, and Windows Me in particular, annoys us. One of the most common excuses is that software is designed to be used by a large number of people and to be compatible with a vast array of hardware components, and that no single piece of software can be expected to satisfy everyone. That’s true to some extent, but it’s too often used as a scapegoat for other problems. One real reason for problems with software is that software designers often don’t understand good user-interface design or simply don’t understand users and, therefore, create incomplete products that don’t work the way we expect or just don’t work at all. And another reason is that users don’t understand software designers and, therefore, often aren’t able to comfortably follow the same lines of logic (or lack thereof ) that the designers used.

Another truth, and one that most computer companies will never admit, is that consumer computer technology, in general, is still quite infantile. It’s truly amazing what some of these devices are capable of, but the sad fact is that the majority of technology hasn’t caught up to most users’ expectations or requirements. What’s worse is that neither has our understanding of human-computer interaction.

There’s also an inherent difficulty with the role of the personal computer that ends up causing all sorts of problems. We expect every computer to flawlessly manage our finances, seamlessly connect us to the Internet and allow us to communicate, run our latest 3D-accelerated games, create magazine-quality documents, and about 50,000 other things. Part of the solution to this has been the proliferation of special-function devices, most notably the Palm OS-based personal digital assistants (PDAs). Instead of trying to do everything (a mistake Microsoft, not surprisingly, has migrated to their Windows CE-based devices), the Palm OS has been kept extremely simple; it does only a few things, and it does them reliably well.

In an interview a few years ago, Bill Gates, head bigwig at Microsoft, bragged that Windows 98 had something like seven times as many lines of code as the software used in air-traffic control systems in the U.S. I was appalled. Think about the millions and millions of lines of code and the countless teams of programmers responsible for all the different elements of Windows Me—each programmer with different levels of skill, experience, and adherence to the theoretical interface standards. Instead of giving us a tighter, simpler product, Microsoft keeps making Windows more complex and cumbersome, adding more pointless wizards and market-driven features.

All of these problems, although valid concerns, are fairly general and not necessarily specific to any particular product. So why is Windows Me, in particular, so annoying? Because it’s the underlying technology upon which all of our applications rely and, apart from other flavors of Microsoft Windows, it’s our only choice in the matter. (Sure, there’s Linux, one of the more popular brands of the Unix OS, but that has its own problems.) Most computer users, for one reason or another, rely on Microsoft Windows, the latest version of which is the focus of this book.

Regardless of the excuses, you should not be required to adjust the way you think in order to complete a task on a computer; rather, you should learn how to adjust the computer to work in a way that makes sense to you. This is what this book is about.

Windows Me Annoyances presents solutions that enable you to both customize and troubleshoot Windows. This is an important distinction, because many times solving a problem requires that you know whether something irritating is an inadvertent bug or an intentional feature of the software, and the dividing line isn’t always clear. It’s important to realize that, if software doesn’t act in a way that you think it should, it should be regarded as poor design and not necessarily the result of a bug. A bug is an action carried out by a piece of software that wasn’t intended by the designer of the product.

Now, we can speculate as to the intentions of the various developers of Windows, and sometimes we can even uncover the motivations behind a particular aspect of the software we don’t like, but what it really comes down to is attitude. By labeling something a bug, we are placing the burden of resolving the problem on Microsoft, and waiting for Microsoft developers to fix a bug that they consider to be a feature can definitely be considered a lost cause.

However, if we lump together the crash-a-day tendency of Windows, the irritating little animations, the clutter on the desktop, the lack of decent documentation, the fact that performance rarely meets expectations, and call them all annoyances , we empower ourselves. This is a valuable attitude to adopt; it motivates us to learn more about the operating system so that we can work more efficiently. And, more importantly, it gives us the power to resolve the problems we encounter, so that we can get through the day with some degree of sanity.

So what, in particular, is annoying about Windows? Let me give you a very simple, yet not readily apparent, example. Common file dialog boxes—the little windows that appear that allow you to choose a file to open or specify a filename with which to save—look basically the same in nearly all applications, because they’re a function provided by Windows itself. This concept of common file dialog boxes was introduced more than a decade ago in Windows 3.1 and has since undergone an evolutionary process as the dialog boxes have been improved in each successive version of Windows.

An annoyance that plagued these boxes since Windows 95 was that they were not resizable and therefore were awkward to use with large displays. This problem, fortunately, has since been fixed, and in Windows Me we enjoy resizable file dialog boxes. Unfortunately, Windows won’t remember a file dialog box’s size or position, meaning that if you want a larger dialog box, you’ll have to enlarge it again and again.

However, a more serious problem (in my opinion), still not remedied in Windows Me, is that of the “Look in” (or “Save in”) list. When you go to open or save a file, the only clue to where the currently displayed folder is located in the grand hierarchy is the name—not the entire path—of the folder. So, for example, if the current folder shown in a file dialog box is called images, there’s no way to immediately determine if the folder you’re looking at is c:\projects\images, or d:\webpages\ personal \images.

What’s worse is that Microsoft knows about the problem and has done nothing about it; in fact, they’ve taken steps to hide it. The smoking gun, if you will, was the online help in Windows 98: if you click on the [?] button and then click on the Look in list, you’ll see, “To see how the current folder fits in the hierarchy on your computer, click the down arrow.” Instead of fixing the problem in Windows Me, Microsoft simply removed the text.[2]

The simple truth is that this would be very easy for Microsoft to remedy, and it has been for years. In fact, Windows Explorer has an option that allows you to fix a similar problem with folder windows by turning on the “Display the full path in title bar” option in the Folder Options dialog box (under the Tools tab). Yet this option has no effect on the file dialog boxes, which ironically are designed to behave just like small folder windows. The full path of the current folder could be displayed just below the Look in list. Why has Microsoft neglected to fix this very basic design flaw?

My guess is that it’s part of Microsoft’s ongoing strategy to hide as much information as possible from the user, in an effort to make the computer easier to use. This is the same type of backward thinking that resulted in folder titles that don’t show the full path, the hidden filename extensions, and the Windows installer that overwrites file associations without asking. (See Section 4.2.3 in Chapter 4, for more information on file associations and how to keep applications from overwriting yours.) What Microsoft fails to realize is that making users ignorant is a cop-out, and not an effective way to make any product easier to use.

Of course, it could also be a question of priority—it’s obviously a higher priority to make changes that Microsoft could list on the outside of the Windows Me retail box as marketable “improvements” to Windows (such as System File Protection, discussed in Chapter 6; and Web browser integration, discussed in Chapter 8) than to cater their products to their users’ needs. Who knows—perhaps the decision-makers at Microsoft simply prefer “cute” dialog boxes to functional ones.

So, how do they get away with it, year after year?

Microsoft is in a unique position, in that it is powerful and wealthy enough to devote substantial marketing resources to ensure the commercial success of its products, regardless of the quality or intelligence of design. For example, we put up with Windows because the competing products were out-marketed years ago—there simply are no other practical choices for the majority of consumers.

Unfortunately, marketing can influence design, rather than just compensate for it. A stellar example of this is the Web View. The concept of viewing one’s desktop as though it were a web page makes little intuitive sense and does nothing to improve the Windows interface. Yet the irresistible marketing appeal of the Internet combined with Microsoft’s undying need to squelch Netscape in the web-browser market has led Microsoft to tie in Internet Explorer to their almost-ubiquitous operating system, leaving the users to suffer with this ridiculous interface.[3]

The good news, of course, is that this creates jobs for countless thousands—those employed to release patchwork software, provide technical support and training, or, of course, write technical books like this one.

Ultimately, the commercial success of any particular product depends on you and me, the consumers. In other words, every purchase is a vote. The problem, of course, is that extensive marketing in the computer industry creates standards to which we must adhere. Purchase decisions are often based upon these standards rather than quality or usability, which helps to explain the success of marginal products like Microsoft Word. It is the goal of this book to help readers live with their purchase decisions.

[2] Some wise guy at Microsoft perhaps saw my criticism in Windows 98 Annoyances, and this was their solution.

[3] According to U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson—the judge who presided over the Microsoft monopoly trial—in his 1999 Findings of Fact, bundling the browser with Windows “unjustifiably jeopardized the stability and security of the operating system.” He went on to write, “there is no technical justification for Microsoft’s refusal to meet consumer demand for a browserless version of Windows.”

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