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Windows XP Annoyances for Geeks, 2nd Edition by David A. Karp

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What IS an Annoyance?

If you're using Microsoft Windows, I shouldn't have to tell you what an annoyance is. To put it simply, an annoyance is a problem to be solved, and Windows certainly has no shortage of those.

An annoyance is the way Windows keeps forgetting your settings, rearranging your desktop icons, and constantly changing the order of items in your Start Menu. An annoyance is the inconsistent way Windows handles the dragging and dropping of files. An annoyance is the fact that Microsoft gave Windows a fancy face lift in Windows XP, but didn't bother to fix a nearly decade-old problem with File Open and File Save dialogs (more on that later). An annoyance is Service Pack 2, which contains as many new bugs as it fixes, and only provides superficial protection in an age of viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware.

More often than not, an annoyance is the result of bad design, as opposed to a garden-variety bug.

Now, if we had a large selection of compatible operating systems from which to choose, the point would be almost moot; each of us would simply choose the most appropriate (and, of course, least annoying) software available. However, the real world isn't like that, and most of us who use Microsoft Windows are doing so out of necessity rather than personal 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 XP and regaining control of your machine before it assumes control of you.

But the purpose of this book is not to complain or criticize, but rather to acknowledge and understand the problems and shortcomings of the operating system in an effort to overcome them.

Windows XP Annoyances for Geeks presents solutions that enable you to both customize and troubleshoot Windows. This is an important distinction, because effective problem solving often requires that you know whether an annoyance 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 designers of the product. Ultimately, this distinction doesn't make any particular annoyance any less annoying, but it goes a long way toward helping you come up with a solution.

Thinking Inside the Box

Here's a simple, yet not readily apparent, example of an intentional design decision that has led to a tangible annoyance in Windows:

Common file dialog boxes—the little windows that appear when you go to File Open or File Save in most applications—look basically the same, regardless of the application you're using, essentially because they're a function provided by Windows XP. This concept of common dialogs (in the Windows world, anyway) was introduced in the 1980s in Windows 3.1 and has since undergone an evolutionary process as they've been reworked in each successive version of the operating system.

An annoyance that plagued these boxes from the start was that they were not resizable and were therefore awkward to use with large displays (or, conversely, too large on small displays). Fortunately, this problem has since been fixed, and in Windows XP, we enjoy resizable file dialog boxes most of the time. And although each application's file dialog will remember its size temporarily, this information is forgotten when the application is closed. Of course, this means that if you want a larger dialog box, you'll have to enlarge it again and again, and do it separately for each application.

However, a more serious problem (in my opinion), still not remedied in XP, is that of the Look in (or Save in) list at the top of these dialogs. When you're opening or saving a file, the only clue to the location of the current folder 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. In some earlier versions of Windows, if you clicked the [?] button and then clicked the Look in list, you would see this note: "To see how the current folder fits in the hierarchy on your computer, click the down arrow." In later releases of Windows, Microsoft simply removed the explanatory text, and did so instead of simply improving the interface.

The simple truth is that this would be very easy for Microsoft to remedy, and has been for years. In fact, Explorer has an option that allows you to fix a similar problem with folder windows by going to Control Panel Folder Options View tab and turning on the Display the full path in title bar option. Yet this option has no effect on file dialog boxes, despite the fact that they've been designed to mimic folder windows in most other ways.

So, why has Microsoft neglected to fix this very basic design flaw? One might assume 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 appear easier to use. This is the same type of backward thinking that resulted in hidden filename extensions (see the discussion of file types in Chapter 4). The goal? Hide as much information as possible from the user, even at the expense of usability.

Perhaps it's merely a matter of priority. Perhaps the decision makers at Microsoft feel that "cute" dialog boxes will sell more copies of Windows than functional ones. Or maybe it's just another aspect of self-preservation in the computer industry: if Microsoft ever released the perfect product, nobody would upgrade ever again!

Now, we can speculate as to the intentions of the various developers of Windows until we're blue in the face, 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, and the fact that performance rarely meets expectations, and call them all annoyances, we assume the burden of solving our own problems. 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.

Simply put, 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.

Tip

Take the solutions in this book seriously, but don't follow them blindly. Anything that indeed improves the interface can streamline your work and make the overall Windows experience less painful and more enjoyable. However, one person's annoyance is another's feature; what's important is to construct the interface that works best for you.

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