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The Death of a Thousand Stings

by Robert A. Jung
January 17, 1998
Updated February 1, 1998


Well, it had to happen: I've been assimilated.

Not willingly, mind you -- I'm still merrily humming away at home with my Quadra 660AV. But my office computer has fallen, a victim to the Microsoft Mentality, and my Quadra 800 has been replaced by a Digital PC clone. The Information Technology guys (outsourced, naturally) insist that it's to increase productivity, though they were surprisingly quiet when I asked them what studies they did comparing Macs to PCs.

Still, when life gives lemons, I try to make lemonade. "How bad can it be?" I asked myself. "If nothing else, you now have a direct, hands-on access to Windows 95. You can be an open-minded observer, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of Windows with facts and experience, instead of secondhand reports and propaganda."

So I put a polite face on things, and after the IT folks delivered my computer and hooked it up, I sat down to see what Windows 95 was really like.

And you know? It's still not as good as a Mac.

* * *

First, let me clarify what this essay is not. I'm not going to say that a Wintel PC is all but useless, or that it's a waste of metal, or other such propagandistic hyperbole. When you get down to it, a desktop PC running Windows 95 is still a computer, and thus it can compute -- you can write documents with it, you can calculate spreadsheets with it, you can surf the world-wide web with it.

On the other hand, that's not saying much. A Yugo and a Mercedes are both automobiles, yet you don't hear people calling the two comparable and equivalent. There's a difference in quality between the two, the difference between a cheap box on wheels and a precision-crafted driving machine. As with a lot of things in life, it's the little things that make the biggest differences.

I'm also not going to talk about the technical differences between the two operating systems. Yes, Plug & Play is still a joke on Windows 95, and the Macintosh still doesn't have pre-emptive multitasking. But it doesn't matter; for this essay, I'm going to look at things from the view of an everyday user -- the John and Jane Smith of Anytown, USA, who's buying a pre-loaded computer for their own use. After all, how many times in a week do you deal with "geek issues" like cache speeds or bus width?

What I am going to talk about are the day-to-day annoyances of Windows 95 -- the grab-bag of glitches, quirks, and nuisances that make my typical Wintel PC workday feel like an eight-hour struggle with a temperamental mule. These are almost all problems with the Windows 95 GUI (graphical user interface); not surprising, actually, when you consider that the GUI is the part of Windows that people work with the most.

By nature, these irritations could be considered "nitpicky" or "minor." That's not too surprising, either, because any major problems in Windows 95 would have been caught and removed before the product was shipped (yes, I'm ignoring the comedic potential of that line, I know). But to dismiss this essay as a collection of trivial hair-splitting complaints is to miss the point, as I will explain later.

And remember, these aren't second-hand rumors or whispered nightmares; these are all firsthand, honest-to-goodness complications in Windows 95. I can't go through a day at the office without hitting most of these problems -- and neither can most anyone else, I'll bet.

* * *

With all that in mind, take a peek over my shoulder as we sit down at the PC and explore Windows 95...

I could go on and on (like the graphics glitches, or the simple-minded behavior of shortcuts, or -- believe me, it wasn't easy deciding when to stop the list) but I won't. There are more than enough examples above to demonstrate my point, which is that Windows 95 is loaded with countless inconsistencies, peculiarities, and annoyances that -- while they're not downright "user-hostile, certainly fall into the category of "user-antagonistic."

* * *

When the Windows PC was installed in my office, I also got a booklet from the IT staff -- "Surviving Week One With Windows 95." It's a fair-sized book, covering the differences between Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 in everything from manipulating windows to saving files. Steve Jobs was right; this isn't an operating system upgrade, it's a brain transplant. Perhaps Microsoft could have eliminated a lot of confusion if they had simply called Windows 95 a totally different name...

And, of course, the title is rather daunting, don't you think?

* * *

As I wrote before, none of the aforementioned problems are crippling or severe. They range, at best, from trivial idiosyncrasies to small quirks, with a few minor predicaments tossed into the mix. And indeed, to pick any one of them and use it as an argument against Windows 95 would be considered trivial nit-picking by most people.

The thing to remember, though, is that these quirks are not in isolation. Instead, they're all present, all the time, ready to interrupt the flow of your work with their haphazard demands. And don't be fooled by the apparently minor nature of these problems. If you're using the Wintel computer for work (as I am), then you're spending close to (if not more than) forty hours a week playing with these peculiarities. If you use a Windows PC at home as well, add in another twenty-five or thirty hours to the mix.

It doesn't take much brain power to realize that all of these factors quickly add up. Just think about your own computer use in a week -- how often do you type on the keyboard, or rename a file, or use a program's "Open" and "Save" dialog boxes? And if you're going to be using a computer for up to seventy hours a week, do you really want to spend all that time tiptoeing around Windows 95's wanton collection of screwball demands and work-interrupting nuisances?

* * *

Whenever I talk to my Wintel-using friends and co-workers about these problems, their responses fall into three general categories:

  1. "I've gotten used to Windows' problems." This is the most common answer, one that I've dubbed the "Surrender Response." Translated, this person is saying, "You are right, Windows has lots of problems, but there's nothing we can do about it." Which is obviously a silly answer; unless the computer salespeople are forcing you to buy PCs at gunpoint, no one is stopping you from using something else. If you ask me, I'd recommend a Macintosh (hey, this is a Mac-advocacy essay), but even Linux or OS/2 are workable alternatives.

    (And please, let's not hear that old myth about the dearth of software for Macs. For most everyday uses -- the types of tasks that John and Jane Smith of Anytown, USA would require for their own needs -- there are more than enough choices on the Mac to fit their needs. And on the off-chance that there's a program you must run that's only on a PC, there are software emulators and hardware cards that let you do the job, many of which run Windows 95 software better than a PC can.)

  2. "You're just expecting the computer to work the way you want it to." Well, of course I am -- I'm spending almost forty hours a week with this PC, it better work the way I want it to. Engineers customize their work areas to have their references where it's best for them, and choose their tools according to what they're more efficient with. Why should computers be any different? Darn right I want the computer to work the way I'm expecting it to; how else can I be the most efficient?

  3. "Deal with it." This is the macho equivalent of the Surrender Response; it usually comes from the self-proclaimed grizzled veteran of the office, the one who remembers life before personal computers. This is a response that sneers at all criticisms as pampered whining, and says that "real men" (women never say this) don't need luxuries like ease-of-use or intuitive design.

    This argument falls apart at the inherent hypocrisy involved. If these "real men" don't need such comforts, why are they using computers in the first place? Toss out those spreadsheets and compilers and word processors -- let's give these digital frontiersmen their punch cards and abaci and typewriters already! Not that they would surrender their PCs, of course; the whole point of using computers is to do things better and faster and more efficiently than you did before. But then, why shouldn't an operating system/user interface be subject to the same demands for improved efficiency?

* * *

Users of Windows computers are often confused at the loyalty Mac users show their computers, and now I see why. After all, if my only experience of computing was with a temperamental, unpredictable, and eccentric machine like a Windows PC, I wouldn't feel any affection or respect for it, either. And I may very well assume (incorrectly) that Macintosh computers were just as unreliable or irritating, and then wonder why those Mac users were so faithful.

Of course, Macs aren't as erratic or counterintuitive as PCs are, and that makes all the difference.

The numerous flaws in the Windows 95 interface are a constant reminder to me that the PC on my desk is little more than a glorified appliance, and a flawed one at that -- the controls for a typical microwave oven are better designed than the Windows GUI. And while the Macintosh interface isn't completely perfect (ejecting disks before System 8 was rather quirky), it doesn't have even a quarter of the snafus that Windows does. In countless ways, the Macintosh behaves as you'd expect a computer to, unobtrusively removing the little irritants so you can do things better, faster, and easier.

Actor Richard Dreyfuss said it best: "There are no psychological gestures of failure in [the Macintosh]. It has only your good will at heart."

* * *

Some of the skeptics in the audience may be asking by now, "The PC can't be that bad, Robert. Surely you are getting some benefits from your new computer, right?"

That's hard to answer. As I wrote above, when you get down to the basics, the Wintel computer in my office is a computer. And it can do things a computer should do -- I can send e-mail, and write a report, and compile programs, and access files on the company network. But again, there's the same difference between a Yugo and a Mercedes; they'll both take you places, but one does it with fewer hassles and problems than the other.

And while the new PC is faster than my old Mac (naturally, what with 233 MHz versus 33 MHz), I certainly don't feel more productive with it. If anything, I suspect the increased number of interruptions I now experience in a typical workday may have lowered my productivity somewhat. At the very least, I know my morale hasn't improved any...

I'm sure that there will be some people who enjoy their PCs; just don't count me among them. I have better things to do with my time than to decipher the latest Windows quirk, and I'm willing to pay a little extra for that privilege (you get what you pay for, as the old saying goes). With my Mac, I work better, get done sooner, and feel less frustrated in the process; who wouldn't want to be in a situation like that?

(Windows users, apparently. *Grin*)

* * *

Oh, wait. I've just thought of two benefits that I've reaped since I got my new Windows PC:

  1. Any vestiges of workaholism have been wrung out of me -- now I'm genuinely glad to leave the office at the end of a day.

    and

  2. I appreciate my Mac more.

--R.J.

Still Stinging

by Robert A. Jung
February 1, 1998

After I had finished writing "The Death of a Thousand Stings," I decided to share it with the readers of Evangelist, just to have an audience for the darn thing. I then disappeared for a week to go on a business trip, so I didn't think much about the matter for a while.

When I returned home, my e-mailbox was literally overflowing with feedback. Sure, I had expected some comments, but this was almost 200K of material! It took me several hours just to sort through the initial batch, and I'm still getting the occasional letter two weeks later. Now I know how Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame felt after opening that grain bin in "The Trouble With Tribbles."

Anyway, this update is in response to that mountain o' mail. There are some matters that need to be addressed, and so I'll use this to address them -- I certainly don't want to give the impression of trying to build my case on false pretenses, after all. There are also some insights and observations worth sharing, enough material to warrant another look at the matter.

With that in mind, let's dive into the mailbag...

* * *

First, a couple of corrections need to be made. The most significant one, as many readers pointed out, is that right-dragging a file is not the only way to duplicate it with Windows 95. In a trick that's also on the Mac, dragging a file with the Control key held down will make a copy at the destination point.

But that's really more of a shortcut for savvy users. For a casual user, the preferred way (according to Windows 95's help screens) to duplicate a file is to:

  1. Highlight the file.
  2. Select "Cut" from the File menu (or press Control-C).
  3. Move the mouse to the destination.
  4. Select "Paste" from the File menu (or press Control-V).

My first reaction to this was a bewildered, "Excuse me?"

I realize that it makes sense in a roundabout sort of way, but it's certainly not an obvious or intuitive one. Extending the cut-and-paste metaphor to desktop objects opens a whole new can of worms; for instance, if I can use cut-and-paste to duplicate a folder and its contents, why can't I use it to duplicate a disk (no, you can't)? It's an inconsistent use of the metaphor, one that could have been easily avoided. Really, would it have been that difficult for Microsoft's programmers to include a "Duplicate" command in the menu?

* * *

Several readers also wrote in with suggestions on how to rename files from the keyboard.

I admit that I'm a little embarrassed at not thinking of the first solution: highlight a file, then press Alt, F, and M. This selects the "Rename" command from the window's File menu (though I have no idea why M is used for "Rename," since R is not used). While this is more convenient than using the mouse to double-click on the name, the extra keystrokes still makes it fairly cumbersome. It's also an imperfect solution; the Alt-F-M sequence doesn't work for icons that are directly on the Windows desktop, since there's no encompassing desktop menu bar to work with.

The second solution is a minor variation of the first: press the "Contextual Menu" key, then M. A little better, though still a little awkward.

The best and most efficient solution, though, is to just press F2. Don't feel bad if you think this is an obscure answer, though; of all the letters I received on the topic, only one person knew of this trick. And the others can't be blamed for not knowing it, either, since I can't find any references to the F2-rename shortcut with my computer -- even Windows 95's own built-in help system doesn't know this! As with a lot of things involving Windows, a user has to either hope someone will teach him the arcane secrets, or continue to work in inefficient ignorance.

Oh, and when you're renaming files, be careful about when you press Enter. If you press it when the file is highlighted (instead of the name), Windows 95 will try to open the file instead -- which means extra gyrations on your part to get out of the program and resume renaming...

* * *

A few Windows 95 users questioned my assertion that dragging folders into the Recycle Bin tossed all of their contents into "electronic gumbo," as they could pull folders out of the Bin on their PCs. I tested the matter with a half-dozen computers, and they all had the same unceremonious "throw the contents into the bin" behavior. Fortunately, Chris G. had the answer:

They've sort of fixed the Recycle Bin with the Internet Explorer 4 desktop enhancements installed, but it's still not perfect. Now, when you open up the Recycle Bin, you see the actual folders; however, you can't display what's in those folders. So you can only restore an entire folder now. Depending on one's intent, this could be considered worse than before.

So I can either choose to have all my files mixed together, or have a bunch of folders whose contents I can't look at? Lovely...

A few others also pointed out that you can select a file in the Recycle Bin, then use the Contextual Menu's "Restore" command to put it back where it was. Unfortunately, this doesn't address the problem I raised -- that is, retrieving the contents of a folder from the Bin. You can't "Restore" an entire folder, since folders don't (normally) appear in the Recycle Bin to begin with...

* * *

Elizabeth B. reminds me that Windows 95's Alt-menu-access system is not absolutely pointless -- for handicapped users, it's a convenient way to use the system when they can't work a mouse.

Sounds good, but I still have to ask, why can't I turn the feature off? At least Apple's Easy Access control panel (which allows one to use a Mac strictly with the keyboard) lets me enable or disable it as needed. Perhaps something as simple as this is beyond the abilities of the programmers at Microsoft.

* * *

Most of the responses I received were supportive and positive; the only hostile letter came from one person who berated me for focusing on "minor trivia" (thus proving that he hadn't read the essay in detail, since I already explained why I was focusing on the little things).

Almost half of the letters came from disgruntled Windows 95 users, who felt that my list of annoyances wasn't long enough. Like a therapy group, my list of quirks encouraged these folks to share their most-hated nuisances.

Here are some of the more bothersome ones...

* * *

The rest of my mail have been notes of encouragement and thanks. More than several people have already made plans to pass the essay along, whether to show their Wintel-using colleagues why Windows is a pain, or to dissuade a friend from making a Microsoft mistake. There were also some sympathetic letters in the mix, from other "assimilated" users who needed to vent their discomfort at their daily wrestling matches with the office Windows computer.

And then, of course, there are the anecdotes and observations...

Robert B. writes:

I hear you ... all too loud and clear. New job -- and I have to suffer through a Pentium and W95. My officemates and I have contests trying to see who can crash (Code Blue!) most often doing absolutely ordinary things ... so much so that "printing a second document before the first clears the print queue" crash has now been termed a feature, not a bug, and therefore not a candidate for our sport.

Bryan G. wryly observes:

On The New Keys: I have friends that have ripped those keys off because they get in the way. I thought that was funny.

Kelsey writes:

I've forgotten almost everything about improving the aesthetics *hah!* of Windows 95 since I swapped to the Mac, but because I do tech support on high-end music software for both platforms I still have to know the essential stuff. I think you will find it unsurprising to note that in 99% of cases I have my Mac clients fixed within an hour of arriving. My PC customers are less fortunate. I rue the day Cubase VST was released for PC.... the last job took me 8 hours. One of the many problems was solved by having to write in a text editor, in the SYSTEM.INI file a command to force static cache buffering. This was a brand new, custom built, all SCSI, Pentium II with the best of everything. I won't bore you with more details, but... the horror, the horror...

Patrick G. notes:

The thing I find so interesting about Win 95 is how many of our IT folks mutter under their breaths about the system as they are trying to debug a problem on it.

Brad K. elegantly comments:

Windows 95 is not a Yugo, but more of a Cordoba -- it's feature set is the equivalent of Corinthian leather--if you believe in its benefits over real leather you're a victim of some shrewd marketing.

The truth is you shouldn't have to be a mechanic to drive a car, but at its core a PC has an arrogance towards users who don't understand it from the ground up. The common expectation of people I know who don't use computers (yes, I know some) is that they are difficult and hard to learn. ... The trials and tribulations of using a PC are considered par for the course, and we humans take it on the chin with every "user error" we encounter. The bottom line may not be that Mac users love their computers so much -- perhaps Mac users know what it's like to be loved by their computer.

Glenn G. gives a quick lesson about making assumptions for Windows support:

One co-worker [who bought a PC] ... stated, "If I have problems, I'll call my brother." Well, three weeks later he was complaining to me that his brother wouldn't come to his house to fix his machine and it was unusable. What a shame, considering all he did was install Quicken.

Keith P. sent me a long list of "likes and dislikes" about Windows 95 (with the "dislikes" outnumbering the "likes," not surprisingly). Since most of his more salient dislikes have been noted above, I'll share instead his analysis of why Windows 95 does things in such inconsistent and inelegant ways:

Microsoft has been a copier ... However, to avoid being sued or even noticed as copiers, they make slight changes to what they copy and thus, since in this case the 'other company' has already done a brilliant design job, the Microsoft product turns out to be inferior on average.

My personal favorite, though, and the one I'll end with, comes from Elizabeth B. again:

I passed your URL around to the members of my department. My department is a mostly Mac shop, and we're currently fighting efforts by the PC Support crew to get us to switch over. One guy likes Win95 better, and he told me he thought most of your criticisms were just whining. Today (three days later) he confessed that he is noticing that he has hit the Alt key by mistake a few times. :-)

* * *

Remember, it only seems like "whining" to those who settle for flawed goods...

--R.J.