Updated: June 26, 2010
It is a well known fact, right? Windows operating system is easy, whereas Linux is a frightening tool for geeks. Whether this is a misconception created by fear and ignorance, a culmination of many years of real life experience sprinkled with some aggressive advertisement or just a buzzword, well, it has yet to be seen - in this article.
I have already shattered some myths about the easiness and intuitiveness of usage models in my multimedia codecs article, but it's time to up the ante and give you some really cool examples why the phrase easy when juxtaposed to operating system is nothing short of nonsense.
Guinea pig: Microsoft Word 2007
Ah, the ribbon interface, the pinnacle of 30 years of UI engineering. You would expect the latest Office suite to be a breakthrough in social and technological cooperation, allowing normal people to use their keyboard with pleasure.
The thing is, apart from randomly hitting the keyboard and some pretty colors, all kinds of software, including those designed by Microsoft, maybe especially those designed by Microsoft, remain a domain of ultra-geeks, and let no one claim otherwise. Allow me to demonstrate. A Word file, flavored with some macros. Macros? Yes, some macros. It was a file with a button embedded in the text, which, if clicked, would contact a website and submit some info.
To allow or not to allow, that is the question
The first thing I got was a healthy warning. Macros can be dangerous. Good security move on behalf of Microsoft. What more, it contained far more information than similar warnings in older suites of Offices. Here it is:
Security alert - the average user is already crapping his/her pants. Macros & ActiveX, you might as well call them Jack & Sarah for all that matters. Next, the warning tells me that they have been disabled. And I need to determine if the content comes from a trustworthy source.
Now, not only am I bombarded with a million words in High Geekian, I am also asked to choose, make the tough decision of deciding whether the file is trustworthy. This implies trusting the person who sent it, supposedly, even though the file could still contain malicious code. Lovely, isn't it? 101 in basic computing.
I need the file and I want to have its functionality enabled. The problem is, I have no idea yet what this functionality is or how it is impaired by disabling the said macros. Unless I quickly graduate with some CS degree, I'm not likely to make a very educated guess any time soon. But it gets better.
File open, more cool stuff
The file opens and I get another sweet prompt:
Office document customization is not available. Really? I thought it was. In fact, I have no idea what this means. The warning tells me to contact the administrator, but I am the administrator. And the author? Where do I find who the author is? Is that a person who sent the file or maybe it's written in one of the meta-data fields of the file?
But the best part comes underneath the very singular OK button. Expand the details, at your own peril no less, and you get the wonderful Exception Text that looks like the sum of all evil. I guess we're taking basic Visual Basic, but the quantity of dots, implying all the cunningness of Object Oriented Programming (OOP) subtly hints at possibilities of .NET framework. Java looks like that, too.
So, I am now facing two dreadful messages, finite and incomprehensible. The most important thing, though, is the Ribbon Interface. I am wondering who let what developer include all those warning messages into the GUI. I can understand basic errors, but a whole bible of debug code in a nebulous programming language vomited on the user seems like a monumental failure in design. Who could have possibly conceived something like this?
You do realize we're talking Office 2007, the pinnacle of Microsoft Office design, the one program that everyone loves, even though it's a tremendous memory and disk space hog compared to perfectly functional older versions?
You do realize that this software is released to countless newbies worldwide, who have to occasionally digest messages that look like a proctologist's report after being translated by an autistic child, in a foreign language no less? You do realize some geek wrote this? You do realize that a project manager somewhere approved this? You do realize Microsoft QA teams let this be? You do realize that someone thought this was progress?
I am pondering what went in the dark little cubicles when this monstrosity was created. What kind of innovative brainstorming was going on? What were they thinking of, about? Who did they think would benefit from the super-detailed warning messages written in unfiltered geek lingo? Not me, certainly, and I'm a turbo nerd.
It gets better. I have enabled the macro and I'm working. Now comes the cream of the crop, the coup d'etat, the petard d'crap. Time to actually submit the document. Click the button and there's this:
Windows Forms controls - is that my button? Disabled because the document has been scaled? Scaled as in weighted? Or resized? When zoom is returned to 100%, the controls will reactivate ... I see.
I wonder why a button of some sort needs 100% zoom and can't work with resized documents, but let's take this for granted. The message telling the user to change the zoom of the document is written in the most convoluted fashion available to homo sapiens.
Rather than giving directions, something like, go to View, Zoom, Change zoom to 100%, or something along those lines, the out-of-this-world developer carefully chooses the use of words like Windows Forms controls and scaling.
This would be like that calling a web page a server-hosted hypertext markup language version 4.1 document. Or worse. I am probably incapable of such levels of complexity and geekiness. But the important thing is, the Ribbon Interface. It really helps the productivity, in between reading cryptic messages written by aliens and slicing your wrists with a plastic knife.
Operating systems are geek tools. Software is geeky. Let no one fool you. Nothing short of a revolution will change the software models. We're still stuck in the 80s mindset of what programs ought to look like and how they should behave. A fraction of the population manages to get along and sometimes on top of this mess, but most people are floundering and drowning in the ocean of binary despair.
Software is made by geeks for geeks. And it won't change any time soon. I have a splendid idea how to fix the problem, but I won't share it just yet. Meanwhile, I'll keep writing sanity check articles that should help you understand how global and non-personal your computing problems are.
The biggest issue of all is the denial of facts, by the software developers. Until they figure out that their products are horrendous, there won't be any progress. Worse yet, some software companies have the audacity to claim simplicity and easy of use.
Let no one fool you. Windows or any part thereof is not easy. The fact you learned how to operate the browser or click the Start button makes no difference. Ask yourself this, what would the average user do if you moved the My Documents icon from the desktop? Would they know how to find their files? Burrow into Documents and Settings, find out their username and then click into the right folder? Right. So very easy.
Once you realize how hard software really is, you might as well make the leap of faith. Explore new possibilities and try the really hard software. Y'know, Linux, the one that is supposed to be hard? Maybe it is just as easy as Windows, meaning totally unmanageable by most people? Well, in that case, you'll be just fine - or at least, no worse than you are today. It's free, so you have nothing to lose.
That would be all. I do not have a grand punch line. This article is a mind teaser. Open your mind and think. Do not be shackled by idle slogans. Repeating them does not make them any truer. Food for thought, food for thought. See ya.