Best Version of Windows Ever

Sorry to be negative on a Monday, but when the lede on reviews of Windows 7 is “best version ever”, that is very bad news. That is the buzz for a service pack, not for a major release. Is it news that it didn’t get worse?

“Best version ever” is not even as strong as “sucks less”. It might mean there is some groovy new feature you will never use. For example, explain to me how “aero shake” is better than Option-Command-H. Shaking titlebars with the mouse multiple times a day? I can feel my wrist hurt already.

Ten years ago, I was a full-time Windows NT developer, running our local Primary Domain Controller (so Infoseek could have ClearCase on Windows). Since then, it’s been all Unix and Mac. For the past six weeks, I’ve been using Windows Vista on a fairly new laptop. I’m really amazed at the current state of Windows. I thought it would be better after a decade.

For comparison, I’ll go through the steps needed when I get back to my cube and want to open my laptop and get back to work.

Mac OS X:

  1. Plug in the power and mouse.
  2. Open the laptop.
  3. Wait two seconds.
  4. If you have password locking, type your password.
  5. Do work. Total time, under 10 seconds.

No wasted motion. Everything you do is essential and the waits are minimal.

Windows Vista SP1 on an HP 6910:

  1. Plug in the power and mouse.
  2. Open the laptop.
  3. Look at the hard-to-see green power light to see whether the battery has run down to zero. The light flashes pretty slowly and isn’t very bright, so you’ll have to lean over to see it.
  4. Remember that it doesn’t matter, and click the power button.
  5. Wait a while.
  6. The screen says to press Ctrl+Alt+Del, so do that.
  7. It ignores the keypress (because it put up the screen before the keyboard driver was ready?), so do Ctrl+Alt+Del again.
  8. Move the mouse to choose from the three options for authentication.
  9. Oops, the mouse doesn’t work yet, so use the trackpad to select the password option.
  10. Type your password.
  11. Wait some more.
  12. Do work (the mouse works now). Total time, probably a minute and a half.

Ever wonder why people carry their Windows laptop around half-open?

You can’t go get coffee during that time, because you have to keep checking and clicking or typing. There is a flashing light that doesn’t change what you do. The UI even lies, telling you to type something when it isn’t listening. Why would someone think it is OK to release this?

Plenty of other things waste my time. Software installs still need a restart. I couldn’t find a way to hide a window using the keyboard. Printing blocks all input to applications (unchanged from Windows 3.1). I can’t switch from Reply to Reply All once I’ve started a message in Outlook (have to copy the text, close the window, start new message, paste the text). In Firefox, Ctrl-T (new tab) works some of the time, but not all the time. Battery life is silly, about an hour and a half, unchanged from my Toshiba 486 laptop in the mid-90’s.

There are other places where it actually feels like a step backwards from Windows NT. Applications crash or hang, both Microsoft apps (Outlook) and apps that are rock solid on other platforms (Firefox). What a mess.

Yes, Vista was released a while ago, but the Mac OS X wake from sleep is unchanged since my rev. B Titanium PowerBook in December 2001, so there is no excuse. In fact, the fast wakeup was the major reason I moved from MacOS 9 to X. I hear that Windows 7 has faster wakeup from sleep, but responding to the competition after eight years? Not acceptable.

As icing on the cake, I just opened up the Windows laptop to unpack a Windows-only distribution. I sftp’ed it over, then Windows Explorer greyed out on me and showed the spinning rave ring of death. I waited two minutes, then started trying to kill it. Took three dialog boxes. It’s restarted, but I’m watching the rave ring spin while it tries to run this exe archive. Wish me luck.

Ah, it was checking for viruses, I guess, though it certainly didn’t tell me what it was doing. Now it is (slowly) installing 23 updates when I tried to power it off. I guess I’ll be at work for another fifteen minutes before I can put it back in the drawer. The gift that keeps on giving.

So I’m back to Mac, and not just because it removes dozens of daily annoyances, but for a deeper reason. Using Windows lowers my standards for what is OK to ship. Maybe Microsoft can stay in business shipping this stuff, but I can’t. I actually need to be better than the competition, not just better than my last release.

Note: Troy Wolverton in the SJ Merc used this lede in my sense this morning. He’s more tolerant, but still “underwhelmed”.

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At the Orthodontist

I spent an hour plus sitting at the orthodontist one morning last week while my son got started on his second round of braces. I was wearing my Netflix sweatshirt, so I chatted with the assistant about movies, search, Don, and streaming. I pointed out the Netflix support in the new LG Blu-ray player, and the kid in the neighboring chair said, “and the Roku box, we watch a lot of stuff on that”.

I love being in Silicon Valley. Even the middle-schoolers are on top of the tech trends.

wunder@best.com is Dead, Long Live wunderwood.org

Verio killed off my wunder@best.com address without warning, so I’ve spent a few days getting mail working on wunderwood.org with the friendly but not always effective tech support at Verio. There is no forwarding, sigh, but you can send mail to the same username @wunderwood.org and you’ll get me. The rest of the family now has their own mailboxes there, no more party line e-mail.

I’m sad to lose the wunder@best.com address. It was my internet identity for a really long time, maybe fifteen years. It certainly goes back to pre-web, dialup internet. I had a shell account, and if you know what that is, you know your DCE’s from your DTE’s, I bet.

“wunder” is a lot older than wunder@best.com. My OS/370 batch processing account at Rice in Fall 1975 was WUNDERW and I switched it to WUNDER the next year. At The Rice Thresher, photo credits were first initial plus last name in all lower case. The period and space slowly disappeared (through the magic of kerning) over several issues to become “wunderwood” (thanks Mark). Both wunder and wunderwood live on at wunderwood.org.

wunder@best.com will bounce. Sorry about that, I can’t fix it. I own the new domain, so that will continue to work for a long time.

Best Internet Communication was a great provider, Mac-savvy, local, and even profitable. Check out the history at the link above for a taste of early ISPs.

After a couple of acquisitions, my old account is now with NTT/Verio. I need to have a chat with an account rep there, because their price list shows my account at $15/month and I’m paying $24.95. The joys of a grandfathered account.

Click on the Blue Stuff

Here is the documentation for using the web:

Click on anything blue and underlined.

When you change the color of the links or change the underline, you invalidate the entire user manual. When you do Flash and fancy 2.0 stuff, you invalidate the entire user manual. Even “click on images, too” is a big risk.

Sometimes it is worth confusing the user, but it always consider doing it the simple way.

Jakob Nielson agrees as the first part of his cautionary article about Web 2.0. Follow that (very dark blue) link, by the way. It is an excellent article.

If you are inclined to blow off Jakob, remember that it’s the law. A “click on the blue stuff” site is about 99% ADA-compliant already.

Troff Flashback

I was editing a doc on our internal wiki, and I kept getting the wiki-speak header directive wrong. After a while, I figured out why I was typing .h3 instead of h3. into the editing window. I’m almost surprised I didn’t type .h 3 since that’s the proper directive in mm (the Memorandum Macros). On the other hand, it has been a few years since I even edited a man page, let alone a full document in troff.

I don’t really miss PWB/UNIX, but it was very fine for its time. Source control with SCCS, yacc/lex, troff, wow.

Microserfs

While cleaning out the “closed stacks” in the garage (boxes of books), I found my unread copy of Microserfs by Douglas Coupland and put it back on the in-house “to read” pile. Three weeks later, I’ve read it.

Short version: I haven’t learned anything from this book. I used “learn” in a pretty broad sense that includes any new experience, not just facts.

Long version

This book is about the West Coast coding culture, something that I was part of a decade before it was published (1995) and continue to be a decade after that date. Any journalistic content is not new information for me, so the book’s value to me is all in that creative remainder. Perchance I resemble an upper-class Regency woman reading Jane Austen. All that period fru fru is the reality I swim in (sigh, reduced to using Google to spell-check “fru fru”, so sad to vote on spelling).

I like journalistic work and really enjoyed both The Soul of a New Machine and Blue Sky Dream, so I’m ready to learn more about things that I already know.

Surprisingly, considering the title, that culture is only Microsoft for the first bit, after which a Deus ex Silicon Valley causes the crew to decamp to a startup and house in Palo Alto a few blocks off of my former commute to HP.

I fully understand that fiction is made up (objectively false, subjectively true), but when a realistic setting is a key part of the work, getting it wrong just isn’t an option. Coupland includes carefully crafted typos in the e-mails, so I know he was paying attention. I can just imagine the mail back and forth with the copy editors trying to get those typos published properly. Yet he didn’t do his homework on the simple things.

  • Why isn’t the startup in a garage? Was that already too cliché? Google did it after this was published.
  • Bug testers (his term, we call them “QA”) don’t immediately switch to being major hackers at a startup. Testing and coding are different skills and most people just like doing one better than the other. Even if you want to switch, you need to build your skills and your cred.
  • Can Daniel please stop using “random” as if it means “unexpected” instead of “unpredictable”?
  • It isn’t the “open-hills fire”, it is the “Oakland Hills fire”. Jeez.
  • “Cal-Tec”? That sounds like a gasoline additive. It’s “Caltech”.

I’ll give him a bit of slack for those East Coast editors who can’t be bothered to care about computers or any place West of the Mississippi, but his name is on the book so it is a teeny-weeny bit of slack. [Re “East Coast editors”, ask me about a couple of howlers in Infinite Jest.]

I remember a comment from the introduction to Best Short Stories of the Year Whenever that quoted some famous short story writer saying that she stops reading if she finds a factual error. She felt that the writer has a responsibility to the reader to avoid those jarring moments, and if they couldn’t be bothered to do that, she couldn’t be bothered to continue reading.

Then there is the plot, which is mostly imposed, unmotivated events that increase in frequency toward the end of the book until we end with with a big fairy tale group hug. It reminded me of that baby programmer mistake where you stick to the initial spec even though you’ve run out of time and you start gluing on poorly-integrated barely-working features as the deadline approaches. That is the time to find the essence of your product and leave out anything that is peripheral. It is when the iron goes through the fire. It is Occam’s Chainsaw.

Oh yeah, another problem. Not much sense of impending deadline — the plot skips straight from beta to already having a distribution deal. Huh? The first half of the book keeps making a Big Deal of the Microsoft “Ship It” award, then he doesn’t bother to follow his characters as they ship their 1.0? That goes beyond ignorant to stupid. Every engineer in the valley can tell you exactly what they have shipped. Shipping is the essential act in engineering. It makes your work real.

In some sense, the novel is just an expanded version of a fine short story, published in Wired and used as the first chapter of this book. A common move and a very risky one. Short stories and novels are very different beasts, in my experience. When it doesn’t work, it is glaringly obvious. Two different examples: Flowers for Algernon is devastating read in thirty minutes but numbing when expanded to novel length, and you can stop reading Starship Troopers after that stunning first chapter with the powered combat suits since the rest alternates between “my life in the military” and libertarian ranting.

The original short story really is pretty good. Obviously, it was good enough to get a book deal, but it remains good reading. You can feel the rain and the green in Redmond and the tension between being a cog in the Microsoft machine and doing something you care about. Just stop reading before it switches to Silicon Valley.

I guess I have learned one thing from Microserfs. I’m not going to read any more Douglas Coupland.