Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Windows Vista

I took a look at the screenshots of Windows Vista. Very pretty. Yep. But is it worth an upgrade? At the moment I'd say not. P1

Microsoft is showing more and more that they are losing touch with their customers. If you haven't noticed, there's a definite pattern to their behavior, and that pattern hasn't changed at all over the entire life of the company. Microsoft sees that someone else has a nice program/feature/utility. They implement the bare minimum functionality required to say they have it, and then work on improving it later. P2

There's nothing at all wrong with that strategy, except for two things: Microsoft usually only improves a program to the point where it's 'good enough' to kill off the competition (aided by Microsoft's Windows dominance), and they rely on the relative naivety of their customers to define 'improvement' largely as 'polishing the user interface'. P3

Early on in the company's history, that was certainly warranted. DOS's interface was an angle bracket and a blinking cursor, for Pete's sake. And Windows 95's interface was a vast improvement over Windows 3.x. But the interface itself isn't reason for upgrade. Win95 was successful because it solved some serious deficiencies in the Win3.x interface. If you'll recall, you couldn't even put an app on the desktop in Win3.x... a plethora of desktop extensions popped up before Microsoft got a clue and improved things in Win95. And before that, Windows 3.1 wasn't that successful, really... Windows wasn't widely picked up by businesses until the introduction Windows 3.11 (Windows for Workgroups). WfW solved the problem of interconnecting these beasts in your office. Other than that it had virtually the same interface as 3.1. Lately, XP has been a worthwhile upgrade for security reasons (try pressing Esc when you're at a Win98 password prompt to see what I mean). P4

Since Windows 95 things have been fairly stable, UI-wise. the WIMP interface has been 'it.' It still is. Windows Vista makes this a bit prettier, but so what? If being pretty were enough reason for an upgrade, more people would have bought Macs by now. Or Linux, which is totally customizable in ways that leave Windows power users outside drooling with their noses pressed against the glass. P5

Vista simply doesn't solve enough problems to warrant fanfare. I should upgrade my hardware to get what? Aero glass? I've got the equivalent of that in KDE on Linux already. Tell me what it does. P6

Yesterday I spent the evening fixing a computer for a friend. She has four daughters, and have owned this particular Compaq for about a year, I think. The OS had become corrupt, forcing the machine into an endless cycle of reboots. Tell me Vista solves that, then prove it. P7

When booting to safe mode, the OS (XP Home) complained that the disk was corrupt, again forcing a reboot. I used a Linspire run-live CD to boot the machine, access that same disk, and copy the data off onto DVD prior to running the Compaq System Restore, which reformats the disk and restores the system to it's shipped state (nice), but provides no mechanism for recovering data first (unconscionable). Tell me Vista solves that problem, then prove it. P8

When I restored the system, data, and reinstalled their favorite apps, I found that this family of five, (like most, I'd guess) contains no power users. Their use of the machine is limited to email, IM chat, web browsing, listening to MP3s, drawing, and some schoolwork and resumes done with Microsoft Works. That's it, and much of it doesn't use Microsoft programs. Does Vista really improve on any this functionality? Not likely, but if so, I'd have to see it proven, since Windows 98 serves up all of this nicely. P9

Clearly, this family doesn't need Vista. The thousands like them should take a pass as well. I'll probably wind up buying it, but only to service the poor souls it was forced upon with the purchase of a new PC. I'm a computer professional. I've been using, programming, and servicing these beasties quite literally since they were invented, so I tend to think my opinion counts for something. Unless Microsoft can show some real steak to go with Vista's sizzle, I don't see why they bothered. P10

Monday, December 26, 2005

Dell Doldrums and Linspiration

A little over year ago my son received a Dell Dimension 2400 as a Christmas present. Thanks to a combination of clicking where he should and some overzealous antivirus software, he completely lost the networking components and his internet connectivity.

"No problem," says I, "we'll just reinstall the missing components from your OEM disks." As I have a spacious basement, I've kept all of the material that came with the computer, including the original packaging. But guess what... there were no OEM disks. So I determined to look for the missing DLLs in the Options directory commonly used by OEM manufacturers to store the .cab files. Wouldn't you know it, the Dell didn't have that, either.

So I decided to call Dell's famous technical support. It was, of course, expired. Before I could even talk to somebody about providing the materials that they should have included in the first place, they wanted my credit card number and $40. No way. It's not the money, it's the principle. The license to the software was already purchased with the computer. Dell flatly neglected to provide materials to which the buyer is entitled. It is the END USER that is the licensee of Windows XP, NOT DELL. For those asleep at Dell's legal department, that's why it's called an "End User License Agreement". Duh. So I choose not to deal with Dell any longer, and I won't be purchasing any more of their computers, sorry.

On the theory that I'd simply install an existing copy of XP (after all, we do have a valid license... the registration key is on the computer itself) I did exactly that. That's when I discovered that Windows XP knows nothing about the hardware on a Dell Dimension 2400. It recognized neither the Sound, nor the Graphics adapter, nor the NIC card, nor the modem. And without the NIC or modem there's no networking, and no connecting to the Internet to get the proper drivers. (A nice racket Dell and Microsoft have worked out amongst themselves, no?)

So, the answer is, to hell with them both. I installed Linspire, a variant of Debian Linux. Linspire installed immediately, HOURS faster than Windows + updates, and came with the OpenOffice.org productivity suite. It recognized all of the hardware immediately, including his 3D graphics accelerator, recognized the broadband connection with no bloody wizards needed, and secured nicely and securely.

Linspire's CNR (Click and Run) service, at about $25 per year, is absolutely excellent! You will never again see a setup wizard for software. Instead, you simply browse Linspire's CNR Warehouse. When you see a program you want, simply click the green CNR icon next the the program, and a few moments later the program appears in your menus, ready to run. It simply cannot be easier.

For my son it's a breeze. He can use the same Firefox browser and OpenOffice.org productivity software on Linux as he was previously using on Windows. (We don't use MS Office here, as it makes exactly zero financial sense whatsoever on a home machine.) Using GAIM he's also able to connect to all of the same IM services he previously used in Windows. He can burn CDs, play awesome 3D games, listen to MP3s... everything he did in Windows is done faster and more easily in Linspire.

If you haven't tried Linux on your desktop, I wholeheartedly recommend Linspire. If you're staying with Windows because you believe it's somehow "easier", then you're sadly misinformed. Linspire easily outstrips Windows in ease of installation and use.

As long ago as 2002 I predicted that Linux would be ready for home consumers desktops by Christmas of 2004. Though the date came and went without fanfare, Linspire 5.0 proves that the promise has been delivered.