Thursday, November 26, 2009

Apple, Microsoft -- an inexpert opinion of a long-time user

I was endlessly fascinated and entertained by the documentary series, Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires. The documentary also, however, filled me with conflicting feelings about the genesis of the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows.

I know that in creative life -- particularly in the most profitable areas of creative life -- there is much "borrowing" that goes on. Borrowing that looks and smells pretty much like stealing. Nobody in the documentary denies that this went on and continues to occur. Where my conflicting feelings emanate from is how the theft is couched and rationalized by the perpetrators.

In the early 1980s, Steve Jobs had heard about Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which housed a team of truly innovative computer programmers and designers whom the Xerox executive titans seemed to keep on retainer merely to have a dedicated group to consistently ignore. The PARC team had come up with something called SmallTalk, which was the first Graphical User Interface (GUI) that shifted users away from punching code into a computer to make it perform functions. SmallTalk had a mouse along with the keyboard, and the screen was filled with windows and icons that were manipulated by the mouse.

Somehow, the corporate braintrust at Xerox allowed Steve Jobs to see a demo of this technology. Even more mystifying, that same brainless braintrust ascented to Steve Jobs' demand that the entire Apple programming team view a demo of SmallTalk. Adele Goldberg of PARC was horrified. As with any large company, the higher-ups in Xerox had no idea what innovations their grunt workers had created -- no matter how often those innovations were presented to them. They simply didn't understand the landmark technology they possessed. Adele Goldberg made a gallant effort to impress upon the dozy, dollar-drunk executives that they'd be giving away the farm if they showed that technology to the Apple programmers. The suits didn't listen. They told her to do the demo. Goldberg said she would only do so if she were ordered to. So, the princes of the Xerox penthouse offices ordered her to give the demo.

Steve Jobs, of course, downplays the technical prowess of SmallTalk, saying the Xerox programmers had gotten a lot wrong, and that the system was incomplete. From what is shown in the documentary, it appeared that the Xerox programmers had created a very creditable GUI in SmallTalk. It was much more on its feet than Jobs lets on.

So, Apple stole from SmallTalk and Microsoft stole from Macintosh. Stealing is stealing. However, I can say that Apple certainly improved upon the idea they stole, and expanded upon it. Microsoft bastardized the idea they stole. Apple sells over-priced computers. Microsoft sells over-priced, faulty beta versions of their software. Steve Jobs accuses Microsoft of making "truly third-rate products." Bill Gates is learning how to change water into wine in his spare time.

I believe that Microsoft gained and deserves the enmity of users because it ships incomplete, unfinished products as though they're new. Microsofts turns their users into unpaid QA testers for their crashing, glitchy products. Microsoft attempts to literally patch over this breach of responsibility by sending out their Windows Updates, which fills users' machines with digital barnacles that negatively affect the performance of those machines. I've experienced this first hand. I had a Dell laptop that I used as a dedicated digital typewriter. In order to attain truly distraction-free writing, I vowed never to go on the Web with that machine. The laptop was fast and instantly responsive to commands. A few years after buying it, I eventually went on the Web with that laptop. Of course, there was a dumpsterful of Windows Updates to be poured into it. Within weeks, my once speedy, responsive laptop became a veritable paperweight. It was sluggish to the point of making me think it had just frozen up while trying to carry out a function. It took several minutes to boot. It took a long time to do anything, even simple things like opening MS Word. Clearly, it was stuffed full of Windows Updates Christmas turkey, and Bill Gates' patches had turned my laptop into a $1,000 beer coaster.

Apple has its own software updates, but a year after buying a MacBook, and allowing the Apple updates through, the machine is still as fast and responsive as the day I bought it.

Bill Gates is not only the king of corporate brutality, he's also the king of excuses. I've heard him interviewed dozens of times, and have always marveled at the variety and creativity of reasons why Microsoft products don't work as advertised. Maybe the excuses are downloaded to his mind via Windows Update. Gates always seems to be saying some variation of, "Well, computers are complex machines and we create software that performs complex functions. Not everything is going to work all the time."

No shit.

That's as reassuring as a brain surgeon removing a tumor from a patient's brain, but leaving that patient quacking like a duck every time they try to speak, shrugging, "Well, brain surgery is complex. Ninety-five percent of the procedure went flawlessly." Problem is, you've got to pay attention to that five percent that slips away.

The worst thing about Microsoft is this: they got it right with their operating system XP. They got it right with Word '97. Their sin is paving over what works along with what needs fixing, and making their users relearn technology they already know. For instance, I used to use MS Word as my primary writing tool. It wasn't long before I grew weary of it creating a new style every time I Italicized text, or bolded something, or simply sneezed. When I printed my work, there would often be lines that didn't look right -- where the spacing was off or inconsistent, where the font was different. When I went back into my Word doc, I found that the styles in various paragraphs were different. I certainly didn't make that happen. Word just had so many differing styles racked up, it belched a few times and assigned the wrong style to the wrong paragraph. For all the patches I've received from Microsoft, none have ever rectified that situation.

I once read prognastications of the future of computers by Bill Gates in which he forecasted the advent of tiny, tablet-sized computer screens. Well, anywhere I go, all I've seen are larger and larger monitors -- designers working on multiple monitors. Sure, cell phones on which people text are ubiquitous, but aside from getting former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, into trouble, texting is no sustainable, long-term mode of doing business. You can't create a PowerPoint presentation on a BlackBerry.

Where users and programmers who know what they're doing want to see the technology go is toward lighter, faster, more elegant software. Also, cheaper. Ubuntu linux is less than 700 MB and it's free. Macintosh computers do cost more, but their software -- at least what I use -- is substantially less costly than Windows. For instance, I write using a word processing program called Bean. It's free. For something more robust, which can do spreadsheets and presentations, I have NEO Office. Users of Windows machines are getting more savvy and using OpenOffice and other free, open source software.

Word 2003 2007 presented users with a real beaut of a curveball -- the .docx file extension. If you save your work in that format, you can only open it again using Word 2003 2007. No problem if you only use only one machine and never have occasion to open that file on another. It caused me a hell of a lot of trouble when using my thumb-drive and moving from my desktop computer to my Dell laptop, which didn't have Word 2003 2007. It was a familiar Microsoft experience for me: like riding in a car with a standard transmission with a driver who's learning how to use the clutch -- that stomach-jarring bucking and sudden stopping. Maybe the .docx was a hamhanded Microsoft attempt at introducing security to documents. But even that backfires if someone stealing your work has Word 2003 2007.

So, in a world where users want leaner, smaller software footprints in their machines, Microsoft rolls out Windows Vista, an embarrassing copy of Mac OS X, which weighs in at 15 GB. Talk about bringing together lack of vision with worldclass unresponsiveness to the needs and wants of users. Sure, Microsoft is trying to get back in the saddle with Windows 7, but by now, I have no patience for relearning technology I already know.

Lessons learned from Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires:
  1. Patent your innovations.
  2. Answer the damned door if a company like IBM comes knocking.
  3. Don't invite the competition into your workshop to see what your programmers and designers are doing.
  4. Learn a little about PR / Learn a little bit about being a gracious billionaire.
  5. Your product should be at least 75 percent as good as all your boasting claims it to be.


Anonymous said...


As a pedant and information technology professional I am compelled to point out that the .docx and .xlsx formats were introduced in Office 2007.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Right you are! Thanks for the correction!