November 29, 2004

Ten axioms of computing? Call them Windows flaws

Author: Jem Matzan

Earlier this month, veteran Windows-centric columnist John C. Dvorak wrote a half-serious, half-facetious article called The Ten Axioms of Modern Computing in which he complains about common computer issues. What he and far too many other people don't realize is that most of their problems could be solved by removing Windows from their machines and installing a free software operating system like GNU/Linux. Let's take a point by point analysis of how Dvorak's gripes have little to do with the majority of his computing environment.

Never use defaults: absolutely never

Dvorak thinks that you should always accept program defaults when installing software, presumably because the InstallShield wizard that governs the installation of most Windows programs asks the user questions that they probably shouldn't be answering. Windows tends to give the user too much control over some things and not enough over others, and this is a perfect example of the former. InstallShield tends to ask where you'd like to install a program; ordinarily you don't want to change this destination folder, yet you're still given that choice. Veteran users will know to just click through it, but what about the proverbial grandmother?

You can't have power and simplicity in an operating system, despite what the advertisements say; the two are mutually exclusive. Your system can be either easy to use, or easy to modify its important components, but if you try to do both you have a recipe for disaster. An example of this is the Windows XP user permissions structure and the fact that the Administrator (root) user, which has absolute power over the operating system and software, is the primary user account by default. Sure, it's easy to install programs if you're always logged in as Administrator, but it's also easy to completely screw up the operating system beyond all hope of reasonable repair, and it's easy for various types of malware to use your system for nefarious purposes.

Secure software is generally installed with defaults that prevent your system from being compromised without your knowing. That means that the defaults will be unusable and have to be changed to suit your needs. Insecure software will have a default state of precisely the opposite and you have to modify the settings to lock it down if you want to maintain a secure system. In either case, the defaults are never acceptable.

Dvorak mentions in another point that there is no difference between the "custom" install in InstallShield and the "typical" install. Yeah, except the "typical" installation usually wants to install a lot more than just your program -- it wants to install Acrobat Reader and other third-party tagalong programs that you don't want or need (or already have). Sometimes this includes spyware. So your best option is to choose the custom install and uncheck all of the boxes next to programs that have nothing to do with the software that you intend to install. In some instances the "typical" option will not install the entire program, forcing you to put the program CD into your drive to install an option upon its first use; Microsoft Office is notorious for this default option.

Reboot never

In Windows, changing just about anything in the system aside from cosmetic settings demands a restart. In the old days you could restart Windows only and save some time and trouble, but Windows XP requires you to restart the whole computer, for no other reason than extraordinarily poor design. In GNU/Linux, unless you're installing a new kernel, you can simply log out of your user account, then log back in and expect all previously applied changes to take effect -- no restart necessary.

In general it is not a good idea to mess with a stable system. If it works, leave it alone. Restarting your computer is forcing the operating system to abandon its previously stable condition in favor of a new initialization. How many times have you restarted your working Windows machine only to discover that something has gone wrong and now you can't boot? Before I stopped using Windows, that happened to me on a regular basis -- at least once every three months.

On a more basic level, it is not good for your hardware to keep turning it on and off; a power cycle puts an enormous amount of thermal stress on your computer. Resetting it isn't as bad, but you're still putting your hard drive and optical drive through the spin cycle, and every electronic component is being taken from a comfortable operating level to a state of chaos. Every time you start or restart your computer you've shortened its life in some way. The same applies to all electric and electromechanical devices. And that brings us to another point that Dvorak missed about hardware:

Windows crashes more as it gets older

Dvorak says that computers will become more unstable as they get older. With cheap mass-market hardware, a la Packard Bell, eMachines, Dell, and Gateway, this is inevitable. You paid $499 for it -- how long did you expect it to last? Even your LCD monitor has a life expectancy because of the CCFL backlight tube, which usually has a brightness half-life of either 20,000 (if you bought a cheap or old model) or 50,000 (if you shelled out the big bucks for a modern one) hours. That's between roughly two and five years, and again, turning it on and off isn't any better than leaving it on.

Hardware components that see a lot of thermal stress -- capacitors in particular -- also have a limited life expectancy, and your motherboard is riddled with them. Your CMOS battery should last a good 3 to 5 years before it needs to be replaced -- assuming it can be replaced on cheaper systems.

So yes, computer hardware is not built to last forever, and the mass-market crap that the big retailers sell for rock-bottom prices is more prone to premature failure due to a lower standard of manufacturing. It's apparently more profitable to sell a ton of cheap systems that have a 6% failure rate than it is to sell fewer machines that are more expensive and use quality hardware with a less than 1% failure rate. But if you really want to buy a reliable, upgradeable, high-quality, high-performance computer system, Alienware can usually be trusted with that task. You can also usually find a local computer store that can build you a better system than Dell or Gateway, but it's totally hit-or-miss with small businesses -- some use El Cheapo parts from top to bottom and constantly fight with customers on warranty issues, and others rely on quality parts to keep customer service issues to a minimum.

But I don't think that's what John was talking about. I know Windows well, and the Blue Screen Of Death and I have dueled many a time over the years. The life expectancy of a Windows XP installation is directly dependent on on how you use it and how many programs you try to install, reinstall, or deinstall. Eventually Windows Update will kill your installation too -- just give it time. Don't blame this on user error, because we're supposed to install security updates, remove spyware that is installed by default application installations, and install new software when we need it. Such is Windows, and Windows is not known for its long-term stability.

Each new version of Windows demands more system resources

Dvorak says that the minimum requirements are never enough to really use a program, and that four times the minimum is more realistic if you want to get any work done. In Windows, he's exactly right. But with GNU/Linux, an older, slower system with less hard drive space and less RAM can easily provide a speedier user environment -- and no, I'm not talking about only using the CLI. A lightweight window manager like Fluxbox or IceWM can be the basis for a usable and responsive desktop environment where you can expect to run an email program, a Web browser, a word processor, even an image editor without waiting forever for them to load. GNU/Linux simply has lower overhead if you've configured it properly. The big commercial distributions like SUSE Linux take up a decent amount of system resources, but they also have a lot of helpful services running in the background that can be disabled, so it's not truly a matter of inherently poor resource management.

GNU/Linux goes beyond the minimums; you can get distributions that are made specifically for older or slower hardware, or you can get a decent community distribution like Slackware and customize it to be as robust or as lean as you want. Windows, again, gives too much power and not enough at the same time: while users can deselect some programs that are installed by default, they can't modify and streamline the basic parts of the operating system. You also can't remove integral components that make the system insecure, such as the Windows Messenger Service and Internet Explorer.

Upgrades help when you're using older software

Dvorak says that upgrades are useless, that they cause more problems than they fix. In the Windows world this is often true -- as mentioned above, Windows Update can make your operating system unusable by messing with your drivers or installing updates that hurt more than they help. But I think what he's talking about is purchasing an upgrade to an expensive proprietary software package like Microsoft Office.

Who is Dvorak kidding? People don't buy Microsoft Office -- they pirate (arrr!) it. Dvorak doesn't buy software either -- companies give it to him to review and use. Businesses buy Microsoft Office, and they usually don't upgrade unless they are forced to. This is a problem that Microsoft is desperately trying to solve; there are many corporations and small/medium businesses out there that are still using Office 97 and have no good reason to spend money on an upgrade to Office System 2003, which offers no advantage over Office 97 for the kind of work they're doing.

But who in their right mind is going to buy Microsoft Office for home use, let alone an upgrade? If people need Office, they usually borrow a copy from work or from a friend and pirate (avast ye!) it. That's right, I said it, and I've said it before -- home users pirate (yo ho!) software that they can't afford, and they don't care about license agreements. This means that they're usually stuck with whatever they could get their hands on; to them, upgrades are truly useless because all they needed in the first place was Microsoft Word to write a school paper.

But that's probably not what Dvorak meant when he said that upgrades are useless. He probably meant that the Windows software market has stagnated to such a degree that upgrades to programs like Microsoft Word, Macromedia Dreamweaver, and Adobe Photoshop are a ridiculous proposition. They're basically selling you a slightly different GUI theme and a handful of features that do nothing remotely useful. That's why free software is so nice; once it has reached a point where it doesn't need anything more, it goes into maintenance mode. If developers want to add features after that, they can make their own custom forks to the project and add features to their heart's content. Since free software projects don't need to continually think of reasons to sell another version, they don't need to bloat their applications into oblivion.

The world is bigger than what you see through Windows

Saying that the above problems are inherent to all of desktop computing is like saying that pollution is a problem inherent to creating electricity. Just like there are other, cleaner ways to produce electric power than burning coal, there are other, cleaner ways to use your computer than using Windows. The catch is, if you work in a coal mine all day you'd never explore energy creation solutions that involve wind and water; if you work with nothing but Windows -- indeed if your career is writing about Windows issues -- then you're not going to think about such a radical solution as switching to GNU/Linux.

I don't need to reset my computer when I install new software, and my systems never crash. Nor do I accept program defaults or deny myself upgrades when I need better functionality or interoperability with other programs, and I don't have to worry about reinstalling my operating system in order to fix mystery problems that just suddenly appear due to a shoddy update service. A more concise way of putting it is, I don't run Windows. Good luck, John -- you're going to need it.

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, editor-in-chief of The Jem Report, and a contributing editor for OSTG.

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