October 9, 2003

A week of Windows

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

We see dozens of 'Migrating from Windows to Linux' stories that talk about features Windows users miss when they switch, but we rarely see articles about moving from Linux to Windows, and what kind of pain that can cause. I hadn't used Windows for more than an hour or two at a time since 1998, so I decided I was as qualified as anyone else to write about moving from desktop Linux to desktop Windows. I have now used Windows for an entire week. This story marks the end of that week, and I'm glad it's over.

First, a question: What's up with all this "Ctrl C" and Ctrl V" copy/paste stuff? In almost all Linux programs, when I want to copy a block of text (or a graphic or whatever) I just highlight the original, then click both mouse buttons (or the middle button if I have a 3-button mouse) where I want to paste it. This is fast, easy, and takes little hand motion on my laptop keyboard. All this Ctrl key action slows me down. I don't know about the rest of the world, but I need to work quickly if I want to earn a living, and I don't see why Windows wants me to go through all those extra hand motions just to paste a URL into a story. Geh.

Anyway, on with the article.

I've happily used SuSE 8.2 since it first came out. My Windows testbed is XP Pro, which came with my Toshiba Satellite laptop and has sat unused on its hard drive for many months.

The first thing that happened after I fired up Windows XP is that it virtually ordered me to download a series of patches. I did so, but it wasn't like a SuSE update where you see every patch available and can say "yes" or "no" to each one if you like. The Windows update process told me nothing except that it was happening, and that I needed to reboot when it was over. A Windows-using friend said, "Yes, that's the way it works, and if you don't do the updates your computer keeps annoying you, so you have to do them even if they take hours like they sometimes do."

Okay.

This update -- whatever it was -- took just under an hour to download and install. Then I started to set up some software.

It seems Windows, unlike most commercial Linux distributions, doesn't come with office and other productivity software. You need to buy or otherwise obtain and install your own. Luckily I had a StarOffice CD around that had both the Linux and Windows versions on it, so I slapped that CD in the drive and had myself an office suite in just a few minutes. The installation process was neither harder nor easier than in Linux (except for the fact that most Linux distribution CDs include either StarOffice or Openffice so you don't need to go through this procedure at all), so this was not a problem.

StarOffice seems to work just about the same in Windows as in Linux. My learning curve was zero. Good.

Next I decided to install an IRC program. I'm a longtime XChat user in Linux, but I noticed that the Windows version of this fine program was shown as 'experimental' on the XChat site, and that most Windows users I know use mIRC, so I decided to be mainstream and run mIRC.

Once again, the software download and install was as easy as I've come to expect from a modern Linux distribution. Indeed, it was slightly faster since I didn't need to type in my root password to make the installation happen, but I think this lack of security for software installation may be one of the causes of the hidden spyware problems I keep reading about Windows users having, so I'm not sure saving the work of typing "***********" into a little box when you want to install or update a program is worth the security risk it causes.

First really rude surprise: mIRC costs $20. It isn't free like XChat. Supposedly you get a free 30 day trial, but my copy started blinking "your evaluation time is up" each time I started it after the 3rd day. Apparently the mIRC developers have a slight math problem. Not only that, I found the program much harder to use and less intuitive than XChat. Even after a week, I still haven't figured out how to add a new network to it easily, a function that is simple as pie in XChat.

Given a choice, I'd rather pay for XChat than for mIRC. It's better software. (Note to XChat developer Peter Zelezny: If you're reading this, and you want me to send you $20, just say the word. Or I'll buy you a beer or 5 at the next conference we both attend. Either one is fine with me.)

Four awful hours with Microsoft Internet Explorer

One program that does come with Windows XP Pro is a Web browser called 'Microsoft Internet Explorer.' I have heard that over 90% of all Web-connected people in the world use this browser, but I find this hard to believe. It doesn't have the tabbed browser feature that makes work-related research (and pleasure reading) such a pleasure in Mozilla, Opera, and other modern browsers.

Those of you who haven't tried this Explorer thing probably think I'm lying about this, but I'm not. Seriously, your only choices when you open a new page in Explorer are to either replace the page you're looking at or to open a new browser window. You can't line up a whole row of pages from Salon or NewsForge or Slashdot or whatever publication you read daily and click from one to the other, starting with the one that loaded first and moving on to new pages as they load and display.

Those Microsoft people need to get on the stick with Explorer. This lack of tabbed browsing is simply not acceptable. There is no good excuse in this day and age for distributing a browser that doesn't have this fine feature. Explorer simply won't be ready for the desktop until it has it.

Another problem I noticed with Explorer is something called "popup ads." Apparently a lot of Web sites have these things and something related called "popunders" that also open browser windows you don't ask to open. Apparently many Explorer users dislike this feature so much that they are willing to pay for software to shut it off. Why people will pay to have Explorer's popup feature shut off instead of simply downloading free Mozilla and clicking on a couple of little boxes to decide what they will allow Web servers to do to their browser windows escapes me. Mozilla is just as easy to install on Windows as it is on Linux (and once again, in the Windows version no 'root' password is needed).

Any Windows user who goes on using Explorer after he or she learns that Mozilla is available is a masochist who should seek immediate psychiatric help -- in my non-medical opinion, anyway.

My experiment with Microsoft Internet Explorer ended after about 4 hours, including the time it took to download Mozilla. I promised to try Windows for a whole week, not to torture myself with a bad browser, and since I work on the Internet all day long, the browser is my single most critical application. I'm sorry, someone else is going to have to furnish a more complete review of this Explorer thing. I don't have any more time (or heart) to mess with it.

I even tried Outlook Express

This experiment lasted less than 1/2 hour. I downloaded 2 'passes' worth of email and had to wade through over 200 spams to read 3 useful emails. I (heart) Mozilla's Bayesian spam filters. I will no longer use an email program that doesn't have fast, automatic, easy-to-use spam filtering.

Forget the endless worm and virus problems that plague Outlook and Outlook Express. While they're enough in and of themselves to turn any sane person away from this pair of email programs, the spam thing makes them totally and completely useless. Yes, I know there are lots of server tricks I could use (and lots of proprietary spam blocker programs I could buy), but again the question is, "Why bother when Mozilla is free and does just what I need?"

I'm sure there's an answer to this question, and it's probably, "Because my moron boss runs Microsoft Exchange servers and we have to use Outlook with them." Fine. But just because your boss is a moron doesn't mean you need to be one at home. Unless you have a tiny penis and/or breasts, want to look at lots of porn, need a new mortgage to finance Viagra purchases, and love to help Nigerians (and others) con you out of your hard-earned, you should get rid of Outlook or Outlook Express NOW and get a sensible email program, hopefully one like Mozilla that has easy-to-configure spam filtering built in.

Please don't argue with me about this. I don't get paid a percentage for each (free) Mozilla download this article generates. I'm telling you to dump Outlook for your own good. Really.

Other software

My computer use is pretty boring. I do research on the Internet, I type notes from phone interviews, I sometimes log IRC or IM chats and use them as the basis for stories, I listen to a little (legal) online music, I write stories and post them here on NewsForge or wherever, and I slap together a simple Web page or two now and then. I usually have a book project going in the background, but StarOffice handles that sort of thing just fine. I run maybe 5 or 6 spreadsheets a month and make maybe 5 or 6 new slide presentations per year, but these, too, are StarOffice tasks no matter what operating system I use.

I use AIM (or GAIM). Once again, not enough difference between Windows or Linux to be worth noting.

My copy of Windows XP Pro seems to have a program included with it called 'Windows Messenger' that, as far as I can tell, is some sort of ad delivery mechanism. I haven't figured out how to turn it off. It is very annoying. Linux doesn't have anything like this program, or if it does I've never installed or used it. In any case, I lived for many years without being bombarded by 'Windows Messenger' ads that pop up in the middle of whatever I'm trying to do, and I won't miss them when I go back to Linux.

I'm writing this story in a decent little free (as in beer) Windows-only text/HTML editor called NoteTab Light. Back when I dropped Windows in favor of Linux, this was the Windows program I missed most. Now Bluefish is better than NoteTab -- and Bluefish isn't available for Windows.

The Gimp, StarOffice, and Xpaint handle my simple graphics needs. Recent versions of StarOffice even make business card, newslatter, and letterhead 'office' printing layouts easy, which eliminates my once-felt need for Windows-only PrintMaster.

I am not a computer game person, so the existence (or lack) of particular game titles in a particular operating system does not affect me at all.

Basically, I want my computer to be a simple, rapid, and reliable work tool. Windows does a lot of little things that either slow me down (like the Ctrl C/Ctrl V thing) or bollix me. The bollixers apparently don't just affect me. Even PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak, as Windows-locked a person as you will find, sees the same problems I'm having after (now) 2 rounds of XP patches.

I am glad I am not John Dvorak. He is apparently stuck with Windows for life. For me, it's only a one-week problem.

Some nice things about Windows XP

I haven't had XP Pro crash on me all week in the old 'blue screen of death sense,' which is a big improvement over Windows 98, although I've had some of the slowdowns and 'idle time' problems Dvorak mentions.

I suppose, if I needed (and wanted to pay for) hundreds of little specialty programs to do hundreds of special little things, I would like Windows more than I do. I would like to have a better 'simple' graphics manipulation program for Linux than any I've tried so far. There are several commercial ones coming soon, and I'm eager to try them. I would like to see a Linux version of Paint Shop Pro, but I doubt that it's going to happen soon. And right now, there isn't anything truly equivalent in Linux to Quark or Photoshop. But I see plenty of Linux development activity in the graphics software area (both commercial and free), so this complaint won't last. But right now it's a real factor for Windows users considering a total switch to Linux.

There is no doubt about the fact that Windows has more applications available for it than Linux does. You can debate the value of all those applications forever without coming to any sane conclusion. I'm generally satisfied with what's available to me in Linux, but I recognize that others may not be, any more than they would be satisfied driving an old but reliable pickup truck instead of a low-slung, zoomy sports car with all kinds of fancy power accessories.

If you are as locked to Windows as poor Dvorak for some reason, and you are still running 95, 95 or ME, you should get XP. It's much better than previous versions. In fact, it seems nearly as reliable as Linux.

Silly little Linux features I've missed

The bottom panel on my KDE desktop is filled with icons for my 'daily use' applications. No matter how covered my screen is with applications windows (and it is almost always fully covered), I can click on a panel icon and open a new app. I haven't figured out how to put app icons on the Windows bottom panel. I don't even know if it can be done. Perhaps it can only be done by smart Windows geeks, but not by simple-minded Linux people like me.

When I want to find out the day and date, or check a date a few months ahead, I'm used to clicking on my little KDE clock and having a calendar pop up for me. I can't seem to do this in Windows, even though I've tried. Again, this may be a feature only super-geeks can can use in Windows that is hidden from us ordinary desktop people.

This Windows thing about needing special drivers for every bit of hardware is irksome. Setting up a wireless network card in Windows is tedious compared to Linux, where it's a 'click-click-click and you're done' thing. And in Windows, if I plug in my Linksys PCMCIA card instead of my SMC one by mistake, nada. In Linux either one will work (since I have models that have similar chipsets). In general, I find it easier to add or remove hardware pieces or peripherals in Linux than it seems to be in Windows.

(I will note here that I make sure that all hardware I buy is Linux-compatible. Some Windows users seem to think this is a big deal, but it's no harder than making sure you don't try to use a Mac-only board in a Windows computer. Common sense!)

Sympathy for Windows users scared of switching

One thing I've gotten out of this last week is a new appreciation for Windows users' fears of switching from their familiar proprietary applications to new open source ones, let alone to Linux itself.

We humans are creatures of habit. We're used to having action 'A' happen when we click button 'B' or type command 'C.' When we type command 'C' and action 'D' happens instead of 'A' like we expected, we need to pause and think for a moment.

Those moments add up, and habits take a while to break.

After a full week of Windows use, for instance, I still try to simply highlight and click to copy URLs and bits of text instead of going through the Ctrl key routine. I'm sure desktop Windows users have many similar, small habits they need to break when they switch to Linux.

All I can say to people in the process of moving from Windows to Linux and struggling to change their near-instinctive finger motion patterns is, "At least you're going from Windows to Linux, not the other way around."

And to those poor souls who must use Windows forever, either for job reasons or because there is a Windows app they simply must have that isn't available for Linux and won't work through either Wine or Win4Lin, all I can really say is, "I feel your pain."

Believe me, after this week, I truly do.

My heart goes out to Windows, Outlook, and Explorer users all over the world, and I would like all Linux users to please start showing our poor, Microsoft-locked friends and coworkers as much sympathy as possible.

Lord knows, they deserve it.

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