Gadgets, Tech

Disks to Downloads, DOS to Dust

Storage

Image by succo from Pixabay

This is another of my “young ‘uns today don’t know how lucky they are” articles, cue the wavy picture and harp music…

When I started with computers you didn’t install anything, nothing had any permanent storage to speak of and software had to be loaded from a cassette or floppy disk every time it was used, as such task switching, a matter of a fraction of a second now involved making a mug of tea.

Move on to the nineties and PCs had gained hard drives and Windows but there were still computers such as Amstrad’s PCW that had a one-at-a-time way of working, the operating system came with whatever you were running because at that time it was what was called a Disk Operating System (DOS), hence MS-DOS. A DOS had a command line into which you typed commands to copy files, delete them, format disks, and other functions. There were reference wheels and cards for all these now archaic commands, I still have mine, unsurprisingly, and if you look you can still find them in Windows though strangely the commandline now runs inside Windows whereas once Windows ran from the commandline.  

Anyway, because PCs, unlike other computers with a specific operating system written for its fixed set of components, have a multitude of differing hardware the OS had to be tailored to each computer and so came along device drivers – programs added to the OS to operate them. Windows, like all modern OSes do more than operate the disks and as such are bigger and more complicated.  Early on displays were pretty much the same and used the same convention for displaying blocks of text, the same applied to printers but soon things became more complicated and later new developments such as CD-ROM drives worked in new ways that the OS was never designed to cope with and more drivers were required. These things were a nightmare to use, you had to manually edit configuration files, decide which part of the limited memory to load the drivers into, and when larger memory became available which went far beyond what the OS originally worked in you needed drivers to operate the higher memory which you could then populate with other drivers and then also use programs that knew if the extended memory was present that they could use it, if you’d configured it correctly. Do this all wrong and nothing would work because nothing had enough memory to work.

No wonder people were terrified of computers, it seemed to be a black art. More like a pain in the art.

Somewhere I still have a copy of PC Today magazine from the middle of 1991 which featured the brand new MS-DOS 5.0 on the cover. In the days when Operating Systems came in shiny cardboard boxes with a manual that listed every command and could be repurposed as a door stop after you upgraded.

Windows improved the situation somewhat but still relied on many of the DOS drivers for CD-ROMs etc until Windows 95 and Windows NT finally relegated the old DOS to a legacy subsystem to run old software, a PC within a PC, a Virtual Machine, though the configuration files still remain for those of us who know what they mean to tweak and those who don’t to Google. As we moved into later eras through 16-bit into 32-bit so memory could just be continuous so at least one problem disappeared.

It was with joy that the time came when Windows would automatically install a new piece of hardware’s drivers from a CD-ROM, except that sometimes it would be allowed to find the drivers itself and others it had to be told where to find them, depending on what the driver and software were for. It was still a huge improvement. In pre-broadband days though you still had to do some work to install the OS. You’d install Windows on a blank PC to be confronted by default drivers which meant a screen display with huge fonts and buttons that could be seen clearly from the next room and no space on the desktop – the dreaded 640×480 resolution (my current monitor has a roomy 1440×900 pixels). From this starting point you had to install the proper video driver so you could see what you were doing, the sound card so you could hear it beeping in complaint and hear the cheery startup sound that was the first thing to find itself disabled in the settings, and anything else unusual. Often this wouldn’t go according to plan and you’d see yellow warning triangles in Device Manager and have to start again – removing and reinstalling drivers, until you had a working PC but less hair.

Today you just download a copy of the Windows 10 disk from the internet, burn it onto a DVD pop it in the drive (or use a USB stick), go into the computers BIOS (basic input/output system) settings – the only throwback to the old days – tell it to boot from the external disk and set it going. As long as you’ve provided it with an internet connection via a wireless or wired network connection it’ll install, use whatever driver it can to connect to the outside world, download all the correct drivers and a couple of hours later you’ve got a working PC. Mostly. It only needs help if you’ve got obscure or old hardware it can’t find drivers for but even then the right ones are often only a download and install away. This is all possible thanks to all the manufacturers working together to try to make the disparate bits of a Windows PC work together.

I should say at this point “other operating systems are available” but these such as the various Linux distributions are similarly streamlined these days.

Beyond the operating system installing software has become even easier, not even a disk is required – I’ve recently installed Norton Security with nothing more than a piece of cardboard with a number on it and a broadband connection.

See, not everything about the older days of computing are better, I do like some progress too. The geek in me though does miss the shiny software boxes.

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Gadgets, Tech

It’s Old And Clunky, But It Works

Some time back a customer was surprised to see some software we use which is clearly, based on its buttons and layouts, from the days of Windows 95. He was even more surprised by our MS-DOS based booking and diary system. Old it may be but I can tell you it’s much more efficient than Windows software.

Everything is done with the keyboard and once you get used to it it’s lightning-quick – use the page up and down keys to select the week, then the arrow keys to select the day, while seeing a complete overview of current bookings, then hit enter, hit insert, hit enter a few times to move to the time fields and enter them, hit F1 to go into the customers list, just start typing the name until it finds the right one, or hit insert to enter a new one. Once the customers details are in use the left and right keys to go to the notes section or the phone numbers section end enter those, select File to save it, hit Escape to go back to the diary. Everything done in seconds without even moving your hands away from the keyboard.

I’ve used Windows booking systems and the ones I’ve seen involve clicking on different tabs, moving to the right button to save, etc, etc. Like so many things the more modern (the more “feature” filled) is also less efficient.

For those of us of the DOS generation it’s perhaps why websites and apps are frustrating, because of their multitude of buttons and tabs, replacing the keyboard combinations that we used to know by heart – including the ones used in Windows such as CTRL+B for bold text, CTRL+C and CTRL+V for copy and paste, automatically hitting CTRL+S to save the document while in the middle of typing and so on, actions that became second nature, reflex actions. Admittedly many, if not most of these shortcuts still exist in modern software but so many functions require the hunting and pecking actions of mouse or touchscreen. One example in Windows is when I upload photos to Flickr I append an ” f” to the filenames and it’s much quicker than clicking each file to highlight it and then click again to put the cursor at the end to just press F2 to edit the filename, END to go to the end and then CTRL+V to paste the pre copied ” f” to the end, then hit ENTER and DOWN ARROW to the next file.

My first book was written in Protext on my old IBM 486DX PC, the one with the perfect clicky keyboard I wrote about a while back. I learned word processing using Microsoft Works on things like Amstrad 1512 PCs and similar, and indeed taught people to use these same systems later. Protext 4 was a freebie on a computer magazine in the late nineties, Works tended to be bundled with PCs back then the way a trial of Office 365 is today. It was basic in todays terms but like the appointment system it was quick and easy to use for getting words into some semblance of order. Formatting it was a different matter but as this was still the era when most choices of typefaces and emphasis (bold, italic etc) were down to what the particular printer you were using has installed it wasn’t really much of a consideration – generally the aesthetics of word-processed documents were secondary to the words.

As with so many things which become rediscovered this simplicity and efficiency in software has now, of course, become the latest big new idea in the form of distraction-free text editors that have simple, uncluttered interfaces that allow you to type words and nothing else, some even have aped the interface of old that we oh so gratefully, naively, ditched as soon as WYSIWYG appeared and even have monospaced text.

The other advantage is that simpler software has, in theory, like a basic car with less gadgets, less to go wrong or slow you down.

So, in essence, though we didn’t know it at the time, us children of the seventies were, in terms of productivity, ahead of our time, no?

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Psychology, Society, Tech

Windows 8 – A Tale of Love and Hate

Accessori Hardware mouse tastiere e webcam inn...

Accessori Hardware mouse tastiere e webcam innovative per Microsoft Windows 8 presentazione milanese press day esclusiva – 25 (Photo credit: Michele Ficara Manganelli)

Most people will by now be aware at least of Microsoft’s latest platform for playing Angry Birds on – Windows 8 – but some may not be aware of the controversy it caused.

It was a radical change in how people operated windows and this annoyed many who were familiar with the Windows 95 to Windows 7 era as gone were the familiar start button and desktop in favour of the flat, unadorned, information-heavy tiled interface. The comments weren’t simply of dislike, many they were downright venomous – from the likes of “Microsoft are idiots” to “Microsoft have killed the PC” and worse.

It’s pleasantly colourful, not garish like the Windows XP “Fisher Price” look of ten years ago.  The thing is that many of these complaints seem more about resistance to change than anything, the Start Menu alone for example – that had been made slightly redundant in Windows 7 by the ability to dock apps to the taskbar, a lot of people ran apps by hitting the Start button on the keyboard and typing the name of the app – this is how Windows 8’s start screen works by default, the only thing that’s changed is, in effect, the size of the menu which is now a screen full of information.

I remember the last time Microsoft radically changed how Windows worked – Windows 95.  The same arguments came out, “how can this Start menu replace Program Manager, how will you find programs”, “look at how much screen space the “taskbar” takes up”, “why do you press Start to shut down the computer, that’s stupid” and so on.  Ironically the new Start Screen reminds me of the old Windows 3.1 way of working more.

The flat tiled interface reflects how computers are being more familiar and how they’re used, thanks to the modern web’s design users no longer need the reassurance of buttons that look like real objects simply an area of a different colour or a label to indicate an action.  Yes Microsoft is designing to appeal to consumers but these days it has to, more computer users than ever are home users and Apple have been doing the same simplification to target the same market for years.  The difference is that whereas Apple tries to lock down parts of its operating systems so that non-technical users can’t do anything to affect the “user experience” i.e. make the product look slow or faulty, Microsoft and Google still allow tweaking if that’s your thing.

We’re seeing similar arguments about the new Xbox which is being turned into a media hub for the home rather than just a games console, there are complaints about its appearance and so on.  Many of the complainers in both cases simply don’t like the idea that the PC and the Xbox are no longer theirs, the domain of the gamers and the techies, no longer mysterious to consumers.  There’s a side issue to this feeling of ownership over an area of technology – the sometime horrific online treatment of women who play games by male gamers who think it’s not a “girl thing”, but that’s for another article.

The reasons for this change were to embrace emerging technology and ways of using it, tablets are more convenient for casual computer users so Windows needs to encompass that, though they have been trying to accomplish this for a long time without the hardware being up to the challenge.  Secondly they wanted to present a consistent look and feel across all devices so users only have to learn once, and can use the same apps on all devices and share information across them all too, once more applications start using the new interface it will become ever more familiar and usable.  Lastly the idea of the live tiles is down to this “information age” where people want all their appointments, reminders, Facebook and Twitter updates and so on up front and ready for them.  Immediacy is the key these days and Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 priorities this information while still doing so in an attractive way.

Unfortunately for the doomsayers Windows 8 has sold well, it has recieved much acclaim, people do like it because it feels like an appliance, like their phone and not like a computer as such, it reduces the fear of “pressing something and deleting everything” in inexperienced users, it’s easier to use – though admittedly you still need to learn how to use it, like anything else to a degree.

Personally I don’t need all this information in my face as soon as I switch on my PC, tablet or phone so I don’t need Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 but if my PC came with it then I’d happily use it – and yes I have tried it and I do like it.  My PC, phone and tablet all have minimal interfaces, Windows 7, Android 4, this was why I chose the Sony phone because the default homescreen is relatively scarce with just a few icons and a clock, same with the Nexus 7.  It suits the way I work with my technology but that doesn’t suit everybody.  With Windows 8 Microsoft took a brave decision to give consumers something that would suit them but didn’t suit everyone either but at least it has listened to those complaints and is tweaking it in an update due in the next couple of months to give those who don’t need or want the live tiles more control, and a start menu of sorts.

Change is inevitable for progress, sometimes it’s difficult but one day you look back to what came before and think “how did we ever make do with that?”

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