Friday, 25 January 2008

A worrying vista

Curiously enough for a blog, I don’t often talk about technology. After all, rumour has it that we blog writers are technology freaks: at best geeks, if not nerds. Anyway, in addition to many good things this week (the next generation down for a wet weekend, generally keeping ahead of work and students and even a few hours of sun), I have been also trying to make the most of my new Vista-equipped Dell computer.

In theory, it is a bit of a beast: 3Gb of RAM, fast Core2Duo 2.66 GHz chip, pretty reasonable graphics card and 22 inch monitor. All ought to be sweetness and light after my rather elderly machine running Windows XP. And don’t get me wrong: most of the time it looks wonderful, and acts wonderful. But I worry about what I see.

The main thing is that operating system has become so vast as to become almost incomprehensible. When I first started using PCs 22 years ago, I used to worry that there were files in MS-DOS that I didn’t know what they did. Then with Windows 95 I was concerned about the subdirectories that I didn’t know what they did. Now, with Vista, I worry about entire directories (occupying tens of megabytes) that I have not the slightest idea what they do.

Here Mr Gates might say, ‘Chris, that’s the price you pay for full stability. Ignorance is the price of bliss.’ Well, I might believe that if I felt I knew what Microsoft is doing. But clearly, it doesn’t. So, for instance, I have cancelled the automatic download of security updates because every day Vista downloads a 5.4 Mb Security Update (KB927978 for those who are interested) and then tries to install it when I try and shut down. But it never fully manages to do this, and so repeats the procedure. Every day. At this rate, my hard disk will be filled with useless security updates. The only way round seems to be to switch off the automatic download so that I get a little red cross in the corner to nag me that my security system is deficient.

As someone who has an environmental commitment I am also irritated by the fact that Vista seems to prefer that you put it in sleep mode rather than switch off mode. The naughty thought comes to me that this is to make the machine appear faster than it really is; it is pretty slow to start up (yes, I have removed most of the superfluous programs that it came installed with). The machine is also prone to long periods of doing nothing. I gather I am not alone in experiencing these things.

This is the point at which I expect the great army of Mac lovers to leap in and say ‘Yes! You should have bought a Mac.’ Well, I have a Macbook, and it’s good but it’s not perfect. Leopard shouldn’t have been released in the buggy form that it was and I also think that the Mac operating system seems to be heading very much to the state that Windows has already reached, of ever greater complexity and ever greater incomprehensibility. Anyway there are so many programs that I need Windows for. (Except of course that I have had to reinstall – and in some cases repurchase – programs in order to get them to work on Vista.)

The whole trend towards bloated and inscrutable software troubles me. It is probably not an original thought that operating systems are like religions. They are there to lead you to God and not get in the way. Vista reminds me of the worst sort of high church ritual; glorious to behold, completely incomprehensible, encrusted with all sorts of completely over-the-top additions, and ultimately, largely unnecessary. I have a determined Protestant desire not to be fobbed off with the pompous, the irrelevant and the bloated. I just want the job done quickly and securely. Let’s have a computer Reformation!