The Truth is Out There…

The Truth is Out There…

As I write this column I’m sitting in the back seat of my Renault Laguna traveling from Marida, the capital of Extremadora, a Spanish province north of Seville, headed towards Elvas, a small medieval walled town in eastern Portugal. Marida was worth a visit because it contains one of the best preserved Roman theaters in Spain and a superb museum that displays many of the artifacts from Roman times. My enthusiasm for these historic sites was tempered to an extent by a mosaic that depicted a gladiator being mauled by a lion. It made me wonder what kind of monsters these Romans were that they could take pleasure from these “games.” A Jewish friend explained that they did not view slaves as human and so therefore never recognized any ethical dilemma. Of course, he explained this with a sense of considerable irony, condemning not only the Romans and the Nazis, but also all humanity.
Earlier visits to the battlefields at Verdun, the war cemeteries in Normandy, sites of the Spanish Inquisition, and the concentration camp at Dachau had convinced me that evil and stupidity reside like a dormant computer virus in almost every political endeavor. It only takes a whiff of prejudice, a scent of power, or the smell of money to set the virus off, and then virtually anything can happen.

Not long ago, the favorite pastime in the computer press was “Apple bashing.” For years, it seemed that no matter how many exciting technologies were churned out by Apple R&D, the press focused only on bad business decisions. Certainly, Apple made some serious mistakes. The Wall Street Journal, for example, called Apple’s failure to license the Mac OS one of the biggest business blunders of the 20th Century. Apple was brash and Apple was cocky and the company’s installed base was almost fanatically loyal. The press loved to attack because criticizing Apple sold papers or magazines. The attacks themselves often became news items and thus sources for justifying still more Apple bashing. It got so out of hand that it became difficult to separate the carping from the legitimate criticism.

The reason why I remind you of those dark days is that somehow the worm has turned and Microsoft and Bill Gates are now everyone’s target. Don’t get me wrong. Microsoft deserves legitimate criticism for a wide range of bad decisions from its misuse of monopoly power to its release of beta quality system software, but now I feel there is way too much demonizing of the company. I know Mac users who refer to the use of Microsoft products as working on “the dark side.” In my humble opinion, that’s over the top.

Arguably, the two most important software applications ever written for the personal computer are Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. Microsoft developed both of these applications from the ground up. Word was released for the Macintosh shortly after the Mac was introduced in 1984 and has evolved into a state of the art word processor. Excel grew out of the merger of Microsoft Chart and Microsoft Multiplan, and the sum was much greater than the parts: Excel redefined what we mean by a spreadsheet. Both Word and Excel played critical roles in the success of the Macintosh.

In past columns, I’ve written at some length about Microsoft misusing its marketing weight by bundling these products with PowerPoint, pricing the new Microsoft Office to discourage the purchase of stand alone applications, and virtually destroying several competitors. From one perspective, the result has been to stifle innovation rather than encourage it, and for that I roundly condemn Bill Gates and Microsoft.

On the other hand, you have to admire the company. Integrating Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (however loosely) was a work of genius and the truth is that no competitor came close to offering a comparable product. Thus, from another perspective, I have condemned Microsoft for simply being successful.

And what of Bill Gates, the man who some Mac zealots love to hate? Gates has personally contributed over twenty-one billion dollars to a charitable foundation that is attempting to redress some of the inequalities in health care between the third world and the industrialized world. If that does not fit with the characterization of Gates as a greedy, power-hungry despot, please remember that the press serves up caricatures of celebrities that often have little basis in fact. You will recall that Mr. Jobs was once demonized as well, and only recently has become the flavor of the month.

From Elvas, we spent a long day on the road driving to Tomar, a medieval town Northeast of Lisbon. On the way, we stopped at Fatima; the site where some Catholics (including the Pope) believe the Blessed Virgin appeared to some peasant children back in 1917. Today, there is a beautiful church there to commemorate this miracle. Whether you’re a believer or not, you can’t help but be impressed with the sincerity of the “pilgrims” who visit the area with many literally walking on their knees the hundred or so yards from the site of the “visitation” to the church. Though I may not buy into the dogma, sharing the experience with the believers was a humbling experience that provided some insight into my own, perhaps, parochial definition of reality.

There are few absolute truths in the universe, but this is one of them: there are few absolute truths in the universe. Yet, there are those that, because of religious or political beliefs, will even dispute this. With truth so nebulously defined, it is no wonder that we have wars, crime, greed, and the Windows operating system. The technical problems with Windows may seem pretty insignificant when talking about religion, reality, and absolute truth, but the fact is that increasingly many people view the world through their connection to the Internet. As Marshall McLuhan might suggest, your viewpoint is massaged to some extent by the medium you employ, and for millions of users that means Microsoft Windows.

In that light, it’s important to delineate exactly what is wrong with Windows and to do so without taking “cheap shots” or wantonly “bashing” Microsoft. The following top ten reasons for not buying a Windows machine are based upon years of experience installing, maintaining, and using various versions of the Windows operating system:

10. All versions of Windows contain too many errors. Microsoft spokespersons claim that software by definition is an inexact science. As a former programming teacher, I submit that is a load of hooey. In its inimitable style, the company has tried to redefine software to include a blanket justification for its incompetence.

9. The reason why Microsoft publishes flawed versions of its operating system is that it makes the company loads of money. Duh. No kidding. The sooner the company can get an OS out the door, the sooner the cash flow begins. Hardware companies scramble to add more memory, faster processors, and bigger hard drives, while software developers (including Microsoft) publish new versions of their applications that (guess what?) will only work on the new OS. The cycle is regenerated and everyone rakes in the dough… except the poor users who inevitably get caught in the trap.

8. The service pack approach to publishing software is based on false advertising. Microsoft never tells you up front that its operating system software doesn’t work properly. Instead, the company publishes a series of “free” service packs that users are expected to download to fix the problems. Knowing that there will soon be another service pack available is supposed to overcome the cognitive dissonance that results from the frequent, inane error messages that appear on your brand new PC.

7. The service pack approach to publishing software also causes enormous inconvenience to the users. The Windows NT systems in our schools, for example, are now running Service Pack 5. That means that someone had to install at least five upgrades on each of the four or five thousand PCs. That’s really just the beginning of the problem, as some of the service packs created incompatibilities with third party software and hardware and required still more downloads of new drivers and the like. Welcome to the Microsoft party!

6. The Windows NT/2000 operating system with its multi-user facilities is unsuited for multiple users. That is, though there’s an elaborate security system designed to protect the various desktops, each desktop is actually vulnerable to changes made by other users. In fact, workstation software can be destroyed inadvertently or intentionally—and often is. The station’s disk and CD drives serve as open wounds, inviting users to install non-compatible software or to unknowingly transmit viruses.

5. Windows is too complex an operating system for users to install, upgrade, or maintain. By attempting to provide ultimate flexibility with the Windows registry, the company has introduced an operating system with virtually no flexibility. That is, the registry is so prohibitively complex that no one tries to edit it. Though Windows control panels can be used to make higher level changes, many of these include dialog boxes that are virtually indecipherable for the average user.

4. Windows users often are punished for attempting to install new software or hardware, or simply “exploring their world.” If you attempt to upgrade your version of Windows, install incompatible software or hardware, or make the wrong choice in a control panel, you may generate a persistent error message or even destroy your system software. The choice to restore your operating system from a CD is a perilous one, as you may not only lose hours of your work, but even more hours lost on the re-installation/stabilization.

3. The evolution from Windows 95 to Windows 98 to Windows ME and Windows NT 4 to Windows 2000 has plunged users into an ocean of complexity that involves upgrading hardware, software, and, of course, training. In contrast, the Mac Operating System has seamlessly moved from System 7 to 8 to 9 and Apple has made a major effort to ensure backward compatibility with new hardware or software releases.

2. Intel Benchmarks provide almost no intelligible forecast of how fast various versions of Windows will work. The new “barn-burning” 1 Gigahertz Intel chips serve up Windows error messages faster than ever before, but how do you measure the speed of recovery from a “Missing DLL” or “Device not found” or “Memory conflict at XXXXXX” error message?

1. Finally, the top reason for not buying a Windows machine: because it’s not a Macintosh! That is, the Mac OS retreats into the background and delivers application power, while Windows is always in your face. Though practically all major programs are available on both platforms, the Macintosh experience makes you look forward to using your computer. Windows, in contrast, provides a tool that you use because you have no other choice.

The castle in Tomar was built in 1160 by Gualdim Pais, master of the Templars in Portugal and at about the same time the city of Tomar was founded. From this large castle, the Templars, a group of Christian Knights, rode out to fight against the Moors. When the Order of Templars was dissolved by the Catholic Church, the Order of Christ was founded and the new order eventually made Tomar their headquarters. Prince Henry the Navigator served as governor of the order and lived in Tomar for some years.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the patio of the Dos Templars Hotel, which overlooks the castle, the local river, and a park. The views are incredible; the hotel is gorgeous; and so I’m sure that my wife will want to move on to something more rustic tomorrow. Prince Henry is particularly interesting because he’s one of the first historical characters that overtly recognized the value of “downloading” information. He commissioned a number of excursions to unknown areas of the globe with the understanding that upon their return, the ships’ captains would present the Prince’s “academy” with a detailed map of the voyage. Henry recognized that knowledge was power and therefore compiled some of the most accurate navigation tools of the 15th century. This inaugurated a commercial revolution that eventually positioned Portugal as one of the most extensive empires in the world.

Knowledge, of course, still remains as a source of power in the 21st century. While the quality of the information has always been an issue, the difference now is quantity. Our goal is to validate data, process it, and act on it. The truth is out there; our first task is to find it!

Processing information requires software tools, and one of the most powerful just got a lot cheaper. Deneba recently announced Canvas 7 SE (Standard Edition) for $99.95. Briefly, Canvas 7 is a multi-platform graphics suite that includes facilities for image editing (scanned images and digital photos), drawings (vector mapped images), and text, along with facilities for page layout, web publishing, and presentations. The boxed price noted above also includes some 500 fonts and over 10,000 pieces of clip art. You can also download a barer bones version of the software for just $85. The new pricing scheme should particularly appeal to schools and home users. (For a detailed review of Canvas 7, please see the March issue of My Mac Magazine.)

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