Saturday, July 19, 2014

Musings on Windows 8.1 and writing

I used to be quite the computer fundi.  I worked on mainframe systems in my much younger days, everything from operating them, to programming them, to leading a project team in systems development.  I also had exposure to minicomputers, microcomputers (what we call PC's today), the so-called 'end user computing' environment, so-called 'expert systems' (early, primitive implementations of artificial intelligence or AI), technical (military) computers and systems, and so on.  That part of my life came to an end when I changed career directions and studied for the ordained ministry, but it gave me a useful foundation in computer technology that's stood me in good stead ever since.

I've been applying that with good results until Microsoft came out with Windows 8.  The paradigm has now shifted to the point where the user interface is something I can't intuitively understand from a programming and systems point of view.  Of course, it's probably easy enough - heck, people are taking online classes in writing an 'app' (what I used to call a program) on their smart phones, so it can't be too tricky!  Even so, the underlying nature of the systems has shifted gradually over time, until we're no longer manipulating bits or bytes or fields, but rather 'objects' or 'elements', each with associated classes and properties and attributes and . . . you get the idea.  The basic elements at the bit-and-byte level aren't in the equation at all any more as far as developers are concerned.  Where I'd sometimes write an assembler routine to wring the best possible performance out of a memory-challenged computer partition by minimizing code size and maximizing efficiency, people today would laugh at the very thought.  Processor speed and memory size have grown so vastly since my early days in computers that it's almost impossible to compare common systems.  (My first work PC was an original 4.77MHz 8-bit IBM PC with 256KB memory and two 320K - not the later 360K - 5¼" floppy disk drives.  It was considered 'state-of-the-art'.  Today it's hard to find any system starting with less than a gigabyte of memory, and floppy disk drives haven't been made for years . . . )

Today I began setting up a new laptop computer.  Miss D. and I bought matching ones from the local outlet of Consumer Depot.  I have to give them a serious shout-out:  they had outstandingly good prices on reasonably well-equipped refurbished laptops, the salesperson knew what he was talking about and could answer my questions, and they took time and trouble to show us the options that were available.  We bought our systems for at least $250 less (each) than I've been able to find comparable computers anywhere else, and so far they're running just fine.  We'll be shopping there again.

The process of setting them up is reinforcing to me how my knowledge of modern user interfaces needs to be updated.  I've always loathed Windows 8.1 on my desktop computer.  It's a very clunky interface when used with a mouse and keyboard.  I keep it only because it's what came with my desktop system, and changing it would be more of a pain than working around its limitations (which I do by booting into desktop mode, using a Start menu clone, and working as if it were a Windows 7 machine).  However, on a touchscreen laptop with sufficient memory and processor performance to make it fly, Windows 8.1 presents an entirely different and much more useful interface.  I'm reluctantly being forced to admit that I need to move away from my technological-dinosaur past and learn to live with the new generation of software . . . even if that does mean mastering a steep and sometimes frustrating learning curve.

I can't help but think back wistfully to my assembler language coding days.  If we'd had available then the sort of computing horsepower that's taken for granted today, would we have bothered to code so efficiently at the bit-and-byte level?  Or would we have grown lazy and said, "Never mind efficiency - we've got processor power and memory to burn!"  Methinks we'd have followed the latter course, even though my old-timer's computer brain sometimes curses modern programmers for the sloppiness of their work.  I suppose that also shows in the way I write my books.  I come from a little after the 'Golden Age' of SF, when the trinity of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein dominated and many of the edgier modern themes hadn't even been invented.  I guess I still write accordingly.  Fortunately, a lot of you seem to like it that way!  I'm sometimes accused of writing stilted dialog;  but it's not really stilted - just 'different' to modern ears.  I talk that way, too.  It's partly the result of a classical education and a background in classical SF, and partly because I think and write in English-English rather than American-English.  (Miss D. teases me a lot about that.)

Oh, well.  I suppose I'm still an unrepentant dinosaur in many ways . . . but if Miss D. loves me like that, and you like my writing and occasional rants like that, I guess I can live with it!



Francis W. Porretto said...

Concerning Win8.1's user interface, the fundamental shift is a philosophical one: the shift away from the computer as a tool for the development and employment of programs to the computer as convenience and entertainment center. This is proving to be a serious marketing error.

Serious work is badly impeded by Win 8.1's UI. Programmers instinctively recoil from it. So do most other persons who have computers on their desks at work. Indeed, the reaction against it by the bulk of Microsoft's market segment has been so violent that the company has already announced that Win9 will be delivered within a year, and that it will not impose the Win8 interface willy-nilly on the user.

The "New Coke" experience of Win8 should stand as a lesson to businesses of all sorts: Know what your customers are doing and intend to do with your product, and don't presume to inflict your preferences or fads on them!

Noons said...

Hopefully Windows 9 will have a sane interface for folks who actually want to use a computer for work instead of for "social media".
I've completely moved to Virtualbox hosted in Linux, with a vanilla Win7 VM inside it. Works fine and is as close to something I can easily use as it gets.
I do use my computers to do mostly photo scanning and digital video and photo processing. There is no way that sort of work can be done with a "swipe" based UI. And "Instagram" and other such are NOT an alternative!

Sunnybrook Farm said...

Win 3.1 Good
Win 95 Pain
Win 98 Good
Win ME Pain
Win XP Good
Win Vista Pain
Win 7 Good
Win 8 Pain
Win 9 ?
This is not some polling that I took but just from remarks that I hear from a lot of people, you can see the trend. MS keeps wanting to go in the wrong direction but every time the buyers drag them back to something usable. I am guessing that Win 9 will be a usable product based on the past.

Old NFO said...

Being a dinosaur is NOT a bad thing... Just sayin... :-)

B.S. philosopher said...

FWIW, Windows 7 OEM installation packages are still available from places like Newegg.

Dump Windows 8.

emdfl said...

I'd argue that win7 was hardly good. I replaced XP with 7 on my spare desktop and just put the machine away after waiting 10-15 minutes several times for the damn thing to come up. And that's not counting the times that it just froze in the middle of my doing something. Understand that all I do is websurf and email. So sorry, AFAIC the geeks at window f****d up as usual with 7.

Anonymous said...

Peter, the problem with bloated code is that the "programmers" do not write code, they use a program to generate (not even compile) the code. And, yes, I know of what I speak - I still have the "start deck" from the IBM 1620 that I began my computing on. I dropped out when Clipper became the way to program. Now I putz with Linux, primarily some of the varieties of Debian.

Ritchie said...

Realize that the mouse interface is a remote touchscreen, already a contradiction, and now you've come full circle.

clark myers said...

"Never mind efficiency....." Define efficiency - from the days of turning in a deck for overnight runs and picking up the printout the next day for debugging the efficiency that matters is minimizing human effort.

A setup that kicks student work off the time share after 90 or 120 seconds is not going to be more efficient if the students are writing in assembly to get more done in the limited time - the total machine time used will increase as the number of try and debug runs increases almost without limit (limit is giving up!).

Higher level languages exist so the human element is more efficient.

Simulating the compiler in your mind and trying to make drum memory reads sequential as the drum turns is not an efficient use of human time - memory management automates well though.

That sort of optimization doesn't work over time anyway. Changing the compiler breaks simulating the compiler in the mind every time - an optimizing complier can break the programmer's best efforts (e.g. story of modeling wing design with iterated critical values near unity so the programmer tried to hide the actual values).

On the other hand the proportion of resources devoted to user interface rather than the program seems excessive to me as the current generation of Windows always needs the next generation's hardware.

smithgift said...

Though I've never done assembly (except studying 6502 for some obscure reason), I had some strange feelings going from C++ to Python. I'm glad I learned C++ first (after, yes, QBasic), but Python is so much easier to work with that I rarely program in anything else.

That said, I've been thinking about getting back into C++ now that C++11 is around.

Anonymous said...

Unless you've used Win8 in a tablet or on a touchscreen, you won't 'get it.' And most don't have touchscreens, therefore they ... haven't. There is content production (keyboard / mouse) and there is content consumption (touchscreen). They are two different users sometimes, and sometimes they are the same user in different contexts. A (decent) Win8 tablet can be docked to 24" monitors, mouse and keyboard and it performs very much like a desktop, but you can undock it, take with you and browse and use it on the go with just your fat fingers as well.

I'm a developer, I've developed 5 Win8 apps, and I spend 99% of my time in 'desktop' mode. But there are people out there who spend most of their time consuming content. They love the Win8 experience. But they are not the bulk of Windows users, and they do not wax ecstatic as much as the other group whines.

I try telling developers, Win8 is really not about you. Most don't get it.

emdfl said...

That's the best explaination of "8" I've read. anon. Too bad the dumbshits who decided to jam that piece of excretement(8) down the throats of those who were fine with XP didn't read it first...

I 'spect your producers outnumber your consumers by an order of magnitude.

OneRiotRanger said...

I am a developer who worked for over 12 years at Microsoft and left shortly after it shipped vista.

I know of no customer who said 'hey, it would be great if i had the same user experience on my phone, tablet, and desktop'. This is msft wish-derived attempt to become relevant in the world that left it behind.

I applaud your willingness to keep current. But win 8+ ain't it.

Anonymous said...

emdfl, you're correct about the numbers--in the Windows world. But consider the legions of iPhad, iPhoney, plus Android phablets and phones users out there. Consumers whose attention span resembles that of a gerbil, and who are not able to express themselves in more than 140 characters. Microsoft wants those people too. They spend money, impulsively. Nice demographic, if you can get it.

OneRiotRanger, the same experience is not important, but the same data going wherever with me, is. Now, while the 'cloud' is all the rage, but that requires internet connection (not so good rural areas), a not-inexpensive data plan, and a complete trust of your sensitive data to the cloud powers that be. Not everyone has that sense of trust, including myself.