31 July 95
Introducing Windows 95
Hi, I'm back. THE A: DRIVE ain't. This column is now START BUTTON. There's a reason for the change.
Personal computers have undergone several insidious changes over the past few months, and more waves are inbound.
Purchases of personal computers recently outstripped televisions. That's right, more people want to play DOOM than watch ALIENS, and in fact would rather spend a whole mindless night carousing on the Web or talking/typing flirty online with some stranger than watching the same old car, food and personal hygiene advertisements on the boob tube.
Can you wonder why? With the push-button ease of the online services, and audio-video plugs-in enhancing the seamless hypertext nature of HTML documents, the Internet (and its cul- de-sac counterparts) is poised to surpass television. Real- time audio broadcasts are occurring now, and the video component isn't far off. Your online provider has become the new local cable company, and your software "browser" is your new window on the promised (and heretofore never delivered) 500-channel wasteland.
All these new computers that are flying out the doors while TVs are accruing quaintness, all those Compaqs and Packard Bells and ASTs and oh let's not forget that falling 25% market share PowerMac you like the looks of, almost all of these units include online, fax, voice mail and kiddy bemusement capabilities that would make Edison wet his pants. The first Compaq Presario even mimicked all-in-one "countertop PC," one that was more suited for the kitchen where Dad User, Mom User, Teen User and Baby User would all log in for voice and e-mail messages. The new units provide far more, and the day that early wonks fantasized about are now here: the personal computer is a cheap, easily acquired home appliance no harder to purchase than a new microwave or bookshelf stereo. And it represents the biggest advance in person-to-person communications since the invention of the telephone.
Software interfaces (we used to call them "operating systems," but your answering machine doesn't have an OS, does it?) are getting easier, simpler, and cuter. The Mac OS (currently System 7) has always twinkled with efficacy and charm, and Microsoft Windows has been trying to do the same. IBM OS/2, meanwhile, is now named after a sci-fi gimmick (I think it was Paul Somerson that joked, "If IBM invented sushi they'd market it as 'raw fish.'" Central Point and Symantec/Norton both augmented Windows to act more like a Mac, but Microsoft really raised the ante with BOB, a cutesy, Saturday morning cartoon interface with overactive little animals who help you around an interface that's set up like a virtual home. Play long enough with this shell, writing letters and balancing your checkbook, and you'll forget you're working on HAL-9000's grandson -- this is too easy. Hand-eye coordination met giggle appeal when a close associate demoed it without any preconceptions. Bob -- how can you not like a program named Bob?
Multimedia is no longer a cool add-on. Just about every new computer includes a sound card and speaker set up, CD drive, fast video, microphone, blahblahblah, so that your $3000 computer can act like a $300 portable boombox with a tiny little video screen that shows jerky movies with funky colors. What's the big appeal? Ask all those people who bought a PC instead of a TV. Apparently playing games "starring" Tia Carrere and Mark Hamill is a better bargain than Home Box Office; for something like fifty bucks you get a movie that you participate in for anywhere from forty to a few hundred hours (some users have spent months, even years, exploring MYST). Scarier still, some of the software that's been developed for the edutainment genres goes a lot further than even your best public television fare. Combine content-rich CDs with almost unlimited online material, and the PC becomes the gateway upon the world that television has only hinted it would become. Tired of waiting 30 minutes for CNN Headline News to get the scoop? Get the first-hand account from a notebook-carrying user logging in from Bosnia or Tiananmen Square.
To make the paradigm shift worse, products to watch movies and TV on your PC are quite common, even affordable. Why you'd want to, I'm not sure, but it's a buyer's market for a good reason. While you're chomping on that puzzle, consider that for even less money, you can wire your computer up to a TV, giving you 27" VGA. Face it -- television as we know it is dying.
What's the upshot of all this? Look back to one of the best STAR TREK episodes, Harlan Ellison's "City On The Edge Of Forever." While searching for a delusional McCoy, Enterprise crewmembers talk remotely on "communicators," little cordless devices that turn on and chirp to life with the flip of a cover/antenna. Later, Spock uses a "tricorder" to review some data that he's collected, performing research with which to brief his superior officer; he complains that if he could only link up with the Enterprise's main computer "for a few moments," he'd have far better answers. Today ... well, Joe Businessman walks down Main Street, flipping open his cell phone and making a call to the office. He steps into a diner, and powers up his notebook computer to work on a presentation. Realizing he's left some data behind, he plugs in his phone, dials up the office network server and downloads the needed information. The burger and fries arrive just as he's finishing e-mailing or faxing the new presentation to his boss. Did Gene Roddenberry's designers foresee the future, or did today's electronics engineers grow up dreaming of Star Fleet's gadgetry? No matter, the preposterous technology of yesteryear is becoming reality today, but simple human problems still exist (one of the themes of "City" and STAR TREK as a whole) ... and software is the essential ammunition in the struggle to make these contraptions easier to use.
Microsoft has made clear in numerous press releases that WINDOWS 95 is their supreme achievement in the struggle to do just that: make PCs easier to use. (Microsoft At Work also aims to install Windows interfaces on more conventional appliances like copy machines and toasters, oh my.) It's more intuitive, simpler to conceptualize and far less intrusive than previous operating systems for Intel-based computers. It takes the best (or what Microsoft judged as the best) of the Xerox Star, Apple System 7 and IBM OS/2 operating systems, and purees them down to a simple taskbar and "Start Button." Comparing Windows 95 to System 7 (below), you'll also see that Microsoft is targeting "Making PCs easier ... for Mac users ... to use."
- Start menu = Apple Menu
- Shortcuts = Aliases
- Taskbar = Finder
- Explorer/My Computer = Finder folder views
- Folders = Folders (how 'bout that!)
- Start Button = Apple menu icon
The Redmond, Washington, elves have hit upon a critical cultural icon with the Start Button. Those STAR TREK props were flipped open to operate, guns (even phasers) have triggers, and most appliances (which now includes the new-kid- on-the-block appliance, the personal computer) start working with a single button or switch. It's a universal cultural idea when getting a new appliance: "Where's the power switch?" Nobody can program their VCR's clock, but everybody knows how to turn it on (mine turns on by simply inserting a tape, imagine that). We even know what it should feel like (if it isn't on the front, we instinctively reach around to the back, right?), and know that most have a little 1 or 0 to indicate "On" and "Off."
Windows 95 isn't the news, though most computer columnists will tell you it is or isn't. The news is that design of appliances (hardware) and their interfaces (software) is geared entirely towards the user, rather than the function. And this isn't news at all. Many industries or visionary manufacturers (Braun and Porsche Design, for instance) have already adopted such "total quality management" engineering philosophies, but what's remarkable is that it isn't remarkable. For several months now, readily available PCs have been prepared with built-in tutorials, usability aids (Wizards, Coaches, Balloon Help, etc.) and ergonomically adept ornamentation. Windows 95 isn't anything special, then, just the newest incarnation of a breakthrough trend in the mainstreaming of technology. (The "Did You Know" tips, interactive and hand-holding online help and configuration Wizards make this an ideal OS for newbies ... there's help at every point, even floating tool tip/balloon help in every application.)
In the next columns, I'll be outlining some of the key features of this new operating system. We'll be looking at the numerous examples of Microsoft re-thinking the approach that users should take to their computer, but behind it all will be a evaluation of the essence of this new interface: making the interface transparent, or (ideally) invisible. The key term is "document-centricity" (which the Intel-based community has avoided while Macintoshes and other PCs adopted the idea of "project first, tools whenever"), in which the method of getting the work done is subordinate to the work being done -- or the goal that is achieved. Microsoft doesn't own this revolution (not yet), but August 24, 1995 (the release date of Windows 95, in case you haven't heard) is a red-letter day in this trend.
Use a faxmodem? Use your word processor to send faxes? Wish you could give your faxes the personal touch? Easy.
Fax yourself from the cleanest, highest-resolution fax machine you can find. Use a superstore's (like Kinko's) if you like. Send yourself a page of your signatures. When you get home, use your fax software (Delrina's WinFax PRO 4.0, for instance) to mark the area of your favorite signature, and export it as a graphic. You now should have a "scanned" picture (a fax is only a scanner and modem) of your signature.
Your word processor should be able to import the graphic; Word for Windows 6.0, as an example, will import any PCX, TIF, WMF, or GIF image, to name a few. Now that you've got your image, simply import it into your word processor document where you'd like your signature to appear.
Wanna get fancy? Save the image in the TEMPLATE file for your fax letters -- each time you draft a new fax letter, there's your signature. Not fancy enough? Save the image as an "autotext" item (Word 2.0 called them Glossary items) in your word processor, so it's available to all your documents. If your word processor can't do this, copy the the image to the clipboard, and in the Clipboard/Clipbook Viewer, save the image, thus using the Windows clipboard as your archiving tool.
Although the details differ, this technique is also supported fully on Apple's System 7.
-- D.B. Spalding
A self-described multicareerist, D.B. Spalding is a writer, musician, independent radio producer, computer consultant and online sysop; he writes frequently about music, film, computing and the mass- and multimedia.
(C) Copyright 1995 D.B. Spalding. All rights reserved.