Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I was just reading Neal Stephenson's essay, In the Beginning Was the Command Line, which was written in 1999 and is the best-written snapshot of where the computer industry was at the time and how it came to be. Definitely still worth reading as a great backgrounder on the philosophies and histories behind things like why Windows and the classic MacOS resemble a trip to Disneyland, and how Unix is like the computer programmer's Epic of Gilgamesh. Really, it makes perfect sense and is a level of contextualization that most computer programmers aren't equipped to make but can certainly benefit from reading about.

As he was talking about the first iterations of Windows that were slapped together and placed neatly on top of MS-DOS something occurred to me: Windows 3.1's Program Manager was the best way to launch programs I had ever used on any operating system.

Yes, really. And it's for a pretty simple reason too, it's lack of sophistication.

It was almost certainly similar to what My First MDI Application.exe would look. (oops, firstmdi.exe, this is DOS days, after all.) It had windows that you could cascade or tile, and icons that stayed where you put them and didn't make any attempt to arrange them for you by default. It was big and ugly and efficient, once you got it arranged the way you like. Everyone had their programs sorted into separate windows by function, games and productivity apps and system tools all lived in their own little windows happily together, and I could get to any of them right away without having to waste any extra clicks. If I used one more frequently than another I would put it at the top so it would always be the most prominent. It wasn't very 'smart' but that meant that users actually had to be, with the ones who let their desktops become unruly piles of icons probably being the reason Microsoft felt they needed to saddle everyone with the Start menu later.

This is how the Classic MacOS treated every single folder on the hard drive, but even it made the mistake of stuffing everything into /Applications (which OS X still does to this day) and forcing you to individually open and close each individual window if you did make the decision to try and organize your installed programs by function.

Microsoft abandoned this perfectly efficient program in favour of the Start Menu, a step back that trey trumpeted as their best new feature in Windows 95. Now instead of having my programs be fully visible whenever I wanted them, I had to click Start and then Programs before I could even get a look at them. And instead of being grouped according to how I choose to group them, software companies, becoming more keenly aware of the importance of branding, started stuffing their own programs into sub-folders of the Programs menu according to the name of the company that makes them. So I have to know that Symantec are the people who manufactured my virus scanner before I could find and launch the program, instead of dropping the more descriptively-named program shortcut into my utilities folder to begin with when I loaded the program onto my computer the first time.

This is probably the reason you see so many Windows users with desktops cluttered from left to right with random icons, they want the things they access and think of as important to be immediately visible. Of course, instead of being able to just alt-tab into the Program Manager they have to minimize every single window first. (A tedious job for most computer users. Do an informal survey around your office and see how many people know the shortcut key for 'Show Desktop'. It's depressing.) Also, software companies have decided that the user is their adversary in their aim to spread their brand identity to as many places on your screen as they can, so every program you install drops a copy of its icon on your desktop in no particular order, and certainly not grouped by function.

In Mac OS X it's almost as bad. The /Applications folder is an ever-growing list of programs with quirky names like CyberDuck and Seashore. One of those is an FTP program, the other is a (quite nice) graphics editor, which I had completely forgotten the name of once when all I wanted to do was put a watermark on a PNG file, since it had been a while since I used it, the incongruous bit of information "seashore is the name of a graphics editor" had dropped completely out of my head. That's as much a knock on the tendency of software developers to go for cute over practical as it is Mac OS X's program interface.

But one thing that is becoming more and more common in the OS X world is for people to just eschew using the Finder to launch programs altogether and just hit Command-Spacebar and type the name of the program into the search box and hit Open right away, the Desktop equivalent of I'm Feeling Lucky. And as great as Spotlight searching does work, having to use it when I used to have my programs organized in a sensible way in front of me does not seem like progress to me.

I'd like Apple to please just admit that a file browser and an application launcher are fundamentally different things. The dock is well and good for maybe 20 programs, but I have way more than that I might want to run in the course of a day, especially when I crack open the /Developer folder.

So I'm going to say it again: Windows 3.1 did it best.

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By al - 6:15 AM |

I was actually thinking this morning about how much I hated the Start Menu when we finally got a copy of Windows 95. While I can't quite imagine using a Windows 3.1 interface now (mostly just because of habit), I distinctly remember thinking at the time how counter-intuitive it seemed to me, and I was like, what, 14? Little teenage me loved 3.1 and I was really SAD about not being able to have everything grouped all nicely on my screen.

Also, I seem to remember something called TABWORKS. What WAS that?
Tabworks was an alternate shell. My 3.1 computer had it.

I should see if I can find it again (either that or program manager). I should use that as a shell, not explorer since my desktop is over filled with icons
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