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Yes, Windows is Dumb: Microsoft's boo-boos

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

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Excerpted from
Yes, Windows Is Dumb
Easy Ways to Master Your PC
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt


Why can't Microsoft get things right?

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt

Why can't Microsoft get things right?

I'm not complaining about esoteric stuff. I don't care if Excel can't handle multimorphic polynomials in base 20 or whether Word knows how to import documents written in some old Sumerian word-processing format.

I'm talking about the simple things. Take Outlook, for example.

Outlook, the personal information manager in Office 97 that handles appointments, tasks, notes and similar things while also taking care of e-mail and faxes, was introduced without a way to view complete messages in what everyone calls "preview" mode. E-mail programs that have a preview window let you see entire messages without opening them. It's a great feature.

All Outlook had was a three-line preview. That helped, but it wasn't enough.

What was surprising about this deficiency was Microsoft's own attitude toward previews. The company thinks they are a good idea, and Microsoft even made a free add-on for its basic e-mail software that gave users a real preview window. (This preview pane, as it's called, works with Exchange and with Windows Messaging, the successor to Exchange. It's not awell designed, so I'm not recommending it. Choose the preview from Deming instead.)

And so you can imagine how relieved I was to find that Microsoft had come up with a preview pane for Outlook. It was free. I downloaded it from the company's Outlook download page. (Look for the 3-Pane Extension Add-in.) and installed it. It took only a couple of minutes.

Boo! Bring on the rotten eggs! Toss a few tomatoes!

The Outlook preview pane looks like it works just fine. But when you try to copy part of the text in a preview window, you discover there's no cut-and-paste facility. There's nothing on the context menu (the one that comes up with a right click) indicating you can copy anything.

If you try copying anyway, by highlighting part of the message and pressing Control-C (the universal Windows shortcut for copy) you end up with the entire message in the clipboard—not exactly what you wanted, and not what Microsoft should have done.

Toss a potato! When you open a message in the message-editor window, hyperlinks in the e-mail letter are always active—they're underlined and ready to invoke your Web browser or your e-mail editor. But messages in the preview window are dead text, without live hyperlinks.

Why did Microsoft do it this way?

If you think Microsoft did it that way because it couldn't be done any other way, grab the latest version of the Chilton Preview right from this link. It's also free, and it works right. It corrects those two deficiencies and adds a bonus: Message headers are displayed (in simplified form) right inside the preview window.

If you use the Chilton Preview with Outlook, you may never have to open a message again. I doubt you'll ever need to.

The fact that the author of the Chilton Preview can do something Microsoft can't—or won't—do brings us back to my original question: Why can't Microsoft get things right?

The answer is simple. Microsoft is too big. It has some of the most talented programmers in the world, and yet it is just plain too big. Programs are developed in a hierarchy of bureaucratic tinkering and fiddling. The day when one or two good programmers could create a Microsoft product and get it out the door without holding a gun on a committee of nay-sayers is long gone.

Except, that is, for some of the stuff that comes from Raymond Chen and his buddies in the Windows 95 programming group. Chen is responsible for what has to be the single best freeware utility program for Windows 95, called Tweak UI. It lets you change the way Windows 95 works in dozens of ways, leads you step by step if you don't know what you're doing and even provides a one-click method of getting all the factory settings back. (Download Tweak UI in the Power Toy collection from the Power Toys page. Be sure you read the very clear instructions on the page so you'll know how to install Tweak UI and any of the other Power Toys. Please read the instructions!)

How could Chen do this while the others can't?

Again, the answer is plain. To Microsoft, Chen's Tweak UI doesn't exist—not officially, anyway. It was developed right after Windows 95 was released, and was immediately snapped up by hundreds of thousands of eager Windows 95 users. Microsoft had plenty of time to add Tweak UI to the many bug fixes and improvement packs it has released in the last year and a half.

But Tweak UI never made the cut.

Why? Because Chen did Tweak UI on his own time. The only way he could get it to the public was through the back door. Tweak UI and the other utilities in the Power Toys were released through the World Wide Web as unsupported freeware from Microsoft employees. (That's the way Microsoft described them.) Microsoft refused to support them, and didn't even list them on its main Windows 95 Web pages for many months. (They're finally listed, but with the same disclaimer.)

I think Raymond Chen realized that Tweak UI would never have made its way out Microsoft's front door in time to help Windows 95 users—or would have been gutted and sanitized along the way. I think he knew the freeware, no-support route was the only way to get his ideas to you and me.

It's something to think about. And not just for us. The programmers of Outlook need to drop Raymond Chen a note on the Microsoft corporate e-mail system and ask for some advice. He might be able to tell them where the real door is.

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