By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
Some old friends have been chiding me for devoting too much space to Linux. "This is a Windows world," one of them said.
He's right. It's a Windows world. But it's odd to hear arguments against news of a new operating system simply because the current one is so entrenched. Progress is not, as some may assume, the orderly process of going from one version of the Letter A to the next one. Or even a procedure of switching from the Letter A to the Letter B. Progress can very well be the kind of upheaval we are seeing in the world of computers, a revolution from the Letter A to another kind of alphabet entirely.
Linux is another kind of language, another kind of alphabet. It's not based on the old and badly written computer code that Windows is based on. It was created from the start to be fast and safe and well behaved.
Fans of Linux know something that the men and women who stormed the Bastille knew: They know that the future is on their side. That means they can't fail. That means, as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow and the day after, that Windows as we know it is doomed.
Don't take my word for it. Don't even take the word of Time Magazine, which has the creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, ranked higher than Bill Gates, the $100 billion man behind Windows, in its Man of the Century poll. Listen to Jim Allchin, vice president of Microsoft in charge of the next version of Windows:
Users of the current version of Windows are "putting up with reboots and other weirdness, and they don't have to," Allchin told a reporter for ComputerWorld magazine.
Most of us who use Windows 95 and Windows 98 know how unreliable those two versions of Windows are. But Allchin wasn't even referring to Windows 95 or 98. He was talking about Windows NT, which, by comparison, is MUCH more reliable than Windows 95 or 98.
Allchin was trying to point out that Windows 2000 is a better version of Windows than Windows NT is. (NT is the heavy duty version of Windows that competes directly with Linux for work on the Internet. Windows NT is far behind Linux in this area, having about half as many users.)
"Reboots and other weirdness" is not the way Microsoft's top brass ever referred to Windows NT in the past. To run a server computer a computer that supplies files and does services for computers that connect to it an operating system has to be reelable first and powerful second. Windows NT is very powerful but not very reliable, whereas Linux is quite powerful and dead-center reliable.
Microsoft knows it's got things backwards with Windows NT the company doesn't even try to defend Windows 95 and Windows 98 any more, knowing how flaky they are and that's why it's pushing Windows 2000. Testers have said Windows 2000 is more reliable than Windows NT while retaining most of NT's power.
But does that mean Windows 2000 will eliminate the threat that Linux is posing? Will Windows 2000 be so reliable and so bug-free that Windows users who are switching over to Linux will realize the error of their ways?
Of course not. Windows 2000 is Windows, after all. That means it's full of inconsistencies. That means it won't behave as a monolithic, safe, secure operating system. Microsoft doesn't know how to program such a thing. (That's not a dig. Microsoft has had plenty of time to show the world that it can program a monolithic, safe, secure operating system, and the fact that it has not done so means that it cannot do so. When your neighbor tells you he'll mow the lawn for you while you're away and every time he does it he mows down your flowers and knocks over your mailbox, he's demonstrated that he's unreliable. You don't need to be told. And you don't want to hear him tell you for the umpteenth time that he'll do it right next time.)
Windows is Windows, and that means it's full of bugs. Microsoft proudly announced that it had fixed more than 11,000 bugs in the transition between the third beta version of Windows 2000 and the "RC" version (the "release candidate" of the code). Stop and think a little. No one can criticize Microsoft for fixing bugs. Fixing 20 of them or 200 of them or maybe 500 would be admirable. But 11,000? How did 11,000 bugs eleven thousand, in case you'd like it spelled out get into the Windows 2000 Beta 3 code in the first place? That's the version that Microsoft has been SELLING to the public. That's the version that Dell and other computer manufacturers have been installing on PCs that they sell.
Let's back it up a bit. Microsoft has been selling this version of Windows 2000 and it's been full of bugs. It's a beta version and beta versions have bugs. Are you supposed to sell a version that has 11,000 bugs? I leave that up to your conscience.
Back it up a little more. Do you think a company that missed 11,000 bugs (or that let 11,000 bugs slip into its software, or that ignored 11,000 bugs you make your own interpretation) is a company you can trust to find ALL the bugs, or even MOST of the bugs in its software? Of course not.
But suppose we're wrong. Suppose Microsoft turns into a sort of land-based version of God and is able to find and fix all the bugs that could ever appear or ever did appear in its software. Let's suppose Microsoft can do that.
Do you know how Microsoft handles bug fixes? The company makes them available on its Web site. Follow these next sentences carefully: Microsoft does not fix the bugs in the version of Windows that's installed on PCs. They go out the door with the bugs still in them. Microsoft does not recall the packages of Windows on the shelves at your local computer store. They go out the door with the bugs still in them.
GM makes a bad gas tank and discovers this bug in the design of one of its trucks and stops the assembly line and fixes it on the spot. If the bug is serious, it sends out registered letters to every owner of that truck and tells how to get the gas tank fixed for free.
Do you suppose Microsoft would ever do that? Of course not. That kind of response to problems with its software would require a different kind of attitude, a different kind of company. Microsoft got rich and Bill Gates, the founder, got super rich, $100 billion rich by ignoring anything that would cost it money. Sell the software, and when customers complain, tell them to get fixes off the Web. Or tell them to get new versions.
When my copy of Outlook 98 stopped working properly it crashed each time I tried to add an entry to the Calendar I ran Microsoft's excellent problem-reporting tool, Dr. Watson, and followed what it said. (It found a conflict in some DLLs.) That didn't fix anything, so I ran it again. It then suggested that I reinstall the program.
OK, no problem. Just get the installation program and run it and that's that.
How dumb could I be? Outlook 98 is installed over the Internet. Microsoft is now selling Outlook 2000, and, true to its own guiding principles, Outlook 98 no longer exists as new software. It's nowhere to be found. The Web page that had allowed me to install Outlook 98 a year earlier had turned into an Outlook 98 page. A search through Microsoft's sites found no trace of the Outlook 98 setup file.
You do this when you have no respect for your customers. You do this when you don't care at all. Trust me. You don't do this if you think your customers have a choice. When you have a monopoly, you do what you please. Remember that. We'll get back to it later.
So Microsoft had removed the Outlook 98 installation files from its Web sites. Because I run my own Web site, I know how they actually work, and I knew that Microsoft doesn't have the time to clean out its old files. The installation files had to be there somewhere. It was just the links to them that were missing.
I searched through the gigabytes of files in my CD-ROM collection I save and archive everything and found the installation stub for Outlook 98. That's the small program that begins the Internet-based installation. It goes to a site on the Internet (one that may or may not be hidden somewhere; I don't know) and downloads the files needed to install Outlook 98.
I ran it and it did everything it was supposed to do. The files were still there, on one of Microsoft's servers. They'll probably be there until the Year 3000.
(I need to add a note: I reinstalled Outlook 98, but the problem still exists. Nothing expresses the central problem of Windows better than this. You can uninstall a program completely and then reinstall it from a fresh set of installation files and STILL have major problems with it. I find that astonishing.)
Windows is Windows, and that means it's full of inconsistencies. Microsoft isn't fixing them in Windows 2000. First of all, having an operating system that has 11,000 bugs make that 11,000 KNOWN bugs, please means the company is either going to spend most of its time getting rid of the bugs or most of its time covering them up. A very small portion of its time will be spent getting rid of inconsistencies.
Windows is Windows, and that means it's full of backwards compatibilities. Normally, you'd thank that would be a good thing, but in computers it's a bad thing. SAAB and Volvo used to make cars that were supposed to be driven on the other side of the road. (If you're old enough to remember the day the Swedes made world history by switching from driving on the right to driving on the left, don't tell anybody. You're REALLY old. So am I.) A SAAB or a Volvo that is backwards compatible would have two steering wheels, one on each side of the car, and two sets of brake pedals and accelerator pedals and you get the point. That would be dumb.
Why isn't it just as dumb for computers to be backwards compatible with the FIRST software ever written for PCs? What's wrong with Microsoft? Why would it consider any of that early software worth any kind of effort? Nostalgia? Is Bill Gates fond of the old BASIC programs he used to write? This is nonsense. For Windows 2000 to be a really effective operating system, it would have to work differently from the way Windows 95 and Windows 98 and Windows NT and DOS work. But it can't, because it's backwards compatible. (You might be interested in knowing that anyone with a few extra brain cells can make an operating system that will run "foreign" software or programs from an earlier era. Apple did this when it introduced the PowerMac, which uses emulation to run older Mac software. This means the PowerMac is backwards compatible with all that came before it without sacrificing anything.
Microsoft doesn't know how to do this with DOS and Windows software. Its gross failure to make Windows 95 handle Windows 3.1 programs properly basically, if you run Windows 3.1 programs under Windows 95 or Windows 98 you're just running Windows 3.1, with nearly all its problems is strong testimony to Microsoft's failure to understand this entire issue.)
Windows is Windows, and that means it is bloated. 11,000 bugs? You couldn't fit 11,000 lines of code into some of the Linux programs I run. An operating system that can have 11,000 bugs is a gargantuan pile of regurgitated code.
Windows is what it is, and will not change unless Microsoft changes. And that's not going to happen as long as Microsoft has a monopoly. When you have a monopoly, you do what you please. When you have a monopoly, you could spend nearly all your profits on making customers happy and you could devote nearly all your time and resources into making your products better. Or you could concentrate on making money, staying in business, knocking off potential competitors and making your stockholders happy. Guess which one all monopolies choose? If you are going to have customers at your door whether they are happy or not, if you are going to sell your products whether they are good or not, you're not going to have a single motivation to change the way you do things. That's human nature. Microsoft doesn't make bad software because it wants to make bad software. It makes bad software because it has no reason to make good software.
No reason yet, that is. That's the point, isn't it? We're interested in Linux not just because it's a far better computer operating system than Windows is. We're interested in Linux because a bell rings in somebody's head at Microsoft every time a PC boots up in Linux, every time a Linux word processor spell checks a document, every time an Internet connection is snared by a Linux Web server. When enough bells are ringing, Microsoft will suddenly realize that it's lost the most important asset it ever had its monopoly. And when a monopoly company suddenly faces competition, after it has unsuccessfully tried to shoo away or scare away or wish away or, as Microsoft always tries to do, BUY away the competition, after all of this has failed and the top executives wake up in the morning facing a different world, an amazing thing happens: All of us benefit, all of us win. The monopoly company benefits because it has to make a real choice, using real gray matter, of whether it is going to compete on level ground. (The alternative is to play dirty, knowing there's no chance of winning.) The competition benefits because it either will face an invigorated opponent which is always good for business or will sail into the leadership of its field without firing any more shots. We benefit because we get better products from the emboldened competitor and, if the decision goes right, from the former monopolist, too. Competition is what matters.
Competition is all that matters, in fact. Improvements don't come from guys in their garages who want to save the world. Crazy things come from guys in their garages who want to save the world. Improvements come from trying to make something better, and trying to make something better comes from competition.
So that's why I write about Linux and about Linux software. Each chunk of the PC market absorbed by Linux means one more incremental improvement in Windows, in Microsoft Word, in everything that Microsoft makes. Or it means Microsoft will just cry a lot and fade away. Microsoft is a wimp company. We all know that. We all know it has no guts. Bullies never do. That's why they're bullies.
So the success of Linux could mean that Microsoft will just whine a lot and give up. I hope that's not true. There are a lot of good Windows programs. I want to see a lot more. I'd even like to see a better version of Windows itself, even though it would come too late to pull me back into the Windows camp.
There are millions of others who will never use Linux, and they need a solid, working version of Windows. And they need it soon.