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The real problem with Windows
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

The real problem with Windows

Technofile for Nov. 1, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

What's wrong with Windows? The answer might surprise you.

Windows has a lot of faults and foibles, and you can't work with a PC running Windows for more than a few minutes without running into some of them.

But these quirks and oddities in the way Windows behaves traits I've described in dozens of articles aren't what's wrong with Windows. They're just evidence of sloppy programming or unfinished design.

What's wrong with Windows is a deeper problem, one that can't be fixed without a complete change in the way the Windows operating system is engineered. It can be alleviated, (and next week I'll tell you how), but it can't be fixed.

In their private discussions, many of Microsoft's chief programmers know about this singular failing, and they also know they need to redesign Windows to get around it. Whether they can get their bosses at the world's largest software company to approve those changes is not certain. Windows is wildly successful despite this major flaw, and Microsoft can hardly be expected to fix something that most users don't think is broken.

But Windows is broken, in a very big way. The problem can be stated simply: Adding new programs to your Windows 95 or Windows 98 PC inevitably corrupts the operating system. It can happen almost immediately or it can take many months.

When this occurs, some programs won't run right and others won't run at all. Eventually, Windows itself fails to run. The term for what happens is perfectly descriptive: Windows crashes.

How this happens is easy to explain. You'll need some background first.

Programs that run under Windows usually need to ask Windows for help doing certain things. A program that wants to show a message on your screen, for example, would use a common support file that shows messages. A program that needs to connect to the Internet would use another common support file to do that.

These supporting files come in different forms. The most common is the Dynamically Linked Library, or DLL. The idea would seem to be sound: Common support files let Windows programmers write their software without having to reinvent everything that goes on.

But in fact the idea is fatally flawed. Nothing stops a programmer from creating an improved DLL, one that does its job faster or with less fuss, and nothing stops a programmer from messing up a DLL and calling it "improved." In either case, other programs that use the same DLL may not be able to run with the changed version. The other programs could refuse to run or they could simply crash or cause Windows to crash.

Add this up over many months of use, scores of newly installed programs and hundreds upon hundreds of DLLs in a typical Windows PC and you have the makings of a disaster. No other device commonly used in daily life behaves like a Windows PC. Only Windows is guaranteed to stop working if you keep using it the way it was designed to be used, as a platform for running a variety of Windows programs. The more programs you install, the quicker the inevitable end.

This may sound like sour grapes. I've had too many crashes, installed too many programs, tried out too many oddball games I found on the Internet, and now I'm ticked off because my computer crashes. All of that is untrue. I'm very cautious and only install software when I know as much as possible about it beforehand. I seldom play games or entertainment programs on my main PC.

What I'm guilty of is the same thing you are. We have let Microsoft get away with robbery. It has robbed us of our time and productivity, taken away our sleep, stolen our Saturday afternoons, pulled thousands of corporate systems managers away from real work and forced them to find ways to keep their PCs operating.

This has happened not because of chance because two programs that need to use the same DLL have installed incompatible versions of that file but because of design. Windows encourages this kind of risk-taking. Windows invites its own disaster by the way it has been engineered.

Until Microsoft fixes Windows or another company creates an operating system better than Windows that will run Windows programs, our only recourse is self-defense. I'll tell you how to do that next week.

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