Saturday, February 17, 2024

Windows 11 - Ugh!

I don't wanna learn a new O/S!  I don't wanna! I don't wanna!

A friend of mine just bought a new Windows 11 laptop, which was brave of them, as they are coming from the Apple-world, where everything is spoon-fed to them.  They asked me for help with it on the basis that "I know about computers" which was true 30 years ago.  My current O/S is Windows 7 Ultimate and I am running Microsoft Office 2000 and Quickbooks Pro 2002.  Yes, I am running software that is over two decades old on laptops that are nearly as old, that I assembled from parts laptops bought on eBay for less than fifty bucks.

Yet, they work.  You are reading this, right?  So they do what I want them to do.  I am not a gamer, so I don't need the latest Nvida card or fancy processor.  For basic computing needs, not much has changed in the last two decades.

I tried to use my friend's laptop but it was loaded with bloatware and they smartly declined offers for anti-virus add-ons.  I showed them how Microsoft Security Essentials worked and really that is all you need for most computing - and it is free (and works even on "unsupported" Windows 7 machines!).  But the rest of it was puzzling and annoying.   I guess we will learn Windows 11 together  Another friend tells me that "legacy" software, such as what I am using, won't run on Windows 11, not even in "Win95 mode" or other legacy modes.  I guess I could run a virtual machine to do that, but that sounds like a lot of hassle.

What irked me was that everything was promoted as a subscription model, with your data stored "in the cloud."  My friend wanted to run a spreadsheet program and Microsoft helpfully offered a subscription to the program for so many dollars a month.  What's worse, when we tried to save a backup copy of the spreadsheet, it wouldn't let us do that - on the hard drive or anywhere else.  You get one copy and that's it.  Maybe I am doing it wrong - I have a lot to learn about this brave new world.

The personal computer was designed to free us from the tyranny of "Big Blue" IBM and the world of mainframes.  Back in the day (1960's and 1970's) mainframe IBM 360 machines were the deal - programmed with punch cards.  Yes, I am that old, learning FORTRAN on punchcards on a mainframe.  Leave the cards with the "machine operator" they will run it overnight and get the results back to you.  It was a primitive time.

Michael Crichton - who basically lost his mind along the way - wrote about big mainframes going "haywire" in all of his books (even one set in the jungles of Africa!).  He wrote about how the "computer rooms" of the era were like hushed churches - with acolytes and priests attending to the almighty machines.  Computer rooms (and I assume server rooms today) had "computer room floors" which were elevated about a foot above the real floor.  The A/C air handler used this space as a return air duct, so cool, air-conditioned air would be sucked into all the computer cabinets and back to the central station air handler.  It was a pretty complicated setup.

Back then, if you wanted a program written, you had to beg the computer Gods for permission - and pay them handsomely.  This is why, when I worked at Carrier, my boss was happy that I could write programs for Tektronix graphics systems and Apple II computers (both with X-Y plotters) so we could input data and then plot charts of the performance of chillers and air handlers.  Asking the mainframe guys to do this meant waiting months for changes and paying thousands of dollars in development money.

The PC era was just starting - and the IBM-PC which ironically destroyed IBM's monopoly on the computer business, was still a few years away.  We made do with CP/M systems (some of which our parent company sold) and even oddball devices like an Olivetti PC, which was little more than a typewriter.   The Personal Computer (which was not yet THE PC, as in IBM PC) would liberate us from the tyranny of the mainframe and the almighty programmers.

And for a while, it worked, too.

But eventually, someone got the bright idea of networking computers together.  It made sense, to share files and share printers and other devices.  And why not have a central "server" to store data on a RAID array?  It was an improvement, but also a beginning to the end of the independence of the PC.  By the late 1980s, something called "thin client" came along.  Why have a fleet of PCs, one on each employee's desk, with expensive hard drives (40 MB, baby!) that were prone to failure, in each one?  Make each PC just a motherboard and a floppy to boot from (or better yet, boot from the network) and everyone can store their data on the "server."

In theory, it was a great idea, provided your "computer guy" (the term "IT" was years away) backed up the RAID array onto a tape drive (remember those nightmare devices?).  If the server crashed - as happened at one law firm I worked at - no one could get any work done.  Well, we could, if you put the essential WordPerfect files and DOS on a high-density floppy and ran the "thin client" off that.  The secretaries were pissed-off when I showed them how to do this - it ruined a three-day vacation for them!

Thin client was the nose in the camel's tent - or something like that.  It took away the independence of the PC and made it dependent.  And over the years, companies have tried, again and again, to rein-in these free-ranging PC's and make them docile slaves once more - little more than "dumb terminals" like the VT-50 of yore.  Of course, the Internet accelerated this trend.  Today there are many devices out there that simply won't work unless connected to the Internet, even for a local print job, for example. The manufacturer wants to control the device, even after they sold it to you.  It is kind of a frightening Big Brother kind of deal, quite frankly.

Today, it is all about "the cloud" and the hard drive is going away in favor of "netbooks" which have limited storage capacities, but use the Internet instead as their hard drive and (hopefully) backup.  Once again, "thin client" raises it ugly head - and once again, for what appears to be a good reason, but is also a nefarious purpose.  Subscription models are far better revenue generators for software (or even hardware) companies.  Back in the day, you might "upgrade" to the latest version of DOS or Windows, because it wasn't all that expensive.  The O/S and program makers would provide free updates ("support") over time, to fix glitches and tamp down viruses.

Problem was - and is - these updates cost money to create and distribute.  At the same time, users started to decline periodic upgreades, particularly when the latest version of Windows or Apple iOS or Chrome will "brick" an older phone or pad or laptop, which was not designed to accommodate the increased processor demands of a later operating system.  I know this personally, when I tried to "upgrade" an older laptop to a later version of Windows and it slowed it down to a crawl.

So the subscription model makes sense - for the software (and hardware) suppliers.  We've gone back to the old days of "Big Blue" IBM, where companies paid monthly lease payments on their Hollerith machines, and bought all their punch cards from IBM directly.  Woe be to the lessee who was caught using generic punchcards when the IBM rep came around.  And IBM was a stickler about those lease fees, too - collecting back payments from Germany after the war for punch card machines used to tabulate murdered Jews.  Business is business, right?

The liberty of the PC was that you bought it and owned it, outright.  Maybe you might upgrade the hardware over time.  Maybe you might buy another program for it.  But once you bought these things, you owned them outright and didn't have to pay again and again for them.  That was freedom - to do your own thing and run your own machine.  And it was pretty inexpensive, too, even in an era where a "nice" computer (640K of memory, 40M of hard drive, SVGA tube monitor) was close to $5000.

Today, the machines are cheaper, both in real terms and in inflationary ones.  PCs are far more powerful and cost pennies when adjusted for inflation.   But when you add up the subscription costs, well, maybe it is something of a wash.  And it seems with every improvement in hardware comes a corresponding bloat in software, such that programs never seem to run faster than before.  A simple ASCII text document took a few kilobytes to store.  A WordPerfect (DOS) document maybe a few hundred kilobytes.  A blank WORD for Windows document takes a Megabyte or more - or so it seems.  And while programs can do so much more than before, the dreaded hourglass (or its bretheren) never seems to go away - entirely.

Of course, it isn't just computer and software makers that are exploiting this new subscription model.  BMW made the worst sort of headlines lately by experimenting with offering heated seats as a subscription model (Money saving tip 'n trick: subscribe only in the winter and then cancel in the summer months! /s).  This pretty much ensured that I will never own a BMW ever again.   They were fun, for a while, and at least the generations that I owned could be worked on, as there were "work-arounds" for proprietary systems.   I am not so sure that is the case today.

Hewlett-Packard bears special mention - and yes, my friend bought an HP printer with their new computer.  The head of HP has admitted that they want to make printing a subscription service and their printers are designed to brick themselves if you try to install a non-HP cartridge.  I've had some of these inkjet printers and written about them before.  If you don't print regularly, the cartridges dry up and the machine won't print - even in black-and-white - if even one color cartridge is empty.  Those machines were sold cheap or often given away - again, the subscription model.  I threw all my inkjet printers away - they are literally worthless.

I have a Canon laser printer that I bought cheaply online.  It replaced my two HP-4P laserjets from the 1990s that ran like (and smelled like) diesel engines for decades.  Eventually the pinch rollers go bad and they started to jam - such is the fate of all paper-handling devices.  The new Canon (now about five or six years old) just loves to print (and scan) and seems quite happy with whatever generic toner cartridge I feed it.  I can find cartridges on eBay for cheap.  Canon apparently made their money selling the machine, not a subscription.  I hear good things about Brother, too, although we have one at the gallery and it has a habit of going into "sleep" mode and slipping into a coma.  The operating manual actually has several suggestions about how to wake it, too.  It's not a bug, it's a feature!

But getting back to topic, no, I am not being a big crybaby by not wanting to "learn" Windows 11.  Rather, I am mourning the end of an era and the loss of something valuable - our independence.  I fear that these systems, which remove the user from the functionality of their machines more and more, will somehow make us more slaves to the machine than vice-versa.  Windows (and Apple) already put so many layers of abstraction between us and the computer hardware that we have no idea how they work or how to adjust, set, or troubleshoot them.  The whole Windows "registry" thing, for example, it a mystery to most people - and best left alone in most cases.

Back in the olden days, I could tell you what every byte was on my (floppy) disc.  Even with primitive hard drives, you could list all the programs and data files - with few, if any, "hidden" files on the drive.  You had your Config.sys and your Autoexec.bat and if you could control those, you could control the machine.  Computer viruses were virtually unheard of.  Today?  Who knows what the hell is going on in these black boxes?  It might as well be magic, and we have little other choice than to dance to their tune - and pay their subscription fees.

Of course, that only applies if you want to use computers.  As a retiree, I find the need to use the PC less and less.  I print out a few primitive documents in WORD and type nonsense in my blog (which yes, is in the "cloud" although I have periodically backed up copies of it).  And yes, the "cloud" has its uses, too.  The aforementioned Brother (color) printer is accessible only by WiFi, but I can store files in Google Drive and then download them to the printer (after having set up their convoluted method of linking the printer to my largely unused Google Drive account) and print - without having to lug my laptop there.

Speaking of which, that is another interesting aspect of all of this.  I find I am more of a Google person these days than a Microsoft one.  Sure, I am running Windows and Word, but I use Chrome and Google Calendar and Blogger and YouTube and Google itself (now mostly an advertising site) more often than Microsoft products themselves.  Even for things like spreadsheets and word processing, you can use Google's free online version of these programs.  And who needs Adobe reader anymore, when you can create PDF files by "printing" from Word (or any other program) and display them in Chrome?

So yea, I already have my head in the "clouds" it seems.

All that being said, I will try to load the legacy programs to my friend's computer - if it will allow it.  I'll be sure to bring my external DVD drive!  

Talk about archaic!