Douglas Adams on Windows '95

The author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy takes on Bill Gates

WHAT on Earth is going on? Have we found intelligent life on other planets? Abolished war and famine? Have we even devised a better way of using computers? No. All that's happened is Microsoft has remodelled its operating system so that it's now more like the Macintosh.

As part of last week's billion-dollar festival of smoke and mirrors, chairman and chief executive Bill Gates has apparently paid the Rolling Stones millions for the right to use Start Me Up, the song which is better known for its catchy refrain "You make a grown man cry". This is a phrase you may hear a lot of over the next few days as millions of people start trying to install Windows 95. Even the best designed systems can be a nightmare to upgrade, but whatever things Microsoft may be famous for, good systems design is not, as it happens, one of them.

Let's dispel a few myths. There's one which says that the original PC operating system was a brilliant feat of programming by boy genius Gates. It wasn't brilliant and Gates didn't write it. He acquired it, "shrewdly", from the Seattle Computer Company and then immediately licensed it on to another, larger, outfit called IBM. When the IBM PC was launched into a market which had hitherto been serviced by garage companies named after bits of fruit, it carried the imprimatur of a world-renowned name and sold a zillion, making Gates's operating system a world standard. IBM had failed to realise that any fool could make the boxes, but the hand that owned the software ruled the world. Big Blue had given the kid Gates a free ride into the stratosphere and then, astoundingly, found itself starting to fall away like a discarded booster rocket. Sadly, this new world software standard was actually a piece of crap.

MS-DOS, as Gates called it, had started life as QDOS-86, or the Quick & Dirty Operating System, which told you all you needed to know about it. A whole generation of people doggedly learned to run their businesses on a system that was written as a quick lash-up for hobbyists and hackers. Was there anything better around? Of course.

In the 1970s Xerox had funded a team of the world's top computer scientists to research the man/machine interface. They devised a graphical system, using windows, icons and mice. Oddly, Xerox failed to follow this up, and the research was taken up and brought to market by Apple Computer as the Macintosh. After a shaky, underpowered start, this machine matured into a well-integrated system which was not only very powerful, but a real pleasure to use.

The Microsoft line on all this was that windows were for wimps. The truth was that plain old MS-DOS couldn't actually do them. Graphics, mice, networking, and a whole lot else, had to be added to the basic core of QDOS as one afterthought after another, which is why Wintel computers are so fiendishly complicated to set up and maintain. Gates, however, had always known which way the future lay, and for years Microsoft managed the awkward juggling act of rubbishing Apple's user interface while simultaneously trying to devise something like it that would fit on top of the bloated clutter that MS-DOS had become.

However, the Macintosh is not the last word in interface design, and if Microsoft had been the innovative company it calls itself, it would have taken the opportunity to take a radical leap beyond the Mac, instead of producing a feeble, me-too imitation.

An awful lot of people who try to install Windows 95 will end up having to spend so much money buying extra RAM and upgrading their peripherals to get features that Mac users have enjoyed for years, that they might just as well give up and buy the real thing.

The idea that Bill Gates has appeared like a knight in shining armour to lead all customers out of a mire of technological chaos neatly ignores the fact that it was he, by peddling second-rate technology, who led them into it in the first place. -- The Guardian