DateMonday 18 April 2005

“The ultimate version”.. “the greatest operating system ever created..” “almost-perfect”.. it’s.. Windows 98!

Oh, I am so grateful to Metafilter, which points to a Longhorn review (by someone who probably knows how to do a review) and also, just by way of, oh, comparison, to Paul Thurrott’s – yes, him – review of Windows 98 (at http://www.winsupersite.com/reviews/win98.asp – I’m really not going to give such a prat any Googlejuice).

Some of the highlights, kicking off right from the start: Billed as the ultimate upgrade to Windows 95, Microsoft’s latest and greatest operating system is all that and more. You’ve probably heard about Windows 98, or seen it on the news, and maybe you’ve attended a Windows 98 demonstration at any one of the many tradeshows that Microsoft has attended in the past two years. You may have heard that it contains 13 million lines of code and is the central figure in a battle with the Justice Department that may last well into the next century.

Ultimate – and more! I’m not sure what superlative there would be for that. Super-ultimate? Meta-ultimate?

There follows lots of boring stuff about its history and development. I’ve been testing Windows 98 since the very first release, a developer preview that shipped just after Christmas 1996. That initial release was basically a rebadged version of Windows 95 OSR-2 with USB support, the release of Windows 95 you’d get if you bought a new computer in 1997. It was stable as hell

Everyone for whom Windows 98 ever crashed, raise your hand? Anyway, he installed every developer build: I suspect that most Windows 98 reviewers are far less experienced than I in this regard: this isn’t a point of pride necessarily, but I feel that I have had a unique amount of experience with this operating system and thus a unique perspective on its role in the industry.

Gee, and they said the world faced a modesty shortage. How could they have been so wrong?

The next few months were confusing. New releases appeared late every week, and while I diligently downloaded and installed each build, I found fewer and fewer differences (or problems, for that matter). Windows 98 just worked and many testers (myself included) questioned why this thing wasn’t getting released. To its credit, the Windows 98 team at Microsoft responded (often by phone!) to each and every bug report, determined that this product would never be labeled “rushed out the door” as Microsoft products often are.

Oh Lord, yes. Those Softies, just ridiculous. Any old rubbish, and it’s always early.

But then, once the work is done and dusted, he’s assailed by existential doubt. So, after all this time, one has to wonder what the point is. I mean, Windows 98 is only a point release, and yet it took almost two years to get it to market. It’s comparable to the Windows 3.0-to-3.1 upgrade in one sense, and yet as the final rendition of the Windows 9x line, you must understand that this is the ultimate Windows. It’s the best it’s ever going to be, and yes, that’s quite good.

The best it’s ever going to be. You hear that, Wilma? No need for any more of those damn operating systems! Fella here says it’s the best these things will ever be!

Windows 98 will probably be the last implementation of Active Desktop as we now know it.

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t it continue in 98SE and ME?

I suppose by this time, it’s almost beside the point that Internet Explorer integration allows you to browse the Web from any My Computer/Explorer window and browse your hard drive from IE if you wish. It’s all part of the plan, and it doesn’t matter where you perform these operations as all Shell windows behave the same way. And indeed, many hackers have used this to browse many Windows 98 users’ machines while they were online. Oh wait, you didn’t mean it like that.

It’s no surprise by now that Internet Explorer 4.0 SP1 is an integral part of Windows 98. No, but it displeased the US Justice Department a little, as I recall.

Power Management is installed in Windows 98 whether you want it or not, so you should be advised that the default settings–which I also argued against during the beta–are horribly inadequate for most users. Windows 98 PM can shut down your monitor and hard drive(s) automatically after a specified period time that ranges from 1 minute to never. The default, however, is only 15 minutes, even for a desktop system. As a long-time laptop user, I understand the benefits of such a feature but most desktop users will be shocked to find their monitor turned off for them after such a short period of time. This is one of the first features I change when I install Windows 98. Er, so hang on, this isn’t perfect? After all that?

There’s always something. That one feature you curse, even as you attempt to delete every vestige of it from your system. Online Services is such a feature… Here’s the problem: If you tell Windows 98 not to install Online Services, it will still put all kinds of Online Services files all over your system. And I hate that. Good gracious. You mean that they didn’t take notice of what you told them, Mr Super-Diligent Beta Tester? It’s almost as if they thought your opinion wasn’t worth listening to.

Anyway, let’s get to the meat. Let’s decide whether this is worth having. Put simply, Windows 98 is the ultimate version of Windows. If you can accept that Windows is the de-facto operating system, and therefore represents what a modern operating is, then Windows 98 is the greatest operating system ever created. Hmm. So.. better than Unix. Or Solaris. Or BeOS. Or indeed RiscOS. Or the many real-time systems floating around. Or, hey, Linux, which was then getting out of short pants. Windows 98 is the refined, improved, almost-perfect version of Windows we’ve been waiting for over the past two years. In every way, it is an improvement over Windows 95, and in every way it offers little features that make you smile and wonder how you ever got along without them.

Just a few short years ago, companies such as Apple Computer were driving the personal computer revolution. Microsoft changed all that with the release of Windows 95, and since that time the gap has only widened. As new releases from other companies borrow more and more heavily from Windows (witness Mac OS 8 as the most obvious example), one can only wonder where it will all stop. Windows 98 raises the bar even higher and the Apple Computers of the world will find a target that is slipping further and further away.

Surely targets don’t slip further away, do they? If the metaphor is of a departing train, then wouldn’t it be a target that’s receding daily? And hasn’t that come exactly true? Apple, poor chumps, don’t have a secure operating system, or any of the features that Microsoft has now, like fast file searching, multiple users, an inbuilt web server, inbuilt mail server, and so many more things. As for consumer electronics..

In some ways, it’s unfortunate that Windows 98 won’t come into this world with a bang as Windows 95 did, but then it’s a sign of the times that a much better operating system should be met with a relative yawn. Windows 98 is Windows as it should be, and maybe that’s not such as big deal. I happen to think that Windows 98 is a stunning achievement, however, and it will serve hundreds of millions of users well for years to come. You may have heard the saying “God is in the details.” That’s what Windows 98 is all about.

Actually, the saying I’ve heard is “The devil is in the detail”, but Miles van der Rohe seems to have said both (or either). Still, I think we can agree on one thing – the idiocy is in the big picture.

So now, could all the people who are pointing to this dolt’s Tiger review point to this one too, and run it alongside? Just to show that when it comes to writing a review of a piece of software, he has absolutely no clue? Oh, it may be too much to hope for. Perhaps a lesson in journalism I should have added is that the bad drives out the good, if the bad is timed well enough.

Environmentalists will embrace nuclear power and GMOs, and other contrary thinking

Fascinating, and very insightful, article at Technology Review by Stewart Brand (who I’ve got to admit I’ve never heard of before) entitled Environmental Heresies, which forecasts that Over the next ten years, I predict, the mainstream of the environmental movement will reverse its opinion and activism in four major areas: population growth, urbanization, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power.

I happen to agree with him, at least on the nuclear bit, and probably the GMOs bit. Population growth and urbanisation I’m not so much in agreement about (because there’s still a lot of non-urbanised world, and also many urbanized countries where religion dictates that they should try to have lots of children).

On nuclear, he comments Kyoto accords, radical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. But add them all up and it’s still only a fraction of enough (which I’ve said before too). Also: The industry is mature, with a half-century of experience and ever improved engineering behind it. Problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design. Nuclear power plants are very high yield, with low-cost fuel. Finally, they offer the best avenue to a “hydrogen economy,” combining high energy and high heat in one place for optimal hydrogen generation.

And he makes a good point right from the outset: Reversals of this sort have occurred before. Wildfire went from universal menace in mid-20th century to honored natural force and forestry tool now, from “Only you can prevent forest fires!” to let-burn policies and prescribed fires for understory management. The structure of such reversals reveals a hidden strength in the environmental movement and explains why it is likely to keep on growing in influence from decade to decade and perhaps century to century.

That is, if we manage to survive a few centuries. There are some scientists – Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, for example – who put our chances of getting past this one only at evens. (Then again, he’s not expecting to be around to pay out, I suppose.)