Before my current job, my last crack at using MS Windows as a desktop was in 2000. It lasted about 6 months before I decided Linux made a better desktop. Back then I was using Windows 2000. I didn’t have any particular gripe with it – just didn’t really get along with it. I found it to be reasonably stable – at least as stable as a Mac of that era but less stable than Linux. I used Linux until November 2005 when I moved back to Mac. The change was dramatic: when I left, I was running Mac OS 9 and I came back to Mac OS 10.4 – a modern Unix based OS which, after years on Linux, felt like a good mix of Unix and lickable buttons.

At my current job, I don’t have the benefit of choosing the OS of my desktop, and the imagined redtape involved in connecting my laptop to their network means that for the first time in a long time, I’ve got Windows on the desktop. I’ve been using Windows at work for almost 4 months. Windows XP, SP2.

After all this time, I figured Windows would have improved. Surely, I thought, after almost 8 years of development things must be good – after all, consider the improvements in Linux since Red Hat 6. Literally leaps and bounds in all possible measures. Mac OS also went from an OS with no preemptive multitasking ( they used cooperative multitasking) and no memory protection to a modern Unix with all associated goodness.

Windows XP, to me, doesn’t seem to have improved at all since 2000 aside from that annoying dark blue Crayola “theme”. It might be marginally more stable, although that could just me treating it with kid gloves.

When my PC started playing up recently, I called in tech support. They asked when I’d last rebooted it. I said, “Oh a week or two?” – Everyone looked at my like I was King of the Muppet people. I retorted to the laughter with “Seriously? I though that was a joke! It’s 2008!” They laughed, closed the ticket and told me to reboot. It didn’t fix the problem. Next they suggested I’d installed to many applications and that was slowing it down. I’d installed Safari and the related Apple stuff dragged in (iTunes, quicktime, Bonjour, Software Update), Firefox, Wireshark and a couple of Jabber clients to test a jabber server. That’s it.

I agreed to uninstall the stuff I wasn’t using or didn’t really need. The tech support guy opened up the add/remove program control panel and I deleted a few bits of software I’d been playing with (Safari for Windows). After removing software and rebooting again, the problem persisted. So I figured I’d uninstall some more software – but you need admin rights to open the add/remove programs control panel! So, you can install software, but you can’t uninstall software?! Apparently this is all you can do to fix problems. The next step, in the estimation of my Windows support guy, is to rebuilding the box from scratch.

Now, I admit, I’m no Windows administrator, but how can you seriously run websites or email servers or anything with a modicum of importance on this stuff? It’s garbage. No wonder MS are so into clustering – rather than fixing problems on servers, you simply rebuild them. Just take it out of the cluster and nuke it.

It doesn’t stop there. I’ve been documenting the more ridiculous aspects of life on Windows. Windows Explorer, one of the most used apps seems to have stood still. It does not keep the files on the right in alphabetical order. Copying or saving a file from an application into a directory simply adds that item to the end of the list. It seems you have to refresh the folder list to get them in order. Which is odd because the list of files & servers constantly flickers – I guess because of the attached network shares updating in the background. If you’re going to have an annoying, flickering explorer, at least it should be updating the file list to keep them correctly sorted. It’s kind of like an old fluorescent tube with a bad starter. It seems you can hide files beginning with a dot in the right hand side, but but not for folders on the left. Not only that, but Explorer doesn’t seem to be able to create a folder or file beginning with a “.”. To cap it off, the Explorer has no duplicate function, only copy/cut & paste.

Opening documents in Excel, Word or Visio sometimes opens them in separate windows, sometimes in the same parent window. This is some sort of brain dead MDI behaviour. I can’t figure out how to make individual documents consistently open in their own window. To top it off, in both cases there are two buttons in the task bar. Alt-Tab shows you two word icons – naturally they’re different – one probably represents the “Parent”.

Of course, both windows show up in the task bar, and naturally, each window from the same app respond differently to mouse-down / mouse-up. Sometimes you get the window on mouse-down, sometimes you have to wait for mouse-up. Sometimes, it works like you expect. Usually when you call someone over to show them.

Say you have Word open, then you open another word window, then a third. The layering of windows is inconsistent. Click and hold on each of the different windows in the task bar, and you’ll get different responses – sometimes the window jumps straight to the top, sometimes a different windows jumps to the top on mouse-down, only to disappear behind the correct window when you mouse-up.

The number of reboots is funny – like most jokes about Windows, this one is true. Ian just bought a new laptop – the first thing it did, after starting up, was to reboot. And then to reboot. And then one more reboot. Just in case. I think the total was higher than this, but I lost count. You have to reboot when upgrading Acrobat. I try not to use caps lock. Just in case.

Want to look for a file? I tried using the inbuilt search function for the file “services” and initially didn’t return any results. When I open the C:\WINDOWS\system32\drivers\etc directory – so I could see the services file, the next search found it. Naturally this file can exist in C:\WINDOWS\system32\drivers\etc\services or C:\WINNT\system32\drivers\etc\services. For consistency, they’ve capped it at two locations. Brilliant.

Windows Security sucks. You can have your ability to change the desktop image removed – however you can still set the desktop image with an application such as Paint which hasn’t been locked down. You can install applications, but have your access to “Add/Remove Programs” denied so you can’t uninstall them. Security in this sense seems to apply only to the method of doing something, rather than the result. So, instead of locking the desktop image, they lock the ways they know of changing it. Instead of stopping you installing software, they block access to the Add/Remove program.

I have this fond memory of Visio – the excellent drawing program. Doesn’t seem to have changed since I first saw it in 1999. Compared to OmniGraffle, it’s rubbish. Lines are never straight – they often seem to have kinks in them because the snap-to function doesn’t seem to consider a straight line as useful. Nothing seems to be anti-aliased. There’s jagged lines all over the shop. Fonts look especially craptacular – but I’ll accept that I’m just used to seeing them nicely anti-aliased on a Mac, and that you can “get used to it”. They do look better if you turn on the ClearType stuff ( just a simple download, install and reboot for smooth fonts. ) Ctrl-w doesn’t close a window in Visio – it zooms to fill the window with the document. You need good old alt-f4 or alt-f-c. Naturally neither of these are listed as short cuts are documented in the “File->Close” menu option.

It’s this inconsistency that really gets to me. Just when you think you’ve got it sorted, it randomly changes.

I hear tell that Vista may actually be better, but reports are conflicted. For the foreseeable future, Windows for me will be simply a boot loader for Call of Duty 4.