Keeping Out of the Way

Twenty years ago this coming summer, my dad bought me my first computer. It was a BBC Model B, and it couldn’t have been a better place to start with geekery. I’d been messing around for a while with a similar one that my mother would bring home from her school sometimes at weekends for safe keeping. Mostly I’d spend hours typing in code listings printed in geeky magazines. It was, inadvertently, a very effective way to learn how to program. Since my typing was relatively slow (and I’ve never progressed beyond using two fingers), I was able to wonder to myself exactly what this or that bit of code would do, how they fit into the larger scheme of things. And since there were always errors, whether from my mistyping or (frequently) the magazine misprinting, that meant I needed to debug. I’m not sure that there’s better training for a programmer than to debug some piece of code that you almost understand. The reward for my labours seemed alchemical: to turn these arcane characters on the page into some cheesy game on the screen. Frankly, it was always worth it. It wasn’t the end result. It was the process: to travel hopefully.

The BBC micro was wonderfully designed in many ways. It had the best keyboard of any home computer of the time. Its sturdiness and slightly earnest looks betrayed the fact that Acorn designed it mainly for use in schools. It had, in ROM, BBC BASIC, one of the best BASICs there’s ever been.

And here’s the thing. Even after many months of using the machine to play games, write my own little programs, mess around generally, I had only a very sketchy sense of what an operating system is. To be sure, this was mostly because a machine with no storage device more complicated than cassette tape can get away without much of an operating system to speak of. But it’s also because the OS was kept out of the way. Upon turning the machine on, there was a reassuring beep, and it dropped straight into the BASIC interpreter. No booting. No waiting. Bam. Commands to the OS were made from within BASIC by prefixing them with an asterisk, which served as an escape character. Such commands were almost never needed.

Now, hiding the innards of the machine like this is a bit of a drawback for a kid who subsequently goes on to a Computing Science degree and finds he has to catch up, but in terms of useability, it’s an ideal. The more a user is aware of the operating system, the more it’s getting between him and what he wants to do. The operating system’s job is to connect user with application, whilst keeping out of the way. Albeit on a small scale, the BBC micro achieved this perfectly.

These days, my OS of choice is Mac OS X. Despite the complexity of the humming, purring engine that’s under the bonnet, it succeeds amazingly well in lying low. Needless to say, I rarely notice this until I’m forced to use something else.

There never was an operating system that drew attention to itself more than MS Windows, which seemed more eager to share its complexity generously with the user. Now look, it seems to say, this is really complicated, there’s just no way around that. But I can help, honestly, so don’t panic! You want to search for something, I’ll show you a cute puppy and ask patronisingly what you want to search for. See, isn’t that better? Want to install something new? That’s okay, I have a wizard here that can help you through it. Wizard. The associations that word has couldn’t do much more to imply complexity, mystery. Obviously this is too difficult for you, since it needs a wizard to handle it.

Except it needs nothing of the sort. What it needs is a clean, consistent, intuitive user interface, and a modicum of trust in the user. Microsoft provides complexity, but then adds animated puppies and paper-clips and wizards to help guide you through it. Thanks, guys.

All of this blah is leading up to my whine about this early look at Longhorn, the revamped Microsoft Windows that won’t be released (according to reports) until 2007. Two things stand out, especially viewing the slide-show that comes with the article. The first is how many of the whizzo new features that lucky PC owners can expect in 2007 (shadowed windows, support for transparent and 3D graphics, an Exposé-like window organiser) have been part of OS X for a while. The second is that under the shiny new exterior, this is still the Tower of Babel that’s MS Windows, layer upon teetering layer crushing down on MS-DOS, the last actually-usable operating system that Microsoft produced. Still wearing its complexity like a badge of honour. Plus ça change.

Me, I’m heading back to OS X, and installing Chris Lam and Richard Bannister’s Horizon BBC Model B emulator. If I can get Chuckie Egg working, I’ll be a happy bunny.

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