Not long ago, my friend Chuck bought his first computer. Like many new buyers, he wanted to bring work home from the office, keep track of his household expenses and investments, and give the kids a tool to help them with their schoolwork.
Fred isn't exactly computer illiterate. He uses a PC at the office -- WordPerfect for correspondence and reports, Lotus 1-2-3 for budgets and financial projections. But he's not what I'd call a power user. And he was puzzled when he called me.
"The computer came with this Microsoft Windows program on the hard disk. I ran it and it sure looked pretty, but I don't really know what to do with it. Do I need it?"
It's a question that hundreds of thousands of new computer owners are asking themselves. While many new PC's come bundled with Windows software today and the computer press treats Windows as the de facto standard for computing, my guess is that many new users -- and people who have been working DOS applications for years -- don't have a clue about what Windows is or why they should use it.
Windows is a program for IBM-compatible machines that's designed to make computers easier to use and make the people who use them more productive. In the trade, Windows is known as a Graphical User Interface, or GUI for short (pronounced gooey).
To understand why this is important, consider that Microsoft's Disk Operating System (DOS), the basic software that has controlled IBM-compatibles since the first PC ap
peared, is hardly user-friendly. To run programs and organize or manipulate your data or software files, you have to type a series of cryptic commands from the keyboard.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to operate under DOS (there are 60 million IBM-compatible computers out there, so somebody must know how to do it). But it's intimidating for newcomers and requires people to learn more about how their PC operates than they really care to know.
DOS also has serious technical limitations. One is that without special tweaking, it can't run programs that require more than 640 kilobytes of memory, no matter how much RAM your computer has. This is partly a problem with DOS itself, and partly a problem with the design of the original IBM PC. Memory is cheap now, and programs are far more complex than they were 10 years ago, but DOS is still stuck with the 640K limit.
Also, DOS was designed to run only one program at a time. If my friend Chuck is writing a report and wants some figures from a spreadsheet, he has to save his document, unload WordPerfect, load Lotus 1-2-3 and then go back to WordPerfect. If he wants to import spreadsheet or graphs from Lotus into his report, he can do it, but it's a hassle.
He also has to remember what program he's using, and what set of commands make it work. Under DOS, all software authors are free to make programs work any way they want. To save a file under WordPerfect, Chuck has to remember to hit the F10 function key. To save a spreadsheet under Lotus, he has to type /FS. For people who use more than one program, it can be very confusing.
Enter the GUI, developed at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in the late 1970s and brought to desktop with the Apple Macintosh in 1984. The graphical interface is based on the assumption that most people understand pictures better than words, and that it's easier to point at something you want and push a button than it is to type a half-dozen arcane commands.
The GUI replaces the computer's command line with a picture of a desktop, with programs and files represented by little pictures, called icons. Using a device called a mouse, it allows users to point at a picture of a program or document and click a button to run the software.
The Apple Macintosh used the desktop metaphor from the start, and new users loved it. But IBM-
compatibles dominated the business world -- and they still do. So over the years -- with a couple of false starts -- Microsoft developed Windows to give IBM-compatible machines the same kind of user-friendliness.
Windows 3.1, Microsoft's latest effort, is a program that sits on top of DOS and is designed for computers with the advanced 80386 or 80486 microprocessors. It gets its name from the fact that you can run multiple programs simultaneously in windows on the screen and move from one to the other with a click of the mouse. This is called multitasking.
Like other GUI's, Windows makes computing easier by providing a standard set of pull-down menus and commands for loading and saving files as well as editing, copying and pasting information. Once you've learned one program designed for Windows, you know about half of what you need to use any Windows program.
Here's another neat trick: You can run most older DOS programs from within Windows.
Given these advantages, wouldn't Chuck be a fool if he didn't use Windows? Not necessarily. While Windows can make software easier to learn, it doesn't always guarantee software that's easier to use over the long run. Windows requires a lot of horsepower, and it can be far more difficult to get working properly than DOS. We'll discuss some of those issues next time.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)