Weaknesses of Microsoft.

Brian Fristensky frist at cc.umanitoba.ca
Tue Nov 10 21:03:41 EST 1998

> Luis R Viteri wrote:
> >
> > Who can list 5 weaknesses of Microsoft?
> >
> > --LRV--

I shouldn't jump into this, but since this is
a bionet group, I'll try to stick to reasons
why MS-Windows is a bad place to do 
molecular biology.

1. The single user PC model.
The concept that a computer is used by a single
user, who has all his/her software and files on
one machine, is inextricably entrenched in
Windows.  Even though NT now allows a user to
have a home directory of sorts, no software
that I have seen defaults to it. Windows software
always wants to write files to a directory, usually
named 'Documents' or 'Data' deep within the 'Programs'
hierarchy. If multiple users use a machine, every
time you open a file you have to do an awful lot
of clicking to get to a directory you own.
Unless you could afford to put each specialized
molecular bio. software package onto each
person's PC, you are stuck with the task
of having data from numerous users mingling
in the same directory. 

2. The one window owns the screen model.
I guess commercial software vendors want to 
show how important their programs are by making
them default to taking up the entire screen.
Yes, you can click at the top of a window to
make it take up only part of the screen, but
every time you start another task, you have
to keep doing that. This kind of behavior
prevents people from learning how to work
with multiple windows (eg. a sequence generating
several windows, a web browser in another,
a database in another window). Also, most 
windows apps are written with the intention
that they should take up the entire screen,
so they use a lot screen real estate, especially
at the top of the window. Many Windows apps
look pretty ugly if you try to make them take
up less than a full screen. In contrast, apps
written for X-windows tend to economize on 
screen real estate. (xv and acedb are champs,

3. The each program owns the system model.
NT claims to have preemptive
multitasking. However, there are still lots
of situations in which a program is waiting
to do something, or the program hangs, and
the entire screen freezes up. You literally
can't do anything else at this point, except,
of course, to reboot. In a research environment,
you have to be able to do a lot of tasks
at the same time. With NT, it seems that the
more simultaneous tasks are going on, the higher
the liklihood that one of them will freeze
the system. While I have, a few times in my
life seen an X11 application freeze up the 
screen, requiring me to log in from another
terminal to cancel the job (which I don't
think is possible in NT), these occurrences
have been rare.

4. Poor command line functionality.
Well, NT is better than DOS, but not
by much. Compared to the thousands of
Unix commands, the improvement in
NT is barely significant. Lots of the
more sophisticated sequence tools 
don't have graphic interfaces, and
need to be run from the command line.
With GDE, it has been possible to
automate the process of running 
text-based/command line programs
from a graphic interface, solely
because the underlying commands
were available in Unix to do so. 
I use a GUI for most things, but when
I want a robust command line, Unix
has what I need.

5. File dis-organization
I run a multiuser sequence analysis resource
called BIRCH, for 'Biological Research
Computer Hierarchy'. 
(see http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~psgendb).
Notice the word hierarchy. In a well organized Unix
system, the entire system throughout the
campus or corporation behaves as a single
hierarchy. To make programs and databases
available to our users, I put them into
a world-readable directory structure. To 
access the programs, the first time user
has to run a single setup script, that
adds lines to his/her .login and .cshrc
files that tell the shell to look to
the BIRCH global cshrc and login scripts
for setup commands. That way, even when
the configuration has to be changed,
(eg. new environment variables, telling
programs where to find files), the 
changes take effect the next time the 
user logs in, without them having to 
do a thing. I have been managing BIRCH
as a multiuser system since 1991, and
we now have over 140 users campuswide.
In all that time, I have never once
had to login to user accounts, one
by one, to make some change take effect.

NT still has drives (C:, H:, S: etc)
that can be redefined by each user
on their own PC, unless every PC is
individually configured by somebody with
enough time to go to each machine and 
configure it. I presume there are still
environment variables as DOS had, but
I don't know. When one considers how 
many different configurations of PCs 
there are on a campus, the idea of trying
to implement a BIRCH-like system on NT
makes me queasy. I don't know that
it's impossible, but I wouldn't want
to make the attempt. 

6. Installed base of software
It is still true that more molecular 
biology software is developed on Unix than
any other platform, largely because
for serious computing, and in particular,
for serious programming, development is
easier. The same is probably 
true in many other areas of science. 
A funny irony, when you consider the fact
that the main reason Windows has such a
strong monopoly is because of its market 
share of office desktop software.

I can't imagine trying to 
do serious science on an NT platform. If
software vendors would get serious about
writing desktop applications for Unix,
we could say good riddance to Windows
and the messy computing model that it
forces people to work with.

7. The START button
This comment is not really germane to biology,
but the start button is a damned inconvenient
thing to use, because it makes you move
all the way to one corner of the screen.
All X11 window managers have a floating
workspace menu, which you get simply
by holding down the right mouse button
ANYWHERE on the screen. 

8. The sea of icons
Who thought it would be a good idea for every
application on the system to take up a little
bit of the screen, EVEN WHEN IT ISN'T RUNNING?
Install a Windows app, and lose more screen
real estate to a colorful icon. 
And you still have to move to
a specific place on the screen to launch
it. And THEN, when you do launch it, a button
at the bottom of the screen takes up even more
real estate! This is better?

9. Windows doesn't have a concept of a
current working directory.
In Unix, start a program in any directory 
it will read and write files, by default,
within that directory. This makes it easier
to keep your directories organized by
topic, rather than by program. For example

At best, a Windows program might start
you out in the root directory.

Now I have a question. Is there anybody
out there actually doing real science
on the NT platform -- and loving it?
Maybe NT has some hidden charms that
have been lost on me. 

Brian Fristensky                | "...literature... is like stopping
your car
Department of Plant Science     | on the highway at night and stepping
out and
University of Manitoba          | walking alone into dark damp woods
Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2  CANADA    | it's unbearable to only know what's in
frist at ccu.umanitoba.ca          | headlights. Art calls us out of the
Office phone:   204-474-6085    | life into a life that is dangerous,
FAX:            204-474-7528    | Garrison Keillor, WE ARE STILL MARRIED

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