VALUE OF WINDOWING IS QUESTIONED
Does anyone do windows any more? I don’t mean the clear panes of glass in our homes, long the object of the punch line of abject-housekeeper jokes, but the on-screen ”Now you can run half a dozen programs at once” variety. The answer is, not really.
Windows, which had been announced as early as 1982, were the hot concept for 1984, as mice were for 1983. But where mice have found their niche, windows were seen through by the consumer. The idea had been that your computer, using windows, could display small segments of a number of programs at the same time, coordinating them on the monitor screen.
That premise was certainly beguiling to anyone who had ever had to shut down one program in order to locate some information in another, as in word-processing a report and having to exit the word processor, load a spreadsheet to project some figures for the presentation, and then reload the word processing software in order to be able to insert the newly generated numeric results and continue working on the report.
But there were other solutions to that juggling problem. One of those solutions, integrated software, as typified by Lotus 1-2-3, swept the marketplace right out from under the windows. An integrated package includes several of what would otherwise be separate programs, all more or less interactive. It might involve graphics, word processing and telecommunications, for instance.
The major difference between an integrated package and a windowing system is that the various software facilities of the integrated package are specifically designed from the beginning to work together using the same command structure and operating features. This makes integrated software not only simpler to use, at least in relative terms, but also a lot faster for the computer to run.
An integrated program, of course, limits you to what comes bundled together. If you have been using WordStar for word processing and Crosstalk XVI for communications, not only must you discard your original software investment and spend a considerable sum for the new, integrated package, but you must abandon almost everything you learned. Suddenly you are demoted from expert to novice.
Windows, on the other hand, are an operating environment. They make up a software layer separating the operating system of your computer, say MS-DOS, which controls how the machine runs, and the particular applications programs, say word processing and an equation solver, that you run on the machine. In theory, then, any applications software, be it a spreadsheet or the latest adventure game, should be able to run simultaneously with a number of other programs, provided your computer is equipped with a windowing package such as Desq, from the now more or less defunct Quarterdeck, VisiOn, from the transmogrified VisiCorp, Windows, maybe soon to be released, several years late, by Microsoft, or I.B.M.’s preannounced Topview, whose future is equally in doubt.
One of the problems the purveyors of the much-promoted windows ran into in trying to fulfill their promise was that of finding software that would run in their special environments. Either the programs all had to be rewritten to take into account the particular requirements of the windowing software or the windowing environment had to be so all-encompassing as to include every conceivable software writer’s mode of operation, in which case running the programs would be so slow as to try one’s patience.
The problem was not unsimilar to having one cooking pot and trying to prepare dinner for an assortment of visitors including a vegetarian, a Moslem, a Bulu tribesman and a North European. Either you opted for groats gruel, an alternative certain to leave everybody less than enthralled, or you cooked four different dishes, washing the pot in between. But that in between was what windowing software was supposed to eliminate. Even had the technical problems been solved, and they were thorny enough, there would have remained the people problem.
In the somewhat pretentious pep talk of the software industry, windowing was to emulate the familiar, comforting desktop, a cluttered one at that. But it is extremely difficult to use efficiently a system that displays bits and pieces of documents in windows next to and above and below each other, like so many papers spread out in overlapping piles on a desk with just their edges sticking out here and there to identify them. So little was visible of each document, so few identifying lines, that the user often simply forgot what was hidden underneath.
The windows could be individually expanded, of course, or the text in them scrolled, in order to see more. But that took considerably more time and effort than simply thumbing through a sheaf of papers. Windows were a great idea until you compared them with the old-fashioned, uncomputerized desk, at which point it became obvious that they were simply too complicated to be dealt with efficiently. They made life more difficult, not easier, and they will continue to do so until a video display the size of a desktop can make visible a number of complete documents, each in its own window. That is something unlikely to occur, if for no other reason than cost, for at least a decade.
The original spreadsheet VisiCalc fueled the personal computer explosion because it offered a marvelous myriad of possibilities inacessible without a micro. Windows failed, a doom I preannounce for the yet to be released Microsoft version and I.B.M.’s Topview, because they offered a myriad of problems inaccessible without a micro.