Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 26/4/2006 So there I am, typing away, minding my own business, when someinternal disruption deep in the Stygian darkness of my computer bubblesto the surface like the miasma from a decaying frog. "Rules in error" says the box.

Wednesday 26/4/2006

So there I am, typing away, minding my own business, when some internal disruption deep in the Stygian darkness of my computer bubbles to the surface like the miasma from a decaying frog.

"Rules in error" says the box. "Rule: Server Requested Client Action. Error: Unable to find destination folder. The folder may be deleted or..."

Because that sentence is too long to fit and the box cannot be resized, I have to use a horizonal scroll bar to read the rest: "... in a PST Outlook cannot open."

That's it. There is one button to click, labelled Cancel. After trying various tricks to see if there's any more information hidden away, I give in and click. The box vanishes. I check Outlook. There is no sign that anything has actually gone wrong.

If Microsoft had tried harder, they could have broken some more cardinal rules of usability — but for a first try, it was very impressive. The error contained no information I could act on. It had no context to help me diagnose the actual fault. It had no suggestions to help rectify the problem. The information was presented clumsily and in a way that actively prevented me from investigating further (the text couldn't be copied to the clipboard, for example, or into a search engine). The single action I could take was ambiguously labelled — what, exactly, was I cancelling? And I still have no idea whatsoever whether the thing was important or not. So why bother?

I don't know why, after all these years, I should still feel actual anger at Microsoft's incompetence. A healthier attitude would be to ignore it, and an even healthier one would be to move on to other software — having used Ubuntu for a month or so on a spare laptop, I'm going to make my main machine dual boot with the eventual aim of relegating Windows to occasional testbed.

Yet anger it is. It's fuelled this week by Microsoft going to the EU and blustering about innovation, about others "having a free ride" on its hard work. It's the company saying that "functional equivalence" needs people to "go far beyond interoperability" — in other words, when you say you want to work with us you really want to rip us off, so we're not going to even let you start. Isn't that what psychologists call projection? It's people like Ballmer boasting that he's "brainwashed" his kids into not having iPods or using Google: ban the competition, don't learn from it.

If Microsoft's unvarying monochromatic belief in its own divine right to do what it liked actually worked, then at least one could say that the trains ran on time. But it doesn't work. We're left with the running joke that's Vista, with the tiresome spectacle of a convicted monopolist preaching about morals to a judge, and with software like Outlook behaving in a way that'd get a first year programming student demoted to media studies.

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