Windows: The users strike back

Rupert Goodwins: I asked you for your pet Windows peeves. Sadly, everyone is entirely happy with the operating system and nobody replied... nah, only joking

My previous column, Filling the gaps in Windows, struck a chord. It's easy enough to get a full inbox of scorn in response to a column: all you have to do is insult some obscure, outdated computer architecture such as a BBC Micro, an Acorn Archimedes or the Apple Macintosh. But it's rare to get positive suggestions. I wonder why Microsoft never thinks of asking its users?

First, an apology or two. I conflated journaling and versioning filing systems, as several people pointed out. Journaling systems keep notes of what you do, versioning systems keep copies of what things were like before you did them. Either are darned useful -- journaling more so -- but neither are an option with Windows.

I also didn't know that you can mark out large areas of text -- or anything else that can be graphically selected -- by clicking at the start of the block, moving to the end and then shift plus left click. "RTFM!" chortled Ian Archer, who appears to be something to do with a financial consultancy. Well, Ian, much as I'd love to RTFM, I've never seen a version of Windows that came with anything resembling full manuals. Seeing as I've been using Windows since it came on five 360K floppies (1985. Oh dear) I wonder what else I've missed. A quick straw poll in the office reveals that roughly half the denizens knew this shortcut: the moral of this story is, if Microsoft shipped some halfway decent documentation with Windows, or made a good manual available online, we'd all be a lot happier.

And then onto the stuff the people want. A decent uninstaller. Heavens, yes. How many times have you run Windows own uninstaller only to be told that a file was missing, so you can't. Or that some files had been left, which you should remove separately. Which files? Where? Why won't you tell me? How am I supposed to guess? A decent undo function, with multiple levels. Again, something I've used a long time ago on operating systems far, far away -- but which has never managed to make it to Redmond.

You also want File Open dialog boxes that remember what view you prefer for each directory, or keep their context for different applications -- or even file extensions. Windows has a go at working out where you want to find stuff, but isn't very clever about it. Windows Explorer should have a filter by file type and, says Computer Bruce, all the network settings should be in one place, not scattered around control panels, properties, computer management utilities and so on. That's spot on: the number of times I've tried to chase down a half-remembered network setting through the forests of options beggars belief. And try hunting down an unwanted process that kicks off somewhere during startup.

Error messages in English were also demanded -- for example, by the ironically named Jwb52Z at AOL. Don't be shy, Jwb52Z -- let us know next time whether we can just call you Jwb. Anyway, as the mystery acronym says: "I'd like error boxes to be able to explain in English what went wrong. For example: "This error happened because... and involved these files that do these things." Absolutely. My first computer, the venerable ZX81, produced an error code between 0 and F followed by the line number it happened on -- so 4/10 meant "Out of memory at line 10". Excusable, given it had a complete BASIC and decent maths package in 8K: how much of your hard disk has Windows commandeered?

John Galloway, who does things for users at York University, wondered why Outlook XP wouldn't let you print just the first page of a long email, and why you couldn't format the subject heading properly. There's no end of infelicities in Outlooks of all flavours, and it remains the Microsoft product I like least -- and, of course, the one I have to use most. Paul Hampson wanted backup utilities in Outlook Express, but as far as I can tell you might just as well wish for zero-calorie chocolate.

Finally, some unanswered questions: what exactly goes on in Windows when you rename a file and everything goes dead for a second? Why do shortcuts never notice when their main files are moved or deleted? Why did the giant brains at Microsoft design a registry that had no access control and was a half-hearted attempt at a database, despite having all the tools already present in the operating system to have done it properly?

We may never know the answer to these and other mysteries: I fear I'll go to my grave before the real story of Windows is uncovered. And that's one tradition of operating system software I won't be sad to see go if one day, open source wins the game.