In Praise of Windows 98

I still have a couple of Windows 98 machines in my house. They are used mainly for gaming – particularly older games and flight simulations. They are in great demand when the niblings come to town, as they allow them to “verse” (play against) each other at a variety of games, including Star Wars Racer, Descent 3 and their all-time favorite, Spectre-VR (a 1995-vintage DOS game in which they roll around in tanks and shoot one another). As they grow, I look forward to introducing them to the joys of Battlezone 2, Starlancer, FreeSpace 2, Star Trek: Armada, and Conquest: Frontier Wars

While using these old computers, I could not help contrast how snappy they were. Windows popped open and winked out on command. The Start Menu and Control Panel snapped to attention when invoked and disappeared with alacrity when dismissed. And even when the system crashed or locked up, it only took a minute to reboot the system.

At work I use a Dual Core machine running at 3GHz with 4Gb of RAM, running Windows 7. While it has far greater functionality and flexibility, it is slow. There are times when invoking an object – like the Control Panel, or the “All Programs” menu, or viewing a non-system drive can take more than a second. Other functions – like the Control Panel – can take even longer.

That got me thinking about where we went wrong. My smartphone – A Motorola Droid X2 – has a Dual-Core 1GHz processor and 8GB of on-board storage, along with a 32GB microSD chip. It is more powerful than any of those old computers. And yet it takes a minute and a half to boot, and another two minutes for all of the the apps, widgets, services and media scanners to settle down and become completely usable. That’s three and a half minutes from turning the phone on to the point where you can actually do something useful with it. My previous phone — a decidedly non-smart Motorola W755 — was ready for use inside 15 seconds.

So where am I going with this? In a word, usability. Shinier, flasher phones are not the answer. Slimmed-down appliances are – this is why the iPod is so popular – it does one thing extremely well, and doesn’t try to do too many jobs. This is where Palm went wrong – they had a device that did a small number of things well, and tried to make it do more than it was meant to. A little further back, Psion is another example.

And this is why RIM (Blackberry) is a dead man looking for a place to fall.

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