Friday, November 14, 2008

I'm Apparently Not A PC

Like Windows Vista, this post has taken far too long to come, and probably won't be worth the wait. Don't worry, I'll do better with my next post. It'll have all the bells and whistles you want, and I'm going to start accepting input about what you'd like in it with this very post.

A blog is kind of like a monopoly that way. I can say pretty much anything I want here and people can comment. I don't have to do a thing about those comments, though, and those who know no other blog will still come back for more with the very next post, just like 95% of Windows users will go on to Windows Vista, Windows 7, and beyond without blinking.

Okay, so a blog isn't so much of a monopoly. You don't like what I have to say, you leave. You take your eyes elsewhere and you read opinions you agree with, or that challenge you in a way you like better. I guess I'll just never understand what really compels people to keep monopolies in power. And yes, just to be crystalline clear I am talking about that abusive monopoly we all love to hate: Microsoft.

And yes, this post was inspired by their recent "I'm A PC" campaign. The one where they'll happily allow you to upload what you do with your PC and let you be included in their advertising -- but only if you use a PC they way they want you to. I'm not a PC. I'm not a PC, because I run Ubuntu Linux.

I'm trying to find a "sweet spot" here; a delicate balance between rabidly bashing Microsoft for all the heinous things they are responsible for in the computer industry and the more sane view of "they're just a software company". I think the simple truth is people live under monpoly control for a few simple reasons. It's comfortable. It's what everyone does. It's safe. It's better than the alternatives. It's too hard to switch to anything else.

How do you sanely argue that a massive switch from Microsoft's products would actually be a good thing for the economies of the world, and that everyone would be happier, in the end? Don't you just end up sounding like a zealot? Some kind of nut-job that is walking through the streets with a sign that says, "The END IS NIGH!" That's pretty much what mainstream media does to anyone outside the accepted norms. Everything is done in terms of what the majority does, whether it is sane or not.

So where's the sweet spot? Do I point out here that using other software can be just as comfortable, or maybe even more comfortable than something that's been in the popular eye for decades? Let's face it: for most users, if it isn't already installed on their computer, it might as well not exist. If a computer comes with Microsoft Works, that will wind up the "office suite" of choice. Which is one reason why Microsoft Office 2007 is pretty much a guaranteed hit, because it sure is the most awkward interface anyone I've spoken to has ever seen (except for literally one individual; there's no accounting for personal tastes and I don't hold it against that person).

Leaving "the beaten path" means you're on your own, right? I mean, what if a user just downloaded some free office suite (or OS, for that matter*) from the Web and started using that instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for whatever the current Microsoft monopoly offering is? Who's going to support it? A normal user can't be expected to fix their own problems! Heck, if the answer is more than a 20 second Google search, it's too hard to use! Nope, sticking with what everyone knows is safer: just ask the tech at work (or a 13 year old) for help when you get stuck and you'll be alright.

Of course, what happens if that free software doesn't have all the features of the comparable Microsoft monopoly product? It can't be as good. And what about all those templates and wizards and things it does for you? Surely it's all worth the cost. There's no point in searching the web for free templates, wizards, clipart and doodads when it's all bundled right there for you, just hand over your credit card, please. Now, who can you find to show you how to use all this stuff, and what would you actually use it for? Most users only use a tiny fraction of what their software can do. But the alternatives would be too hard to learn, to difficult to support and in the end cost more than the stuff they paid for. And took the course for, to learn how to use. And paid support for (on top of the software cost), to fix the problems they ran into.

But I'm just a zealot, looking for a sweet spot, to try make sense of it all. On free, open software, that I have paid for with my time, my money and my sanity. I'm not a PC.

*By the way, there are many excellent free computer Operating Systems out there for any individual with enough curiosity to try. Maybe start with Ubuntu and see some of what this whole piece is about. A definite "sweet spot".