Computers are wonderful; they have revolutionised our lives in many ways. For most people over a certain age, the prominence of the computer in their everyday lives has risen from zero to its present dominant status in around 30 years – perhaps considerably less.
Yet the rapid rise of the computer and allied technologies has been largely unplanned, producing an unwelcome legacy for the computer user of today. This is, of course, true of most new technological developments – there is a period of fairly chaotic development followed by a later process of harmonisation.
For instance, when domestic video recorders first appeared there were two rival formats – VHS and Betamax. They were completely mutually incompatible – the tapes were even different sizes so they wouldn’t fit into the wrong machine. Eventually VHS emerged as the “winner” and became the standard format, making it a lot easier for everyone.
I can remember a previous technological breakthrough, when stereo records became the norm and everyone aspired to have a “hi-fi” rather than just a portable mono recordplayer. I can remember being at some extremely boring parties in the early 1970s where there always seemed to be a huddle of men – it was definitely a male thing – discussing what sort of hi-fi equipment was best, and bragging about what brand of speakers (etc) they had. I bet the manufacturers loved that sort of “commodity fetishism” – where commodities are judged not just in terms of their utilitarian value but also for some other sort of “value” which was associated with certain brands by these early “geeks”.
The hi-fi market never harmonised, because it didn’t have to – records were a pre-existing technology, and all record-playing equipment had to be designed to be compatible with them. And there was not much else to harmonise, because speaker impedances tended to be pretty standard, as did “auxiliary” outputs and inputs – so you could mix and match. Computers, however, are more like videotapes than hi-fi, because they involve the transfer of software and hardware between machines – hardware and software which did not pre-date the computer but grew up with it. Hence there are compatibility problems. In terms of software, of course, Microsoft has something of a monopoly, but not a complete one; the sort of harmonisation that eventually occurred in the video market (and also in other technologies such as colour TV, where various formats were available at the outset) has not yet happened.
There is certainly commodity fetishism in the computer market. It tends to be exhibited, not by the Microsoft users, but by those who prefer the main competitor, the Mac. These tend to be people who use computers quite a lot, maybe people who work in computing or have been using computers for a very long time. Now, for all I know, there may be some sort of objective criterion by which Microsoft and Mac can be assessed, and the latter found to be superior. But somehow I doubt that such a criterion exists; I would prefer to think of snobbery over computer brands as just more geekiness and commodity fetishism. Recently, when I sent a Word document to a group of people, one of them complained (mildly) about the format – he claimed not to have Word on his computer and hence had had to open the document using Open Office – a horrible near-clone of Windows which reproduces 95% of Windows files correctly, and gets the other 5% wrong, but without telling you it has done so. This chap’s parting shot was “spare a thought for us poor Mac users”. I couldn’t help wondering what the response would have been if, during the early days of the VHS monopoly of video, someone had said “spare a thought for us poor Betamax users”. I think they would have been told to just shut up and harmonise. Ah, but video wasn’t the same as computers. It had its geeks, sure, but not nearly as many as computing seems to attract.
Another battleground in the “Microsoft wars” is the question of presentations. Many academics insist on giving presentations using visual materials in the PDF format, and if you send in a Powerpoint file for a presentation at a meeting, the organisers will sometimes turn their noses up at it and insist on PDF. But what they don’t tell you is that the animations you painstakingly create in Powerpoint won’t work in PDF! And OK, animations are often over-used, or used where they are not necessary at all, but at the same time, judicious use of animations can really enhance a presentation.
Even worse, perhaps, are the people who maintain that computing went down the drain with the arrival of the mouse and the graphical interface; these people will tell you that the only proper way to operate a computer is by typing code in at a command prompt, as you had to with all computers before a certain time, perhaps around 1995. At work, I have to do this quite a lot because the preferred operating system is LINUX, which is a command-prompt system; there is a lot of what is literally code, and you have to remember it all because there are no drop-down menus to help you. I think those people who are wedded to such a system probably think that “real men” don’t have to rely on icons and menus. But to me it just seems silly to have to remember all that stuff.
Fair enough, it’s possible that you just couldn’t do this kind of stuff in Windows. Some of it, you definitely couldn’t do in Windows. But I suspect that in the case of most computer applications, you could use either system, and it is the fetishism and the “we’re different” syndrome that is propping up the older methods – as well as inertia and a feeling that people who rely on drop-down menus instead of remembering code are somehow cheating.
I can, of course, understand a certain amount of opposition to Microsoft because of all the money that Bill Gates has made out of us. Granted, he has a near-monopoly. But a monopoly is not such a bad idea when there are compatibility issues. The best solution, to my mind, would be if software design had been nationalised, so that at least it would be a public monopoly. But clearly that was never going to happen in the anarchic, idiosyncratic computer industry.
Apart from the competition provided by Apple, there is quite a lot of “open-source” software around, which is free to download, and this presents a marked contrast with expensive Microsoft stuff. But look closely at an open-source product and you will find all sorts of caveats and disclaimers about it not being completely bug-free, and how it is a developing product etc and they haven’t quite got it right yet. Now – if I were buying a car, would I prefer to pay through the nose for a reputable brand, or might I be persuaded to buy a cheap home-made one from a man in the pub who promises to get the brakes working eventually and tells me to be very careful when turning left? I think I’d want the quality product, thank you very much.