Opinion: Windows 2000 is short on exciting changes
by Eric Bender
(IDG) -- Do you remember Windows when Windows wasn't cool?
Maybe not. Windows always created a buzz, even before it shipped. Way back at the Comdex Fall 1983 show, it appeared in beta form alongside many other strange windowing-for-DOS creatures, crashing just as enthusiastically as the rest of them. But it was always the point of reference -- out-pointing technically better alternatives even when we in the press still thought that technical excellence was the key to success in operating systems.
In 1987, Windows 2.0 slipped out in the shadow of OS/2, the grand IBM/Microsoft scheme for operating systems -- or, as it turned out, the grand IBM scheme. OS/2 was far better than Windows, but that was when IBM still thought that technical excellence was the key to success in operating systems.
So it went until Windows 3.0, Microsoft's declaration of independence from IBM. Bill Gates even brought his mother to the gala 1990 kickoff and beamed at her like any proud son (she sat near me in the balcony of the fancy New York theatre). But it was another two years before the debugged Windows 3.1 was friendly and powerful enough to recommend to your friends.
Windows 95 debuted in a thunderstorm of publicity. (About the only form of life on the planet that didn't hear about it was the Mars bacteria scraped off some Antarctic rocks that year.) Windows 98 added bug fixes and some not-very-well-thought-out integration with Internet Explorer -- bringing the Web's worst navigation feature, the Forward and Back buttons, to file management.
Meanwhile, Microsoft had turned its OS/2 project into NT, which debuted in 1993 as Windows for people who hate system crashes, then a rather small group. Three years later, with version 4.0, it picked up the Win 95 interface and was ready for prime time on desktops and servers of a certain size, but not notebooks.
All this was exciting for computer aficionados. But here comes Windows 2000, whose advertising slogan is (brace yourself!) "a new standard for reliability."
This is a worthy standard, and one I've long begged for, but it's not actually setting my heart frantically drumming.
Up close and personalized
I installed the final Windows 2000 on a Dell XPS T550 without much trouble. It had a bit of trouble with Norton AntiVirus and crashed once. And I'm annoyed that it no longer supports my Zip drive (not exactly an esoteric item). But basically things are... fine.
My thought was to play with the new operating system, but there isn't much to play with.
Oh, I know things would be different if this were a notebook or if our server was also running Windows 2000, but it's not terribly dramatic.
Some drama we can live without -- if the promises of reliability come true, and it looks like they will. That's a big deal.
As usual in a Windows upgrade, things generally are better. The Control Panel is better organized and a lot more useful, it's easier to drop unwanted items from the Start menu, and there are nice new tricks like the ability to easily dress up folders with text, images, or HTML coding.
Also as usual, some of the changes are debatable. For example, the Start menu can be personalized to hide applications you don't often use. (Unfortunately, the more obscure applications are the ones I want to find on the Start menu -- first I look to the taskbar, then the desktop, and the Start menu is my last hope for finding an app.) And while it's understandable that there's no DOS prompt in software that doesn't have DOS, we grizzled veterans will miss the DOS command line that can be so handy for juggling files.
Some application issues remain. As usual, several of the applications I've installed don't show up in Add/Remove Applications. And as usual, some tweaks work only for Microsoft applications right now. For example, you get a line of Help on Microsoft apps that appear on the Start menu, but not for other vendors' programs.
And some changes never happen. It would be nice if you could shut down the beast with a single mouse click like on the Mac, which assumes that you know what you're doing when you click Shut Down. (Say, if Microsoft really were split into Baby Bills, wouldn't it be great if one was run by Steve Jobs?)
Same old, same old
Okay, so we're basically still in Windows 95 land.
The world has changed pretty dramatically since then -- if I lose Net connectivity here in the office, I go home and fire up the cable modem, for example. But the PC basically looks and acts the same.
Why is that? Here are several theories; pick and choose according to your degree of Microsoft paranoia.
First, since Windows 2000 is a corporate product, its intended customers (information systems folks) would run screaming from any major innovation in what their users see. The wish to avoid retraining everyone makes a lot of sense, but... has the world stopped?
Second, user interfaces have never been Microsoft's strength. The only truly innovative user interface around is the upcoming Mac OS X's Aqua, and that's arriving far too late for Microsoft to copy in Windows 2000.
Third, Microsoft thinks there's no major point messing with the interface until voice recognition and natural language change things. That's a big push in the Microsoft R&D labs, and might give them something dramatic for all those billions of dollars they're spending. But I guess this is still years away.
Finally, Microsoft has realized that it doesn't control user interfaces any more. That control goes to the Web, and Microsoft just isn't going to rule the Web.
I'll subscribe to a piece of all four explanations. But I'm also happy that we won't be talking so much about operating systems any more.
Sure, Linux will make a run at Windows, even on the desktop; and sure, we'll have Windows on everything from smart cards on up.
But in the future, what we'll be looking at is the Web -- on PCs and on Internet appliances. Operating systems will not furnish the great computing excitement of this decade. We'll spend more time thinking about the Web, what wireless info appliances will bring, and how we can change how we work.
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