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02/12/2006 Archived Entry: "Just good enough"

Do you believe that in your dealings (however indirect) with Microsoft, they hold all the cards? I know three words which can restore the balance of power -- three words which strike fear into Microsoft's highest echelons -- and which, incidentally, can save you a lot of money.

"Just good enough."

More than anything else, Microsoft worries about customers deciding that their computers and their software are "good enough" for their purposes. Until they can successfully shift to a "rental" business model, Microsoft will depend on software sales for their earnings...and now that everyone who can afford a computer seemingly has one, that means upgrades.

The problem for Microsoft is that, for 95% of computer users, a 1990s-vintage computer can accomplish every task that they wish to do. This phenomenon has already become apparent, with many home users and businesses deciding not to upgrade to Windows XP or Office 2003. (Especially when it took a lot of effort to finally get their old computer set up and working as they wish.)

I suppose Microsoft should be thankful to the creators of computer viruses, because computer infection has given Microsoft one bit of leverage over recalcitrant users. Microsoft no longer provides support for Windows 95 or (as of this year) Windows 98, ME, and Windows 2000. That means no security fixes...and new vulnerabilities are still being discovered in those old systems. Worried about your data? Sorry, chum, you need a new computer.

Microsoft's other sales tool is "software rot." This, like "bit decay", is an old programmer's joke that Microsoft turned into reality. The simple fact is -- as I learned the hard way -- Windows systems steadily deteriorate with age, as new junk gets added and the registry gets corrupted. (This is why reinstalling Windows from scratch is so often recommended to fix problems, and doing so periodically is considered preventive maintenance.) I woudn't call this "planned obsolescence," more like "unplanned decomposition"...but it can push an unsophisticated user into replacing a perfectly good computer.

This is not to say that you should never upgrade. When hardware fails, you need to replace it, and usually that means buying something newer and more capable. And occasionally there are specific reasons to upgrade your software. My point is, upgrade only to fill a need. Don't upgrade just because the new models are out and you think your computer looks dowdy.

An example: back when I was using Windows, I used Microsoft Word 6.1 I upgraded to Windows 97 for one specific reason -- because it could handle HTML format. No edition of Word since has offered me a reason to upgrade. When I switched to Linux, I started using OpenOffice 1, which I find equally capable but with the bonus of writing PDF files. I'm told that OpenOffice 2 has database support and better Word compatibility, which might prompt me to upgrade once more....but I'm in no rush.2

Another example: up until two months ago I was using a 400 MHz Pentium II with 192 MB of RAM. That was sufficient to run Xandros Linux and all my applications (including Firefox and OpenOffice). But when I decided I wanted to be able to write DVDs, a bit of research told me that I'd need to upgrade my CPU. I also wanted to add a few more drives to my system (such as the DVD drive and an extra hard drive). So after investigating the alternatives, I upgraded to a 1.3 GHz AMD -- still "obsolete" by today's standards, but blazingly fast by mine. (I checked my RAM consumption, and then added enough RAM so that it rarely swaps to disk.)

I figure this system will keep me happy for at least three years. The only use that I can imagine that would need more power would be video editing...and I don't have the time to mess around with that yet. (I do audio editing with another 400 MHz Pentium II.)

One reason this all comes to mind is that I'm preparing for the annual Visit To The Parents, and they've warned me that they need my help fixing their old computer. It's an old Windows 95 machine whose modem has failed, and I'm not sure if I should replace the modem or tell them it's time to upgrade. On the one hand, there are just too damned many applications these days which simply refuse to run on Windows 95.3 So if they're going to want to install new programs, they should upgrade. On the other hand, the only reason they've ever used this machine is to browse the web, check email, and run some simple games for the grandkids. All of that will still work when I get the modem functioning again. I guess it's time for that long father-son talk about "What Do You Want To Do With Your Life Computer?"



1. For the curious, my evolution in word processors has been: Wordstar (for CP/M), Wordstar 3 (to run on an IBM PC), Wordstar 5.5 (I forget why), Wordstar for Windows (to run on Windows), Word 6 (because Wordstar for Windows went out of business, and for document compatibility), Word 97 (for HTML support), OpenOffice 1.x (for Linux).

2. Alas, the writers of Linux applications seem determined to match the memory and CPU requirements of Windows. Every new version is fatter and slower. Given that it's free (as in beer), I really can't complain, but since I still try to keep old PCs alive, I am investigating alternatives such as AbiWord and KOffice.

3. Nine times out of ten, there's no good reason for this. Windows 98 offers very few facilities that Windows 95 doesn't, and, those exceptions aside, competently-designed code should be able to run on either. Yet I have several programs which test the Windows version and simply refuse to install under Windows 95.

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