Invisible operating system

Couple of times this year I found myself in discussions, defending still using Windows XP. Operating system discussions are weird, being about features whose usefulness is imaginary (I’ve seen infinity times more mentions of ReadyBoost as good feature than computers using it) and never about features being really important.

Because the most important feature operating system can have is to get the hell out of your way and don’t prevent you from getting things done.

Logic ignored

Trying to be invisible should be main principle of any OS. The whole definition of OS is to get your software talking to your hardware. Nothing about being in-your-face and coming with kitchen sink of stuff.

However relationship of existing operating systems with this concept seems to vary between accidentally positive and openly negative.

  • Windows tends to slip into being invisible (takes couple service packs), which promptly makes Microsoft jump into action and stir the things up. Every other Windows release is horrible wreck, the only purpose of which is to keep you alert, moving and not stay in comfortable shell of good version.
  • Linux despises invisible. My experience with Linux started (many years ago) from swapping between two displays back and forth to get through installation process. Modern Linux distributions for desktop can fake invisible for some minutes, but it’s never long or sincere.
  • Mac OS doesn’t consider concept of invisible appropriate in its circles. As rest of the company products it strives to hammer sense of belonging into your head. Letting your mind wander to other things for a second is horrible mistake in its playbook (those giants docks look like tombstones to screen space for a reason).
  • ChromeOS seems to have stumbled right into invisibility… For the wrong purposes of course. It has nothing to do with letting you getting things done and everything with getting you to do things right way – locked into cloud.

Need to sell

The problem, that OS developers see, with invisible that it is too good for users to leave. If it works then don’t mess with it. So sensible. So bad for sales.

Thus starts the cycle where legitimate improvements are spun with time-proven bullshit, beneficial to sales. On the upward path you find yourself under shower of great (or seemingly great) new things. On the downward path you find yourself in a hole… With only path forward – the wheel rolls toward new version and path back is coincidentally cut off by that excessive hardware that seemed excessive and incredible on the way up… and suddenly became barely sufficient on downwards slope.

Bundle the candy

The biggest joke in OS features is bundled software. It makes perfect weights to carefully balance the motion… To the point that blatant crappiness is openly standard.

Microsoft maintains the most intricate and flexible  file copying software, yet refuses to make half decent file manager. Mention of Internet Explorer makes good chunk of web developers hysterical. System utilities alternate between most boring software ever and scraps of third party licensed tech. Both often inferior to standalone products of Microsoft and lone freeware developers out there either.

Overall

The invisible operating system is an ideal, strangely at war with goals and practices of those who actually make operating systems. Would we ever see one? One can hope.

And so far Windows XP is as close as it gets. Until the wheel rolls so far ahead I would have to catch up.

Related Posts

12 Comments

  • I’ve been chewing on this post for a couple of days. OS’s are as much a personal preference as what you like on your pizza and I think, no matter how hard we try to define invisible – the concept is still fairly nebulous. And don’t get me wrong, I agree with you to an extent, fwiw.

    XP is fine. But:

    -Windows explorer sucks. It’s like….IE6 bad. I don’t think I can stress how awful it is enough.

    -Windows search is trash. It’s silly that Google can search the all of the webz in like a half a second and XP (incidentally, nor 7) can’t even search by file name in under 2 minutes.

    -Security issues. The fact that spyware and malware (even the relatively benign ones) are a regular occurrence for a farily strong user user is pretty bad. I’m not even mentioning the ‘ecosystem’ of mediocre resource hog security softwares out there. The latter is not inherent to the OS, but certainly part of the package.

    All of these are things I use on a daily basis and they’re all under performing to the point where it’s easy to ‘look the paint’ off of the OS and see it for being a decade old OS. But in my case, I don’t think it’s that XP is close to invisible, I think I’ve just been using it so long that I’ve learned to just ignore or accept the parts that are showing.

    On the other hand, I’m a linux user. I really enjoy using both SUSE and Kubuntu. You’re right: there are certainly more than a few quirks that could drive you nuts and tweaking an install to where you want it to be might take a bit longer than an XP install, but there’s a lot of things that are just seamless and brilliant.

    -A wonderful notification system that gives me exactly what I want in a unified and elegant fashion. Much of the software integrates directly into these notifications.

    -The device notifier widget gives you fast access to devices and common actions with those devices. If you’re like me and you go from your phone, to a camera, to a jump drive, to a portable in one session – you’ll love this.

    -Klipper: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klipper It absolutely infuriates me that there is nothing like this for Windows. It is simply that great.

    -A powerful, built in keystroke launcher.

    -Functional eye candy. I think I’ve been reading you long enough to guess that you won’t scoff at the notion. Visual alt+tab and the mac like expose functions are absolute musts.

  • @dan l

    Windows explorer sucks. It’s like….IE6 bad. I don’t think I can stress how awful it is enough.

    Windows search is trash. It’s silly that Google can search the all of the webz in like a half a second and XP (incidentally, nor 7) can’t even search by file name in under 2 minutes.

    Agreed completely. See my point about bundled software. I can’t imagine using either of these.

    I don’t care if OS does or does not perform these functions, since I almost always have a choice of better third party software.

    But it would be much more invisible if OS included had implemented few such things in simple, great and usable fashion rather than including tons of mediocre secondary functionality for the sake of bloating feature list.

    Security issues. The fact that spyware and malware (even the relatively benign ones) are a regular occurrence for a farily strong user user is pretty bad.

    Security is tough to handle in context of invisibility. In some aspects Windows had moved in right direction – forcing developers to code better so users are not forced to run administrator accounts all the time. On other hand those attempts often blast that invisibility to bits (UAC as implemented first in Vista).

    This is probably one of those things that are important enough to be somewhat less invisible.

    You’re right: there are certainly more than a few quirks that could drive you nuts and tweaking an install to where you want it to be might take a bit longer than an XP install, but there’s a lot of things that are just seamless and brilliant.

    Aren’t those things just bundled software? It certainly nice to have more usable and pleasant software bundled… But you can change software, you can’t change how painful OS itself is to deal with on initial setup or in the long run.

    Yes, Linux had learned to fake invisible by putting together nice shell of software (which is great progress for it by the way) and getting installation process working good enough so it doesn’t take two days and umpteenth attempts. But it remains too corporate-centric and too lacking in desktop ecosystem (drivers, etc) to become as invisible for desktop user as Windows can.

  • Aren’t those things just bundled software? It certainly nice to have more usable and pleasant software bundled… But you can change software, you can’t change how painful OS itself is to deal with on initial setup or in the long run.

    That might be where I’m missing you: Things like the seamless notifications and little gadgets are additional and entirely up to the user on whether to use, but they’re done in such a slick ass way that they feel as though they’re part of the os. Because my average XP install is so laden with third party software (where feeling right is less of a concern) perhaps that adds ‘noise’ to my user experience.

    Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying “ZOMG WINDOZE IS SUCK PENGUIN FOR LIFE” or anything. I guess I’m just exploring the concept of ‘invisible’ a bit.

  • @dan l

    Things like the seamless notifications and little gadgets are additional and entirely up to the user on whether to use, but they’re done in such a slick ass way that they feel as though they’re part of the os.

    Exactly my point. Most OS (or OS distributions, this is kinda vague) do not follow “let’s make experience slick and subtle”. They follow “moar features! lemmings buy!”.

    My point was that Linux is sure getting points on this shallow software level (because pretty much anyone can go and put distribution together)… But it remains (probably forever) painful on a level of OS functionality (drivers, etc).

    I guess I’m just exploring the concept of ‘invisible’ a bit.

    Sure! :) Comments are always much appreciated. My thoughts posts are usually (and intentionally) bit rambling, I just let it go and see where comments take it.

  • But it remains (probably forever) painful on a level of OS functionality (drivers, etc).

    Probably. I’m not a “linux for all” type. I hesitate to say that’s a permanent state. It’s certainly not ready for mass adoption today, tomorrow isn’t looking so great either, but: had you told me that Ubuntu would eventually become a relatively accepted alternative, I’d probably have called you crazy.

    I thought I’d share, I was going through your archives the other day and came across Flashfolder. Huge time saver, that one.

    https://www.rarst.net/software/flashfolder-steroids-for-opensave-dialogs/

  • @dan l

    I thought I’d share, I was going through your archives the other day and came across Flashfolder. Huge time saver, that one.

    Oh, yes. Been using it forever, can’t imagine open/save dialogs without it.

  • I love windows 7 and would never go back to XP now.

    The main reason for this is that networks works pretty much by themselves in 7 while getting things to work in XP requires you to be an expert. This according to my experiences at least.

    I do agree that there is lots of room for improvement though, Internet Explorer is a great example of something I never use on my own computers (although my parents insist on using it while still complaining that it’s slow)

    The file copier I’ve replaced with Tera Copy, an excellent third party file copier tool (only for windows though)
    The main reason is that even if explorer freezes the copying isn’t aborted due to it being a separate process.

    And while searching for files works fine in 7 I tend to use Locate for everything beyond quick searches within a few folders or so. It’s a lot faster and more accurate.

  • @Forecaster

    The main reason for this is that networks works pretty much by themselves in 7 while getting things to work in XP requires you to be an expert. This according to my experiences at least.

    Mileage may wary with networks a lot. They sure can give you some grief at times (and it is by no means exclusive to XP), but in simple home scenario (decent wireless router) it just works, even in XP.

    Great examples of features that might be soooo good to actually be perfect as part of OS, but instead tend to suck. It is indicative that MS not only continuously makes a mess with its browser (major differences between versions, crazy quirks with compatibility modes) but quite forcefully created a rift by not making newest version available on WinXP.

    MS started losing browser war as soon as someone with pockets deep enough appeared to fund march against them (Google that pretty much created new browser landscape long before they even started Chrome). Makes one think what other grounds they might Microsoft lose in future.

  • I remember my younger days before Vista. Me and a small group of friends would bring our computers together for so called lan-parties, where we’d wire up and play games for one or two nights.

    Re-configuring all the computers to connect properly to each other could sometimes take a couple of hours. Now, when all of them has windows 7, they just work.

    I like windows 7 because it’s as invisible as I expect it to be.

    Then again I tend to adapt easily to new systems…

  • You seem to know it all, and I dont know jack..I have a host of pc problems i cannot solve, and tech forums won’t address or help me with..and my isp wants to charge me when i’m alrady paying them $80 a month for hi-speed LAN-connected internet svc!…

    My first questio is this: How to (step by step) secure my home network?

  • it’s $180.00 a month *(Ccast/Xfin)

  • @gc

    Since you seem to have questions (plural) and comments of my blog are not quite appropriate place for such talk – I suggest you try asking at http://superuser.com/ or other fitting site of Stack Exchange network.

Comments are closed.