Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

April 1998

Teenagers, Sex Education and Microsoft

I thought I'd learnt my lesson. As a teenager I delivered newspapers before school every day. In the country I grew up in, you deliver all the papers, not just one, so I got to read the front page of every newspaper every day. Consequently, by the age of 14 I knew that you couldn't trust newspapers. They all told different stories of the same event. The details were different; sometimes it even turned out that the event didn't even happen after all. There were even a few times that I happened to be at an event that got reported in the newspapers, and so I saw how the events only partly related to the story. For instance, I went to a talk on sex education at my youth club by the chair of the local family planning association. "I'm not suggesting that sex education should be taught by rote" she said. The headlines: "'Sex education should be taught by rote' says family planner". So at the age of 14 I had a healthy scepticism for what was in newspapers.

Maybe you were there. Maybe you saw it on video, as I later did. But I read it first in a newspaper: when Steve Jobs announced that Microsoft was going to give some money to Apple, the audience booed. Apparently my scepticism didn't kick in, because it came as a surprise when I saw a video of the event, and I saw that the audience didn't boo. They applauded. However, what they did boo was Job's announcement that in exchange for this, Microsoft's Internet Explorer was going to be the default browser in future on Apple systems (in itself an interesting fact in light of Microsoft's current legal situation on the subject of Internet Browsers).

Jobs, ever the politician, and apparently disguising his surprise at this response, pointed out that there would still be a choice of browsers, and users would be able to install any browser they wanted, which seemed to placate the audience.

But what really surprised me was that Jobs said that Microsoft's browser would be all new code, and not a port of the Windows version. This cheered the audience up no end.

Now this surprised me in two ways. Firstly, why would people be pleased that Microsoft was writing a new browser rather than porting an existing one? And secondly, why oh why would Microsoft even want to write a new browser?

Excuse me for saying this, but there isn't a whole lot of difference between Windows 95 and the Macintosh, and, come to that, X Windows. They all have windows, menus, shortcuts, double and single clicks, icons, similar filestores, you select text by pointing and dragging, and so on and so on. Sure, at some level the names of the functions you call to do these things are different, and the details are different, but not enough to require a complete new code base!

So what does a new code base bring the Macintosh user? A different set of bugs compared with the Windows user I guess. What does a new code base bring Microsoft? Twice as much coding, difficult to maintain inconsistencies between the two independent versions, twice as many bugs, more than twice as much management work, more development costs, more maintenance costs, more support costs. I'm told that it is not only with Internet Browsers that Microsoft doubles its work, but that for instance Word on the Macintosh is a completely different product. Haven't these people heard of modularisation? Don't they know about separating functionality from presentation and user interface?

But you can't blame only Microsoft. Plenty of companies apparently do the same thing, judging, for instance, by the length of time between the release dates of the versions for the different platforms.

But the underlying Interesting Question is: why hasn't the industry, or the HCI community, or both together, defined a programming interface standard, a standard API, that allows you to write your programs once and compile them without change for the different platforms? It's not impossible, because several companies market packages that do something along those lines, as long as you part with a suitably hefty sum of money. But the existence of packages does not a standard make. Wouldn't it be in everyone's interest if we did something along those lines (even for the manufacturers of the existing packages, since presumably the market would become larger)?

You read it here first!

Luke and Ophelia

First published in the SIGCHI Bulletin, April 1998

Other Posts