Operating system or entertainment centre?

As the US Department of Justice's suit against Microsoft drags its way through appeal, the software giant has been tossed a bone in the form of a judgement that bundling of application-type components into Windows is legal.

As the US Department of Justice’s suit against Microsoft drags its way through appeal, the software giant has been tossed a bone in the form of a judgement that bundling of application-type components into Windows is legal.

Late last month an appeals court in Washington partially reversed Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s ruling that had called for the company to be broken up and asked that a different judge hear fresh arguments about Microsoft’s strategy of tying together products under its operating system.

At the same time, fevered accounts of the capability of Windows XP in the media describe it as an all-singing, all-dancing multimedia entertainment package — far beyond the old concept of an operating system as simply something that regulates the running of programs.

I can’t be the only Windows user who wishes something, at least, of that latter concept back.

I have a television and video and audio cassette recorders. I’d rather view video and listen to music in my living room. Is it too heretical to resist “convergence” and direct specialist tasks to appliances built to do the job? And to want the operating system to do what an operating system should be good at?

Of course there will be times when I want to be entertained through my computer. But should the capability all be bundled into the operating system?

The other day, I waited the best part of a minute for Windows Media Player to heave itself into memory and get round to starting up the small video clip whose icon I’d just clicked on. Okay, I have an underpowered machine at home but so do a lot of people.

And I thought “do I still have Vmpeg?” Vmpeg is a small program (17.3KB) I found on the internet years ago. Its job is to play .mpeg video files and that’s all. It loaded itself and opened the clip in about five seconds flat.

I’d rather have a set of single pipes like that — one for .mpeg, one for .avi and so on — than keep loading this houseful of complex plumbing that tries to be all things to all people.

And it’s not just the Media Player; it’s the email/newsreader/browser and all kinds of bundles.

Perhaps what we need is education, for more people to say what InternetNZ’s executive director said: “You don’t have to use Microsoft all the time. Especially, if you want to avoid viruses, you don’t have to use it for email.”

I’ve always used Eudora, and I’m thinking of going back to my other single-purpose programs. The galling thing is, I’m still paying Microsoft to build a cinema on my PC.

Maybe a “Windows Lite” would be the answer; a small consumer operating system without the entertainment frills, at an appropriate price. Try it, Microsoft; you might be surprised how well it sells.

Bell is Computerworld’s Wellington reporter. Send email to Stephen Bell. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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