I write so frequently about Microsoft Windows that I often forget about people like my friend Sam.
Four or five years ago, Sam bought an IBM XT-compatible machine that he uses mainly for word processing. It's hopelessly out of date by today's standards, but Sam doesn't know that. It still does what he hired it to do -- churn out stories, letters and the kids' term papers -- and he's happy with it.
A few days ago Sam stopped by the desk and asked, "What's this Windows business you write about all the time? Does it do anything important? Am I missing out on something?"
To paraphrase the old chestnut about buying a Rolls-Royce, if you have to ask whether Windows is important to you, then it probably isn't. But it's worth knowing about, because it's where computing is headed today.
Microsoft Windows is what's known in the trade as a Graphical User Interface, or GUI (rhymes with gooey). GUIs are designed to make computers easier and more intuitive to use.
To understand the attraction of a GUI, consider that early PCs -- and most of today's IBM-compatible machines -- are character-based, command-line computers at heart.
This means that when you turn on the computer, it loads the Disk perating System (DOS) and waits for you to type an arcane command that tells it to do something.
DOS is not very informative. You may have word processing, spreadsheet, or database software on your disk, along with your company's sales records, a letter to Aunt Rhoda and the Great American Novel. But unless you know the magic words, you'll never know what's there or how to get to it.
If you type the magic words correctly, the computer runs a program, or gives you a directory of files, or does whatever you wanted it to do. If you type the wrong command, the computer gives you a cryptic message, such as "File not found" or "Invalid Parameters," when what it really means is that you typed "WO" instead of "WP" when you tried to get Word Perfect running.
This seems ridiculous, but remember that microcomputers were originally designed by a bunch of guys who got their jollies by typing in commands like "grep p +f3 -l/k foo.bar."
Once you get your program running, you have to learn how to use it. Unfortunately, every programmer has a different idea of how software should work.
For example, if I hit the F8 function key in one program, it will save my document. If I hit F8 in another program, it deletes a paragraph. If I hit F8 in a third program, it sends me right back to DOS. This kind of anarchy drives new and experienced users crazy.
Enter the GUI. The graphical user interface takes advantage of modern computers' ability to display pictures as well as words. It replaces the command line with a picture of a desktop. Theoretically, all the programs and files available on your disk appear as pictures, called icons.
Instead of typing arcane commands, you use a mouse to move a pointer around your screen. To launch a program, you point at its icon and click the mouse button.
Just as important, the GUI forces programmers to design their creations with a common set of pull-down menus and commands. When you've learned how to use one program, you know at least half of what you need to use any program.
The GUI also makes it easier to move information from one program to another, such as copying columns from a spreadsheet into a word-processing document. The latest GUIs even create "hot links" that automatically update the numbers in your word-processing document if you change the numbers in the spreadsheet program.
Another advantage of the GUI is its very graphical nature. Most GUI programs display your documents in a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) format. This makes it easier for programmers to design sophisticated software that creates complex documents that merge text and graphics.
Finally, the latest GUIs are multitasking. They let you run multiple programs simultaneously in "windows" on your screen (Hence the name Microsoft Windows). If you're writing a report and need to update some numbers, you don't have to exit from your word processor, load in your spreadsheet, make the changes, save the spreadsheet file, exit from the spreadsheet program and then run the word processor again. You can switch from one program to another with the click of a mouse button.
The Apple Macintosh, introduced in 1984, was the first successful microcomputer with a GUI as standard equipment. It wins rave reviews from its users, but its' relatively expensive and has never really dented the mass business market dominated by character-based, IBM-compatibles. However, that may change over the next few years now that Apple and IBM have agreed to share their technology.