Reinstall: A pain in the Microsoft Windows

I took an extra long vacation this winter, from Dec 22 until Jan 4.  I needed that many days so I’d have some undisturbed time to reinstall XP on my home computer. This is just one of the normal rituals necessary when using the world’s most popular operating system. Historically, I’ve done it every year or two, once the computer gets painfully slow and unreliable.

I managed to go almost 3 years without having to do it.  My machine  just got slower, and slower, and less reliable. I couldn’t hear sound on YouTube (big loss, there), the slot wouldn’t read CF cards from my DSLR, a couple peripherals wouldn’t work in some USB ports, strange install scripts would kick off for no apparent reason.  It’s a weirdness that gives Microsoft products their own special random charm.

A reinstall is when you hope you know where you’ve put everything on your PC, you open up the box, you hose out the 2 inches of dust that the 4 fans collected, you put in new drives that will hold another 6 months of RAW files, you reinstall Windows, and then you do your best to restore all your data (neatly ruining useful meta data).  Once you are sure it is running correctly, and is faster and more reliable than it has ever been, you  spend a solid two days carefully reinstalling all your software, just to slow it all back down again and introduce random errors and internal conflicts.

Then you spend a couple weeks reinstalling the stuff that you didn’t know you didn’t have.

Windows is especially challenging because you can’t just pick up stuff and move it. Unlike Apple’s OS, Linux, Xenix, Unix, and other efficient, reliable, and easily-administered computer operating systems, Microsoft consistently avoided design facilitating intuitive decisions about system operation. With a normal OS,  if you want to move somebody’s files, you just pick them up and move them. If you want to move an application, you pick it up and move it. If you want to delete temporary files, you delete them.  Windows just throws all that stuff together–in three entirely different places, one of which is not visible to mortals. You can’t just move it–you need to do a planned migration.

How did this happen, you might ask?  Well, it is actually very simple:

  • In the late 1980s, Bill Gates realizes that DOS is a lame clone of CP/M, and that sticking a GUI on just slows it down.  Although they had a perfectly good OS called OS/2 (because it was the 1st version), it was too reliable and easy to administer, so they set out to create another multi-tasking OS. Bill hires someone from DEC to create something new that maximizes all of the most awkward elements of VMS design and management. Deliberately choosing to ignore the lessons from Unix and Xenix (which they owned–like the dog in the manger), they create something as non-transparent and Byzantine as possible, ensuring that nobody will ever have any idea how it works, or what it is doing.
  • Deliberately not taking the modularity lessons of *nix to heart, the result, called NT (short for New Technology), with a purported micro-kernel stillborn well before release date, it was a computing environment uniquely difficult to remove applications, or move users. As an added touch, it was impossible to shut down running processes (whether or not you had any clue as to what they were, because there would be dozens of them, all running under the same 2 names), and a restart often required a power down. They finally arrive at something mostly stable, naming it NT 4.0.
  • After printing up a bunch of expensive shirts that say NT 5.0 (I’ve still got one), they decide to rename the 5th version Windows 2000. Realizing that Windows 95 & 98 are too reliable for home use, they decide to phase them out, forcing home users to buy something that, 5 years earlier, would have been considered too complex for an engineering workstation (or even a mainframe).
  • Long after the millennium, they come up with a 6th version that after the second service pack fixes most of what was broken in the 5th version, approaches the stability of NT 4.  It was called XP, which stands for Ex Pee. Realizing that this version was too good, providing absolutely no incentive for users to buy a new version, they delivered a 7th version called Vista , which doesn’t stand for anything.
  • Nobody buys Vista unless they are forced to, so Microsoft is now introducing an 8th version of NT that will be called Windows 7.

Perfectly clear, yes? A more detailed history is available on Wikipedia, although for such a detailed essay, it is a bit weak on specific dates.

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