Thursday, 16 June 2011 INDEX

Computers don't they make you sick...
OK I'm a geek. I've taken computers to pieces and put them back together again. I know about protocols, lots of software, operating systems, you name it. I've got the tee shirt.

But truth be told it wasn't always this way. For many years I was positively hostile to computers. When I was working for International Thomson Magazines I played a vital role in making it difficult for the management to pay us extra to use computers instead of typewriters. Not one of my better moves, perhaps.

I came to computers quite late. When I first got one (a second hand original IBM PC made at the silicon Glen in Scotland) the machines had no hard drives (just floppies) and Bill Gates was going round telling anyone who would listen that no-one would ever want more than 640kb of RAM. Yes, that's less than a megabyte!

My first hard drive (I added it myself) cost me about £150 (a lot in those days) and it was 32mb! But it was cavernous compared to those floppies.

When I got my first 1gb drive I thought I'm never going to need a bigger one than this. My Bill Gates moment, perhaps. The last drive I installed was 2TB (2,000 times bigger than that 1gb drive) and I'm still juggling between drives because of lack of space.

With RAM and processor power the stories are broadly the same, not worth the telling.

So I guess I'm a signed up technophile. But as Alan Greenspan once said, there's a flaw. The flaw is compatibility and the fly in the ointment is nearly always Microsoft and Mr Gates.

One of the most important things about computing is the ability to transfer stuff from one machine to another. The whole idea of the Cloud and 21st century computing is based on the principle.

But just try converting a full scale video (a Quicktime .mov file) into Microsoft format (wmv). It's a nightmare. My guess is Windows wants commercial control of wmv and so stops anyone from offering a converter.

But as a user you don't know this. When my video editor (a so called professional system) refused to produce anything longer than a 30 second wmv file, I went scurrying round the internet looking for a converter. It was easy to find software that would convert wmv files into sensible formats. They still looked bloody awful but you could convert them, if you had a mind to (though I don't have any problems playing wmv files on my Mac).

What you couldn't do (despite the fact that quite a lot of purveyors of the software suggested that you could) was convert from a decent format to the bloody awful wmv.

So it's possible to create quite a nice video and then you have to tear your hair out as the user at the other end tells you your video doesn't work because the Windows PC the video has to be played on will only handle wmv files!

This is monstrously stupid. Mr Gates could do a lot more good for the world by closing down his charitable foundation and using the money to buy out the various compatibility traps Microsoft uses for commercial purposes. The video problem is only the tip of the iceberg and similar traps for the unwary exist almost everywhere Microsoft has domination, or near domination, in software (like Word for example).

This lack of compatibility makes it more difficult for people to work together. It is like a sclerosis of the main arteries of the internet. It slows down development making people poorer and costing lives.

Will the shades ever fall from the eyes of the Windows users so that they install software to allow them to run sensible compressed video formats like DIVX? Perhaps, but probably not in my lifetime.

Posted by Jonathan Brind
Thursday, 16 June 2011 INDEX