Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 129 / MAY 1991 / PAGE 81

Waiting, waiting, waiting on Windows. (computer graphical interface) (column)
by Robert Bixby

Everyone agrees that there needs to be a friendly, smoothly operating graphical interface for the PC. The bare command line interface of traditional DOS-based computers is frightening to newcomers and beloved by only a small minority of the computing public.

Most of us cope with it as best we can. This coping has generated a hungry market for shells, macros, and task switchers.

Most computer users also agree that the PC's graphical interface isn't necessary for everything. Spreadsheets, databases, and word processors generally operate more quickly when text based because the text screen can be updated more quickly than the graphics screen.

The graphical interface is best for layout and drawing programs that help you visualize an eventual printout. There's no argument about whether artists need a graphical interface, only whether Windows is the graphical interface we need and whether Windows 3.0 is a step in the right direction.

With its slightly friendlier interface, Windows has helped computer-phobes by reducing some of the anxiety associated with an empty screen. Almost no one cringes when the opening Windows screen appears.

Furthermore, Windows has established an operational standard. Even without a good manual, you can usually figure out how a Windows product works.

As you move from one Windows program to another, menus work the same way, dialog boxes work pretty much the same way, toolboxes work a little bit the same way, and so on. This similarity among programs allows you to master programs more rapidly.

But despite these advantages, there are problems. The major problem with Windows (and I am not the first to point this out) is that it's slow. It's ponderous. Sometimes it's glacial.

Artists of all kinds live on feedback. If you are working with crayons or oils, you can see your graphic even as it is being made. The line of motion through the center of the canvas or a shadow remains visible.

Compare this to working with a graphics program running under Windows. If you've just begun your drawing, you'll see rapid refreshes of the screen. The more complex the drawing, the longer it will take before you'll be able to see it displayed in full.

Based on my experience with Windows graphics programs, my drawings must be out on the fringe in terms of complexity, because I'm always crashing programs or causing them to beg for mercy because there are too many objects on the screen.

Sometimes (and particularly when the project includes extensive text, each letter of which is treated as an individual graphic element), the text literally crawls onto the preview screen letter by letter.

Programs that take maximum advantage of Windows' multitasking are particularly bad in this regard, indicating to me that the problem is with Windows or the hardware rather than the application.

I'm not the only person who has trouble operating Windows. At a recent Windows seminar, the embarrassed presenter had to do some fast clicking and dragging to make his applications operate. A warning box kept appearing telling him that too many applications were running and asking him to close some windows. (Here's the punch fine: Nothing was running on his multimepbyte 386 but the Program Manager.)

Maybe Windows isn't the panacea we've been led to believe it is. Take as an example Ventura Software's port to Windows of Ventura Publisher. It's an excellent program no less so than the GEM version), which in a single step was upgraded to the professional level and took on an alien environment.

Unfortunately, this advance was not without some pitfalls. New releases may be better, but the version I received crashes semiregularly.

Save early and often, the standard advice with all software, applies doubly to complex software like Ventura Publisher, but despite similar warnings in my book on GEM Ventura, I have never seen Ventura Publisher version 2.0 crash. From that standpoint, you might say that the Windows port represents one great leap forward and half a great leap back.

Fortunately, Ventura has elected to continue supporting the GEM OPerating system version, which it has had two years to debug. I hope Ventura will remain loyal to the original interface for a long time to come.

What choices do you have if you want to work with graphics but you're driven to distraction by the inadequacies and delays that seem to be built into Windows?

There are a few options open, including graphics programs that operate under other shells and programs that dispense with a shell entirely and go it alone against DOS, providing their own collections of menus, dialog boxes, macros, and so forth.

We'll talk about a grab bag of graphics packages that provide an alternative to Windows programs in the next Arts & Letters" column.