Thursday, October 30, 2003

Whatever Happened to TFM?

Stewie got into home computers early; his first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 with an AWA television set for a monitor. He was one of the first people I knew to own a PC (a single floppy-disc drive IBM clone) and, as soon as modems hit the market, he was among the first to get one of those too. With it he was able to dial in to the various computer bulletin boards that were starting to appear and ... well he could connect to another computer over the phone line, and this was bound to be useful eventually.

Besides computing, Stewie's other abiding interest in life was thrift. He had a keen eye for a bargain, especially any new science fiction novels that might turn up on his friends' bookshelves. But when his passion for computers collided with his passion for domestic and personal economy, strange things sometimes happened.

In the early nineteen-eighties, Stewie lifted a moistened finger into the air to test the winds of change and decided that it was about time that he learned to program in C. He was already a more or less incompetent programmer in Basic, thanks to his experience with the VIC-20 and the PCs he had owned since. To learn C, he needed a C compiler, a piece of software that was not available as either freeware or shareware. So he got together with a friend, and they split the cost of a commercially released compiler between them.

The arrangement was that Stewie would get the discs to install the compiler, editor and help files on his computer, then they would be handed over to his friend who would keep the installation discs and the manuals. For some reason, Stewie never reached the same proficiency in C programming that he had achieved in Basic. Over the years, I lost touch with Stewie and, not coincidentally I suspect, a lot of classic works of science fiction (like Charles Harness Paradox Men) that are very difficult to find, even second hand. The last I heard of him he'd developed an interest in economics, particularly economic modelling, no doubt because it gave him a ready outlet for his two abiding interests in life.

Although, back then, I was skeptical about Stewie's plan to learn C programming without the then customary assistance of a set of printed manuals, I realise now that he was merely 20 years ahead of his time. These days, thanks to the development of larger hard drives which make it feasible to store the instructions for using a program inside the grey box on your desk, rather than in a set of books which some bastard will always steal if you leave them lying on your desk at work, it's actually possible to do what Stewie wanted to do in the early 1980s. And thanks to the internet, if the help files on your hard drive turn out to be completely useless - the usual story when the world's least popular but most widely used operating system starts to behave like a six weeks old Buerre Bosc - you can get on the World Wide Web and find help on-line. Unless, of course, it's your Windows PPP client that's decided to chuck a wobbly. If that happens, you're on your own.

These days, the manual is dead. Its place has been taken by the inadequate help-files on your hard-drive and on-line resources like the Microsoft Knowledge Base or For those who still have an anachronistic preference for the printed page, there's the ever growing Computing section of your local bookshop, where all that reference material software companies used to provide in the same box as your set of grey 1.44 Mb installation discs can be bought as a "third party" publication. You might think that it's a bit of a stretch to call a company a "third party" publisher when it is a wholly owned subsidiary of a software distributor, it only publishes books about its parent company's software, the books are written by the same technical writers who wrote those help files that aren't helping you and they often reproduce the same unhelpful content. I do.

However irritating it is for us end users, this arrangement makes commercial sense. Microsoft's ubiquitous Office Suite includes a lot of features that most of us will never use, so why include a lot of manuals that we'll never read in the shrink-wrap package? Those of us who decide that it might be easier to create Word document templates and macros if we had a manual sitting beside the keyboard will eventually get off our arses and go down to McGill's and shell out eighty bucks or so for the Microsoft Press printed and bound copy of the help files. Assuming McGill's have it in stock, but if they don't they can usually order it in. It only takes a couple of days to be delivered and they'll phone you when it comes in.

It even makes a weird kind of technical sense; with Windows XP installed on my PC, I'm constantly getting friendly little messages at the bottom right hand side of the screen telling me that I can keep my system up-to-date with automatic updates. You can set it up so that it downloads and installs updates to the operating system on a regular schedule. I think you'd be a bloody fool to do that. I'm also wary of the other options, which notify you when automatic updates are installed. I don't like the idea much at all; it sounds convenient, but what you end up with is an operating system that is continually changing itself. Most of the changes, no doubt, are patches intended to keep the system performing to specification but in the process, the specification itself changes. This makes a printed manual for Windows XP pretty well useless.

Aside: I have tried the automatic updating feature; after the first use I promptly disabled it. The updates might have been installed successfully - certainly the process ran smoothly. But at no time was I told what the updates were or what they were for. I was given the option not to install them, but little information on which to base a decision. As I said, if you set your PC up to run automatic updates without supervision, you're a bloody fool. Especially when you consider Microsoft's outstanding track record on system security issues.

There are a few serious issue posed by the death of the manual, which go beyond the resentment you might feel at being mulcted of eighty dollars for a publication that used to come in the box with the program installation discs. The manual is a little like a contract between you and the software company. If the manual says that "keying Control+S" will save changes to a file, you have reasonable grounds for complaint if, instead, it deletes the entire contents of the file from your hard-drive. But when your manual exists only in digital form, you have no permanent record where you can check whether you are correct in expecting "Control+S" to save, rather than delete, your file. It's stuffed basically. These days, if anyone tells you to RTFM, it's reasonable to ask them "WFM?"

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