Windows eases the pain: Is a graphical user interface worth the extra cost? Andrew Brown lays his cards on the table

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The Independent Online
SEVEN years ago, you could buy for exactly pounds 543 a machine to do simple word processing, complete with software and a printer. Every year, the price of computing hardware comes down by about 30 per cent. So why is it that when one of our reporters the other week wanted a machine to do simple word processing with some software, a printer and a pounds 90 modem, she was quoted prices that started at pounds 1,400 and rose to pounds 1,800?

The answer is 'Windows'. But what was the question again?

Microsoft Windows 3.1 is a software program selling at a rate of a million copies a month. It is almost impossible to buy a new computer without it - unless you buy a Macintosh, which pioneered the use of windows on personal computers, and they cost as much or more as Windows-capable PCs.

The main benefit of Windows appears to be in changing the way in which you issue commands to a computer. Instead of being confronted by an almost blank monochrome screen containing the single letter C followed by a colon and an angle bracket, you are greeted by a colourful screen full of pictures. The new system may not make it any more obvious what you are meant to do, but it promises to be more fun.

It is rather like the difference between a telegram and a fax. In the days when telegrams were quick, they were terse and unattractive to look at. The messages were tightly packed, not quite in English, and typified by the famous exchange between Evelyn Waugh and the Daily Mail which concluded: 'Upstick job asswise.' Nowadays, of course, the message would be sent as a fax, with a cover sheet and a cartoon and take four times as long to transmit. But it would feel more creative.

Similarly, if you wanted to edit a file in the days before Windows, you might type something like editor C:boringoldrubbish. txt, wait 10 seconds and start work.

Nowadays I press a mouse button, choose from a list of programs to run, then wait 20 seconds while the screen appears. Then I click on a yellow blob with a green arrow shooting from it (an open folder, geddit?) and a box listing directories and files appears. I pick my way through these lists, one at a time, until I have got to C:flashynewgraphicrubbish. sam. Another 30 seconds has passed, but I am happy. Then the file loads and I start typing.

There are ways to make the process faster, but the fact remains that if you are using Windows for simple tasks, the personal computer has to run very hard indeed to stay in the same place it was seven years ago. And the obvious gains, for many people, are cosmetic.

After all, as a professional journalist, it does not matter how beautifully I arrange the words on screen, or even on paper: their final appearance is determined by the far more powerful computers on the newspaper, which only understand the simplest, telegraphese text, which could as well be produced on a basic Amstrad PCW word processor. And most people who actually sell words for a living are in my position.

However, not all computer users do sell words for a living. For those who do not, Windows has real advantages. It has made life very much easier for anyone who must use many programs in the course of their work, for all Windows programs work very much alike. If you want to save a file in a Windows program, you choose save from the menu of choices that 'drops down' the screen when you click on the top bar of the window. If you want to do so in one of the best-selling Dos programs - operating from the basic PC operating system - you press (F7). In another, you use /fs; ie' in a series of hideous beeps when you ask for a spell check. But the Windows help system does make things much easier, even for those people who never use more than the programs that came with their computer.

And something which everyone finds useful sooner or later is the ability to cut text or pictures out of one file and stick them into another. With Windows you can use one program to draw a picture, then stick the results on screen into a letter written with another program and print it all out seamlessly. You can arrange things so that if you change the drawing - or the budget calculation - the version in the letter automatically changes too.

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