Software's consistent inconsistency

A couple of years ago, before Microsoft coughed up the hair ball it calls Internet Explorer 4.0, I used this space to question whether a Web browser would truly be wonderful as a universal interface. Now the returns are in, and the answer: not yet.

Back then I cited Ralph Waldo Emerson on the foolish consistency he called "the hobgoblin of little minds". Alas, Microsoft continues to stumble over hobgoblins big and small, including one in particular: the idea that the interface for online interactions should match the interface for local ones.

Its initial mistake in this regard was the Microsoft Network, which mimicked Windows 95 right down to the file-and-folder scheme. That turned out to be a dumb idea, because clicking a file that lives at the end of a slow dial-up connection evokes a far slower response than clicking a file on your hard drive. After you accidentally keep opening the same remote file because you can't tell if anything is happening when you click, you realise that differences in response times call for different approaches.

What did Microsoft learn from its MSN experience? Not much. The Win 98-meets-IE 4.0 interface tries to make everything look like an HTML page, whether it's online or local. That seems consistent at first, but the uniformity is only skin deep. "Everything" in the local world amounts mostly to icons and labels of files and folders. That's a poor substitute for what you get on the Web: the contents of files and folders. Global file viewers would let us see what's inside the icons, but Microsoft's conformity czars didn't bother to supply them.

Then there's the single-click interface. Microsoft lifted it from Web browsers and briefly touted it as the One True Way. But in Windows 98, Gates and company chickened out and made single-clicking optional, in part because users who had already learned how to double-click discovered that a single-click interface is a pain when it comes to things like selecting groups of files.

Besides, Microsoft didn't make single-clicking truly consistent. Even if you select it as your method of choice in Windows 98, it doesn't apply to application dialogues like Save As and Open. The result: the decision to double-click or single-click hinges on the question, "Where am I?"

Single-click-but-only-sometimes isn't easy to explain to new users, and it turns routine operations into confusing ones.

Those application dialogues themselves are models of inconsistency. Even though IE 4.0 and Win 98 modify them to include smooth scrolling, their windows remain among the few in Windows that you can't resize. You can still sort files so that the most recent ones appear at the top of the list, but you can't see all the details at once. Why can't we resize these boxes? Foolish inconsistency.

For a model of foolish consistency, take the way IE 4.0 handles bookmarks. Instead of treating them separately the way its predecessors did, it lists them intermingled with the "favorites" folders you've set up for your files. Integrated Web and file browsing may be a noble goal, but here it wastes screen space and gets in your way when all you want is to get at a particular bookmark. It's consistent, alright -- and annoying.

And how about inconsistency from one release to another? I loved the history folder Microsoft introduced in version 2 of Internet Explorer. Despite some quirks, it made reconstructing and revisiting recent Web paths simple, because you could sort it by date, title or URL.

IE 4.0 "improved" the history folder by changing it into a bar that can be sorted in one goofy way: chronologically, then alphabetically and hierarchically within each day. That's rarely useful. The inconsistencies don't stop there. An epic could be written on the anomalies in Office applications, like the many ways in which Excel and Word work differently for no good reason.

Here as elsewhere we get both foolish consistency and foolish inconsistency, instead of the appropriate consistency. At least we get them consistently.

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