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For the past decade change seemed to happen over night, every night. Fueled by the exponential rise of technology, the digital revolution was difficult for many to make sense of, but James Gleick watched and analyzed, criticized and commended, participated in and prophesized about the instantaneous transformations of the world as we knew it. What Just Happened is a collection of Gleick’s articles from this equally exciting and terrifying decade—remember Y2K?—that range from condemnations of maddeningly pervasive bugs in Microsoft software to the invisible shackles we wear in an “Inescapably Connected” world. Combining insight and reason with wit and passion, What Just Happened is an essential tour of our technology-driven mania.
|Publisher:||Time Warner UK|
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CHASING BUGS IN THE ELECTRONIC VILLAGE August 1992
I couldn't wait to buy Microsoft Word for Windows--rumored to be the new Cuisinart, Mack truck, and Swiss Army knife of word processing software, full-featured, powerful and, for a writer, the ultimate time-saving device. I was writing a long book, and I wanted the best. One day in January 1990, I finally got to tear open a software box bigger than some computers, and out it came. The world's preeminent software manufacturer had spent roughly as long developing this word processor as the Manhattan Project had spent cooking up the atomic bomb, but secrecy had not been quite as airtight. For more than a year, Microsoft had been leaking juicy tidbits to its waiting army of trade journalists, computer consultants, and corporate purchasers. Word for Windows (aka Winword or WfW) would be Wysiwyg (the standard acronym for What You See Is What You Get)--that is, it would display page layouts and typefaces with high fidelity to the final printed product. It would let users work with nine documents on the screen at once. It would have a macro language--a way to spend hours writing mini-programs to streamline all those little chores that can suck up milliseconds of a writer's time.
And it would also have--in some corner of my mind, I must already have known this--bugs.
Computer software is the brightest of bright spots on the American economic landscape, a consumer product evolving in a floodtide of innovation and ingenuity, an industry that has barely noticed the recession or seen any challenge from overseas. Bugs are its special curse. They are an ancient devil--the product defect--in a peculiarly exasperating modern dress.As software grows more complex and we come to rely on it more, the industry is discovering that bugs are more pervasive and more expensive than ever before. Word for Windows had big bugs and little bugs. A little bug might mean that a user would sometimes find the em dashes (—) and en dashes (–) switched. Even a little bug could send users running for their blood-pressure medication. "This bug is severe," one user railed at Microsoft when he discovered what was happening to his ems and ens. "It renders the whole setup useless for any serious work."
A bigger bug would cause unwanted typefaces to appear willy-nilly in one's documents. An even bigger bug would cause a poignant message to appear on screen
Unrecoverable Application Error Terminating Current Application
after which the computer would crash, die, freeze, lock up or hang (the slang was evolving too fast even for Word's electronic thesaurus to keep up). The U.A.E., as it became known, would send one's current work into the digital oblivion so familiar to computer users.
Searching for help, I stumbled into an odd corner of the electronic village, a "forum" on the CompuServe Information Service devoted entirely to a permanent floating conversation about the ins and outs of Word. CompuServe is a vast electronic network that subscribers can dial into via modem to use a wide array of services from game-playing to stock quotations. Twenty-four hours a day, users from a dozen time zones dial in, read their mail and everyone else's, and post replies. Microsoft's Word for Windows forum provided instant access not only to the experiences of other users but also to Microsoft's development team--because an assortment of programmers also joined in, including the program manager responsible for...