How Paul McFedries Gets Under the Hood of Microsoft Products
"Making the world a better place, one computer book at a time" is the tagline of Paul McFedries' Tech Tonic Web site. With more than 100 titles to his name, McFedries has certainly made his mark in the computer education world. He is probably most known for his series of books that get under the hood of Microsoft applications and operating systems, including Microsoft Windows 7 Unleashed, published in July 2009. But in September, he diversified and published an in-depth look at Mac OS X Snow Leopard.
McFedries is now in the midst of writing his latest title about Microsoft Office 2010, but he took some time out to talk to me about his books, why he decided to take a diversion from the Microsoft path and write about Apple Mac, and why he loves to track new words and phrases as they enter the English language.
Linda Leung: You've written numerous books about new operating systems as they're released. What's your process of getting deep into an OS enough to write about it?
Paul McFedries: I approach a new OS using a combination of what I call "external" and "internal" processes:
External processes include any official documentation that the developer provides (manual, Help system, white papers, case studies, etc.); company sources (my own contacts but also, increasingly, company bloggers, particularly developers and managers working directly on the new system); company resources (such as Microsoft's TechNet and MSDN — Microsoft Developer Network); and contact with other beta testers, particularly through OS-related newsgroups.
Internal processes refer to sitting down and simply digging around in the new OS. First, I always install the new OS on as wide a range of hardware as possible, particularly machines that support features specific to the new OS (such as multi-touch in Windows 7). Then I get hands-on with the new system: Looking through all the menus; trying out commands; examining and tweaking options (Windows) or preferences (Mac); rooting around in the system's folders and files; and basically just ringing every bell and blowing every whistle that is new or changed in the OS.
LL: You've written books about most of the common Windows operating systems that Microsoft has launched, including XP and Vista. What are your thoughts on Microsoft's legacy? Do you think that it has finally built a solid platform with Windows 7?
PM: It's impossible to predict how a new Microsoft OS will be perceived in the long run. Some people were convinced that Windows Me (Millennium Edition) and, in particular, Windows Vista would be good systems, but those OSes are among Microsoft's worst (in terms of reputation); others hated Windows 98 and Windows XP, but those systems (at least the second service pack) were pretty solid. Windows 7 appears to be closer to the 98/XP vintages rather than the Me/Vista plonk. My feeling is that Windows 7 will be a winner for Microsoft, but we won't know for sure until Windows 7 is installed on tens of millions of machines.
LL: You wrote the Unauthorized Guide to Windows Millennium. I'd almost forgotten about that OS release. Whatever happened to it?
PM: Windows Me (Millennium Edition) was the last of the legacy (Windows 9x) systems. (From Windows XP on, all Microsoft OSes have been built on the Windows NT engine.) Me should have been a good OS because it was built on the solid core of Windows 98 Second Edition. However, Me was plagued with problems right from the beginning: installation hiccups, program crashes, system freezes, poor hardware support, BSODs (Blue Screens of Death) all over the place. It was a disaster, but it was only on the shelves for about a year and was mercifully replaced by Windows XP.
LL: You wrote Tweak It and Freak It: A Killer Guide to Making Windows Run Your Way. Is it easy to hack Windows to make it work how you want it? And who is Microsoft to tell us how to do things anyway?
PM: There's a hack/tweak/customization continuum for Windows: some hacks are just a setting change, so they're really easy to implement; some hacks require multi-step procedures, so they take a bit more work; a few hacks require accessing obscure or advanced programs and utilities, so they require specialized knowledge; and the odd hack requires a special script, so they require the know-how to run and, in some case, tweak the script. Overall, the most interesting and useful hacks aren't even remotely obvious or easy unless, of course, your (ahem) favorite author shows you the way!
Microsoft seems determined to dumb down Windows not only to make it easier for new and intimidated users (which is a good thing) but to prevent power users from setting up their machines to suit the way they work and play (which is most definitely a bad thing).
LL: You most recently broke out of the Microsoft world and published Mac OS X Snow Leopard In Depth. You also wrote (for another publisher) Switching to a Mac Portable Genius. Are you branching out or changing your allegiance?
PM: I'm branching out. As a technophile, it just doesn't make sense to me to restrict myself to a single type of system; it's exciting to try out new technologies and new ways of doing things on a computer! As a user, I know that Windows and Mac OS X have different strengths and weaknesses, so running multiple systems lets me take advantage of the strengths and bypass the weaknesses. As a writer, it's just more interesting to tackle different subjects, and although the Mac market is relatively small, in this economy it's dumb to ignore any market.
LL: Who is the Mac OS X Snow Leopard book aimed at? Experienced Mac users, or newbies? In fact, for anyone who has been waiting to make the leap from Windows to Mac, would Snow Leopard be the platform they've been waiting for?
PM: The book is aimed at intermediate users who already know some of the real basic stuff and want to get beyond that into more interesting and useful aspects of Mac OS X Snow Leopard.
Snow Leopard is a very minor update to Mac OS X, so it probably doesn't make a ton of difference to people looking to make the move from Windows to Mac.
LL: What are your views on the Windows 7 vs. Snow Leopard debate? Is or it a non-debate since the audiences (fan bases) for both platforms are pretty set?
PM: I find these kinds of debates sterile, boring, and useless. Windows 7 and Mac OS X are both amazing feats of software engineering and design, and they both have glaring weaknesses. It's impossible to say that one is "better" than the other because it depends on what you're talking about. Windows 7 is a better platform for gaming and business apps; OS X is a better platform for high-end media apps. An average user would do well with either system, depending on the types of tasks she perform day-to-day. If you're a geek, you should use both systems.
LL: Have you ever experienced anyone switching from Mac to Windows?
PM: Sure, it happens all the time. Mostly people find that the Mac doesn't support a particular application that they need, and it doesn't offer a comparable alternative. Rather than using Boot Camp to run Windows or shelling out the bucks for Parallels Desktop to run Windows in a virtual machine, they prefer just to go back to Windows.
LL: You're in the process of writing books about Microsoft Office 2010. What are your views on the new suite so far?
PM: I like it a lot. Microsoft has made some important changes to the Ribbon that make it a much more sensible tool. In particular, the unintuitive "Office" button which seemed to be bolted on as a Ribbon afterthought in Office 2007 has been replaced by a simple "File" tab that is now fully integrated into the Ribbon. Selecting that File tab displays the "Backstage" view, which offers an impressively comprehensive selection of document-related commands and features (the usual Save, Open, and Close suspects, as well as options for sharing, protection, versions, and much more). Also, the easy-to-use customization options for the Ribbon are great (although they should have been in place in Office 2007).
Probably the biggest win here will be the connection to the Office Web Apps, which will allow us to store documents in the cloud — either a SkyDrive storage area linked to your Windows Live ID, or a SharePoint site — and then view those documents in any (modern) browser, and even make simple edits to those documents.
LL: I love your Word Spy site, which tracks new words and phrases as they enter the English language. What inspired you to create it?
PM: Words to me are endlessly fascinating. They're the fundamental unit of communication, which means they play a big role in everyone's lives, and that universality interests me. This led me to study some linguistics in university, and to read legions of books on words and language.
What I came to realize over the years was that although I have a deep curiosity about language in general, what I get most excited about are new words in particular. It constantly amazes me that the language has this extraordinary capacity to generate neologisms. I view the language not as a solid mountain to be admired from afar, but rather as an active volcano to be studied up close. This volcano is constantly spewing out new words and phrases; some of them are mere ash and smoke that are blown away by the winds; others are linguistic lava that slides down the volcano and eventually hardens as a permanent part of the language. Both types of ejecta are inherently creative, so I'm interested in them equally.
My Word Spy work grew out of this. Word Spy began as a mailing list where each day I'd send out an interesting word to a collection of friends and readers. The first post to the Word Spy list was back on January 2, 1996. After I'd accumulated a few dozen words, I created the Web site to give people a record of what had been posted and to make it possible for other people to join the list. The list and site have grown by leaps and bounds since then: I get over a million page views each month; the list has over 8,000 subscribers; and Word Spy has been cited or profiled in over 150 newspapers and magazines around the world.
LL: What are your favorite words that you've written about?
PM: My favorite word is the first word that I posted to the site, and also the name of my company: logophilia, which means "the love of words."
LL: Final question: Are there any memorable words or phrases that have emerged from the Microsoft/Apple culture?
PM: On the Microsoft side, there's the verb 'dog food', "To use a product, particularly a software program, that was created by you or your company"; there's the Bill Gates tax, "The amount of money out of the price of a new personal computer that goes to Microsoft in the form of operating system licensing fees and other charges"; a Microsoft executive named Linda Stone coined the phrase 'continuous partial attention,' "A state in which most of one's attention is on a primary task, but where one is also monitoring several background tasks just in case something more important or interesting comes up."
From Apple (or, really, from Apple products), we have podcasting (iPod broadcasting); iPod halo effect, "The increase in the sales and perceived prestige of Apple products based on the massive popularity of Apple's iPod digital music player"; iPodder, "A person who uses an iPod digital music player"; and Mactel, "A computer with an Intel microprocessor running the Macintosh operating system and software."