Home > Articles > Home & Office Computing > Mac OS X

How Paul McFedries Gets Under the Hood of Microsoft Products

Paul McFedries, author of Microsoft Windows 7 Unleashed and Mac OS X Snow Leopard In Depth, talks with Linda Leung about his books, why he decided to take a diversion from the Microsoft path and write about OS X, and why he loves to track new words and phrases as they enter the English language.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

"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."

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020