When I was growing up on the periphery of Big Iron computing — you know the type: monstrously-sized mainframes with cooling systems big enough for cargo ships, and interfaces that started at unfriendly and went downhill from there — I learned two things:

  1. Don't trip on any of the two or three dozen cables;

  2. Read The F---ing Manual.

Most people seem to do okay with #1, but #2 seems to be a lost cause these days, even among people who can fill in the blanks. And while I've dumped on people before for their failure to RTFM, at least part of the blame belongs to those strange and wacky characters in the computing biz who don't provide any FM to R, a lot of whom seem to be working at Microsoft.

The MS-DOS 3.3 manual I just pulled off my shelf runs 386 pages of fairly small print, as befits the documentation for what was, for its time, a complex and sort-of-sophisticated, if decidedly user-surly, operating system. When Microsoft grafted the Windows interface onto DOS, things got even more complicated, and the Windows 3.1 manual runs 407 pages (at least, the copy on my desk does) without dipping into DOS arcana. Came Windows 95, an operating system purporting to offer the best of both worlds, and Microsoft shipped it with a crummy 95(!)-page pamphlet that explains next to nothing. Those of us who believed in R'ing the M were pretty much F'd.

Online help? Yeah, sure. If you can wade your way through a succession of monologue boxes (what they really should be called), you can eventually find an answer to a question distantly related to yours. If you need to know something vital, well, there's always the Resource Kit, wherever it's hiding. About the only trick they missed was providing Net-based help for a Web browser, utterly useless if the browser won't even start — but fortunately, Netscape was there to leap into this particular breach. Or is it "breech"? Either way, the time-honored practice of RTFM has been remade into a genuine PITA.

The Vent

25 April 1998

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 Copyright © 1998 by Charles G. Hill