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The truth about what is stability.

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999


Stability is the ability to come in and use your computer and make it do what you want - without unpredictable results. It is when you can get work done consistently and reliably.

Stability is not just one thing - it is a collection of lots of issues that make up the whole. Stability is not one technology (like memory protection or preemption) - it is a collection of all the things that make the system work the way you want it to.

I have had many users tell me that "WinNT never crashes". Then I pointed out that the mouse or keyboard would not work until I rebooted, or the blue screen of death, or that an application would quit on me for no reason (and take data with it), or that the system would suddenly slow to a crawl until I rebooted, or if I changed a setting or tried to install something the whole system would break. Some installs could do such evil things to the system that it requires a total reinstall of the System. The response - "Oh, that's not technically crashing".

Well if it doesn't work or it is not usable, or I can't make the system do what I want, predictably, then it is NOT stable - it is touchy as hell, and I don't like it.

Note: I do find WinNT to be far more stable than Win95, if you can get by it's configuration quirks, and work only with a small sub-set of hardware and software choices. But it is just not the panacea that many claim. It is a mortal System with more than a few flaws.

Here are a few of the things I factor in to platform stability -

  • Installation - for a System to be stable you must be able to install it, or install an application and have it work. Windows (NT or 95) gives you many unnecessary parameters to enter, and if you get any of them wrong they your system may not work - or not work the way you want it to. That is not stability. On installs there is often no verification - and it'll overwrite stuff if you do anything wrong. It is not stability when you can't touch it or it might break, or if you can't get it to work in the first place.
  • Configurability - often you want to change something, or have something work differently for different people. The MacOS does this really well. Mac users are often too willing to change things, because they get bit so infrequently. Windows users are often scared to death to touch anything - because when ever they do their system comes crashing down, and they have to reinstall, or get support people to help them. Now technically it may be stable if you don't touch it - but to me stability includes working even when you do touch it.
  • Upgradability - part of stability is what happens when you upgrade (with computers you must often upgrade - more often with PC's than with Macs) . There are books and articles on Windows voodoo, and getting things to work, and how to upgrade and keep things working. On windows users are forced into upgrading often, and users often dread the upgrades (for good reasons). On a Mac people often can (and do) work with much older Software or hardware if they want - but users are also willing to upgrade because they so infrequently get bit (unless it is a MS application).
  • Consistency - this is critical to stability. If you do something wild like drag a file around - you expect consistent results. On Windows dragging some files will make a shortcut of the file (if its an app), other times it will move the file, and still other times it will copy that file. That is not going to give a user a feeling of "stability". Things are inconsistent -- the user is always on "unstable" ground.
  • Predictability - Users are often scared to do anything "new" on windows because they can't predict the results. (If they are not scared they are inexperienced, give them time and they will learn to be scared to try anything new). Sometimes dragging a file to the trash will automatically delete that file for you <poof>, that'll teach you to leave something resting on the keyboard. Also dragging thing to the trash will take them out of their folder hierarchy for you (ha! try to remember where it came from). That is not predictable behavior - and users feel like they are always on shaky ground. Users never know what will happen -- that is the opposite of stability.
  • Memory Protection - This is a technique to help make your system stable, but it does not guarantee stability in and of itself. Macs have some memory protection, Win95 has some, and WinNT has a bit more than either of those -- Unix, BeOS and Rhapsody may have the most of all. But protection is only part of the issue. It often means that apps crash more often - but the system crashes less. Usually this is better for the user, sometimes it is worse. Memory Protection does not have much to do with application stability at all (which is often a seperate issue) - but at least it does have a little to do with system stability.
  • Application Quality - This is a biggy. How stable are the applications, and how likely to come down, or bring the System down. Mac Apps are usually much more stable than PC apps (especially 16bit PC apps - which is still about 70% of the software base). If you factor out Microsoft apps on the Mac, then the Mac Apps are much much more stable than PC apps.
  • Viri - PC's have 100 times more problems with Virus's than Macs (I think the score is 35 on the Mac side, to 16,000+ on the PC side). This contributes to PC's instabilities. While technically it may not be the OS that costs you weeks of work - it is still the platforms problem. Macs have almost no problems with virus's, and I don't have to waste much time with virus protection. That is a big part of stability.


So you can see that the Mac are far more stable than they are given credit for. Microsoft has convinced users that the system hanging or wasting time reconfiguring, or fixing virus's, or restoring work after it was destroyed, or reinstalling your System monthly is not part of stability - they want users to only focus on memory protection. Mac users know better. Mac users know that stability is a combination of many different things - it is how well there system works overall, how free they are to change things and focus on doing work, instead of being focused on the tool. That is why Mac users know that their system is stable (compared to Windows) -- and also why Windows users don't know how stable the Mac is.

Now don't get me wrong. There is no such thing as too much stability, and Macs are not perfect -- and PC's are not THAT unstable. There is certainly room for improvement with all the OS's. I am looking forward to Apples Rhapsody and releases of MacOS (Allegro, Sonata and so on) -- all improve stability even more. On the Mac new OS releases are steps forward -- but with PC's those steps may be forward or backward (many users are bit hard by upgrading).

When it comes to stability I know that on my Mac I can do more, change more, play more, work more, and fear less - than on my Windows95 or even my WindowsNT machines. That to me is stability.

Created: 2/4/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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