I don’t often vent about Windows here. Anyone who’s read me for more than a minute recognizes that it’s not my main platform. Indeed the only thing I use it for are corporate email (Outlook/Exchange — bleargh) and one or two other work-related apps. I use it seldom enough that I can get away with using it in a VMWare sandbox on my Linux laptop.
There is one “feature” (Windows XP SP2, Outlook 2000, Internet Explorer 6) that drives me up the freaking wall. It’s the completely brain-damaged clipboard handling. Now I know a little bit about how the clipboard works in the Mac OS (classic and OS X). Briefly (and forgive me, Mac coders who know this more precisely than I do here, I’m just making an approximation for the sake of this post), when a user selects copy in an application, the application notifies the OS of the data type of the material copied. It also can optionally inform the OS that it’s capable of providing this data in (n) many other formats, if requested. An application capable of receiving pasted data tells the OS which formats it understands, and the OS brokers between the two so that, for most sane combinations of copied and pasted data, application B gets application A’s clipboard data in a form it can understand. There’s a term for this sort of operation. I’m going to refer to it as “The Right Way To Do it.”
In Windows, though, things don’t seem to work this way. I will confess to knowing absolutely nothing of Windows’ internals (and I’d like to keep it that way, thank you very much), but as a user I’d have to say the behavior I observe multiple times a day is quite broken.
In the most common scenario, I’m browsing a site in IE (yeah, I know, but I’m almost browsing sites inside the corporate firewall) and I need to copy an URL to paste into an email message. I highlight the URL in IE’s location bar, right-click and select “Copy”, then switch back to the compose message window in Outlook, where the “Paste” menu option is dimmed. As in disabled. As in not functional. As in, “no, you may not paste this chunk of text you selected 1.5 seconds ago and paste it into this window where you are, y’know, editing text.” I’ll usually go through this process twice before questioning the ancestry of every individual on the Windows development team and typing the damned URL by hand.
I have observed similar behavior in many Windows apps — an email address copied from my Outlook address book can’t be pasted into a text field into the CRM app we use or IE. I think I know what’s happening — internally, Windows “knows” that the selected text is a URL or an email address, but refuses to offer that “object” as a plain-text string to an application that can handle it, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why that would be the default behavior. Anyone who had done a second of usability testing would realize how broken this behavior is. Can anyone defend this? Linux/Unix clipboard handling (via X11) is pretty basic, but at least you know that when you copy text, you’ve got text you can paste anywhere.
Q: What’s the difference between a car salesman and a computer
A: The car salesman can probably drive!
— Joan McGalliard (firstname.lastname@example.org)