Babylon? Oh So 1999

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I used to think that small programs that sat in your computer’s memory and could be accessed quickly by a keystroke were the future, but nowadays I’m not sure that’s true. At least, they’ve got to be real careful. If they’re not, they end up looking and behaving dangerously like adware.

An example that steers dangerously close is Babylon. Once a service with great promise, and still used by at least one of my friends, Babylon offers access to all sorts of online content — dictionaries, thesaurii, Wikipedia entries — just by highlighting a word in any application and hitting a couple of keys. A wonderful idea, and, with so much great reference material online, something that should by now have come into its own. But the experience falls short.

Install the software and you immediately get a pop-up suggesting you buy the product. It’s strange how out of sync that sort of behaviour is in today’s more demanding, less patient world. And while the information Babylon retrieves for you is impressively large, it’s probably too large to be useful. Nowadays we need surgical strikes on information, not carpet bombing.

Given it’s supposed to be a writer’s and browser’s tool, the occasional pop-up balloon from the system tray doesn’t help either. I don’t want programs blitzing me with reminders that the program is there, or that I am still using a trial version. This behaviour is, frankly, so 1999 it’s not funny.

Needless to say, I uninstalled the software within ten minutes. Or at least I tried to: Babylon has a few more tricks up its sleeve to make sure that isn’t as painless as installing it.

First off, there’s no uninstall shortcut in the Start menu, only the application that sits proudly alone outside a folder:

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This approach–not putting a shortcut inside a folder along with an uninstall link–always strikes me as the refuge of the pompous and delusional. Microsoft does it; Adobe does it; Real does it. They could just about get away with it. Everyone else is kidding themselves.

So, it’s to the Add or Remove Programs folder, which, under XP, always takes so long to load it gives you time to wonder why you haven’t switched to a Mac already. And there, one finds two more surprises from Babylon:

Firstly, there are two entries, not one in the list:

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Interesting. I don’t recall for a while coming across a program thinking it carried that kind of weight. More pumped up self-importance, I fear.

That’s not the end of the fun. Click on the first of these and instead of the usual confirmation box about uninstalling, you’re given one last chance to cough up:

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I’m pretty sure that breaks all sorts of user design rules. It’s annoying: Why would someone who had gotten this far in uninstalling suddenly say to themselves “Doggone it! What was I thinking? Why don’t I just buy the thing instead?” By now I’m regretting even downloading Babylon to start with. All I wanted, for Chrissakes, was a decent Thesaurus.

The truth is that software has now learnt to fit better to the way we work, and not to intrude in the way that Babylon does. Look at browser widgets or the Mac’s Spotlight, or even Answers.com’s 1-Click Answers. Luckily, perhaps, Babylon’s lack of manners stands out because it’s just not how programs are written these days.

The Art of the Uninstall

I’ve just spent an hour removing programs from my Windows XP machine. I have far too many programs anyway, but removing them is not made any easier by a lack of basic standards among software developers, who seem to consider software removal as a chance for some creative licence and a last-gasp effort to suck more out of the already exhausted customer. Here are some don’ts for developers who want to retain the faintest goodwill among users who are uinstalling their software:

  • Include an uninstall link in the StartUp menu and in the Add or Remove Programs section of the Control Panel. This makes it easier to remove stuff; not doing so doesn’t raise the chance the user will keep using your program;
  • Don’t open a browser link without warning at the end of the uninstallation begging for feedback. You’re just asking for insults. Removing a program means the user is removing the program. If they want to give you feedback, you’re bound to hear from them. Assume the customer has as little time to spare as you have;
  • Don’t insist the customer reboots after uninstallation. This is sloppy programming, and it’s hard to imagine any software that absolutely needs to reboot immediately to uninstall completely or for the computer to continue functioning. Nokia, sadly, seems particularly egregious in this sin.
  • Do a good job of clearing everything out. Don’t leave rubbish in the Registry or subfolders in the sneaking hope the customer may come back.
  • Make sure the installation process is clean and doesn’t involve lots of access to installation files that may have moved. If the program is already gone, and only the link remains, remove that;
  • If the StartUp menu link has moved – because the user, shock, indulges in a bit of shortcut management — be smart enough to find and remove those links upon installation. Uninstall that leaves dead links are silly.

This may not be the last your customer sees of your software, but the manner of its departure is likely to influence whether or not the customer comes back. Make uninstall smooth, intuitive and fast. No tricks, no gimmicks. They may simply be temporarily removing your software for reasons of space, not because they don’t like it. The faster they can get rid of your software, the less of a drama you make it for them, the more grateful they’ll be and the more likely they’ll invite you back onto their computer.

Column: A Fix It Guide

Loose Wire — The Glitch-Fixer’s Guide: PC stuck again? Before you bother your computer guru, here’s a checklist that could help you to fix the problem yourself
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff 

17 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

 
I was halfway out of the door, and very pleased to have fixed a computer, when the owner called me back. “Hang on,” she said. “These squarey bits are much too small. They weren’t like that before.” I sighed, put down my backpack and reached for the mouse. This must be what it’s like fixing a broken-down car on a windswept highway, rescuing the family inside from frostbite and certain death, only to be told by the occupants that while the engine now worked, the radio didn’t.

Welcome to the thankless world of Helping Friends With Their Computer Problems. It’s a fool’s errand, take it from me. In the past few weeks I’ve attempted to fix four computers, with a success rate of 25%. Of course none of this is the user’s fault. No one really prepares us for when things go wrong, and while on that one occasion I was able to fix the main problem and those squarey bits, my friend is none the wiser about what to do if it goes wrong again. So here, for one time only, is my Idiot’s Checklist Of Things To Do When Something Goes Wrong With Your Computer. Of course I claim no responsibility for any advice you may follow, and do not lure me over to your place to fix it (unless it’s with an offer of some Battenburg Window Cake, to which I’m rather partial).

1) Try turning the computer off and turning it on again. I know it sounds obvious, but six times out of 10 this fixes it. (If necessary, unplug the power cable, remove the battery if it’s a laptop, and then leave the computer for five minutes first. This drains the memory, as well as allowing you to get yourself a cup of tea.)

2) Assuming your computer now does load as normal, you have either fixed the problem, or you’re having a problem with a specific program or a specific device you’ve plugged into your computer. The trick now is to isolate the problem. In most cases, you’ll get an error message alerting you to the problem — usually a separate window (“this program has performed an illegal operation and will now go to jail” or somesuch). Take note of which program is causing the problem. It’s not always obvious.

3) In my friend’s case, it was Eudora, an e-mail program. Every time she tried to check her mail, it crashed with a message, that while cryptic (“an unhandled error has occurred”) at least informed me who the culprit was. The next trick, then, is to see whether someone else has had the same problem. Assuming you have an Internet connection (if you don’t, call up a friend who does), check the manufacturer’s Web site and go to their Support page. Search for something relevant like “crash” and “check mail.” No point in reinventing the wheel: If someone else has had the same problem as you, chances are it’s recorded somewhere on the Net.

4) In Eudora’s case, they do a great job of listing possible options for fixing your problem, and after trying about eight of them, everything worked. But if this doesn’t happen, you can still try stuff out yourself. For example, try closing all other programs you don’t need, including, if you’re in Windows, all the ones in the system tray (usually by right-clicking the icon and selecting Exit).

5) Still no joy? Run an updated virus check on your whole computer, and sit tight until it’s done. Don’t have a virus checker installed? Shame on you, but try this free on-line one: www.trendmicro.com/en/products/desktop/housecall/. If you have a virus aboard, that may be your problem.

6) No virus? Try reinstalling the program or device in question (make sure you have the original program file or CD-ROM first). To do this, open the Control Panel in the Settings menu, and Add/Remove Programs. Once the program’s uninstalled, reboot your computer and reinstall the program. If it’s a piece of hardware, open the System icon instead of Add/Remove Programs, find the Device Manager tab and right-click on the device that doesn’t work. Select uninstall. Once you’re done, reboot. You may have to now reinstall the drivers that make the device work.

7) Still not working? Try cleaning up the Registry — the place where Windows stores all the settings that make your programs run (or crash, depending on your point of view). Here’s a free program, EasyCleaner, that does a good job of it: www.toniarts.com/ecleane.htm. Once the program has run its course, reboot and try the program again.

8) If it’s still not working, try checking the hard disk for errors (Accessories/System Tools/Scan in Windows; Windows XP won’t have this option). If that’s still not helping, try removing some of the components of the program in question. Eudora, for example, has extras called plug-ins that may be causing the problem. Microsoft Outlook and Word have similar add-ons that are often the culprit. Remove those and you may be okay.

9) Still no luck? I hate to say it, but you may have bigger problems. You could try reinstalling Windows, but before you take that kind of step you may want to try consulting a professional, since you’re entering Scary Territory.

More on reinstalling operating systems in a future column. In the meantime, print this checklist out, stick it above your computer and stock up on Battenburg Cake, in case I’m dumb enough to come round.