A View From the Trenches

By | February 14, 2006

Just had lunch with my old friend William, an upright member of the financial community and a scholar. Half an hour of his computer woes and you wonder three things:

  • how the PC ever made it out of the nerd’s den
  • how overwhelmingly inadequate software, interfaces and help files are
  • whether we shouldn’t just ditch what we’ve done so far with personal computers and start again.

His problems aren’t dramatic, and none is necessarily a show stopper. But put together I can’t help feeling that my advice to ordinary users should be: avoid, as much as possible, adding anything onto your computer, whether it’s software or hardware. And, whatever you do, don’t alter any settings.

Here’s what he grumbled to me about, in his self-effacing English way (we went to the same school, as you might have guessed):

  • bought a headset (not the USB type, just an ordinary audio one) to use with Skype, but some firewall function, it seems, is blocking all voice. Some guy in the shop changed it but that just means he has no firewall, and we know what Windows XP will do if that happens: dire warnings of imminent chaos every five minutes. So William turned the firewall back on. And can’t hear anything on Skype.
  • Every time he signs out of Yahoo! mail, the sign-in field is always filled with the same email address, however many times he deletes it. It’s not the email address he normally uses, yet he (and I) have no idea how to alter that;
  • He and his wife have different cameras, from different manufacturers, with different download and editing software. Consequently he has no idea where his photos are stored on their shared computer, and no idea of how to back them up;
  • Don’t get him started on his BlackBerry (I did, and it took up half the meal). He has three accounts in Outlook, and a year’s supply of phone calls to support trying to sort out configuration and synchronisation issues. One account can send mail, one can receive, and one synchronizes effortlessly with his BlackBerry but doesn’t send or receive, unless it’s from the BlackBerry.
  • He recently bought a USB keydrive to keep his data safe, but, has no idea of how to set it up, let alone find the files he wants to back up. I suggested taking it into the shop for them to have a look at it. His reply: “I’m afraid of moving it in case something changes again.”

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

4 thoughts on “A View From the Trenches

  1. Christian

    It can be a nightmare, but most USB keys should be plug and play / drag and drop.

    On the camera front, vendor software is rarely any good – don’t use it, and simply again use the cameras as plug and play – they should come up as “removable storage” when you plug them in first time around, and you can just access the jpgs or whatever via “my computer” when the camera is plugged in. Then you can drag them to a common “pictures” folder and edit with whatever you wish. I keep it simple and use photo editor (which was supplied with Win 98, but curiously absent from XP – I copied it across from an old PC)

    With the Yahoo! thing, it’s either to do with cookies or your password manager – the browser has remembered settings for that site. You’ll need to tinker with your browser (either IE, netscape, firefox, whatever) and find the “password manager” or cookies manager option – find the reference to the Yahoo site and delete it, and this should remove the autocomplete setting for the site.

    I’ve got no idea on the blackberry front – can’t stand the things. As for the skype firewall nightmare, he should talk to someone who really knows what they are doing – VoIP opens a lot of unnecessary ports, which firewalls hate, or won’t allow. Configuration depends on which firewall you have, and how willing it is to work with Skype!

    Hope that helps on those three.

  2. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Christian, thanks for your sensible suggestions. My point, though, was a more general one. These solutions are the kind of things more experienced users would know, or could figure out. But ordinary folk have no interest in rooting around inside cookie logs, or trying to find PST files, or firewall settings (one thing I loved about Skype was its sneaky ability to get around firewalls). These are simply barriers too big and boring for most ordinary people with lives away from the computer to bother with. It’s not that the solutions aren’t known, it’s that they are problems in the first place.

  3. Akshay

    Yeah, the lesson is: Don’t expect technology to organize your life … it’ll only support whatever the user decides.

    One of the things I see as a consultant is people with state of the art technologies with woefully non-exisitent or barely sufficient processes behind them.

    GIGO, people!

  4. Christian

    Definitely true – all of the systems are designed by people who know IT in very deep detail, and not tested on people who know nothing. I think, to be fair, it is getting better – XP is far more usable than DOS, for instance, but it is a very slow process…


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