|Debunking a popular myth|
|Written by James MathewsonHits : 475|
|Thursday, 31 December 1998 19:00|
I have a policy with family and friends: I refuse to play tech support advisor to them. Perhaps because it was so nice to be wanted, I used to gladly answer all tech questions. But these things tended to snowball, taking vital time away from my wife and child. Now I just advise them to consult a local tech support firm and leave it at that. This was my attitude when my sister Mary called the other day. "Jimmy," she said, "I'm having a problem with my computer. It says I've performed an illegal act and I will lose all my data."
I wanted to do my best Dr. McCoy and say, "Damn it, Mary, I'm an editor, not a help-desk representative!" But I remembered it was not Jim Kirk's fault that the guys in the red shirts always died before the grunt work was done. He had to delegate these menial tasks to the guys in the blue shirts. Likewise, it's not Mary's fault that she's saddled with Windows and Microsoft charges for phone tech support. So I just gave her the standard advice to quit out of the offending non-Microsoft application, run defrag and call a local tech support company if she has any more problems.
I still feel guilty when I put off family and friends, though. It seems so cold to push them to an expensive service like lambs to slaughter. This was especially true of a retired priest friend who needed help with his printer. I told him to talk to the local crack service team. Because they charge a flat fee for repairs, however, he ended up paying $100 just to have a someone turn his printer off and back on again.
The cause of this injustice is twofold. First, there just is not enough talent around to fix all the problems in personal computing. This is what I take to be the central problem in information technology-staffing, which is why it is the first special focus of ComputerUser's editorial calendar year. The meager supply of willing tech support people combined with the huge demand leads to high tech-support pricing.The second main problem is the focus of this column--demand. I can't do justice to the complexity of the situation in one column. But I can point the finger at an obvious offender--Windows.
The fact is, Windows is far less reliable than it should be, especially for a product that has been on the market for more than a decade. Say what you want about the difficulty involved in making an operating system work well with the variety of peripherals, freeware and other non-standard products. The fact remains that a large and growing number of users are fed up with all the futzing that they have to do on their computers just to make them work well with simple tasks.
This growing frustration belies a popular myth I've heard spouted in several places, most recently on "Nightline." Upside magazine's editor at large David Coursey became a talking head on the program and pushed his credibility down a notch by saying, "Users chose Windows, which is why Microsoft has a monopoly right now."
I have a habit of turning off the TV when I hear or see something blatantly stupid. When the refs take away a touchdown on a questionable holding call, I don't just calmly turn the set off, I poke the Off button so hard I've been known to jam my finger. On this occasion, I not only jammed my finger, I nearly knocked the 25-inch TV off the stand.
Two parts of Coursey's statement set my finger twitching. The first is that users somehow don't care about Microsoft's monopoly. They just want what everybody else has and, if this means Microsoft will have complete control of the computing industry, so be it. I can buy the desire for consistency. Perhaps users didn't realize that the desire for consistency naturally results in monopoly. But I have yet to talk to a user who would sacrifice all choice for consistency's sake.
The second aspect of Coursey's statement has me turning off my monitor (ah, that feels better) just to relieve the pent-up frustration from his appearance on "Nightline" weeks after the fact. The very notion that users chose Windows is beyond short-sighted. It's just plain false. Users didn't choose Windows, it was chosen for them.
Most users started working with computers on the job, then bought a personal computer so they could work at home. They didn't choose Windows at work, their MIS directors chose Windows at work. Because they wanted their home computers to work just like their work computers, they bought Windows-based systems. And because Microsoft openly foiled all attempts to make Windows compatible with other operating systems, users really didn't have a choice on their home systems.
The small minority of users who purchased a home computer prior to using one at work didn't really choose Windows either. They did have a choice between a Macintosh system and a Windows system in the first place. But once they realized they could get a Windows system for half the price of a comparable Macintosh, they were more apt to listen to the salesman's pitch: "Windows is just as easy as the Mac."
There was no low-cost alternative because Windows is preloaded on all Intel-based machines. (OS/2 was loaded only on true blue IBM machines, which cost more than the clones.) Only recently is there choice in the arena with Linux. But by the time Linux hit the mainstream, most Linux users needed Windows as well to run some of their applications. And Linux is not an option for most home users who just want an information appliance.
Steve Ballmer, president of Microsoft, made a couple of surprising announcements on a recent tour. He said the focus of development for the next generation of Windows will be on reliability and interoperability. In layman's terms, he means he wants Windows to prevent all the futzing that users must do right now and he wants it to work well with other operating systems. "We spend $3 billion per year on testing," he said.
This is a good thing. But it's a little late for Mary's husband Rocky, who called me a few days after Mary had. "Jimmy, the defrag worked, but now I get this message telling me I have a Registry error and I must run a reg edit utility. When I try to run the utility, it locks up and I can't do anything."
I gave him my usual spiel about how he should consult a local technical support firm. I told him to expect to pay $135 for the service. "How can this happen?" he asked. "I have no choice but to pour more money into this computer with no guarantee it will work better after I pay it."
If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I could afford to pay the tech support fees for all my friends and family, and I wouldn't feel so guilty.