Over the year, I've heard some pretty desperate cries for help.
I once heard from a guy who'd been staring at his screen for an hour because he didn't understand what "Hit any key to continue" meant.
Another guy folded a 5 1/4 -inch disk in half to get it in 3 1/2 -inch drive.
One poor soul couldn't get a single program to work -- because he kept putting his disks in the drive upside down.
I even had a guy who swore he couldn't get his computer to do anything at all. He didn't know you had to turn it on first.
But Ralph may be beyond help.
When he called, I barely remembered him. We'd met only a couple of times, years ago, when I was covering politics. I was using a computer to analyze election returns, which he thought was a bizarre but interesting idea.
Two months ago, Ralph finally bought a computer to bring his political club into the electronic age. Last week he reached a milestone -- he got it to print a letter. But that's about it.
"It's supposed to do a lot more than that. I know you have to type in some kind of commands to run all these programs, but I can't figure out what they are," he complained.
"Why don't you read the manual?" I asked.
"There isn't any manual."
This isn't unusual with cheap IBM clones. But you really don't need much of a computer manual as long as you have the instructions that come with your software. They cover the basics of installing the programs and getting them running.
"What about the programs you bought with the computer? Where'd you put the manuals for those?" I asked.
"I don't know what programs came with the computer," he said.
It turns out that Ralph had been down at Honest Ed's Office Supply Warehouse and Garden Center. They were having their monthly sale, and Ralph knew a deal when he saw one.
He saved $150 by buying a discontinued floor model.
"They gave me a great price because they didn't have the box," he admitted.
What about the manuals for the software?
"They didn't know what software was on the computer," he said, "but they said it had a lot of really neat stuff. At least that's what Skippy told them."
"He's the kid who ran the computer department. But they told me he quit the week before I bought the computer. Went back to finish high school or something."
Ralph has been back to Honest Ed's a couple of times about this. The employees are very nice people. But with Skippy gone, no one there knows much about computers. They did find a manual -- to another computer -- and gave Ralph that. But it wasn't much help.
He even called the computer manufacturer to see if the company could help.
"It took them a while to find someone who could speak English," Ralph said. "But the guy told me it was Honest Ed's problem."
So Ralph had found himself a real bargain. It wouldn't surprise me if there are plenty of Ralphs out there, staring at little boxes, trying to unlock the magic.
There are a couple of ways out of this mess, Ralph. You can find a friend -- and it had better be a good friend -- who can figure out what programs are on your computer and how to get them running.
7+ Or better yet -- hire someone to do the
same thing. Many computer stores have knowledgeable salespeople who moonlight doing exactly the kind of work you need -- for $50 to $100 an hour.
That may sound steep to the average cheapskate. But if you've just spent $1,500 and a couple of frustrating weeks of your time on a computer that's doing absolutely nothing for you, another $100 or $150 is a small price to get the machine working.
By the way, you don't necessarily have legal title to the programs on your machine, even if you get them running. While many low-end computers are bundled with a starter collection of programs such as Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Works, or Lotus Works, stores frequently install other software on their demo models' hard disks for display purposes.
When you bought the computer, you didn't necessarily buy the license to those programs. You can probably get them to run, but without the manuals and registration forms, you can't register them and receive upgrades and bug fixes -- even if the programs are legit.
And while your friend or hired gun is checking out your software, make sure he scans for viruses. There's no telling how many people had their hands on your computer before you got it.
Finally, buy some books that tell you how to use the software on your machine.
There are plenty of third-party how-to manuals on the market. Most major bookstore chains, as well as computer stores that sell software, have a good selection. A simple beginner's book on DOS -- the computer's Disk Operating System -- is a must. It will cover the basics of using the computer, managing your files, running programs, etc.
You might also consider signing up for a basic computing course at your local community college. These courses are generally cheap and good. They're designed for people who don't know anything and don't have much time to learn.
If you want specific training for programs such as WordPerfect, dBase or other major applications, you can find it at your community college, too.
Of course, there's another alternative, Ralph. You probably know by now that you can spend a few hundred dollars more and find a computer that comes bundled with useful programs, manuals and the like.
You can put a classified ad in the newspaper, sell your computer for whatever the market will bear (experienced computer users are always looking for second and third machines), and start over with a new machine.