Problems with PCs are the rule, not exception

Personal Computers

January 19, 1998|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

FIRE UP new $800 computer. Click Internet icon. Use Internet Connection Wizard, which calls itself "the easy way to get connected to the Internet." Click Next button. Click Automatic option, which "sets up your computer to use a modem to connect to the Internet and configures your Internet settings for you." Click Next twice more.

Observe that there is no place to enter data for "your country." Presume great Wizard has figured this out somehow. Enter proper information beside "your area or city code." Click Next.

Hear cute gulping sound from machine and see dialogue box asking: "Please select a country. This information is required to find a sign-up phone number." Click OK.

There is still no place to enter data for "your country." Re-enter area code and click Next again. "Please select a country. This information is required to find a sign-up phone number." Contemplate lifetime spent in what is known in programming circles as an endless loop. Click OK, even though it is not OK.

Click Cancel. Read dialogue box: "The Internet Connection Wizard has not finished setting up your Internet connection. Are you sure you want to exit the Wizard?"

Search futilely for button reading, "What other choice do I have?" or, "Some Wizard you are!" or, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" Grudgingly click Yes. Begin considering configuration options that are not quite so delightfully automatic. Wonder if anybody at the company actually tries this stuff.

A trivial example? Perhaps, but in the world of computers, trivial examples have a way of adding up to throbbing headaches, and problems with personal computers are clearly becoming the rule, not the exception. As someone who has long been fiddling with hardware and software for a living, I am no longer flabbergasted or even surprised at the number of products I try that do not work as advertised or do not work at all.

The holidays were going just fine at my nephew's house until he tried to install a software gift on the computer the family bought the previous Christmas. He never got the game to work -- and, as a bonus, the computer no longer worked for anything else, either. His parents will be spending hours on the phone in an attempt to sort things out.

The holidays were going just fine at the big software company where a friend tried to install the company-mandated program for manipulating end-of-the-year pension plan data. After the machine went dead, a systems expert told him that he would have to reinstall the supposedly industrial-strength Windows NT operating system. Two days later, he was still working.

"Good enough" has become the computer industry's pervasive standard of quality. At a recent demonstration of one company's DVD technology, observers noticed that the system skipped frames of the movie that was playing, creating disconcerting jerks as characters moved across the screen. The demonstrator's response: "Don't you think people would put up with that to save $200?" Perhaps, if the package displayed the warning "does not actually work correctly" so people knew exactly what kind of bargain they were getting.

Windows machines are particularly great offenders, but they are not the only ones. Apple Macintosh users clearly encounter fewer problems when it comes to installing software and hardware. Software vendors who supply their products in both Mac and Windows formats invariably report far fewer support calls for the Mac editions, even taking into account their typically lower sales. But despite the claims of their increasingly strident fanatics, Apple machines are by no means immune to problems, including crashes that require rebooting.

At this month's Macworld Expo show in San Francisco, Steve Jobs, Apple Computer's interim chief executive, announced the impending release of MacOS 8.1, a new version of the operating system the company first offered just six months ago. Before enumerating several interesting new features, Jobs observed that the new release "fixes a zillion bugs, of course."

Of course? Then why did the product go out the door in the first place? That dismissively blithe "of course" is the epitome of the "good enough" standard that allows companies to ship products with known problems while planning to fix them in the next release. It is what keeps users clicking, cursing and waiting on hold as they attempt to work or play with their hardware and software instead of having to repair it.

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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