PCs shouldn't be at mercy of `bilgeware'

February 28, 2002|By Mike Himowitz

HIPPOCRATES, the founding father of modern medicine, issued this famous dictum to generations of doctors:

Make a habit of two things - to help, or at least do no harm.

He might as well have been talking to software publishers, too. All too often, I hear tales of woe from users who install new software that not only doesn't work, but turns the computer into a $1,500 doorstop.

Consider the reader who took my advice in an earlier column and downloaded the latest security patches from Microsoft. Unfortunately, she also took the opportunity to download and install Microsoft Internet Explorer 6, too.

Now her machine shuts off by itself at random intervals and keeps disconnecting itself from her Internet service provider. She's outraged at Microsoft - and at me for pointing her in Microsoft's direction in the first place.

A colleague who had just installed Symantec's Norton SystemWorks - a program that's supposed to protect and defend his PC - wound up spending hours trying to restore a machine that had suddenly turned into a zombie. When uninstalling the program didn't help, he called Symantec, whose techs finally offered to send him a secret program that would "really" remove it. When I last saw him, he was looking for Web sites that sell M-16s.

Just last week, my mailbox was littered with complaints from Comcast cable Internet customers who installed a program that was supposed to change their e-mail settings, but wound up trashing their machines - sometimes to the point where the only remedy was to reformat the hard drive.

When I confront software publishers with these horror stories, the first thing they say is that the vast majority of customers install their software with no problems, and that these foul-ups are relatively rare. But let's consider the law of large numbers.

Say a publisher with a million customers releases a new version of a program that installs successfully 99 percent of the time. That would be a Ruthian slugging percentage.

But what about the other 1 percent? What about the 10,000 people stuck with computers that suddenly don't work? What happens if those people have to spend an average of four or five hours with tech support, or lose a day of work, or can't operate their businesses?

Here's the worst part: I don't think any software publisher comes close to 99 percent. I haven't found any studies on it yet, but I'd wager that "bilgeware" (my name for stuff that crashes your PC) costs us billions in lost productivity every year.

Why are things so bad? Two decades ago, when computing was largely the province of savvy hobbyists accustomed to solving arcane problems, life was simpler. Like the drivers of early cars who carried toolkits and knew how to use them, they expected trouble - and knew how to deal with it.

Today, with computers installed in 60 percent of our homes and almost all our businesses, most PC users aren't armchair technicians. They're ordinary people who have work to do. Their time is valuable - to themselves and to their employers.

Unfortunately, our computers are far more complex than the machines of two decades ago. Early PCs had to deal with a limited number of devices - a monitor, a keyboard and maybe a printer. They were also designed to run only one program at a time.

Today's PCs communicate with mice, modems, network adapters, scanners, digital cameras, fax machines, CD readers and recorders, sound systems and portable jukeboxes - each of which requires its own software driver.

To handle all the things we do with these gadgets, operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and Apple's Macintosh System have to run many programs simultaneously. In fact, as I write this column, with nothing on the screen but my word processor, there are actually 46 different programs running inside my PC. A disaster waiting to happen?

To keep all this sorted out, Microsoft Windows offers a variety of mini-programs for common functions, such as opening a file or sending a document to a printer. These small-but-critical programs are scattered around our hard drives in files with arcane extensions such as ".dll".

To keep track of important system settings, ranging from the look of your desktop to network instructions to the title at the top of your Web browser window, Microsoft maintains two huge, incomprehensible databases known collectively as the System Registry.

When you install a new program, or upgrade an old one, you can bet that it will install new .dll files or drivers and make changes in the Registry.

If these changes overwrite or conflict with your existing software or Registry settings, you can be in big trouble. And there's virtually no way to bail yourself out. In fact, with so many millions of combinations of hardware and software on our desktops, there's a good chance that nobody can figure out what really went wrong with a given PC when a new installation turns it into garbage.

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