End User Abuse

I ceased using Windows at home altogether a few years ago, ending up strictly on Linux after a period of living with both. Initially this meant Gentoo, but eventually such things as trying to “emerge update” the build system itself only to have it barf and leave the system in an unrecoverable state lost the luster of novelty, precipitating my migration to Fedora Core. It turns out that integration testing does matter. When your interest centers on solving some particular problem, not slogging through OS arcana, you likely prefer not to experience unexpected metaphor shear.

Despite my purism at home, I still find myself subject to Microsoft at the office. I suffer either Win2K or WinXP as a dumb terminal to SSH into Linux machines, and there is of course the expected Exchange/Outlook drudgery plus a few other “productivity” tools. So, my Windows knowledge has not atrophied completely. I just lack deep knowledge of how to administer it, and I’ve not had the misfortune of trying to debug problems under Windows Vista.

In fact, that last part ceased to be true yesterday. I’m currently visiting my grandparents in Astoria as an adjunct to having been in Portland for OSCON 2008. As always seems to happen when I visit, my grandfather sheepishly asked if I might deign to troubleshoot his latest computing woes. After initial resistance (“I’m on vacation to escape this kind of stuff!”) I caved and took a look.

His frustration centered on his inability to get his photo management program to burn albums to CD. Mind you, it used to work, as evidenced by a huge pile of CDs with photos on them, but no more. Attempting to go through the motions myself, I was greeted with an error along the lines of “this system does not have a suitable drive attached for recording CDs”.

So, I go to the desktop to double-click “My Computer” to see what drives are on the system, but Microsoft has seemingly decided to remove that idiom. I eventually figure out that I can find the familiar interface via the Start menu. Bemusingly, I don’t actually see anything that looks like a CD-RW drive. So, I slog around until I find the “Device Manager” or whatever they’re calling it these days. In here I find the device with an adorable exclamation point drawn on it. I drill into it and several GUI layers later I finally find myself presented with the following:

There was a problem installing this hardware. This device cannot start. (Code 10).

Code 10? This is what passes as a meaningful error message these days? Guh… At least I’ve got something I can poke into Google and so I do. The closest thing to a diagnosis and solution that I can find sounds both preposterous and plausible. Apparently the thing to do involves uninstalling all CD recording software and then executing a series of registry hacks and then reinstalling the software you want to use. Thus one unsmashes a system that has arrived in an inconsistent state as the consequence of incompatible software installations. So say various technical forums, anyway, including ones on microsoft.com.

So, to start exploring possibilities, I go to fire up the registry editor. Start, Run… Run? Um, where did it go? They removed “Run” from Vista’s Start menu? Brilliant… So I can’t invoke “Run” and then “regedit”. I Google on how to edit the registry in Vista, and I’m told that indeed I’m supposed to use regedit, but that I need to get at it via “Search”. So I find “Search”, enter “regedit”, and I get back “no search results”. WTF? At this point I’m exasperated and decide that diagnosing the problem is enough fun for the time being and that actually fixing it is a task for another day. Not only has the experience been disorienting, but every attempt to do anything seems to lock the system up because Vista on a mere gig of RAM violates various laws of Physics.

What’s the objective of all this? Quite simply, my grandfather takes a lot of photographs and he doesn’t want to lose all of them every time one of his computers bursts into flames. So, he regularly burns the photos to CDs. Inevitably, however, he does some seemingly innocuous thing to his system and it gets trashed. This usually involves installing a piece of software that behaves badly.

When viewed relative to the way I manage systems at the office, the typical home user’s administration procedures (unsurprisingly) offer a stark contrast. I package third party software in RPMs and version various configurations in Subversion. Scripts that run under cron periodically grab data and back it up over the network. Pretty much any administrative action exhibits reversibility. When some poor Windows home user installs a piece of software, however, stuff gets strewn all over the file system and in the registry, and the uninstall mechanics are on a good day a bad joke. Bad interactions between poorly written pieces of software running on an OS that does not present reasonable boundaries results in the inevitable “bit rot”.

It seems like my grandfather ought not to have such a hassle just to take and preserve digital photographs. I suggested that he might consider flickr. He hesitated, saying that he didn’t want to trust the accessibility of his photos to a company that might cease to exist. This is understandable. However, there are likely plenty of other ways in which he might find his collection inaccessible. I didn’t delve into the details, but it’s entirely plausible that whatever software he uses to make his “albums” writes them in some proprietary format that he might for various reasons find unreadable in the future, e.g. he loses the software, it ceases to run on some subsequent version of Windows, etc. On top of this, even if all his software were to “work” as per his metrics, a simple house fire would destroy years’ of labor because this does not take a place in his threat model and thus his disaster recovery procedures do not make allowance for it.

I’m struck by how far away the status quo for computers is from cars when it comes to transparency to the end user. Through a combination of resourcefulness and conservativeness I seldom myself struggle as an end-user, but the pain that the typical user suffers on a regular basis is really quite galling. The home user ecosystem presently lacks something, though I’m not quite sure what.

As I spewed venom at Microsoft while working on my grandfather’s computer, I mentioned that I don’t even run Windows at home anymore. “Oh, what do you run instead?” he asked. “Well, I run Linux, but that’s not likely what you want.” I’m not quite sure what to suggest to him. Maybe he needs a Mac.


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