Dumbfounded by smart-arse software

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Constant popup reminders telling you to update software,or even to scrub your fingernails… Why have computers become such smart-arses?

7 July 2010

I yearn for the days of dumber software – when it just did what it said on the box. That’s probably why I love Microsoft Works. It’s got all the functions I need and none of the fancy new stuff introduced in recent years that force you to relearn the programs time and again. And it often comes pre-installed on netbooks and their ilk.

Why burden your flash-memory speedster with unnecessary, sometimes costly software?

This rather banal conclusion was reached during a recent purging of C-drive content on my moaning Asus – it would tell me every time I booted up that it needed a spring clean. I ignored its pleas for weeks and then decided to investigate what could be burdening this little beast so much after less than a year’s work.

Going back a step, I’ll confess that I have not been using Asus’ purported 32Gb of ‘hybrid’ memory to its fullest. Three-quarters of that is provided through its so-called ‘Eee storage’ facility in the cloud. I steered clear of that because I just can’t see how Asus, or any other storage platform (Facebook, flickr, etc.) can be relied upon to keep our records as safe as a shoebox in the attic for ever.

So, my cyber doubts left me saving most of the heavy stuff on memory sticks and a separate media unit cum hard drive that was supposed to be my TV-mediated home entertainment solution for the next decade. But it was so painfully slow (apparently no optic cable or something) that I was forced to resuscitate  my DVD/CD player, much to my wife’s relief. Sure, I saved the odd article, some downloads here and there and sundry dreaded software updates and add-ons that you can no longer ignore on the 12Gb of flash memory available in the Asus, but that shouldn’t have amounted to a chastising message from the operating system every time I switched it on, should it?

Rarely used, clueless why

Eventually, I tired of reading the start-up message, along with all the others popping up nowadays every minute or so to tell me I’ve got some unfinished business that didn’t seem to bother me five years ago. Why is it so flipping urgent now that I fix, update or abrade it? So, I caved in and clicked on the solution offered to try and get back some speed and clear some of the C-drive memory. It gave me several options to do this and I was told after performing a couple of them that I’d almost recuperated enough memory to restore my Asus’ faith in me as a user.

What else could I do to please the machine? I went manual and searched in all my work folders for Excel sheets, documents and the like that I didn’t need. I deleted them all. I deleted all the old Chronikler blog docs, too, figuring they’re securely stored in the cloud, hahem. But my Asus friend was still not perfectly satisfied.

I felt like I was a boy back home trying to please the teacher. A cheeky upstart, granted, but a friend that had held my hand back into the world of impressive gadgetry and a fast, cheap, mobile geezer at that (See Psion of things to come ). So when I’m clearly displeasing this friend, the scolding is real.

Again, I follow Asus’ instructions for more options to lighten the load and I’m ushered into a software backroom with apparently every program sluicing the popups, beeps, graphics, firewalls that drive me to distraction. And here I am with the keys to the shop on what I can delete to free up space. An immediate candidate is a ‘rarely used’ program – sorry to say it – called Firefox/Mozilla. Deleted. I admit it, I’m not trendy enough to use Mozilla or drive a Mac.

Next, I see all these extra security features I have like Adaware and some search and destroy bot that Christian Bale’s Terminator Salvation would happily rail against. The IT guy who removed an embarrassing VD from Asus in January said I had to get those two if I wanted to be safe-cracker protected.

At triple digit Mb weight, Adaware had to go. The S&D bot was lighter but I’ll just have to practise more safe memory stick sex and I should never need that. The catch-all cyber security solution I have, called Kapersky, sold itself as one of the best for netbooks and I’ve come across no evidence to the contrary.

Going down the list of other programs I could remove, I see some Adobe software and, though I’d love to do without it, I know too well I’d regret removing it, despite rarely using it at home. There’s also some compatibility software for the professional MS tools which mean I can open Excel sheets Powerpoint presentations, and such.

The temptation to delete that compatibility software, or what ever it was called, was very high. But I’ve been blasé about such ’uninstalls’ in the past and found my computers didn’t have sound afterwards, or were missing some other function that I failed to note when it warned me that my action would have catastrophic consequences.

I passed further down the uninstall hit-list, and a sudden wave of fondness crept over me when I reached the Works icon. Trying to understand where this sentiment could have welled up from, I decided that this sub-professional software that you seem to increasingly get preinstalled – because the companies want to avoid being called cheap and ungrateful by their new customer – is probably the best thing for the job. And just so you know, it is a fallacy that anything saved in these MS-lite programs can’t be opened or used by their high-priced cousins. Just ‘save as’ in the relevant format you need at work or where ever to open it.

There you have it, if you want to keep your netbook friend happy, don’t go inviting all these foul-weather friends like Adaware, to your party, or MS Work’s snobby relatives, for that matter. It’s software dumb-arses all the way for me, thanks!

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Psion of things to come – technology’s curse

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Christian Nielsen’s long-dead Psion Organiser is a constant reminder never to buy any technology that promises to help him remember things.

9 July 2009

001“It’s dead!” I shouted down the stairs to my wife. We didn’t have any animals and keep a relatively rodent-and insect-free house, so she really had no idea what had bit the dust in my attic turned office.

“My Psion is no more!” I felt like proclaiming to the uncaring streets. The small keypad-like organiser-cum-still-born microcomputer was my entrée to the world of handhelds, of people in fashionable suits travelling to important places.

Of course, I knew these elite people mostly had Palm thingies that could do some amazing (in the late 1990s sense of the word) stuff, like emailing on the move and sending documents which would magically appear on the other side of the world, but I had to be different, dare I say “special”.

As a journalist, words were my thing. Lots of them. I hated the idea of carrying round kilos of dead weight in the form of a so-called laptop for an overnight job. I hated even more the stupid function of ‘penning-in’ (if that’s the right expression) each letter to form words. I went for the light but what I thought to be future-proof option. And the Psion did more than I could have hoped. Not only did it create copy on the go, but it faithfully served as a secretary as well.

I spent untold hours tapping in all my personal data, agenda items and contacts. I even learnt – alas only after many days of manual inputting – how to synchronise the little dynamo with my desktop. Of course, I left the cable Psion provided for doing this in a hotel somewhere and it just seemed easier to keep all the data in the handheld. A crucial mistake.

One day, I got talking with my brother-in-law, the technology ‘go to’ guy, about the electronic tools we both ministered over. As people scurried here and there to their departure lounges, he said almost casually that he feared with the Psion that I would end up with an electronic whore that refuses to put out. I laughed, but the remark stung a little. I mean, this is a guy that always carried the latest gizmos, had the right mobile contracts to make them work, and he usually even knew how to use the bloody things!

I asked what he meant by that. He told me the Canadian company that made Psions had big ideas, but wondered if it would survive the handheld wars long enough to put them into practice. He had heard that the company was working on something they were calling a netbook and that it promised to be the mini-computing format I was after but somehow connected ‘wirelessly’ as well.

“So I’d always get what I wanted out of my whore,” I mused. It all sounded so exciting… but surely improbable.

His flight to Stockholm was soon departing. Pocketing – only just – his first-generation Nokia Communicator, he headed towards the first-class lounge. I waved goodbye with my trusty Psion held high – or so I recalled – as I sloped off with the rest of the economy passengers to my Brussels flight. When I got home, my Psion was nowhere to be found.

Gatwick airport authorities returned it to me a week later, or what was left of it!

A few years – and a couple of mobile gadget generations – passed and my brother-in-law had something new up his tailored sleeve, something he called his Black Book. It sounded exotic and, no doubt, cutting edge. Flushed with envy, I begged him for a feel. He showed it to me, discreetly but with an air of nonchalance that you would expect a seasoned technophile to bear.

And how glorious it was. So compact and light – fitting quite naturally into his palm – yet sturdy and reliable looking. He opened it, pulled out a low-tech pen and wrote my new mobile phone number on one of the blank pages. Again, I had learnt from the master. And, yes, I had lost another mobile phone – my contacts and dreams of mastering technology along with it.

Would technology’s curse ever leave my side?

What cleverness comes

Skip forward nearly a decade and it is looking like Psion knew something no-one else did. Ipso facto does that mean my relationship with technology has been more visionary than visceral all these years? Maybe.

Today, as I tap cleverly into my ASUS Eee PC, the frontrunner of the ultralite computers now taking the world by storm, I feel like I might just be welcome in the first-class lounge. And the ultralite computing sensation, the netbook, was Psion’s parting gift, to a hell of a lot of us, apparently.

Netbook sales have skyrocketed from 400,000 in 2007 to 11.4 million in 2008 – the lion’s share apparently gobbled up by Europeans. This trend looks set to continue in 2009, with predicted sales of 35 million (ABI Research), growing to as much as 139 million by 2013. This phenomenal growth is being driven by a parallel rise in web-based applications and mobile networking.

What does it mean to me?

The Psion I display in my office is no longer the stain it once was. It has transmogrified into a magnificent birthmark, a discrete sign worn by those in the know. All who bear this mark know and understand that it’s not size that matters, but where you put it – the data, that is. And for this, the ultralites head for the clouds, where you beg, borrow or steal unused computing power all fed to your little package through the world wonderful web.

It doesn’t matter that these netbooks have no CD-ROM drive, because anything you want to watch, save, find or play is on the web anyway. I’m sure it’s what Psion had in mind. I’m sure I knew that, too.

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Copyright – Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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