A simple system gets complicated
© 2013 Stan Yack

Nancy asked me to help her install and set up her new Dell PC, in part because she needed someone stronger than she to lug the boxes of computer parts up to her third floor bedroom office. Those boxes were still downstairs three weeks after her new computer was delivered, and she was worried that the manufacturer might not fix problems under warrantee if she didn't get her computer set up and checked out.

I had helped Nancy years before to dialup-connect her old home computer for email. In the time since then, with access to other computers at work her use of home email had shrunk to zero, and she didn't much use her old Windows 95 PC (especially after it suffered a hard-disk crash!). But after she retired, in her work and volunteer activities she found more and more people urging her to become reconnected to cyberspace (i.e. to "get email").

I lugged the boxes upstairs, and coached Nancy through the installation steps. Dell has become the world's largest seller of home computers, and over the years its installation procedures have become detailed and easy to follow. For each major hardware component — computer tower, monitor, printer — Dell had provided a large-format, step-by-step instruction sheet and high-resolution diagrams, where colour-coded plugs matched the ends of the cables to be inserted. We followed the first of those instructions: "Plug in the power cord, plug in the [USB-connected] keyboard and mouse, connect the monitor to the tower, turn on the power, [select the default options], click here to restart, ..." and B-O-O-M! We saw an error message "Application MIM.EXE will not terminate; click here to end". The message continued with "terminating an application may result in loss of data", so I didn't feel very safe forcing MIM.EXE to end (especially since the message didn't say what MIM.EXE was doing, or how important that program was). But no matter what else we tried, we couldn't make MIM.EXE stop, and I had to force it to terminate, pressing the three "ctl-alt-del" keys at once. Fortunately the forced termination had no apparent ill effect , and the PC rebooted smoothly.

A Google search will tell you that MIM.EXE "manages the database and devices for MusicMatch" and that it sometimes gets "hung". That program's failure to stop at system reboot was a "bug", and there didn't seem to be any reason for it to be running in the first place ... except for the intrusiveness typical of modern computer products. MIM.EXE seemed to arrive on the new system after we popped in a CD to install the "drivers" essential for the new printer. I don't think it's too cynical of my to suggest that MIM.EXE was installed "for free" just to bother us with advertising for MusicMatch.

At the time of my first visit, the courier hadn't yet delivered Nancy's Bell Sympatico high speed Internet bundle, so I couldn't help her get the new computer connected to the Internet. That meant that we had to skip several standard installation steps (like registering and updating her software), which in turn led to a few feints and backtracks. But eventually we completed the hardware and software installations, and everything seemed to be working properly ... except the "Dell photo 924" printer/scanner/copier.

After following the occasionally cryptic installation instructions for the printer we printed a test page, which was obviously discoloured (and included a big red splotch). The printer's failure was confirmed by the not remotely "photo quality" copy it made of a photograph we fed into its integrated scanner. It looked like it was time to call the vendor, but I thought we should wait. I didn't think it would be worthwhile calling them until we could connect to the Internet to access the online instructions and perform the software updates that were liable to result from such a call. I told Nancy to phone me when she had received her Sympatico installation package.

Three days later Nancy called to say that the courier had delivered her Sympatico package, and with some patient help from a Sympatico telephone agent, she had installed the Internet hardware and software, and was now able to access the Web and receive email. I was impressed, by Nancy's self-reliance, and by the customer support from Sympatico.

But her new printer was still not working properly. When Nancy first phoned the Dell call centre about the printer she could find no way of talking to a live agent. Her telephone keypad responses to voice prompts produced prerecorded "answers" that were not specific to her problem, and which were often recited too quickly for her to understand. But she was able to follow the instructions to "align the print cartridges" and print another test page, which was still bad, this time showing no colour at all. She thought that maybe that problem was related to a message she occasionally saw on the printer's small LCD panel: "color cartridge not installed properly", and she wanted to report that to Dell ... but their voice response system only paid attention to the telephone keypad. But the next time she call she just ignored the voice prompts and waited ... and waited ... and waited ... and eventually a real, live person came on the line. Nancy described the symptoms, and followed the instructions ("Insert the colour cartridge. Wiggle it around. Take it out and put it back in.") Very quickly the telephone agent diagnosed the problem and said that Dell would send a replacement colour printer cartridge. Talking to human being was a lot more helpful than pressing keys or slowly, articulating, isolated, words, to, a, computer! (See my comments about the myth of computer "understanding" of natural languages.)

Oh, about Nancy's Internet access: You may not have noticed that I said above that she could receive email, but I didn't say that she could send it. That's because she couldn't. And I also didn't mention that even her receipt of email and access to the Web was occasionally blocked. She would see messages like "Connection dropped; server has terminated, because of ... [three or four possibilities, most of which were technical gibberish]". She called Sympatico, and the agent worked with her to try to fix those problems ... which took over two hours, and the connection no longer dropped ... but she still couldn't send email.

In my experience as a professional demystifier, I've heard many reports of long drawn-out customer support conversations that don't resolve a reported problem; even at the low wages that they pay to electronic sweatshop workers, I don't see how Sympatico can be making money supplying retail Internet access. Nancy told me that after two hours the agent just lost it and said "I can't help you; you'll have to get a techie." Of course, she shouldn't have to hire her own "techie" guide; technical guidance was what the agent was supposed to be supplying, and that he did ... for two hours.

Nancy told me later that though her upstairs phone worked fine, there was so much static downstairs that she usually had to go upstairs to make a phone call. I told her to isolate the source of that problem by switching her upstairs and downstairs telephone sets, and if she heard no static on the downstairs phone when it was plugged in upstairs to call Bell to come fix the downstairs wiring. Bad wiring can occasionally cause Internet outages (but it was very unlikely to have anything to do with Nancy's inability to send email).

After my first visit Nancy told me "I could not have done this without you." I know she was happy that I was there to carry the heavy PC tower up a flight of stairs, and for squeezing under her desk to plug in cables. But she was also thanking me for properly interpreting the complex installation instructions, and for reacting to unpredicated events like a bad printer cartridge, and an unreliable Internet connection.

A week later Nancy called me to report some success: She had eliminated the downstairs telephone noise by replacing the phone set with a reconditioned NT phone she bought for $14.95 at a small electronics store; and with the replacement colour cartridge sent by Dell her new printer seemed to be working. But she could still not send email (though she could access the Web and receive email). After an hour on the phone, a Sympatico agent blamed her system's (Dell-installed) Norton security software from Symantec, saying that it "might have corrupted something"; that agent had Nancy uninstall and reinstall that software (Norton Internet Security 2006), but that did not solve the problem. Nancy phoned Symantec and ... you guessed it! They pointed an accusing finger back at Sympatico. When Nancy again called Sympatico their agent suggested she solve the problem by switching from Norton Internet Security to a substitute security system from Sympatico. Her head was spinning! But not spinning so fast that she forgot to mention that "the Norton software was installed by Dell, not by me!" After she calmed down she phoned to ask me to visit her again to help her sort out the confusion.

My next visit lasted over two hours, but when I left she was able to send email. I uninstalled the Norton Security software and (as I expected) I found that Nancy was still not able to send email; after 1/2 hour on the phone Sympatico I almost lost it when the agent switched targets and pointed at Microsoft, not Symantec, as the party responsible for that failure. None of the agent's suggested setting changes had improved things, and after putting us on hold and consulting with her own technical supporters the agent reported that it was Outlook Express, not Norton Security that was "corrupt" and should be reinstalled. I raised my voice just a little and said "This is a brand new computer, and the only software not installed by its vendor is your Internet access package! Isn't there someone else there I can talk to about this problem? What else can we do?". The agent insisted that she could not pass us on to anyone else; if there is a 2nd line of telephone support at a major service provider like Sympatico, it's certainly not available to angry retail customers. But the agent did have a suggestion that would get us past the problem, at least temporarily: Use a web browser to send email from Sympatico's web mail website. In the olden days, before many of its users started to think of the Internet as nothing more than the world wide web, to send and receive email you had to use an "email client" (such as Eudora, or Outlook). But today all the Internet service providers provide a website to access your email. Nancy had been trying to send email using Outlook Express, the entry-level email client that had been installed on her new computer by Dell, and which she had used on her old Windows 95 system.

Some time in the future I may visit Nancy to upgrade her to a more powerful email client (like Thunderbird). Sympatico's web mail has limitations that will bother an experienced, active email user (e.g. its limit on the quantity of stored email); but its user interface is not bad, and most important, it works with their service.

On my next visit a couple of weeks later I had planned to help Nancy become more comfortable using Internet Explorer, setting favorites and using her Sympatico webmail tool. We would also have to decide whether to replace Symantec's Norton Internet Security software with Sympatico's own security package, which a Sympatico agent had browbeat her into purchasing while ostensibly helping her overcome Internet difficulties.

When I arrived, Nancy tried to but couldn't reproduce the scary warning she had encountered when she tried reply to one certain email message. That particular email message look innocuous to me, consisting of just text and no attachments, and a full scan of her system revealed no malware. The only (incredible) explanation I could come up with was that some hacker was coincidentally trying to break into her system at the time she was replying to the email. Yeah, I know: not very likely! But such coincidences do happen ... as we soon discovered.

Just half an hour later that (second?) coincidence struck us, as a telephone company problem outside the house (A bird on a wire? A car hitting a post?) caused Nancy's Internet connection to drop. That happened after we'd been using the Internet connection to download software from a Microsoft website to let Windows update itself. After Windows completed its updates, I tried to get something useful accomplished: showing Nancy how to use Internet Explorer. But we found could no longer access the Sympatico website ... or the Google website ... or any website on the Net, because the DSL link had died.

The Sympatico technical support agent told us to unhook the line adapter (aka "modem") and take it downstairs and test it in another telephone jack. When the DSL active light again failed to light up, the agent had no doubt that there was a line problem, strictly hardware, which he would pass on to a telephone company repair crew. Fixing that problem might take up to a week to fix, but the repair crew shouldn't have to bug Nancy, and the fix would be confirmed by a green DSL light on the line adapter. But helping Nancy learn about email and IE favourites was obviously out of the question, so I spent some time hooking up the computer's speakers, and showing Nancy how to play DVDs through her computer. Two days later the DSL light went on, showing that the line problem had been fixed (Birds? Cars? Cosmic rays?), and Nancy could again connect to the Internet.

For almost a year everything Nancy had no problems with her "simple" computer system. The computer, the printer, the Internet; everything worked as advertised. And then Nancy moved from her from old her inner city house to a new high rise condo. A friend helped her unhook and bundle up all the parts, and Nancy asked me to come over and put them back together.

Sympatico had told her that the DSL service was installed and ready to use on her new phone number, and the DSL adaptor showed three green lights ... but I was expecting trouble.

And I was wrong!

After I connected the parts, plugged in the power cords, turned it on, everything worked. The computer could browse the Net using Internet Explorer. Nancy could access her email via Sympatico webmail. She could update her Norton antivirus definitions. She could use the printer to print clearly in black & white and colour. Using the same tools and techniques that we had spent so much effort to debug, Nancy's complicated system had again become simple. And as long as nothing changes, that system will remain useful and reliable for some time to come.

And of course things didn't stay simple for long. Three months after my visit to her condo, at 3 am Nancy sent me an email message letting me know about the pain she had endured installing a new, 2007 version of Symantec's Norton Internet Security software.

Starting before 9 pm, as instructed to by the new software's notes, she removed her system's old version of the software. (That's not something that even a quite experienced computer user knows how to do. And she should never have been instructed to do it, since installation programs can be easily configured by their distributors to remove old versions.) When Nancy then tried to install the new Norton version, the installation software failed, complaining that not all components of the old version of Norton had been removed. Now Nancy knew that Norton was no longer active, and she was afraid to leave her system uprotected. So she telephoned Symantec for help, reaching their Indian product support group. She stayed on the line until the problem was finally solved at 2:30 am, more than three hours after her usual bedtime.

One Symantec telephone agent was less than pleasant, and after a unfriendly Q & A put Nancy permanently on hold. But another agent was polite and helpful; however, after leading Nancy through the usual diagnostic steps, that agent concluded that the problem might be caused by a "virus". As usually happens, the subsequent time-consuming check of Nancy's computer found no viruses. (Computer viruses are to modern software failures what witches were to New England crop failures; when we techies have no idea what's going on, a virus is a our catch-all explanation.)

A third, higher level support agent was brought in. He had Nancy put her system on "remote access" so he could take direct control of her PC and quickly do what was required without directing her each step of the way. That agent didn't waste time explaining what he was doing, as the rapidly changing computer display reflected his actions. Nancy was a little worried when she saw files being deleted that didn't look to be Norton-related, but in about twenty minutes he was done, and the new version of Norton Internet Security had been installed.

Things seemed to be okay; but it was 2 am and Nancy wasn't in the mood to perform a complete system test. She had a fright the next day when on its first use MS Word complained about "missing DLLs", but rebooting solved that problem, and the system seems to be working properly.

Time will tell.

But it's impossible to avoid change. Microsoft, Symantec, Sympatico and the rest of the vast computer/information complex are constantly fiddling with their software and webware, and it's inevitable that things will break.

Has your computer system failed you? Are you getting a run-around from your hardware, software, or service supplier?

Click here to read my advice for what you can do to prepare for your encounters with the not necessarily helpful people at the call centre, or here to read about a way to keep yourself calm when they're "helping" you.

Stan Yack
Instructional Designer and Softsmith