A photographer's frozen PC
© 2007 Stan Yack

I heard this complaint from Phip:

"Sometimes my PC freezes, for no apparent reason, and I have to stop whatever I'm doing and start over."

Phip's problems began barely a week after he bought his first PC. He'd be composing an email message to his son, or editing a photograph, and with no warning his computer would lock itself up and not respond. Press keys, move the mouse, click away nothing worked: the cursor didn't move, and the display stayed the same. The only way out was to "reboot", and lose any work in progress. "What could be wrong?", he asked me. I told him to ask the man who'd sold him the computer. That man said "You may have incompatible printer and mouse drivers."

Phip had bought a PC when his new photography hobby took a digital turn. He has always been a thoughtful, careful purchaser, but retired from his income-earning days in the advertising world, and living on a fixed income, he had to scrimp a bit on this major purchase. After some research into what he needed and what was available for what price, he bought a computer from someone he met at a computer show. I know, I know; when you hear that, you want to say "Well I guess he got what he paid for!" But in fact Phip was lucky: when the trouble hit, the computer show vendor didn't just wash his hands and walk away, but made a house call, and eventually solved the problem by installing new "drivers" to replace the ones that were crashing his system.

After getting past that initial hurdle (his computer locking up when he looked at it the wrong way), Phip decided to press his luck and join the cyberspace revolution. Again, he was careful. He'd heard friends complain about fly-by-night ISPs who made that acronym stand for "Internet Stress Providers", so he opted for Sympatico, the Internet service from "the phone company". Setting up an Internet connection was still a bit complicated, but after a friendly Sympatico telephone agent helped him get used to his new Web Browser and Email Client, things went pretty well until a year later he decided to speed up his connection by upgrading his Sympatico account to use their new "High Speed Internet" (called ADSL, for "Asynchronous Subscriber Digital Line").

Phip had planned ahead, chosing Sympatico in order to simplify a possible future upgrade of his "low speed" connection. But "High Speed Internet" was still a new product for Sympatico, and they hadn't yet documented its installation well enough to foist that responsibility off on their customers. An onsite visit was required to complete that installation. A serviceman came, quickly installed a high speed modem and fiddled PC software settings, then confirmed that the faster computer-to-net connection could be established, and that Phip's chosen web browser (Netscape Navigator) would work with that connection. Phip was happy for a while. He soon found that he could now longer send email. The serviceman had configured Netscape to connect via Sympatico's ADSL, but had not configure Phip's email client, Microsoft Outlook, to do that.

He called the Sympatico "help" line and spent much time in their voice jail, Phip explaining his difficulties over and over to one representative after another. The last of those advisers concluded (absurdly!) that the problem (an inability to use the MS Outlook email client) was caused by his use of an older version of the Netscape web browser. Now many Sympatico customers used Netscape for "web mail" access to their email. But what on earth did that have to do with someone like Phip, who used Outlook to access email? The Sympatico agent thought it might, and told Phip that he had to upgrade to the next version of Netscape ... which at the time was unfortunately the embarrassingly bad version 6. Phip did that, and quickly found out why Netscape 6 was getting such a bad reputation. (Netscape 6 is now universally acknowledged to have been a defective release.) But Phip had learned an important lesson about coping with software abuse, and he soon abandoned his attempts to make that lemon of a software product work properly.

Calling Sympatico again, and getting new (and better) advice this time, Phip was told (among other things) to "uninstall" Netscape 6 and revert to his earlier, stable version. But the intricacies of the Windows uninstall process defeated him. And because the Sympatico ADSL connect tool would automatically select the latest version of his web browser, Netscape 6, which didn't work, that meant he could not only not send email, but he couldn't access the Web!

What was he to do next? Should he follow Sympatico's advice the next time he called: to switch from Netscape to Microsoft's Internet Explorer for Web browsing? He wasn't sure what the implications of such a conversion would be, but he didn't think he had a choice. So he switched to Internet Explorer (aka "IE"), only to discover that IE had not been configured to use his ADSL connection ... and that meant more calls to Sympatico support.

Eventually Phip's careful, attentive approach, uncounted telephone conversations with Sympatico advisers, and my guidance allowed him to get both email and web browsing working. After a long, slow struggle, he could finally access the Internet at "high speed".

Has your computer failed you? Are you getting a run-around from your supplier(s)?

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

Last updated: 01-Jan-2007