Thu, 31 Jul 2003

The War Against Novice Users

...and the techies that try to rescue them.

I had an interesting experience helping my cousin with his computer a few hours ago. I've done this plenty of times before, and I'm sure every computer professional has served as volunteer tech support for family members at least occasionally. The difference this time is, instead of simply doing a few quick fixes for the things that were broken/nonfunctional (which is what I usually do, in the interests of time), I actually thought long and hard about what was broken, and more importantly, how and why it got that way.

I will state from the top that I don't intend for this to be a Windows bash session. Though it's plainly a software environment I try to avoid when it's practical to do so, I recognize that I'm a kook and that most of the rest of the world has decided otherwise. Since, like death and taxes, Win32 is omnipresent, unavoidable, and in the end always victorious, it's prudent to learn how to efficiently work with it.

My cousin purchased a basic home system earlier this year, a modest (but powerful enough) system with Windows XP Home Edition preinstalled. It also came with Microsoft Works (which he's just starting to use for his classes) and the various and sundry shovelware that no user ever bothers to either run, nor uninstall. We live very close to each other, so we both have the same network provider -- in this town it's basically Comcast for broadband or the highway (read: craptacular dialup). He uses Yahoo as a portal page, and occasionally uses Yahoo Messenger. He likes tuning in to streaming radio, so he has dozens of stations bookmarked. And that's pretty much it -- he uses his machine for web surfing, internet radio, and the occasional short word processing or IM session.

I stopped by today to help him with a project he's starting up and he went to log into his computer. My first clue that something was very wrong: it took forever. The interval between the time when he entered his password and when he gained full control of the machine (i.e. when the busy cursor went away and the machine finally became responsive enough for him to do anything as basic as using the cursor to launch a new application) was at least 90 seconds. This box isn't a server, he's not compiling code or serving pages or rendering frames or anything else that ought to be stealing major cycles from the foreground UI. After that eternity has passed and he finally gains control of the machine, he gets a dialog box advertising cheap university degrees. By this time, I'm all like "what the f___?!?" It seems that in my time away from mainstream (i.e. Win32) computing, something known as "Windows Messenger Service Spam" has become a serious nuisance. How goddamned evil can they get? You don't even have to open your mailbox before some lowlife jumps in your face trying to sell you merde? How fricking evil is that? I do wonder what kind of krakk kokane your software engineering staff has to be smoking for them ship an operating system that, in its default configuration, allows an unauthenticated tcp message from any random spot on the internet to display a dialog on a client workstation, but, as I mentioned earlier, that's not where I want to go today. I felt a sick feeling in my gut, realizing that there are probably millions of grandmothers out there getting these stupid things popping up in their faces all day, without the vaguest clue of how to stop them.

After closing the messenger spam, my cousin started his browser, which happens to be IE 6. This took an extroardinarily long time. Once it came up, I noticed that he had a Yahoo toolbar underneath the standard Explorer toolbar, bristling with gewgaws, animated crap, pulsing buttons and links to, erm, "synergistic content". In addition, there was a vertical pane along the left side of the window, also Yahoo branded, also full of pulsing, flashing, irrelevant happy crap. In the middle of trying to throw up (and I do mean "throw up") yet another branded window, the Yahoo Toolbar (or whatever the hell it's called) froze and left two or three half displayed windows onscreen. At this point, I called up the task manager (after another 30 seconds during which the computer mumbled faintly to itself, staggered in circles, and walked into walls) and killed any process with Yahoo in its name, with prejudice. I closed the browser window, only to find an Orbitz popunder lurking behind IE. I closed it, then went looking for the master source of Yahoo evil -- whatever startup app was launching all of the Yahoo-associated crud. Luckily, it wasn't buried, and I was able to tell it not to load on startup. I started IE6 again, only to face a popup lurking in front of my cousin's portal page. This set off alarms -- as asspoundingly stupid as Yahoo's toolbar was, I knew they wouldn't launch popups for someone else's web properties in front of their own portal. A cold chill worked it's way up my spine... Gator.

At this point I was finished screwing around, so I immediately headed off to download AdAware. I realize that these days most hardcore Windows heads recommend other things these days, but I'm not plugged into that world enough to know which of the other Google hits I got for spyware removal are genuine, quality products and which, are themselves, malware, so I went with what I knew. I installed AdAware, which found and removed a mindboggling amount of crap. I then went to and downloaded the latest MozillaFirebird milestone. I installed the Luna theme for Firebird and replicated his bookmark arrangement to lessen the adjustment period, then set Firebird as his default web browser, and made sure that popups were disabled. Mozilla's smart enough not to run ActiveX controls by default, so that was a level of lockdown I didn't have to worry about. I showed my cousin how to launch Firebird, demonstrated the popup blocking and the faster browsing speed, and showed him that I brought his bookmarks over, and he was pleased. I also checked to make sure his firewall software was running, disabled the Windows Messenger service, and showed him how to run and update AdAware periodically to check for new nasties. I had already stressed the importance of keeping up with the Windows security fixes on previous visits.

What alarms me is that there are a heck of a lot of people out there who have home computers that they use for simple browsing, email, recipes, or whatever, who have no idea how to deal with all the evil crud being thrown at them and their computers constantly. My cousin liked Yahoo's portal and mail services, so when some offer from Yahoo offered to "enhance" his net experience by "helpfully" installing a toolbar, he went along with it. He had no way of knowing that this software consumed ram, CPU cycles, and probably silently logged marketing data and sent it back to the mothership. Why should he expect that? Why did Yahoo abuse his trust? He certainly had no reason to expect that some innocuous calendar app or music player or weather program was silently installing some evil app that tracked his surfing habits and assaulted him with extraneous popups that were completely unconnected to the sites he was visiting. Why do companies think this is OK? Why don't we (collectively) give them more shit for doing it? Why are we, the technical users, the unpaid technical support for the world, cleaning up after these clowns?

:: 19:12
:: /opinion/technology | [+]
::Comments (0)

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I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradictions to the sentiments
of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbade myself the use
of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such
as “certainly”, “undoubtedly”, etc. I adopted instead of them “I conceive”,
“I apprehend”, or “I imagine” a thing to be so or so; or “so it appears to me
at present”.
When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied
myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing him
immediately some absurdity in his proposition. In answering I began by
observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right,
but in the present case there appeared or semed to me some difference, etc.
I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the
conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I
proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction.
I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily
prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I
happened to be in the right.
— Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin