Monday, December 6, 2010

The Stress of Technology as Exemplified by Microsoft

For many years I have been writing about Microsoft products and a great deal of my success has come in making difficult situations palatable for readers; however I have gotten to the point myself where the stress of using stuff that doesn’t improve over time has almost overwhelmed me.

It is interesting to note that as far back as January 2003 Bill Gates wrote a famous memo excoriating his subordinates for problems with Windows XP and MovieMaker software. Now XP is being clung to by many users for its relative stability.

Like many users I have come to depend upon the Office suite on a daily basis for doing my work; last year I wrote a book on Using Office 2010, the latest version and scratched my head over the added complexity in order to adopt a few new features (the exception is PowerPoint which was markedly enhanced).

But these days I rely mainly on Outlook for my email and calendar; on my laptop I am still using Outlook 2007 and Windows Vista.

Last week, from one moment to the next, the Outlook slowed down in sending out email and eventually just crashed every time I tried, bring up a pale white screen that informed me it wasn’t responding and had to be shut down.

The same symptoms started happening with Internet Explorer—I suspected a virus but I use a Microsoft security suite which showed nothing wrong, and also scanned the system with another service.

The problem occurred in the evening and I thought I might have solved it before going to bed, but then it began again in the morning and I realized that unless I did some serious troubleshooting I would be unable to send and receive email or surf the web normally.

I had already done several System Restores, each taking about 15-20 minutes to try to revert my system to a time when it worked properly. I went on Google and found many references to similar problems, and over the next day and a half, here is a partial list of things I did to solve the issue:

Uninstall and reinstall Office – twice.

Run Office Diagnostics and fix

Try alternative browsers and email programs – couldn’t connect properly and the browser crashed

Tried to use Google Gmail – didn’t retrieve all of my old email in timely manner

Install service packs 1 and 2 for Vista – each taking an hour to download and another hour to install
Try to replace faulty files in Windows folder

Try to fix several registry entries manually

Use Safe Mode for Outlook 2007 – this actually got me my email to send and receive but limited some other Outlook features

Installed two cleaning programs and purchased a license for Registry Mechanic to try to fix installation and registry problems

Got rid of my Outlook data file and replaced it with a smaller file

At each turn I considered the prospect of reinstalling Vista and all of my programs clean – something I used to have to do at least once a year just to keep Windows running – but which meant hours of restoring settings and looking for programs on disk and online.

Finally the second Vista service pack and running Outlook 2007 in Safe Mode – obviously not an optimal solution, stopped the crashes in Internet Explorer and enabled me to use my email with stability and reliability… finally.

Needless to say I was exhausted by the time I reached this point and was grateful for any solution—even one as unsatisfactory as using a scaled down version of my Outlook email program.

OK – I know many readers have had similar experiences. I know of many users how have taken computers to friends or places like Best Buy to get them to work properly—and frequently they simply break down from one moment to the next.

The question is why can’t a company like Microsoft get it right? (I know many readers will suggest using Apple, and that is an appealing option except that many people have invested in Microsoft software and compatible hardware, know the programs, and Apple does sometimes have its own issues).

They key point here is that Gates’ memo was written in 2003.

We all experienced the old hourglass when things froze much earlier—and now, with Vista and Windows 7, all that seems to have changed is the hourglass has been replaced with a spinning squiggly circle to let us know things are not happening – or sometimes a shiny green slider bar.
Most of us need to rely on Google or an IT department to provide answers, if they even exist. Typing something like “Outlook crashes when sending email” can get you hundreds of possible suggestions—and if you can understand the explanations you might even find a few on Microsoft’s own web site.

And this is almost 30 years since the operating system was first created, and about two decades into Microsoft Office.

And yet – “upgrades” to these products are foisted on us every two years! Each one is chock full of new features, but the one thing we all crave – stability and reliability –apparently cannot be achieved.

We can all joke about this stuff as they do in the Mac and PC ads on TV, and shrug and muddle through, but I believe that this lack of accountability and control is taking its toll on many peoples’ psyches – I know it did on mine last week.

First there is the stress of not being able to work properly and be responsive professionally.
Then there is the added stress of trying to fix the problem and wondering if it is even soluble.
At root is the sense of things out of control and beyond our capacity to fix.

This sense is exacerbated when watching TV news, and sensing that the same symptoms are happening on a larger scale planet wide, and certainly in Washington DC.

On a more mundane level, the Microsoft experience is repeated daily with things that have gotten more complicated each time they change – like ATMs, credit cards, cell phones, satellite and cable systems, remote control and now even parking meters which demand credit cards.
Is the answer denial, withdrawal, meditation, therapy – or just acceptance?

Perhaps it’s the reason one in nine people now suffer from depression.

Our corporations like Microsoft promise so much in their advertising—would it be too much to ask that they at least deliver on some of their promises and provide a product that works stably and reliably after it’s been on the market for nearly three decades?

I don’t know what the answer is—I need to “reboot” regularly with a nap and reach for my cat.
Sometimes I think about Maui or Costa Rica, but I wonder if I can count on an Internet connection.