Microsoft Windows

It’s Not Your Equipment … It’s a Lack of Documentation! – Marilyn Armstrong

Maybe I should just give up, but I spent my career writing material to help folks use complicated equipment and sometimes very obscure software.

I should probably start by mentioning that I’ve fought this battle for long years … and was utterly defeated. About 7 or 8 years ago, high-tech companies, in a money crunch and driven by that bottom line that seems to be the only thing that matters anymore, began to eliminate technical writers. Entire departments were dismantled and eliminated. Jobs disappeared and what remained paid so badly it was insulting.

A decision had been made at the corporate level: YOU don’t need documentation. No matter how complicated or expensive the equipment or software you purchase may be, don’t need documentation. Companies provide the minimum the law requires or they can get away with. Quality is no object nor usability. Information is limited to basic stuff like how to install a battery and if you are lucky, where the compartment is.

I was a technical writer for about 75% of my career, the rest being divided between journalism, editing, promotions and advertising. But mostly, I wrote documentation and I though my work mattered. Probably naive, but I believe that if I documented a system, it should be well written, clear, organized, and useful., When a user needed to find something, it would be in the book and in the online help. It would be easy to find. I carefully avoided using mysterious search parameters that could be deduced via a psychic link to my brain. If you knew what you wanted, I made it easy for you to find it.

I was proud of my work. I still believe the fundamental goal of documentation is to make complicated things simple. Not necessarily easy because sometimes, the product was not easy to use, but that didn’t mean that it had to be hard to understand. My documentation was good for another reason: I used the product and tested what I wrote to make sure it was true. This testing makes the difference between a pile useless gibberish and a manual.

Thus, when you get something that appears to be documentation, stop and read it. Appearances are deceiving. Most “manuals”  are generated, not written, and never checked for accuracy or usability. Such “manuals” are as likely to increase your confusion as provide illumination.

I bought a PEN EP3 camera from Olympus. Seven months and hundreds of photographs later, it remains one of the mysteries of my world. It takes wonderful pictures, and it has hundreds of functions. I haven’t the slightest idea how to find most functions and have no idea what to do with them if I could find them.

I grew up in a pre-digital world. I know F-stop, depth-of-field, shutter speed, aperture and focus, film speed and composition. I have a good eye. I’m no genius, but my pictures are pretty and I enjoy taking them.

He solves the problem the way most do: Automatic everything, then shoot.

New digital cameras have a vast and overwhelming array of functions, most of which you or I will never use or need. I believe they are there entirely to impress us with the super high tech-ness of the equipment. I doubt that even the designers — especially the designers — expects us to actually use them. Which is good, because I don’t know what they are supposed to do anyhow or why I would need them. Ansel Adams didn’t need them. Neither did Edward Weston. Neither do I. But, the more you pay for a camera, the more of these obscure functions you get and I figure that the least they owe me is an explanation of what these setting do and how to find them.

I’m not sure whether to curse or say thank you. Maybe if Olympus provided a manual that explained these options, I’d be grateful, but that is not happening.

I spent half our shooting time trying to find the menu to change the ISO.

This is true of cameras, but the lack of documentation on your computer is actually worse … much worse because most of us depend on our computers. We need them to work and we need to have some control over the environment in which we work. Configuration of our computers to suit our needs is not a minor detail: it’s the difference between having a tool that does what you need and one which is a burden … an enemy with which you do daily battle.

I spent all last night — until dawn — trying to figure out how to turn off the touchscreen functions of my monitor. Before Mac users jump in and point out that it’s because Windows doesn’t work, that’s irrelevant and untrue. Windows works fine. It’s just that the company doesn’t provide any written documentation. There is embedded information in the operating system, but much of it isn’t logically arranged. It’s rather like looking for your car keys after you’ve dropped them someplace you don’t normally put them. You know they’re in the house, but where? It could be years before you find them..

On a new computer, you typically get an “introductory” video and that’s pretty much it. I watched it. It showed me in exquisite detail how to do what I already knew how to do.

Operating systems are designed to be used the way the system’s developers expect you to use it. If you prefer a different setup, trouble starts. The only way to figure out how to do something differently is to keep querying the system and hope you’ll stumble on the right  key word — the word that will bring up the information you need. What is most frustrating is that you are sure it IS there, but whether or not you will ever find it is a different issue.

If you are sufficiently persistent and a bit lucky, you will eventually find a mystery menu after which you fix your problem in a few seconds.

Last night, I searched, searched again and again. It didn’t call Dell because I knew the support person wouldn’t know the answer either. They pretty much never do.

So I tried one word combination after another, recombining them in the hope that it would lead to a menu buried in the system. There had to be a way to deactivate touch input.

Around 5 in the morning, I found it. It took me less than 30 seconds to eliminate the problem that had been driving me nuts since I got the computer. Now, it’s a monitor. A great, high-definition, 23-inch monitor that’s a joy to work on and makes photo editing a pleasure. No more configuration by crawling insect. I am mistress of my virtual world at last!

A technical writers earns less than an entry-level developer. I understand the guys in India who provide telephone tech support work cheap, but I bet a tech writer would cost less than a network of telephone support no matter how cheaply they work.

Assuming you are under warranty and you can get through the voice mail  maze … and further assuming you get someone who understands the problem and don’t get blown off because software is not part of your warranty (Note: If someone can tell me how, without using software, you can determine if you have a hardware problem, I’d like to hear it) … Round and around you go.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Would it blow the budget to hire a competent technical writer to embed online help that will live on even after the warranty period is over? Wouldn’t it be nice to help users avoid needless aggravation and not wind up with angry, frustrated, exhausted, and homicidal customers whose problems remain unsolved?

Granting that many home users have a limited understanding of how their computers work and for them, it wouldn’t much matter what documentation you supply. Most problems result from insufficient understanding of a product or process. If you are talking about a novice user, perhaps more information wouldn’t help. But …

I’m not inexperienced and I still can’t find essential information I need to configure my monitor. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a menu on the control panel that I could use to configure the monitor’s capabilities, not merely its resolution but any other functions it may have. Functions not available on a particular model could be grayed out. How about that?

There is nothing wrong with my computer that better organized and easier to find information would not solve..

Every issue I’ve had over the last 5 or 6 years was ultimately fixed with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem was never something broken. It was always lack of documentation.

That pisses me off. Because tech writers — even highly experienced ones — work pretty cheap. Users do need documentation, and not just for software and computers. We need documents that let us use our cameras and telephones and DVD players and all those other pricey little devices that we own and often, don’t know how to use. Online FAQs are insufficient.

This is an old battle I’ve already lost. I know it’s hopeless. I find it infuriating that I can barely figure out my telephone without customer support, so rather than spend time on the phone with customer service, I don’t use anything I can’t easily configure.

I had to buy a separate book on how to use Photoshop and another for my first camera. I was able to get some help from a fellow user of my new camera, but that only goes so far. For my PEN P3 camera, there IS no customer support nor any after market book. I depend, as Blanche DuBois said, “… on the kindness of strangers.”.

My camera will remain a mystery until someone writes a “Dummies” book for it. Hopefully I’ll still own the it when the book finally gets published.

It’s not fair. The reason they get away with it is because we let them. Think about it.

So how did I finally figure it out? The “monitor” menu should have been a gateway, but was useless. The only thing you can the “Monitor” menu lets you do is lower your screen’s resolution. That’s useless.

Finally, I typed: Touchscreen.

Up came something that I hadn’t considered. Flicks. Now, for me? That means the movies. Having never used it, I had no idea it had anything to do with the monitor or its touchscreen technology. Once I got to “Flicks,”, I started opening menus and voilà, there were two check boxes allowing me to toggle an option:

  • Enable finger as pointing device.
  • Do not allow finger as pointing device.

I un-checked the first one by checking the second. I clicked “Apply.” As the sun rose in the east, my problem was solved and I went to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream  … of murder, destruction and vengeance.

THROWING THE WORLD AWAY

It’s not about Windows: The repairable PC is dead

… Amazon, who launched their Workspaces offering yesterday, which provides a remote Windows environment that allows you to run all of your business-critical and personal applications in EC2.

Amazon is certainly not the first service provider to do this, but its endorsement of the technology speaks volumes about where we as an industry are going.

You don’t need an expandable, serviceable PC to get to that desktop and the applications that are hosted there. Indeed, Windows still serves a very key role in that scenario, but within the datacenter and public clouds. —  From ZDNet, November 15, 2013

The computer industry has declared me — and everyone like me — obsolete. Irrelevant. We can’t afford subscriptions to “keep us up to date.” Worse, keeping up to date isn’t a major issue in our lives. I don’t mind running a version or two behind as long as the tools I’ve got get the job done. I can go years without repurchasing my software. I guess they don’t make enough money selling new releases to folks like us. Yeah, that’s probably it.

dell14ZIf you — like me — are one of the millions of computer users who live on fixed incomes or are just plain poor , you’re barely able to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. You are NOT subscribing. To anything.

A couple of days ago, I got my “You’ve Been Hacked!” letter from Adobe. This has affected (depending on who you believe) between 38 and 150 million people. All of us have had our personal information stolen and quite probably sold to hackers. Doesn’t anyone but me find this alarming? Where’s the outrage, the demand for better security? I am less than ever interested in storing anything I care about anywhere except on a drive I own and have at home.

Yes, I know the house could burn to the ground and all my backups would be lost. If that, God forbid, should happen I will be otherwise occupied trying to put my life back together. Worrying about lost data is not going to be my primary issue. I’m not a business, you see. I’m a person. (What’s a person, daddy? Is it a new kind of corporation?)

When my PCs stop working, which they don’t do more than once in a deeply cyanotic moon, I call the Guy Who 75-WorkingNIK-CR-87Fixes PCs. He comes to the house.  Replaces the broken bits. Cleans out the virus that bypassed the safeguards and generally tunes it up. I give him a hundred bucks, he gives me a card with his number on it so if the problems come back, he will return and fix’em.

Am I the only one who is in no position to just dump equipment and replace it? No way could I afford that. I’m still in debt for the stuff I have. Moreover, I deplore the throwaway society we are building and the mindset that comes with it.

Disposability it not good. It’s not an improvement. It’s destroying our environment. Polluting landfills. Making an already profligate society more thoughtless and wasteful. It’s the definition of where and how we’ve gone wrong.

Does no one in the computer industry look at business in a wider social context? Realize what a dangerous path we are treading? If one thing is going to doom our world, throwing stuff away rather than fixing it will be our route to damnation.

There was a time when Garry and I were working a ridiculous number of hours and started using paper plates. To avoid washing dishes. After doing this for a while, one day, I found myself washing the paper plates. I couldn’t bear the idea of throwing them out. It seemed wrong. Wasteful. That was when I rediscovered the concept of reusability. I had actual dishes in the cupboard. I could use them, wash them — and use them again! Epiphany!

96-Kitchen-HPCR-1

We are turning into a world of paper plate users. Everything, from your car to your computer, to your kitchen appliances. It’s all junk. When it stops running, dump it. Don’t even think about fixing it. Change your cell phone every six months. Toss the old one. Somewhere on this planet, there is a giant, bottomless hole into which the garbage goes and it will never fill up, right? If you keep believing that, maybe the house brownies will come and clean for you while you sleep.

I’m not expecting answers. I’ll be dead before anyone looks around and says “Whoa … this isn’t so good. What about building things we can repair. You know. Reuse.”

 

You must remember this … Techno Memories

I wonder if operating systems will be relevant a few years from now. Change has been a synonym for technology for the past 30 years or more. Change has driven the computer industry. Change is why we need to buy new software, hardware and operating systems.

Change can make things work better, but it’s not unusual to discover that your “upgrade” is a downgrade because what used to work no longer does. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

I grew to adulthood in a pre-computer society. I started working before cable TV, when encyclopedias were huge heavy sets of books and a computer was gigantic and needed a whole building for itself. It ran on punch cards and used machine languages — COBOL and FORTRAN. Decades later, personal computers were still just one step removed from a doorstop, floppy disks were 5-1/2 inches across and really flopped.

Those early machines (personal units, not mainframes) — I hesitate to call them computers — didn’t do much. They didn’t have hard drives. There was no software and no user-friendly interface. I don’t think the concept existed. No WYSIWYG. What you saw was a black screen with lurid green letters that made you feel like you were going blind after an hour or two.

Then everything changed. First there was Apple and then Windows. Windows didn’t work very well at first, but it got better. And even better.

In the beginning, there were different players in the marketplace and many more choices of operating system. Wang and DEC plus a crazy quilt of dedicated word processors and computers made by Commodore, Atari and many others. For a while, I had an Amstrad, a European machine that was almost a computer, kind an intelligent typewriter with a screen. It spit out paper.

Soon everything changed again. Computers started to really do stuff. Magic!

The speed of change accelerated. Technology was in hyperdrive. Then came a thing called the Internet. I had to buy and install Netscape to use it. After I got connected, there wasn’t much going on, but it was cool to just roam around. Mostly, you bumped into other people looking for something interesting. And then came AOL.

You could send electronic mail — email — if you had a friends with computers. You sent them messages over old copper telephone wires and everything happened in slow motion.

Just getting on to the Internet could take … well, let me put it this way. Turn on the computer. Turn on the modem. Go to the kitchen. Prepare dinner. Cook dinner. Serve dinner. Eat dinner. Clean up everything. By the time you got back to your computer, you might have actually managed to connect to something. Or not.

Then suddenly there were ISPs popping up all over the place. I got a super fast modem that ran at a whopping 2400 BPS! Imagine that. I worked in California from my home office in Boston. Cool! Telecommuting was the cat’s pajamas.

By the time my granddaughter was born in 1996, everybody had a computer or two. In her world, computers have always been fast, the Internet has always been the world’s shopping mall. Ebay and Amazon are no big deal.

At age three, she could run basic applications. For her, it’s like electricity was to us: something you use that is always there and always was. I’m sure she can’t imagine a world without it. It’s hard for me to remember that world and I certainly would not want to go back there.

For a brief interval, the rate of change slowed. We drew a collective breath and didn’t have to buy new computers for a couple of years. High speed connections arrived, though most home users didn’t have it right away. Everything kept getting faster and soon, with cable modems, no one could even remember what it was like to try to get onto the Internet using an old telephone line.

Every time you looked around, there was a  new generation of processors, bigger and faster hard drives, amazing super high-definition monitors and speaker systems to knock your socks off.

The Internet became a world-sized shopping mall and overnight, catalogue shopping became website cruising. The Internet was a world unto itself; I played bridge in real-time with a partner who lived on an island off the Pacific coast.

We have computers all over the house and what isn’t a computer is run by a computer or contains a mini computer … microwave ovens, smartphones, digital cameras and GPS units. I have three computers — in my office, living room and bedroom. My husband has two. My granddaughter has 3, but I think a couple of them don’t work any more. My son has two, my daughter in law has one but if she wants another, we have a spares and she can just grab one.

Eight computers are in daily use and only 5 people live here. I feel that we will soon need to get computers for each of the dogs. For all I know, whenever we are out, they go on-line and order stuff. I’m sure Bonnie the Scottie has at least a thousand Facebook friends.

A brief interruption of cable service leaves us wandering around like wraiths, without form or function. Five of the seven primary computers are less than 2 years old  so I figured we were set for a few years at least … but then everything started changing. Again.

Today, it’s all about “the cloud.” It’s still the same old Internet, but “cloud” is the “in” word for stuff stored on external servers. We’re going back to where we began, to using stripped down computers with no hard drives. Instead, everything is stored on someone else’s computer — out there. In the “cloud.” Our data might be anywhere. We have no way of knowing where it lives.

Am I the only one who finds this unnerving?

I can see advantages. When you eliminate memory sucking operating systems and cumbersome installed applications, your computer will run faster. Start-up is instantaneous because your computer doesn’t have to load services and applications. You don’t have to maintain and upgrade big expensive applications and volumes of data. You won’t need ever bigger hard drives, more memory and video RAM. You wind up with faster computers that are less expensive and easier to maintain. It’s a win-win, right?

Or is it?

How much do you trust your Internet service provider?

If your cable company has a bad day or the servers on which you store your critical data go down — even for a short while — you have nothing. As long as everything works like it’s supposed to, it’s hunky dory, but Murphy hasn’t left the building yet.

Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and will do so at the worst possible time.

Maybe it’s my age showing, but I would prefer to have data on hard drives that I control. That I own.

The idea of entrusting everything —  from my photographs to the manuscript of my book — to an unknown server somewhere in the world scares the Hell out of me. What if the building in which the server storing my stuff burns down? Gets hit by a terrorist attack? Taken down by hackers? You have no way of knowing what country your data is in, how stable its government is, or how good an infrastructure it maintains. You financial data could be in Pakistan, Indonesia, or Kuala Lampur. Or next door.

Is there a compromise possible? Because when I think about entrusting everything to a cloud, I begin to twitch.

How many times have you been unable to access a web page because servers are busy or crashed? The times when their — or your — servers are inaccessible because of maintenance, repair or upgrade. Or those ubiquitous hackers. What if you need a critical piece of data from a server while its offline? It does happen.

My bank was hacked and they had to send me a new card. Several places I shop — Land’s End, for one — were hacked and I had to redo my accounts because they’d been compromised.

If your ISP is down, you are out of business. If you think your cable company has you by the throat now, how much worse will it be if everything you need to run your life and business is dependent on their services? Facebook and Google already have trouble keeping up with the demands on their resources. How will they manage when they have thousands of times more data and tens of millions of users depending on them for everything from email and applications to data retrieval?

Those of you who are old enough to remember the great Northeast power blackout in the mid 1960s know what I mean when I say that overloaded systems can go down like dominoes. I am all in favor working together with my fellow human beings throughout the world, but at a certain point, when does inter-dependency make us excessively vulnerable?

If you put the world’s eggs in one basket, if the basket falls, that’s a hell of a lot of broken eggs. That’s not an omelet — just a mess.

I worked for more than 35 years in development. That was my world and although I’m not an engineer or developer, I know what’s behind a user interface. For example, modern word processors embed commands in text, but behind the interface, it’s entering the same commands I entered directly on the huge IBM mainframe by hand. It’s faster and prettier now. You get to see how your document will look when it’s printed, but it’s nothing but an elegant wrapping on an old familiar box.

My concern is not the graphical user interface (GUI) that overlays our computer (regardless of operating system), but that these new operating systems are designed to work with “The Cloud” … a meaningless term that represents servers located anywhere and everywhere. We don’t have to know where they are; they’re in the Cloud … kind of like Angels and God. We are being herded toward using external storage and we aren’t supposed to be alarmed that we have no control over it.

We use services consisting of server farms located somewhere on the planet. There is where we store our bank records, personal correspondence, photographs … everything. We use these servers directly when we use “the cloud,” but we also use it indirectly because that’s where our bank, our vendors, the places from which we buy goods and services store their data … or more to the point, our data as it pertains to them.

We assume the people from whom server space is leased are dependable, not criminals looking to steal identities and data … and their infrastructure is secure and won’t collapse from a power outage or hacker attack. And finally, we trust our ISPs to deliver the goods, keep us online so we can access the stuff we need.

Charter Communications is my cable company and controls my high-speed internet access, as well as my TV and telephone. I have difficulty controlling the wave of rage I feel when I think about them. How do you feel about your cable company, eh?

Even if the servers that store your stuff are safe, you can’t get there without a high-speed connection and that, my friends, means your local ISP … cable, telephone, satellite, whatever you use. They already have you by the short hairs. You are not independent and you rely on their services. Does that sound like a great idea? It makes me sweaty and itchy.

Anybody anywhere can build a server farm. It’s a great business that requires a bunch of servers, a climate controlled place to put them, and a few IT people to tend the equipment.

Where are these places? Most are in countries whose government is, by any standards, unstable — possibly dangerously so. How good is the infrastructure? Are they in the middle of a war? Are their electrical generating facilities dependable or sufficient? What protection against hackers do they provide? Are they trustworthy? They could as easily be a bunch of criminals and the data they collect is the mother lode.

I’m not comfy with the idea of entrusting a lifetime of my work to unknown, nameless entities. Google uses servers everywhere, as does Amazon. So does every other “cloud” provider. Your data and mine is unlikely to be in one place, either. It is broken into many pieces that are stored wherever it went when you saved it. You will not know and cannot discover where your data is, was, or will be.

I won’t get into how links and pointers let us retrieve data, but the potential for error, loss, and piracy is huge. So, I’m not buying into the Cloud, at least not for anything that really matters to me. Call me cynical, even paranoid … but I think that the computer-using public is buying snake oil. I want my stuff on my own drives. Use the “Cloud,” whatever it really is. But have good, dependable external drives too.

Or, as the Arabs say, trust in God, but tie your camel.

Try Windows 8.1? I think not.

I’ve given this thought. I reviewed the video from Microsoft. I read the FAQ. I’ve read the articles in ZDNet and anything else that seems to have detailed information. I watched the video a second time. I read the email you sent me and looked at the poll results. I still can’t find any advantage for me in using — or even testing — Windows 8.1.

I  don’t have a machine appropriate for testing anyhow. If I install it on a little notebook, the inadequacy of the machine would so limit what I could test I’m not sure I would learn anything meaningful. I couldn’t use such a little machine to run any important applications. I don’t even know if Chrome will run on 8.1. The information in the FAQ was vague.

75-OfficeHDR-CR-2

Installing and testing would steal time from other projects to which I’m already committed. Others things take priority. If I could install it on one of my real working computers and use it for regular stuff I do … no, I don’t think so. I’ve heard rumors. Ugly rumors. I’m not willing to risk my computers … or waste my time. In the end, I’m merely curious about the system. And that isn’t enough motivation.

Windows 8 does not appear to be a work-oriented operating system. I’m a work-oriented user. The Dell XPS tablet I gave my son runs RT and that’s fine. RT was designed for a tablet and it does well in that environment.

But what’s in it for me? A bunch of apps I don’t need and won’t use? I have no interest in or need for basic photo editing apps. I don’t need simplified anything. I’m way past grade school versions of real tools I’ve been using for years.

Who does Windows 8.1 target? Not me. You? Anyone out there?

I understand what Microsoft is selling. The problem? I don’t want or need it. It’s not a business environment. My wish list for a new operating system is for more and better business tools. Easily organized, searchable databases for graphics, photos, and documents. Tools to help me quickly locate files on huge hard drives. A better media player for audio.

I want an improved email client and a versatile calendar application I can share on a network. And I don’t want to lease or even buy it. I want it to be part of the operating system. I want dependable, easy access to the Internet and in particular, this website. I don’t like Internet Explorer. I hate being prevented from going where I want because my browser is a wimp. I’m not 12 and I don’t need to be protected from myself.

Microsoft urgently needs folks like me to test drive this operating system. They need core users — like me — to work with it, accept it, and enthusiastically endorse it. To talk it up on the Internet. To vouch for it to friends and co-workers.

Instead, we are the people most reluctant to try it and unless something dramatically changes are least likely to adopt it in the forseeable future.

XPS 10 Tablet Details — Dell Windows 8 Tablet - Dell

Does Windows 8.1 work? Probably with a lot of bugs. Eventually Microsoft will fix it. They usually do, though not nearly fast enough. Two very basic questions remain unanswered:

  1. Why should I switch to a new operating system that’s anti-intuitive, ill-suited to my needs, and requires I relearn basic computer tasks?
  2. What advantages does Windows 8.1 offer that might motivate me to use it?

The answers are “no reason” and “none.”

Two words: Why bother?

I have read every article, watched all the videos, played with my son’s RT tablet and I cannot see anything tempting — for my purposes.

Maybe in the future Microsoft will do something to change my mind. But far as I can tell, they don’t know I exist. Or don’t care. One way or the other, they’ve chosen to ignore me and everyone like me, effectively disenfranchising the whole class of business users. That’s a crazy choice for a corporation which depends on business clients. Mind blowing and well … dumb.

Does this mean that there’s no merit in this operating system? I’m sure it has value to someone, but it doesn’t have any to me, at least none I can find. And I’ve really looked. I want to want it. I want to like it.

Sorry, Microsoft. Not happening for me.

 

A Nifty 10″ Tablet: The XPS 10 is a sweet machine

Last week, in the wee hours of the morning … the darkest hours before the dawn … I ordered a Dell XPS 10 tablet that runs on Windows RT. Windows RT is not Windows 8, though they certainly belong to the same family. Kissing cousins. RT was designed as an operating system for a tablet. It does not let you install any standard PC software anymore than an iPad lets you install standard Mac software. It is a nifty tablet.

Dell XPS 10 Light Windows 8 Tablet

Immediately after I bought it, I went to the Dell website and read some dreadful reviews. Mostly I discovered people bought it expecting it to replace their laptop. They were disappointed. It is not a replacement for your laptop. When all was said and done, I knew it wouldn’t satisfy my mobile computing requirements, not because it is a bad piece of hardware or a bad operating system. It’s simply not what I need.

XPS 10 Tablet Details — Dell Windows 8 Tablet - Dell

So, I bought the Inspiron 14Z which only cost a little bit more and arranged to return the XPS 10 when it arrived. As it turned out, the day it arrived — the day before yesterday — Dell was upgrading their systems, so I had to wait.

Today, I called Dell, explained I wanted to return the XPS 10 because I didn’t believe it was right for me. He offered  me a $50 discount. I hesitated, then said, “No,” because I have already ordered another computer. I mean, how many computers do I need, really?

He offered me $100 discount, which also meant a refund of some of the sales tax … bringing the whole thing in for under $400. I had ordered a pretty high-end configuration, including the keyboard which doubles the battery life to 18 hours, and the 64 GB flash memory. And it came with Office RT installed … everything except Outlook.

“Maybe,” he said, “Your husband would enjoy it?”

I gave that some thought, but he really doesn’t need it. On the other hand, I have a son. I told Owen about the tablet. He could try it. If he didn’t like it, there would be no problem returning it.

The Configuration

  • XPS 10 Tablet – Windows RT
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 1.5 GHz DC processor with 64GB Flash Storage, WiFi Only
  • XPS 10 Mobile Keyboard Dock – US English
  • 10.1″ HD Display (1366×768) with capacitive multi-touch
  • Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT

I handed him the box, he opened it and set it up. It asked questions, Owen answered them. The email started working immediately. It took 5 minutes to figure out how to use the home screen, get into desktop mode, set up the weather and the maps (it has a fast GPS).

The keyboard has a great feel. It locks securely in place with a satisfying click. With keyboard attached, it becomes a small, well-built laptop. The keyboard is heavy enough to hold the XPS 10 upright so you can watch movies or videos hands free. The keyboard is 92% of full size, large enough for email and whatever documents you may want to create on it. If you have huge hands, well … you know who you are. For most of us, the keyboard is fine. The screen is bright and responsive, the speakers work.

And off he went to work, taking the XPS 10 with him.

By the time he got home, it was obvious that the only way that tablet was going back to Dell was if I pried it from his cold dead hands. He was in love.

What’s are the problems?

The cyber world has not embraced this tablet even though the XPS 10 is a great little machine. After using it, I think I understand the issues, the reasons people are not flocking to it, nor “taking” to any of the new Windows operating systems.

(1) Most people have no idea how to use them.

(2) Microsoft has failed to explain the capabilities and limitations of the operating systems. There’s a black hole of ignorance being filled with rumor, innuendo, and lies.

(3) Microsoft has done a terrible marketing job. Instead of reassuring customers, they adopted an antagonistic big brother attitude.

If you’ve heard this song before, feel free to join in the chorus. Touchscreen technology is not new. It has its place, but under the best circumstances, touchscreens become insensitive through use. Big, little, no matter how it’s made, touchscreens have a lifespan much shorter than non-touchscreens. If you get a few good years out of a touchscreen, you’re doing well. Not everyone wants to replace their equipment every two or three years. It’s not merely inconvenient. It’s costly.

Touchscreens are inappropriate and hard to use in a vertical position. Terribly hard on wrists and shoulders.

Fingers are not precision devices. The cheapest mouse, trackball, or stylus is more accurate and versatile. Not to mention easier to use.  Touchscreens in an office environment? Why? What advantage does it offer? Telephones? Okay, but I preferred the keyboard on the Blackberry. I hate my iPhone.

Cameras? I would prefer buttons and dials. When I’m shooting in cold weather I can barely feel my fingers much less hit tiny little points on a 3 inch LCD.

Tablets? Ah. The sweet spot. And the Dell XPS 10 is a fine example of how good it is when you marry two well matched technologies.

Customers have unrealistic expectations and are doomed to disappointment

After spending years trying to convince us — unsuccessfully — to believe that tablets (any tablet, take your pick, it doesn’t matter) will replace other computers, it isn’t true. Tablets are great for some things, useless for others. They are — not to put too fine a point on it — good for what they are good for, but that’s far from everything.

The propaganda that we don’t need our “big” computers and can do it all using a tablet  convinced many (most?) people to buy tablets expecting they would be using  it to do everything they used to do on bigger more powerful machines. If their primary computer activities are internet surfing, emailing, taking snap shots, Skype, playing music, listening to audiobooks or reading ebooks, it could be true. For the rest of us? Not really. It is a nice complement to bigger equipment, but not a replacement.

Last — far away from least 

Hire some technical writers to produce documentation so everyone can look stuff up.

Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, we don’t want to call customer service to find out how to change the background on the screen. Make manuals as friendly as an average “Dummies” book and folks will use them. No manual for either new Windows OS is (thank you Benjamin Franklin, wherever you are) penny wise and pound foolish. There are professionals who know how to write this kind of stuff. I’m one of them. We work cheap. Hire us.

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Would it have killed Microsoft to include a manual for the operating system? Acquainting people with how (and why!) it works before they bought it would have saved a lot of negative feedback because RT works beautifully on a tablet. I wouldn’t want it on my desktop or laptop, but on the XPS 10? It’s great.

So, what can (and can’t) you do with this tablet?

You cannot install standard PC software on Windows RT. You can’t use a wired router. It only works on WiFi or 3G if you ordered it.

You can’t store all your files, but there’s cloud storage available. It has two USB 2.0 ports and a slot to install a mini SD card. You can access other computers and download music and other stuff. There’s a Kindle reader application. Netflix runs on it. Music sounds pretty good, as do voices.

Dell XPS 10 Light Windows 8 Tablet

My son could not figure out how to change the background and asked why they don’t include documentation? The Billion Dollar Question. They have a couple of booklets and probably somewhere on the system, a manual. I wouldn’t be optimistic about how useful the manual is. Most of them are generated by software, not written by the likes of me.

I bet most problems people have with the operating system(s) and tablet is not having instructions on how to use it and not understanding what they bought. I found it easy to figure out, but I have a tablet and I’m computer savvy.

What you can do on the Dell XPS 10

  • Email
  • Surfing the net
  • Playing music
  • Skype
  • Netflix and other movies
  • Take pictures
  • Play games (lightweight)
  • Light photo editing
  • Listen to audiobooks.

If you are a photographer, don’t expect to do serious editing. You can view your pictures, crop them, fix them up a little. You’ll have to save the heavy processing until you get to your other computer.

Dell’s XPS 10 comes with MS Office RT installed. You can do most office tasks, smooth as silk. I wish I had a legitimate excuse to get one for me, now that I’ve given it to Owen, but I don’t need it. For me it would be a toy. For Owen, it will take care of most of his computing needs. We occupy different places in the cyber world.

I am an old dog, but I can still learn a few new tricks. I apologize, Microsoft. It’s a sweet operating system and Dell has made a smooth, functional tablet with superb battery life and a fine keyboard. You can even attach a mouse if you want.

I like it. The XPS 10 is a sweet little machine. I can tell from the gleam in my son’s eyes and the way he keep saying “Cool!!”

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Geeks Speak, Consumers Say No

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So I’m sitting here reading a ZDNet article: Microsoft’s Windows 8 approach: Bold, arrogant, or both?

The argument is irrelevant.

Is Microsoft’s approach, which involves trying to force feed Windows 8 to unwilling users, bold? Arrogant? Stupid? Who cares? How about all three? What is over-the-top stupid — not to mention self-destructive — is trying to stuff an operating system down users’ throats when they obviously do not want it.

I bought a PC for my husband last night to replace his 6-year-old desktop. I ended up buying almost exactly the same computer, but with much more memory, hard drive space, graphics support … more of everything and blazingly fast, too. Ironically, it also cost less than the old desktop. Prices have come down a good deal in the past 6 years, at least for desktop computers.

Did I order a Windows 8 machine? No, I bought a Windows 7 machine because he would be lost in Windows 8 and so would I. He is not computer savvy and does not give a hoot about what’s under the hood of the OS nor does he care to learn. But he does need a computer with an up-to-date version of Word, PowerPoint and Outlook. He needs to be able to get on and off the Internet, receive and send mail, create documents, keep a calendar, and exchange files. He hates finger painting and will never use a tablet, prefers the comfort of his desk, the big flat screen monitor and full size keyboard.

If I’m going to be honest about it, so do I.  Laptops are fine, but some of us spend a lot of hours at the computer and we type faster and more accurately on a standard keyboard. I love my big bright HD monitor and for editing photographs, the laptop is never going to be first choice, even though it has the same software as my desktop. It simply means that my husband and I are probably always going to have both a desktop and a laptop and they will serve different purposes in our lives. That ought to be a plus for business since we end up keeping 4 computers for two of us (not counting Kindles and other small devices).

It ought to be easy to get an operating system with which we feel comfortable and familiar. We should not be forced to use something a corporation deems better. What in the world is wrong with supporting both Windows 7 and 8? It would hardly be the first time Microsoft has supported multiple operating systems. They supported NT and Windows for years and still support various versions of every operating system including Windows 8.

But Microsoft is bound and determined to do it their way, no matter what it costs. We are going to march to their drum beat. Or else. Or else we give up and buy a Mac? Switch to Linux? Wait a while until something else that will support our familiar applications comes onto the market? Are the marketing wonks at Microsoft so out of touch they believe they can force me to buy something I don’t want? What in the world makes them think that? As a side note, I should point out that what people do not like about Windows 8 is not how it works or anything complicated. They don’t like the user interface. I think it’s ugly, in addition to taking away familiar functionality with which I am comfortable. If they just made Windows 8 look and feel like Windows 7, it would sell. And yes, they could do it. They just don’t want to.

I don’t want to buy what they are marketing. Who will win? I think I will, or maybe, we will all lose. Because in this fragile economy, losing a few big players like Microsoft, Dell and other Microsoft dependent corporations would probably be that final nail in our economic coffin.

Meanwhile, collectively and individually, we aren’t marching to Microsoft’s drummer. We aren’t buying their act or their operating system. PC sales are falling through the floor. Microsoft stubbornly insists everyone will do it their way while we dig in our heels and say “Hell no!” They obviously don’t get it. They think it’s about technology, but it’s really about choice. It’s about comfort. It’s about freedom.

I’d have bought a different computer for Garry, but I refused to buy Win8. I don’t want it. Neither do most of the people I know. We are called consumers and it doesn’t matter how great Microsoft thinks their new OS is. They may even be right and it still doesn’t matter. If we don’t buy it, they are screwed. And so, in the long run, are we. They are being incredibly short-sighted, which I think is a special kind of stupid. How many computer companies have disappeared because they wouldn’t bow to the market?

Remember Digital Equipment Corporation? DEC was Massachusetts’ biggest employer and it is gone, baby, gone. By the time they finally realized that being better wasn’t selling their products, it was too late. Down in flames they went.

When I was a child and my mother tried to make me eat food she believed was good for me and which I did not want to eat, I clamped my jaws shut and refused. It didn’t matter how long I was forced to sit at the table. I would not eat it if I didn’t want it. No amount of coercion, coaxing, or arguments changed anything. I said no, I meant no. If my mommy couldn’t force me to eat the mashed potatoes, why does Microsoft think it can make me buy Windows 8? And what in the world makes them think they have the right to try?

It’s not about technology, oh ye geeks.

IT’S ABOUT CUSTOMERS AND WHAT THEY WANT!

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Technology: Not just cool toys

These days every time I read an article in ZDNet or any of the techno-blogs, they are casually talking about getting rid of the Windows desktop and making basic software subscription-based, something that will benefit the corporate bottom lines of suppliers of software, but which will hurt millions upon millions of users. They talk as if  subscriptions are no big deal. It may not be a big deal for them, but it’s a big deal to me and possibly, a lot of you too.

SnapIt-77Subscriptions are much more expensive than buying software, installing it and updating only when you really need a new version. Let’s look at a non-MS example. I have a license for Photoshop. This is expensive software that I need to be a serious amateur photographer. I do NOT make money at photography, but I love it, am pretty good at it and there isn’t any product on the market that comes near Photoshop in terms of what it can do and how well it does it. So, I decided to upgrade from CS5 to CS6. Previously, this has involved calling Adobe, giving my serial number and member ID, then paying them $200 plus shipping. They send me a DVD and we are done for the next few years.

This time, I spent over an hour on the phone explaining, over and over, that $49 per month to subscribe to Photoshop when I live on a fixed retirement income is impossible. That’s just about $600 a year for Photoshop. I don’t have that kind money to spend. Nor will I ever have it because that’s the meaning of “fixed income.” It means that the amount never goes up. Ever. You are lucky if it doesn’t go away, but you can be absolutely certain it will never be more.

Millions of people live on fixed incomes and many more survive on minimal incomes, yet they need computers and software. Students, retirees, disabled people and unemployed people trying to find work are among those millions. People whose incomes are not in the 6 digit realm, like teachers, policeman, firefighters. The clerks in your bank and the guy who fixes your car aren’t nailing down big figure salaries.

Computers are basic tools these days. You can’t apply for a job without a computer. You can’t submit a manuscript for publication or even try to find a publisher without a computer. Computers and electronic information and money transfer is basic to modern life everywhere on earth. An internet connection is essential. It is not less important to the elderly, retired, or to those with disabilities. To a disabled person, that high-speed connection is the difference between a life worth living and a living death.

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In the real world, many people … probably MOST people …. don’t have much (or any) slack in their budgets. They aren’t going to be able to pay for monthly subscriptions for software. I don’t want anyone to tell me about “free” apps.  Unless someone makes a lot more apps that do a lot more a lot better than the ones I’ve seen so far, there is no way they will replace the applications we use.  The developers and marketing wonks who tell us we can get an app for that don’t use those apps to do their own work. I guarantee they are using sturdy installed applications. I’ll bet they aren’t storing it all in a cloud either, that they have back up drives and servers to protect data and keep it under their own control. What a bunch of hypocrites these people are. How I resent how they toy with my life.

In one way or another over the past few years, I have been informed that being old and living on short money means I don’t need Photoshop. I don’t need Outlook. I don’t need cable television. I don’t need books. I don’t need email. I don’t need anything but generic medications and minimal health care. I should be grateful that I have food and a roof over my head. I don’t need a Kindle, a computer or a camera. I can buy my clothing second-hand, scrounge for medication. Whatever people with somewhat high incomes deem necessary for themselves is not necessary for me. Apparently when I retired — or in my case became disabled, life being neither fair nor predictable — I cashed in my rights to everything other than life itself and I’m not sure I’m entitled to that, either.

I have long known that corporation were heartless, but these computer guys have no moral compass either. Zilch. They have no idea why they do what they do, that software has a purpose. It isn’t an end in itself. It is intended to solve real problems for living human beings. It’s not just cool toys to play with or a way for them to make a good living.

These products and tools are important to users. Critical. The market for technology is not those who invent it. The market is everyone: people supporting families, struggling to feed a family on an income too small for the purpose. All the folks trying to survive hard times, to improve their living conditions, to get by with very little are the real end-users for all of this stuff. To make it inaccessible to any but the well-to-do is the equivalent of turning off our electricity and water and has much the same effect. Computers and software are not luxuries and haven’t been for years.

Having tools to make pictures, keep complicated medical and study schedules and many more life functions are not optional extras. Corporations, big software companies like Microsoft and Adobe, our so-called Congress, insurance companies are all playing with our lives. We don’t  matter at all except as a source of income for them.

SnapIt-79As for ZDNet’s contention that the corporate world will have to accept Windows 8 (the implication being that they have no choice in the matter), I have a news flash.  I’ve recently been visiting companies with whom I’ve worked in the past. They are switching to Macs. Entire companies are dropping Windows. Small companies right now because they aren’t as heavily invested in an operating system, but small organizations are the bellwethers for the big trends that follow. These groups are doing their development on Unix or Linux boxes — which is not new because they have been using them for development for years — and everything else on Macs.

Why I asked? Because they won’t touch Windows 8. They don’t like it. They won’t buy it. Just a little reality check for anyone listening. You cannot force people to adopt things they do not like, no matter how big and powerful you think you are. When you stop listening to your customers, your users, the people who made you big in the first place, you are likely to discover as so many others have before you that the world needs you a lot less than you thought. Where’s DEC? Where’s Wang? Where’s RCA? Westinghouse? They’ve either disappeared or been absorbed to become nothing more than a logo and a memory.

The business world is ripe for the plucking. They want an operating system that will run familiar applications as Windows did. Nature and business abhor a vacuum. I bet they are already circling. Not just Mac, but many others.

Earth to ZDNet: there is life on the planet! You might want to get back in touch with it.

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Coercion By Any Other Name: Technology, Stupidity and Windows 8

It’s Official: Windows 7 is “Out” and Windows 8 is “In”

Oh yeah? And who’s gonna make me?

I am very out of sorts about this. Windows 7 is a stable, highly functional operating system that lets me run my applications and use the Internet, moving from embedded applications to online publication without a hiccup. I understand Microsoft’s desire to have a stronger presence in the tablet/touchscreen market, but their ill-conceived attempt to eliminate the work space in which most of us have become comfortable is not going to win them any popularity contests. It isn’t going to sell more computers. If anything, I’m betting that many people will do the same thing I’m planning to do: avoid buying anything unless it comes with a Windows 7 downgrade or just work with our existing computer equipment until they come to their sense. Keep Windows 8 … and keep Windows 7. Let users decide what they want instead of telling us what we want.

I don’t know about you, but I really resent coercion, whether by corporation or government decree.

Pointy shoes hurt your feet

When I was a young woman, I refused to wear pointy shoes. They hurt my feet. It took some doing, but I found non-pointy shoes from Fred Braun,  Bass and Keds. I wore comfortable sandals, going so far as to have them made to fit my feet — simple, flat and strappy. I owned boots with square toes made in England or Australia. I thought mini skirts looked ridiculous on any anyone over 16, so for a brief unhappy interval, I made my own. That was less successful as people looked at me and said “Ah, you must have made that yourself.” I don’t think it was a compliment.

I still won’t wear clothing I don’t like. I won’t wear anything uncomfortable.  I didn’t care about fashion when I was 20 and I care a lot less at 65.

I am equally resistant to fads in technology. I’m geeky enough to understand what’s going on when the latest gizmos are introduced and savvy enough to determine if it would be useful to me.

My purchasing … all purchasing, but especially tech stuff … is driven by what I need rather than what’s new, trendy, cute, or sexy.  I don’t have an MP3 player because I’m not outside on the move often enough to need one. For the few times I’m not near a computer, I take my Kindle.

Being unfashionable has advantages. It saves you money. If you don’t need to have the latest thing, you won’t need to replace your wardrobe when whoever decrees what’s “In” and “Out” changes his/her/their mind. I have a pea coat — a real one, made for the U.S. Navy — that is as warm and attractive as it was 35 years ago.

My big Dell computers were bought with an eye toward running everything I have now plus anything that I might need in the forseeable future. I bought computers with as much memory as the operating system will support. I got the highest resolution HD monitors available. I bought huge, fast hard drives and two external drives to deal with data overflow and as insurance against losing a hard drive. I included the biggest baddest video cards the machines would support, Blue-ray reader/writer units, and sound cards that will support any system I feel inclined to hook up. These computers won’t be obsolete any time soon.

If we aren’t hit by a tornado, tsunami, or earthquake, as far as computers go, I’m set. I figure I’m good to go for 5, maybe 10 years or more. And, almost everything is upgradeable.

“The sky is falling,” cried Chicken Little. “PC sales have flattened out!”

I’m happily surrounded by desktop and laptop computers that run without a hiccup and on which everyone depends. ZDNet is simultaneously predicting the end of the home computer.  This deduction is worthy of Chicken Little or maybe, Turkey Lurky and is based entirely on computer sales having flattened out while mobile device sales remain brisk.

English: A pile of mobile devices including sm...

A pile of mobile devices: smart phones, tablets, laptops and e-book readers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Armed with this pair of facts, the author concluded that from henceforth we shall all do everything on mobile devices because we no longer need hard drives or embedded applications. We can just pick up apps from the online app store and everything we need can be accomplished … on the telephone? iPad? Chromebook? Android tablet? Having made an earlier and even more baseless pronouncement that we don’t need dedicated GPS’s because you can use your telephone or iPad, I should not be surprised, but stupidity always surprises me. For some reason, I expect better of my peers.

Some other moron (maybe more than one moron) pointed out we don’t need cameras anymore. If you are a photographer, you’ve probably bumped into these people on forums. They don’t get the difference between photography and snap shots. “We can take pictures just as good on our phones,” they shout. Shall I take their advice? I will just throw away my cameras, lenses, filters …everything. I mean, Hell, I have a telephone. What more do I need?

They have declared anything I use for work or art obsolete. Before I try to edit a 12 X 16 photograph on my telephone, or for that matter, on my 7″ android tablet,  there are a few details that need ironing out by which I mean that there are people to whom an iron applied firmly to the side of the head would solve a few problems.

About iPads and Macs

I am not going to buy an iPad or ar any other Macintosh computer. An iPad would useless to me as would any kind of tablet. You can’t do real work on a tablet. You can display stuff, play games, diddle around, but you can’t edit a photograph or format a document. Despite the fact that I’m retired, I still write and I edit photographs. Now more than ever, actually. I am dependent on Photoshop and other heavy guns in the software department … none of which will run on a Chromebook, an android tablet, any kind of Mac or iPad. These require a real computer with a real — large — hard drive and a compatible operating systems spelled “Windows.” A high-end Mac could do the job, but there is no chance whatsoever that I am going to buy one because they are beyond my budget and my software wouldn’t run on it — which would add at least another thousand dollars to the cost of the computer. So please, my beloved friends, unless you are offering to buy me a the computer you think I should have plus all the software I need, do not tell me I should get a Mac. It’s just annoying … unless it’s an offer rather than a suggestion, in which case, hey, let’s talk.

How stupid are reviewers and what planet do they come from?

In what world do they live? Do they work for a living? Are any of them musicians, authors, or photographers? Book designers, engineers, developers? Accountants, financial advisors? Movie makers? Are they aware that most professionals rely on powerful installed applications like Photoshop, Acrobat, Framemaker and CAD?

Are they children who think playing games on their cell phone is the ultimate technological achievement?

People aren’t buying PCs because they have all the computers they need.

Sooner or later, everyone has enough and they don’t need another. There won’t be a buying surge for microwave ovens or refrigerators either. We have enough of them too. The inevitable has occurred. Everyone who wants a computer has one. Most of us have more. In this household, with 5 computer-using adults, we have 10 laptops and desktops. None is close to obsolete.

Like other families, we are short of funds. Bad economy; money is tight. We buy things, just not as much as we did. We can’t afford mistakes,  so we have to get it right the first time.

A few years ago, I bought Kindles for my husband, son, and me. Recently, I got the new HD Kindle Fire that plays audiobooks, music, videos, collect email, plays some games pretty well, has surprisingly good speakers, and hooks up with Facebook and Twitter. It’s not really a full service computer, but rather a good, portable, lightweight media center. A compact, versatile device I can use for all the various types of media I enjoy that didn’t break my piggy bank, has a long battery life and frees me from being tethered to my office computer, genuine freedom to roam.

My netbook was supposed to fill this niche, and to be fair, it tries. It does as much as it can, but I hear its labored breathing. Like “The Little Engine That Could” it mumbles “I know I can, I know I can.”  The new Kindle will do many of the things I do on my Netbook, plus everything I did on my original Kindle.

I took a long, hard look at Chromebooks, but the limitations kept flashing at me like neon signs. No hard drive. It would let me do everything I can do on the Kindle or Netbook except edit pictures and create real documents which I can do on the Netbook because it has a hard drive and software. It isn’t the most convenient way to work, but I’ve written on it, edited pictures and published, all from the Netbook. It’s not my first choice of tools, but it will work … and it forms a kind of bridge between a full-size laptop and my Kindle. The keyboard makes a huge difference. The netbook let’s me do 95% of my work without an internet connection. Offline! Imagine working without WiFi! It could revolutionize the computer world.

As far as I can figure it, a Chromebook can do what the Netbook does, but it boots  faster and doesn’t need virus software. It can be connected to an external hard drive … I think … but it doesn’t really have an operating system per se, so I’m not sure if my applications would work on it even if I try to run them from an external source. It can’t do everything the Netbook does because the Netbook’s 260 GB hard drive means I can use real software, not just “apps.” I have tried dozens of apps for photo editing and text editing. There isn’t any app for serious graphics design or photo editing. Finally, I already own a Netbook, so by definition it’s the cheapest solution. Saving 2 minutes of boot time is not a real issue in my life. I’m just not that pressed for time. When Chromebooks get a hard drive, we’ll talk. Meanwhile, between the Kindle, the Netbook, my laptop, and my desktop, I think I’m set. Push Windows 8 and all Microsoft will do is annoy me.

Lies! They are telling us lies!

The problem in figuring out what device was right for me was compounded by how corrupted my sources of information on new technology have become. ZDNet used to be a reliable source. Now they are toadies in thrall to their advertisers. No more real reviews. Instead, they serve up puff pieces, touting whatever Microsoft or Mac’s PR departments tells them to say. Maybe someone believes it, but based on the comments I saw, not many.

I search individual blogs for honest appraisals of new technology. I rely heavily on reviews by knowledgable users. I compare features against price. I try to evaluate if a technology is “ready” or if it’s still Beta.

Why should we believe them? We shouldn’t!

Not long ago, in an equally ill-informed article, ZDNet announced the death of dedicated devices, in particular, the GPS. The author (and I use that word advisedly) stated since we all own tablets and smartphones, we are now going to use these iPads, iPods, or smartphones for navigation. I found the idea of attaching a 10″ iPad to my windshield pretty funny. Having tried my phone as a GPS, no thanks.  The limitations of the phone mean you can’t see the map OR hear instructions over any kind of  background noise.

They have also repeatedly announced the death of personal computers along with the replacement of embedded software by mobile apps. They are serious, or appear to be. They think free apps will replace everything. Really? Have they actually tried to use these apps? I suspect they have not tried anything. They make assumptions and print them as facts.

We don’t need no stinkin’ facts! What’s research?

Instead of professionals producing thoughtful articles about technology, we have a bunch of stooges for big corporations. They are not working for their readers. They are trying to sell us on whatever their sponsors want them to push. The articles are nothing more than slightly reworded corporate PR releases. I would say they are badly researched, but I believe there was no research done at all.

They got a PR packet, picked some information out of it, did a little tweaking, and voilà, that’s the article. If I’m going to just take the manufacturer’s word for it, I don’t need them.

I doubt whoever wrote the last article saying that we were all going to do everything on our mobile toys has ever tried to do anything working people need to do. He certainly never tried to do it on one of the devices he was touting. He probably thinks his telephone is a fine precision camera and he is welcome to his opinion so as long as he doesn’t ask me look at his pictures.

Anything that can do everything doesn’t do anything well.

In the realm of small dedicated devices, from cameras and MP3 players, to telephones, DVD players and book readers, dedicated devices perform far better than equivalent “add ons” to general purpose devices. A modern computers is not a dedicated device: it’s a platform with power to drive a lot of different things, rather like a big empty room. It does many things, but it won’t do everything well. You can use it as a TV, but sitting in your living room, feet up on the recliner and watching a movie on your big-screen TV is a more satisfying experience.

You can use a computer as a GPS, but a small dashboard or window-mounted unit  is a lot easier and responds faster. Nothing takes pictures like a camera with a good lens. Nothing reproduces music better than a good sound system with high quality speakers. Book readers are better for reading text and if you want to make music, learn to play an instrument.

I don’t want to read on my computer or take pictures on my phone. I am a photographer and I use a camera. If you are positive your iPad is just as good as a camera, if you believe your cell phone or android tablet is good enough to fill your picture-taking needs, you’re probably right. Don’t show me your pictures. Please.

I own three cameras. I edit in Photoshop. I write books. I design books and I use Framemaker, the world’s most anti-intuitive software, but also the only software that does the job. In the ZDNet fantasy world, we are going to do everything on our telephones or tablets. Where do I fit into this portable society? The answer is simple: I don’t. Probably neither will you.

“There’s an app for that!” (No, not really.)

There is no app by anyone anywhere that can come close to the functionality of any version of Photoshop. There is no application other than Framemaker that will create indexes across chapters. For creating PDF books for reading online, you need Acrobat. What? You don’t need to do any of that? Well, I do. So do other people. People work with spread sheets and other office application. Before you declare the PC obsolete, you might want to try working … really working … on these little tiny devices you want to sell me. You’ll be shocked and amazed to discover a spread sheet is invisible on a telephone. You might be able to create a small one on a tablet, but if you are a serious number cruncher, you aren’t going to do it on an iPad or any other tablet. You may use a tablet to display the final result, but you won’t use it to do the work. If you are editing pictures, you’re not going to use a little screen on a pod, tablet, or telephone. You will want a big high-definition monitor.

Photo and video editing require a large monitors, lots of RAM and a huge hard drive. Despite the opinions of the young and clueless, there people who take their jobs and art seriously. These folks require serious tools with which to work. If you think games are the epitome of technological achievement, get a job.

How come people are still buying small mobile devices but not computers? Aw, c’mon. You know why not. They don’t need another computer, but they don’t have a tablet. Or, they have a cell phone, but the technology for telephones is changing … and telephones are subject to much more abuse than other devices. They get rained on, dropped, and sat on. Crumbs and coffee make the keys sticky and touchscreens become unresponsive. I’ve had the same phone for years, but I don’t use it much. When it dies, I’ll replace it. Till then, I’m fine.

People will not always buy a new phone twice a year. They’ll make sturdier ones, waterproof, dust-proof, and shock-proof. Eventually, everyone will have enough telephone, tablets, and other gadgets. No doubt there will be new gadgets, but to sell them, they’ll have to come up with new needs to fill. Otherwise, they will build them, but no one will buy. They will create a gadget so sexy, cute and trendy that manufacturers will be anticipating a veritable rush to buy them … but no one will care. They will be gadgeted out.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

The clock is ticking.

Computer sales are going to stay modest until the expensive high-powered laptops and desktops we recently bought break down or are obsolete. And I don’t think that’s going to happen all that quickly.

Are personal computers going the way of dinosaurs? Mine aren’t.

If Microsoft forces their OS on me, an operating system that shows all the signs of being out of touch with the needs of users, I might reconsider my choices and buy a Mac or a Linux box. I have a big investment in PC-based software so I’d rather not, but maybe I can get upgrades that run on other operating system.

No amount of salesmanship will convince me to buy stuff I don’t need or like. I don’t like anything I’ve heard about Windows 8. Like Vista, it sounds like a good reason to not buy a computer.

I like gadgets. I like cool devices. If someone gives me a toy, I will play with it. But I’m not going to spend a lot of money to get it. Free is my price on anything I don’t actually need.

How about some new software?

We need new software. With the enormous popularity of digital photography, we need more and better choices for people who don’t need al the functionality of a full Photoshop installation, but are beyond Photoshop Elements. We need more streamlined applications for book design and text handling.  Microsoft Office is bloated and overly automated. You can’t do half the things using the new versions of it that you could do 10 or 15 years ago.

Freeware is the way of the future, as well as cross-platform applications that will work on any operating system. Many households already use computers running various operating systems.

For years, software was way ahead of hardware. Now, the reverse is true. The software world has seen an explosion of creativity in games, but no equivalent development of business applications. Adobe, a company that was dedicated to providing professional software has been floating along without doing anything significant or unique in years. How about a trimmed down home-user version of Framemaker? That would give Word a run for its money.

It would be great if magazines and journals that supposedly provide information to the trades would consider really doing that. As a consumer, I resent being sold a bill of goods. The only reason to read trades is for non-partisan information on new technology. Now, I don’t trust anything they say so, which makes them useless to me.

As a writer, I deplore the poor quality of the articles and the authors’ lack of thought, analysis and research. It gives us all a bad name. As a consumer, I’m offended that you think I’m that stupid. At the very least, try the product before you tell me it’s great.

Let’s go back in time to when integrity and honesty could be used in the same sentence with journalist.  Bad enough that every sleazy politician is out there lying his/her ass off, but “et, tu brute?”

It’s Not Your Equipment … It’s a Lack of Documentation!

Maybe I should just give up, but I spent my career writing material to help folks use complicated equipment and sometimes very obscure software.

I should probably start by mentioning that I’ve fought this battle for long years … and was utterly defeated. About 7 or 8 years ago, high-tech companies, in a money crunch and driven by that bottom line that seems to be the only thing that matters anymore, began to eliminate technical writers. Entire departments were dismantled and eliminated. Jobs disappeared and what remained paid so badly it was insulting.

A decision had been made at the corporate level: YOU don’t need documentation. No matter how complicated or expensive the equipment or software you purchase may be, don’t need documentation. Companies provide the minimum the law requires or they can get away with. Quality is no object nor usability. Information is limited to basic stuff like how to install a battery and if you are lucky, where the compartment is.

I was a technical writer for about 75% of my career, the rest being divided between journalism, editing, promotions and advertising. But mostly, I wrote documentation and I though my work mattered. Probably naive, but I believe that if I documented a system, it should be well written, clear, organized, and useful., When a user needed to find something, it would be in the book and in the online help. It would be easy to find. I carefully avoided using mysterious search parameters that could be deduced via a psychic link to my brain. If you knew what you wanted, I made it easy for you to find it.

I was proud of my work. I still believe the fundamental goal of documentation is to make complicated things simple. Not necessarily easy because sometimes, the product was not easy to use, but that didn’t mean that it had to be hard to understand. My documentation was good for another reason: I used the product and tested what I wrote to make sure it was true. This testing makes the difference between a pile useless gibberish and a manual.

Thus, when you get something that appears to be documentation, stop and read it. Appearances are deceiving. Most “manuals”  are generated, not written, and never checked for accuracy or usability. Such “manuals” are as likely to increase your confusion as provide illumination.

I bought a PEN EP3 camera from Olympus. Seven months and hundreds of photographs later, it remains one of the mysteries of my world. It takes wonderful pictures, and it has hundreds of functions. I haven’t the slightest idea how to find most functions and have no idea what to do with them if I could find them.

I grew up in a pre-digital world. I know F-stop, depth-of-field, shutter speed, aperture and focus, film speed and composition. I have a good eye. I’m no genius, but my pictures are pretty and I enjoy taking them.

He solves the problem the way most do: Automatic everything, then shoot.

New digital cameras have a vast and overwhelming array of functions, most of which you or I will never use or need. I believe they are there entirely to impress us with the super high tech-ness of the equipment. I doubt that even the designers — especially the designers — expects us to actually use them. Which is good, because I don’t know what they are supposed to do anyhow or why I would need them. Ansel Adams didn’t need them. Neither did Edward Weston. Neither do I. But, the more you pay for a camera, the more of these obscure functions you get and I figure that the least they owe me is an explanation of what these setting do and how to find them.

I’m not sure whether to curse or say thank you. Maybe if Olympus provided a manual that explained these options, I’d be grateful, but that is not happening.

I spent half our shooting time trying to find the menu to change the ISO.

This is true of cameras, but the lack of documentation on your computer is actually worse … much worse because most of us depend on our computers. We need them to work and we need to have some control over the environment in which we work. Configuration of our computers to suit our needs is not a minor detail: it’s the difference between having a tool that does what you need and one which is a burden … an enemy with which you do daily battle.

I spent all last night — until dawn — trying to figure out how to turn off the touchscreen functions of my monitor. Before Mac users jump in and point out that it’s because Windows doesn’t work, that’s irrelevant and untrue. Windows works fine. It’s just that the company doesn’t provide any written documentation. There is embedded information in the operating system, but much of it isn’t logically arranged. It’s rather like looking for your car keys after you’ve dropped them someplace you don’t normally put them. You know they’re in the house, but where? It could be years before you find them..

On a new computer, you typically get an “introductory” video and that’s pretty much it. I watched it. It showed me in exquisite detail how to do what I already knew how to do.

Operating systems are designed to be used the way the system’s developers expect you to use it. If you prefer a different setup, trouble starts. The only way to figure out how to do something differently is to keep querying the system and hope you’ll stumble on the right  key word — the word that will bring up the information you need. What is most frustrating is that you are sure it IS there, but whether or not you will ever find it is a different issue.

If you are sufficiently persistent and a bit lucky, you will eventually find a mystery menu after which you fix your problem in a few seconds.

Last night, I searched, searched again and again. It didn’t call Dell because I knew the support person wouldn’t know the answer either. They pretty much never do.

So I tried one word combination after another, recombining them in the hope that it would lead to a menu buried in the system. There had to be a way to deactivate touch input.

Around 5 in the morning, I found it. It took me less than 30 seconds to eliminate the problem that had been driving me nuts since I got the computer. Now, it’s a monitor. A great, high-definition, 23-inch monitor that’s a joy to work on and makes photo editing a pleasure. No more configuration by crawling insect. I am mistress of my virtual world at last!

A technical writers earns less than an entry-level developer. I understand the guys in India who provide telephone tech support work cheap, but I bet a tech writer would cost less than a network of telephone support no matter how cheaply they work.

Assuming you are under warranty and you can get through the voice mail  maze … and further assuming you get someone who understands the problem and don’t get blown off because software is not part of your warranty (Note: If someone can tell me how, without using software, you can determine if you have a hardware problem, I’d like to hear it) … Round and around you go.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Would it blow the budget to hire a competent technical writer to embed online help that will live on even after the warranty period is over? Wouldn’t it be nice to help users avoid needless aggravation and not wind up with angry, frustrated, exhausted, and homicidal customers whose problems remain unsolved?

Granting that many home users have a limited understanding of how their computers work and for them, it wouldn’t much matter what documentation you supply. Most problems result from insufficient understanding of a product or process. If you are talking about a novice user, perhaps more information wouldn’t help. But …

I’m not inexperienced and I still can’t find essential information I need to configure my monitor. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a menu on the control panel that I could use to configure the monitor’s capabilities, not merely its resolution but any other functions it may have. Functions not available on a particular model could be grayed out. How about that?

There is nothing wrong with my computer that better organized and easier to find information would not solve..

Every issue I’ve had or the last 5 or 6 years was ultimately fixed with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem was never something broken. It was always lack of documentation.

That pisses me off. Because tech writers — even highly experienced ones — work pretty cheap. Users do need documentation, and not just for software and computers. We need documents that let us use our cameras and telephones and DVD players and all those other pricey little devices that we own and often, don’t know how to use. Online FAQs are insufficient.

This is an old battle I’ve already lost. I know it’s hopeless. I find it infuriating that I can barely figure out my telephone without customer support, so rather than spend time on the phone with customer service, I don’t use anything I can’t easily configure.

I had to buy a separate book on how to use Photoshop and another for my first camera. I was able to get some help from a fellow user of my new camera, but that only goes so far. For my PEN P3 camera, there IS no customer support nor any after market book. I depend, as Blanche DuBois said, “… on the kindness of strangers.”.

My camera will remain a mystery until someone writes a “Dummies” book for it. Hopefully I’ll still own the it when the book finally gets published.

It’s not fair. The reason they get away with it is because we let them. Think about it.

So how did I finally figure it out? The “monitor” menu should have been a gateway, but was useless. The only thing you can the “Monitor” menu lets you do is lower your screen’s resolution. That’s useless.

Finally, I typed: Touchscreen.

Up came something that I hadn’t considered. Flicks. Now, for me? That means the movies. Having never used it, I had no idea it had anything to do with the monitor or its touchscreen technology. Once I got to “Flicks,”, I started opening menus and voilà, there were two check boxes allowing me to toggle an option:

  • Enable finger as pointing device.
  • Do not allow finger as pointing device.

I un-checked the first one by checking the second. I clicked “Apply.” As the sun rose in the east, my problem was solved and I went to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream  … of murder, destruction and vengeance.

Everything Is Changing: A Look at the Future While Tripping Down Memory Lane

After contemplating operating systems at length, I started rethinking the whole thing and I began to wonder if operating systems will be relevant a couple of years from now. Because everything is changing.

My current primary computer.

Change is hardly new to the world of computers and technology. Change is what drives the industry. Change is how come you need to buy new software, new hardware, new operating systems. Change can make things work better, but it’s not unusual to discover that your “upgrade” is a downgrade because what used to work no longer does. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

I grew to adulthood in a pre-computer society. I started working before cable TV, when encyclopedias were huge heavy sets of books and a computer was gigantic and needed a whole building for itself. It ran on punch cards and used weird languages like COBOL and FORTRAN. Even decades later, personal computers were just one step removed from a doorstop, floppy disks were 5-1/2 inches across and really flopped.

Those early machines (personal units, not mainframes) — I hesitate to call them computers — didn’t do much. They didn’t have hard drives. There was no software and no user-friendly interface. I don’t think the concept existed. No WYSIWYG. What you saw was a black screen with lurid green letters that made you feel like you were going blind after an hour or two.

Then … everything changed.

First there was Apple and then Windows. Windows didn’t work very well at first, but soon enough, it got better. And then better again.

There were different players and more operating systems in the beginning. Wang and DEC plus a crazy quilt of dedicated word processors and computers made by Commodore, Atari and many others. For a while, I had an Amstrad, a European machine that was almost a computer, kind an intelligent typewriter with a screen that spit out paper.

This was the Amstrad!

Then, everything changed again. Computers started to really do stuff. It was magic!

I worked on this machine in Israel using the first word processing tool, WordStar.

For a while, it seemed like everything changed every day. One day, there was a thing called the Internet. I had to buy and install Netscape to access it. Once connected, there wasn’t much going on, but it was cool to just roam around and see what there was do see.

You could send electronic mail — email — if you had a friends with computers. You sent them messages over old copper telephone wires and everything happened in slow motion.

My first personal computer.

Just getting on to the Internet could take … well, let me put it this way. Turn on the computer. Turn on the modem. Go to the kitchen. Prepare dinner. Cook dinner. Serve dinner. Eat dinner. Clean up everything. By the time you got back to your computer, you might have actually managed to connect to something. Or not.

My first PC. I think everyone had one of these at some point!

Then suddenly AOL popped into existence. I got a really fast modem. It ran at a whopping 2400 BPS! Imagine that. I worked in California from my home office in Boston. Cool! Telecommuting was the cat’s pajamas.

By the time my granddaughter was born in 1996, everybody had a computer or two. In her world, computers have always been fast, the Internet has always been the world’s shopping mall. Ebay and Amazon are no big deal.

My old 486 ran for 10 years. It wasn’t fast, but it sure was durable.

At age three, she could run basic applications. For her, it’s like electricity was to us: something you use that is always there and always was. I’m sure she can’t imagine a world without it. It’s hard for me to remember that world and I certainly would not want to go back there.

Memories of days of yore … but not halcyon I fear,

For a brief interval, the rate of change slowed. We drew a collective breath and didn’t have to buy new computers for a couple of years. High speed connections arrived, though most home users didn’t have it right away. Everything kept getting faster and soon, with cable modems, no one could even remember what it was like to try to get onto the Internet using an old telephone line.

Commodore 64 – the most popular computer ever produced.  More than 30 million of them sold.  I had one of these, too.

Every time you looked around, there was a  new generation of processors, bigger and faster hard drives, amazing super high definition monitors and speaker systems to knock your socks off.

The Internet became a world-sized shopping mall and overnight, catalogue shopping became website cruising. The Internet was a world unto itself; I played bridge in real-time with a partner who lived on an island off the Pacific coast.

We have computers all over the house and what isn’t a computer is run by a computer or contains a mini computer … microwave ovens, smartphones, digital cameras and GPS units. I personally have three computers — in my office, living room and bedroom. My husband has two. My granddaughter has 3, but I think a couple of them don’t work any more. My son has two, my daughter in law has one but if she wants another, we have a spares and she can just grab one.

Eight computers are in daily use and only 5 people live here. I feel that we will soon need to get computers for each of the dogs. For all I know, whenever we are out, they go on-line and order stuff. I’m sure Bonnie the Scottie has at least a thousand Facebook friends.

A brief interruption of cable service leaves us wandering around like wraiths, without form or function. Five of the seven primary computers are less than 2 years old  so I figured we were set for a few years at least … but then everything started changing. Again.

Today, it’s all about “the cloud.” It’s still the same old Internet, but “cloud” is the “in” word for stuff stored on external servers. We’re going back to where we began, to using stripped down computers with no hard drives. Instead, everything is stored on someone else’s computer — out there. In the “cloud.” Our data might be anywhere. We have no way of knowing where it lives.

Am I the only one who finds this unnerving?

I can see advantages. When you eliminate memory sucking operating systems and cumbersome installed applications, your computer will run much faster. Start-up is instantaneous because your computer doesn’t have to load services and applications. You don’t have to maintain and upgrade big expensive applications and volumes of data. You won’t need ever bigger hard drives, more memory and video RAM. You wind up with faster computers that are less expensive and easier to maintain. It’s a win-win, right?

Or is it?

How much do you trust your Internet service provider?

If your cable company has a bad day or the servers on which you store your critical data go down — even for a short while — you have nothing. As long as everything works like it’s supposed to, it’s hunky dory, but Murphy hasn’t left the building yet.

Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and will do so at the worst possible time.

Maybe it’s my age showing, but I would prefer to have data on hard drives that I control. That I own.

The idea of entrusting everything —  from my photographs to the manuscript of my book — to an unknown server somewhere in the world scares the Hell out of me. What if the building in which the server storing my stuff burns down? Gets hit by a terrorist attack? Taken down by hackers? You have no way of knowing what country your data is in, how stable its government is, or how good an infrastructure it maintains. You financial data could be in Pakistan, Indonesia, or Kuala Lampur. Or next door.

Is there a compromise possible? Because when I think about entrusting everything to a cloud, I begin to twitch.

How many times have you been unable to access a web page because servers are busy or crashed? The times when their — or your — servers are inaccessible because of maintenance, repair or upgrade. Or those ubiquitous hackers. What if you need a critical piece of data from a server while its offline? It does happen.

My bank was hacked and they had to send me a new bank card. Several places I shop were hacked and I had to redo my accounts because they’d been compromised.

My laptop. Today’s super little machine.

If your ISP is down, you are out of business. If you think your cable company has you by the throat now, how much worse will it be if everything you need to run your life and business is dependent on their services?

Facebook and Google already have trouble keeping up with the demands on their resources. How will they manage when they have thousands of times more data and tens of millions of users depending on them for everything from email and applications to data retrieval?

Those of you who are old enough to remember the great Northeast power blackout in the mid 1960s know what I mean when I say that overloaded systems can go down like dominoes. I am all in favor working together with my fellow human beings throughout the world, but at a certain point, when does inter-dependency make us excessively vulnerable?

If you put too many eggs in the basket, when the basket falls — as it inevitably will — the eggs break.

You don’t have an omelet; you just have a mess of busted eggs.

Addendum: A Personal Note

I worked for more than 35 years in a development environment. That was my world and although I’m not an engineer or developer, I know what’s behind a user interface. For example, modern word processors embed commands in text, but behind the interface, it’s entering the same commands I entered directly on the huge IBM mainframe. It’s faster and prettier to use a word processor and you get the bonus of being able to see how your document will look when printed, but it’s just elegant wrapping on an old familiar box.

My concern is not the graphical user interface (GUI) that overlays our computer (regardless of operating system), but that we are being herded toward using external storage over which we have no direct control for everything from our bank records to personal correspondence.

For businesses and individuals, data is a very big deal. The biggest deal. Our national economy is information and service-based. We no longer make “things” here. Our product is information. Data.

If that’s too abstract for you, personally, I have twenty years of photography and a lifetime of writing stored on CDs, DVDs, and external hard drives. I won’t entrust this stuff to an unknown server somewhere “out there.” It’s too important to me and too unimportant to anyone else. 

Anybody anywhere can build a server farm. It’s a great business requiring little more than a lot of big servers, a place to put them, climate control, and a few capable IT people to tend the equipment.

Where are these places? Most are in countries whose government is, by my standards, unstable — possibly dangerously so. How good is the infrastructure? Are they in the middle of a war? Are their electrical generating facilities dependable or sufficient? What protection against hackers do they provide? Are they trustworthy? They could as easily be a bunch of criminals and the data they collect is the mother lode.

I am not going to entrust what took me a lifetime to create to an unknown, nameless entity. Google, for examples, uses servers anywhere and everywhere. Your data and mine is unlikely to be in one place. It is wherever it went when you saved it.

I won’t get into how links and pointers let us retrieve data, but the potential for error, loss, and piracy is huge. So, I’m not buying into the Cloud. Call me an old cynic, but I want my own stuff on my own equipment.