On Fixing Computers

As the family’s computer guy, I often get asked to fix, maintain, look at, improve, or otherwise modify my family’s computers over vacations. This Christmas vacation is no exception. While I was at my brother’s house he asked me to look at his computer–remove spyware, make sure everything was running smoothly. I updated Spybot to 1.4, ran Ad Aware, and removed a bogus web search toolbar. And that’s about it. All-in-all, the computer was running smoothly as-is.

A few hours later, I got called to look at it because a new error message was being displayed–by Norton Internet Security. The anti-virus e-mail checker was disabled. I think this is what happened: It turns out that running Spybot had turned on the Windows Firewall, even though Norton had its own.

On the one hand, I probably could have read the descriptions of the problems Spybot had found and realized what it would do. On the other hand, why did Spybot find a problem when there really wasn’t one?

Computer software, including operating systems and the applications we run on them, has gotten far too complex for us to understand the implications of even simple operations.

Everytime we install an application on Windows, it makes changes to the file system, the registry, the start menu, and more. If it’s a system utility, it can modify much more.

And don’t tell me it’s any better on Linux. You have to deal with the potential of mismatched shared libraries every time an application is upgraded.

There a couple of technologies that I see as easing some of these problems:

  • .Net – xcopy deployment (for the most part), easy to use XML config files. Drop in and play for simple apps. Many Linux apps work well like this, why not Windows?
  • System change monitoring – like MS Anti-spyware, it notifies you whenever a system change occurs and lets you stop it before damage is done. What if we had a system that allows you to set what kind of changes you want to be notified about? What if it monitored a much broader set of features than today? This method presupposes a fairly good knowledge of computers. I like MS anti-spyware, but I wonder what people thing when it brings up a window asking whether to continue with a registry change, or run a script. Most people simply dismiss things like that, which is unfortunate.

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