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November 30, 2005

Updates and Expectations

I hit problems with Windows Update on a couple of my machines (one at work, one at home). In both cases an update repeatedly failed to install and gave no indication as to why.

Now Microsoft, to its credit, offers free support for Windows Update, and in both cases I got a quick reply telling me how to fix the problem (the first was by stopping the wuauserv service, deleting %windir%\SoftwareDistribution, and then restarting wuauserv; the second was by hand-installing the Windows Genuine Advantage DLLs). But still it was frustrating that there was no information that would allow me, a fairly technically competent user, to solve the problem without resorting to support (and the support costs Microsoft money in the end). The precise knowledge is obviously available, since the support people were able to retrieve it on their first attempts, but it's not publicly available. If you search the Web for the error, all you find are people complaining about hitting the same problem and other people attempting to guess (incorrectly, in the case of my two problems) how to fix it.

I was discussing this with my father (who is also technically savvy), and he said he was also frustrated by similar problems. But then we started talking about car repairs (I feel that cars are probably the best everyday analogy to computers). When my father was young...well people rode around on dinosaurs...but then a bit more recently, many people expected to be able to work on their own cars. They would change the oil, futz with the spark plugs, adjust the alternator crankshaft (or whatever...as I will soon claim, someone my age typically makes no pretense of understanding how cars work). The information was presumably also more available to people...it's hard to compare because now we have the Internet making everything so much more available, but I'll assume there were more books, newspaper articles, magazines, etc. about car repair than there are now. Nowadays, most people don't expect to do that. If something breaks with their car, they take it to the dealer to fix it. And as a result, car manufacturers feel no real need to explain what the cryptic status codes that they flash on the display mean; all they tell you is whether it is an urgent problem or just something you should have looked at eventually. If a car is recalled, there's no question you take it to the dealer to fix.

This may be where computers are heading. A critical software update is like a car recall; the difference is that since it is software, it's POSSIBLE that it could all be fixed remotely (no physical parts involved, like with a car recall). But it doesn't always work that way; the instructions for fixing my second Windows Update problem involved hand-installing and regsvr32ing the DLLs, then running a .INF; the .INF actually failed, which would have require a typical user to need a fix to the fix to the fix; but since I'm a geek I was able to look inside the .INF and determine that all it did anyway was install and register the DLLs, and since I had already done that by hand I could ignore the error (which may have been precisely BECAUSE I had already done it by hand).

The era of user-repaired computers is fresher in our memories than the era of user-repaired cars, so it seems stranger to be unable to repair a computer than it does to be unable to repair a car. But it's conceivable to imagine a near future where people don't even attempt to fix their computers on their own; they bring them in to a repair shop for checkups every six months, and if there's something urgent, they bring it in right away. This wouldn't work now because updates are so frequent, but hopefully that's a temporary problem (my father pointed out that his father would never have considered driving from Philadelphia to Atlantic City without two spare tires; now I get a flat about once every five years). And in the future, when operating systems may be burned into the firmware or shipped on read-only USB devices, a trip to the computer fix-it shop may be the only choice you have, and us old-timers wih our "Did I ever tell you about the time I had to hand-install a DLL" stories may be the ones sounding like geezers.

Posted by AdamBa at November 30, 2005 05:05 PM

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This reminds me of something that happened the other day. I have a brand new tablet pc, and I wanted to do a clean install of a dual boot system. The tablet pc doesn't have a cd/dvd drive but I thought "well, now my usb floppy drive can justify its existence" and started fiddling with boot disks of various flavours. It reminded me of those old days "way back" before Windows 95, when my school mates and I were experts in manually optimizing config.sys and autoexec.bat files to maximize the amount of conventional memory.

We were really quite good (at least by our own standards) but I woulnd't know how to do all that stuff anymore. I'm 10 years older now, and I forgot most if not all about the finer points.

Posted by: Dirk Rombauts at December 1, 2005 12:21 AM

I hit problems with Windows Update on a couple of my machines (one at work, one at home). In both cases an update repeatedly failed to install and gave no indication as to why.

who didnt?im glad they were upgrading tho and having fix all this errors.

Posted by: professional web design at December 1, 2005 04:11 AM

The other day, the airbag light came on in our van. So of course I jumped on the internet and searched for the problem. I found "It's fuse#13, its also connected to the rear wiper". Sure enough, my wife came back a short time later and said "the rear wiper doesn't work either" - Bingo.

So - while you can use a computer to fix a car, you can't use a car to fix a computer, except by driving it to a repair shop, or running over it.

I find that as I get older, I have less patience for working on either. I want to relax, go to park, hike in the mountains, etc.

And no, we didn't have extra manuals for how to fix cars back then - just a shade tree.

Posted by: Brian at December 1, 2005 10:07 AM

You might want to plug Microsoft Update


Posted by: Dennis T Cheung at December 8, 2005 03:28 PM