To the spin doctor who coined the phrase “negative growth”.
Could you please come up with a similarly brilliant euphemism for a so-called “upgrade” which actually makes a product worse?
I find myself grappling for such a term more and more often.
Is it just me, or has the word ‘upgrade’ foresaken its dictionary meaning of ‘improvement’ in favour of a 21st century meaning more like ‘maintenance fee’?
Call me a luddite if you like, but it sure seems that when I ‘upgraded’ my microwave oven, clothes dryer or even my car, I replaced one which was easy to use and maintain with one that requires a university degree to operate and cannot generally be repaired.
I have become particularly suspicious of any product that can be fixed by turning it off and on again.
This frustration has been growing on me over the last decade, and as a technologist who has been personally responsible for creating a number of computer-operated gadgets, I have been all too aware of the close correlation between the user-friendliness of many common appliances and the amount of ‘smarts’ inside. The negative correlation, that is.
Given the choice, I always shop for products that have a mechanical dial instead of a keypad and LCD display, no matter how smart the animated icons look. The old fashioned computerless models are far less likely to get zapped by power surges, are truly intuitive to operate, and if something goes wrong, the fault is generally visible and fixable once you open the thing up.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has bought a computer recently that I am in touch today with my inner grumpy old man as a consequence of a computer ‘upgrade’ debacle. After many years of faithful service, the notebook PC I use every day for my work was starting to physically wear out. Bits were falling off and the screen was nearing the end of its life. Fair enough, on a dollars per hour basis it had given me good value. So, off to the computer shop to buy a new one.
I knew pretty well what I wanted – something akin to the old one but with a bigger hard drive would do me fine. I told the assistant what I wanted and he said no problem, except I can’t have Windows XP, that’s obsolete, they all come with Vista now. He assured me it’s not a big learning curve to move from XP to Vista, adding that I also get a voucher for a free upgrade to Windows 7 when that became available.
My alarm bells started ringing. Why the assumption that I would want to upgrade my shiny new Vista computer to Windows 7? I was already worried enough about saying goodbye to XP, which I knew very well and did everything I needed. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Could I install XP on the new computer, I asked hopefully. The answer was (you guessed it) ‘sure, but we can’t guarantee it will work and you will void your warranty’.
So with a heavy heart and a lighter wallet I took my new computer home, along with the voucher for the free Windows 7 upgrade which a little voice told me to keep in a safe place.
A couple of days later and I had all my old software and data transferred onto the new notebook. It was all smooth sailing, thanks to my 30 years IT experience and couple of other operational computers connected to the internet so that Dr Google and a dozen forums could help me get past multiple gotchas. How the average non-geek would manage the transition I can’t imagine.
At that point, I thought my ‘upgrade’ had been reasonably painless, although I was already sceptical that it was any better than what I had a year ago. Over the next few weeks my worst fears started to be confirmed. This was no upgrade. Some programs which used to work just fine under XP were now flaky. Others did not work at all. I had no choice but to ‘upgrade’ packages which I was quite happy with just get back to where I was previously. And I’m not talking free upgrades.
The salt in the wound was that when things went wrong, the error messages themselves were frequently wrong. Vista routinely sent me on a wild goose chase with messages like “You don’t have permission to perform this operation” when the problem was “The file is open in another program”, as the old XP would have said. Once I learned to distrust any error messages, I became more adept at fixing the problems.
After a month of immense frustration and resentment at this forced ‘upgrade’ I was almost ready to forgive and move on when I discovered that my new notebook would not connect to the wireless access point at my favourite cafe.
As per usual, I consulted Dr Google and found there had been 56,000,000 other searches on the same problem. At least I was not alone. There was an alarming array of suggested fixes, including several from Microsoft themselves. One of the most amusing was the suggestion that the problem was not actually in Vista, but in the wifi access point it was trying to connect to. The helpful suggestion was to try turning it (the access point) off and on again. How to do that in a cafe? Maybe stick a fork in a powerpoint and wait for power to be restored?
I soon found that it was not only in this cafe that I could no longer use the internet. It was about a 50-50 chance whether I could connect to any given public hotspot. Every couple of weeks I got riled up by seeing other people happily using their Macs right next to me while my new computer said accusingly “this connection is taking longer than usual” and had another crack at finding a solution. Many more wasted hours.
A couple of weeks ago a courier arrived at my door with the Windows 7 upgrade disk I had been promised. It was just one DVD, with a small flyer assuring me that Windows 7 was the answer to my prayers. I would not have to reinstall my programmes or my data, I was assured. And because the DVD was labelled as being the upgrade for my particular model of notebook, it would install all the right bits and pieces with just one click.
I took a deep breath, backup up all my data, and loaded up the DVD. The instructions said “simply run setup.exe”. Only problem was, there was no setup.exe on the disk. So far, par for the course. Instead, the disk took me automatically to a webpage called an “upgrade assistant”. Here I was confronted with about 10 pages of small type which demanded a series of complex interactions that were supposed to take a couple of hours, after which you would be ready to being the upgrade. What’s worse, the major step was a download of 400 megabytes of patches which would “take up to 60 minutes using fibre-to-the-home internet”. At this point it was a tossup whether it might be quicker to wait for the National Broadband Network to be built or to attempt this manoeuvre using my humble ADSL. Being blessed with another PC to work on while the ‘upgrade’ progressed, I started the process.
Had I not had a spare PC to use in the event the notebook completely died, I would have baulked at the next step, which was to upgrade the BIOS in the notebook, something I have always avoided like the plague in spite of my professional background. Much to my relief, the notebook survived the BIOS upgrade and I left the upgrade assistant it to do its thing.
Four hours later it was complete and I was ready to start the upgrade.
Once again, close reading of complex instructions replete with the mandatory double-negatives was required at several points. Several hours later it was 30% installed when I went to bed and left it installing. I don’t know how long it actually took, but I would guess the whole process would take 8 hours if (a) you know what you’re doing and (b) nothing goes wrong. Remember, this is using an upgrade disk customised for the very computer I owned..
The next few days were punctuated with inexplicable crashes and weird behaviour, but eventually I fixed most of the problems or found workarounds. Several mysteries remain unsolved, such as a tantalising dialog that appears every time I try to open a .pdf from a website which is blank except for a question mark and an “OK” that I have to click before proceeding. At least there is only one choice, it would be worse if there were a yes/no choice to be made to this somewhat undefined question.
The good news is that that the wifi problem seems to have been fixed and I can now connect to wifi hotspots again. So, after three months of immense frustration, waste of time and significant expenditure, the upgrade is complete. I have a computer which works nearly as well as my old XP one.
I have to take my hat off to Apple. They have sponsored a Google ad which came up when I searched for help with my Windows 7 ‘upgrade’ problems, saying “Upgrading to Windows 7? There’s never been a better time to switch to a Mac”. Talk about a well targetted ad!
The remaining big mystery is, how could the world’s biggest software company get it so wrong?
Here’s my theory – I don’t think it was a mistake at all. I reckon that Microsoft were hard pushed to find real improvements that would make it worth buying an upgraded version of Windows, so someone had this clever idea: let’s produce an upgrade so awful that everyone will be delighted when the next upgrade comes along and brings them back to where they were with XP.
There can be no other explanation.
Posted by Peter Vogel, 1 Jan 2009