Blame and babysitting

When a stranger calls me, I can usually predict what they will say.

"My computer's gone all funny," they will complain. "It's really slow. It keeps changing my home page. My phone bills are sky-high."

With a sigh, I tell them I'll be round as soon as I can, pack my Windows Bits CD and a laptop in a rucksack, and head off on another rescue mission.

I'm not a computer technician. I'm not even an expert computer user. I'm a journalist, my business is words.

The thing is, I've spent about seven years writing on and about the internet. Computer knowledge has seeped into my brain and permeated everything I do. At the same time, I've become known as "the chap who knows about computers". Friends, relatives, and friends-of-friends-and-relatives call me up when they have problems. I go round and sort them out, and they repay me with a bottle of wine or an evening's babysitting. Everyone's happy.

But my sorties to other people's living rooms invariably send me into a rage. I start spitting blood, cursing computers and all who sail in them.

"It shouldn't have to be this troublesome!" I splutter. The fact that ordinary people, using a computer for ordinary tasks like reading email and surfing the web, should have to put up with the constant security demands forced upon them by their use of Microsoft Windows makes me mad.

Let me explain why.

Take TS. He's a family man with a computer in the corner of the living room running Windows ME. Him, his wife, and their teenage son have a broadband connection. They're a musical lot, so they have spent a lot of time downloading MP3s from all over the place.

Now their computer constantly tries to dial-up premium rate phone numbers, establishing its own dial-up connection despite the broadband. It has succeeded many times, and their phone bills went crazy. TS and his wife simply couldn't understand what was happening.

He called his ISP.

"Nothing to do with us," they shrugged. "We didn't install anything on your computer to make it do that."

They're right. It's nothing to do with them.

He called the phone line provider, BT.

"Nothing to do with us," they shrugged. "We only provide the telephone connection. What you do with it, with your own computer, is your business."

They're right. It's not their fault that the TS family PC got infected with a whole pile of useless spyware, adware and viruses.

It's not the family's fault either. They didn't set out to make their computer unusable; they just used it in a way they considered normal.

Like millions of other families across the country, across the world, they are simply ignorant of the security hazards facing them when they use the internet.

Whose fault is it? Microsoft's.

The default Windows web browser, Internet Explorer, has been full of security holes for years. Why hasn't Microsoft fixed them?

The default Windows email client, Outlook Express, is also full of security holes. Again, no fix. Why not?

It baffles me. It's not like Microsoft is short of money. Not as if they couldn't afford to pay for a bunch of programmers to re-write these applications and make them safe to use.

I say this to TS and his wife as I sit in front of their tired old PC. It's no good saying to them: "You need to download and install Windows updates as often as possible." This is pure geekspeak to them, they have no idea what it means.

I install another browser, Firefox, and show them how to use it. I install Spybot and Ad-Aware and run them, I install a registry cleaner and an anti-virus app and a firewall. I spend over an hour cleaning up the computer, removing masses of rubbish, and urge them to stop using Internet Explorer.

They seem a little overwhelmed, as though they have done something wrong and I am a tolerant policeman telling them not to do it again.

I feel disenchanted. This must be the third one of these I have done in a fortnight. All the computers I encounter this way are clogged up with gunk that has found its way on to the hard disk without the poor user knowing, or noticing, what was going on.

My brother teases me, saying I'm just on a mission to convert the world to Macs. I'm no Mac zealot, I know they have their problems just as Windows boxes do, but i can't help thinking that if TS and all the rest of the people I've been helping had been using Mac OS instead of Windows, they wouldn't be having to call me at all.

I should look on the bright side. My wine rack is full to bursting, and I now have a long list of people to call next time I need a babysitter.

Filed under: computers
(Date to be checked)