April 13, 1998
Planning for the worst: The OS should do more to help you help yourself
By Bob O'Donnell
It's no surprise to anyone that Microsoft's Windows 95 OS has its share of problems,
both for end-users and help-desk personnel trying to grapple with user problems. (Some
people use this as a reason -- or excuse, depending on your point of view -- to change to
an alternative OS, but for lots of individuals, it's the reality they have to deal with
every day.) What is a bit surprising is that the OS seems to have very few tools or
features to assist you when problems do come up.
It dawned on me recently that one of the biggest frustrations with troubleshooting
Windows 95 machines is that the OS almost seems to presume that nothing will go wrong.
Now, I suppose it's not a big surprise to have a Microsoft product act
"arrogantly" -- after all the company hasn't exactly earned a reputation for
humility -- but that doesn't make the situation any less confounding.
For example, problems sometimes occur from software conflicts, where two applications
currently in memory are competing for resources or are using incompatible versions of
DLLs. One way to get your hands around the problem is to see what's really in memory by
hitting Ctl-Alt-Del and getting to the Close Program dialog (of course, using this key
combination is a questionable user interface decision anyway, but that's the subject for a
different column). Instead of seeing a nice list of programs or other background
applications that you can actually read in English, what you get is a list where more than
half the entries have cryptic, nearly useless names such as Rnaapp, Osa, and Tcmon.
Not only do you have to find out what the names refer to, you then have to figure out
which applications or utilities they may be associated with. On top of that, there's no
information about how much memory each is using, which could be used to determine when
it's time to buy more RAM or to adjust your virtual memory settings. It's not like this
information isn't available. The Sandra shareware utility
from a U.K. company called SiSoft provides all this and more in its Processes Information
Module. Why couldn't Microsoft have provided a simple version of this information?
Of course, the DLL issue, which has already been discussed ad nauseum, could also be
improved by having more ready access to information about what DLLs are in use, as well as
simple notifications of conflicting DLLs. Because the company has chosen to let DLLs
essentially run free, the least it could do is provide a mechanism for notifying a users
or support professionals if a particular combination they are running is incompatible.
The hardware situation isn't much better. Yes, plug and play has done a great deal to
help overcome frustrating hardware problems, but it hasn't solved all of them. I don't
really have a problem with that -- after all, we're talking about a technology that's
still fairly immature -- but I am frustrated by the fact that when something doesn't work,
there's no notification about it (a little yellow or red symbol buried in the Device
Manager just doesn't cut it). It would help tremendously if the company had built in a
simple checking mechanism to determine whether or not a problem existed that would then
notify the user about the nature of the problem.
For example, many people are getting burned by the lack of available interrupt requests
(IRQs) in new systems. Why isn't there a simple dialog that tells you when you don't have
an IRQ and offers a few pieces of advice on how to try to solve the problem? It certainly
won't fix everything, but it could help in many situations.
The reality in today's Windows-based computers is that problems are going to arise, if
nothing else because of the sheer complexity of all the elements involved. If the OS was
built with that presumption and supplied some tools to help people work out these problems
on their own, I think troubleshooting could be a lot less frustrating and time-consuming
than it currently is.
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