Where to turn to when things go wrong

If you're lucky, you've got a brother, sister, offspring or guru-like figure to turn to when your computer does something you don't expect. But if not, who do you turn to?
Spare a thought for Loose Wire Service reader Marc R. Thalmann, who works on Indonesia's Bintan Island and connects to the Internet via dial-up. He wasn't pleased when he bought a new Dell computer and found that the pre-installed Windows Vista didn't behave as it should have.
"My life has been hell ever since, with all kinds of strange happenings that made me miss the old Windows XP," he wrote in a recent email.
"Like the Windows Media Player stuttering 20 seconds before the end of each piece of music (this irritated me so much that I just stopped listening to music on the computer), or the Windows Narrator with that thick American accent that would not go away after I switched it on accidentally, etc."
Dell, unfortunately, were less than helpful when he called them up.
"All their technician recommended was to download another version of Media Player, at some 17 megabytes, which is just plain impossible for me to do with my dial-up line. Do these guys ever use the hardware and software they are selling?"
Marc found the solution in a corner of Microsoft's own website, which is not even run by Microsoft itself, but by its users: Microsoft Newsgroups (http://tinyurl.com/6r7y3). There are dozens of these sites, organized by software type and region.
Marc quickly found all the Microsoft solutions he was looking for, and writes glowingly of their efforts: "I must say I find it truly amazing that the folks over at Microsoft keep making billions of dollars churning out doubtful pieces of software, which then have to be made usable by selfless heroes who are willing to fix these things and to share their experiences for free."
Sadly, Marc's experience is not unusual, but he's right on all counts: Companies like Microsoft do ship buggy software, and it's usually left to users to volunteer their time to find a way to get around the problems and pass that information on to other people.
This is not just an accident: It's part of these companies' business models. It's not that Microsoft et al are unaware of these bugs: They have a long list of them, and they then prioritize fixing only the major ones. The smaller ones may never get fixed, even in a future release of the software.
The good news is that someone somewhere has probably figured out a solution, or a "workaround" (meaning you can ignore the problem by, well, working around it). For Microsoft users the Newsgroups are a great place to start.
The quickest route is usually via Google. The way you phrase your search query, the greater your chance of finding a solution. The simplest and best way is just to describe your problem by leaving out unnecessary words. For example; "Windows Media Player Vista stutter before end of song" will bring up several promising links. "Turn off Windows Narrator Vista" also throws up links to websites like Annoyances.org, which is in itself a great place to find solutions.
The problem with a lot of the forum-based sites is that it's not always clear whether the person posting a problem actually finds a solution. So you may have to scroll down through the discussion until you find out whether a solution that another user has proposed actually works (a lot of these solutions don't work, or are incomplete, so don't take every authoritative-sounding solution as gospel.)
My habit of scrolling down to the last posting on the list to see whether anyone has offered a groveling thank you is usually a good sign that a solution, suggested somewhere in the discussion, worked.
Google is good at this kind of thing because the most successful solutions will usually arise somewhere near the top of the rankings, meaning they will be near the top of your Google search if you phrase carefully.
I've found that a few blog posts of mine have proved useful for people who found them via Google, and most left a word of thanks at the end, or a link to the blog on forums.
When I thought I had lost all my Firefox browser bookmarks, for example, I couldn't find a web page that explained the solution clearly, so I wrote my own blog post about it. The page appears in the top five if you Google recovering firefox bookmarks and, despite being two-and-a-half years old, still receives comments and/or thanks (including one just as I was writing this).
"People-powered customer service" is now becoming an industry in its own right. A newly launched website, Get Satisfaction (getsatisfaction.com), allows users to post problems and encourages other users to post solutions. Twitter, for example, provides it as the first link on its help page, above its own Frequently Asked Questions link. For those of you following it, this is very much the Web 2.0/crowdsourcing/"markets are conversations" thing you've been hearing about here and elsewhere.
The twist is that software companies themselves can also get involved in the discussion, interacting directly with customers via their gripes. Companies are encouraged to assign staff to answer customers on the website. On one level this is good, because it forces companies to listen to their customers. On the other hand, it may become an excuse to not improve their products and processes in-house, which I think would be bad for users.
The site certainly solves some of the problems with forums I've been talking about. It is solution-based, rather than problem-based, so users can quickly find the solution to their problem without all that scrolling.
But it still has some ways to go: So far has only three topics under the Windows Vista heading, and none addressing Marc's problems. Although I have to be fair: Microsoft have assigned an employee to respond. So next time, Marc, try posting your problem there and see what happens.
Jeremy Wagstaff

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