In-Depth

Technology Nit Picks

There's plenty to drive IT mad. Constantly changing UIs, shoddy tech support and annoying sales practices -- and that just scratches the surface of what bugs Redmond readers.

Technology is complicated, and way too complex for the average Joe. There are constantly more features, new interfaces, compatibility issues and revamped platforms upon which software must run.

I collected complaints about flaws that really drive computer users mad. Little things such as important items buried deep inside the menu structure and bigger issues like new OSes that don't work with your old gear. More than two dozen Redmond magazine readers sounded off on what bugs them.

Get ready to nitpick!

Stubborn Startup
We've all suffered through slow Windows startups. It's like watching paint dry. Here's what really gets software engineer B. Clay Shannon's goat. "I start one operation, such as Outlook. While waiting for it to initialize, I'll start a browser session. The browser comes up and I'm about to click on some link, Outlook leaps into the fray intercepting my click, selecting something inconvenient -- and I inadvertently click on some stupid Web ad for women's deodorant."

Shannon has a better way. "Whatever has most recently been instantiated should remain on top. Anything started prior to that should wait politely and patiently in the task bar to be brought to the fore. This 'clickus interruptus' is a time-waster and extremely frustrating. I could wring the necks of a whole gaggle of pencil-necked geeks who designed Windows to work this way," Shannon says.

Vinnie DeAngelis, an IT manager, is similarly stupefied. "You're going to launch a program from Start. Click the orb, navigate to All Programs, then a sub-folder, maybe another, your finger is beginning to put pressure on the mouse button -- and something else steals focus," DeAngelis says. "The Start menu disappears completely, and you have to repeat the entire process."

Stalled Shutdown
If you think Windows startup is aggravating, just try shutting it down. "One thing that really bugs me is the Windows 7 shutdown process," complains longtime IT observer Dave R. "Clicking Start Shutdown brings up a list of applications that need to be closed, which Windows 7 will laboriously force-close for you. Even when I take care to close every single program to speed up the close-down process, that same list comes up saying the following programs need to be closed ... but it's empty. And Windows 7 seems to take a while to close even the nonexistent programs."

Withering Windows
We nearly all live and breathe Windows, and sometimes those deep inhalations are painful. "When some silly little window pops up, and keeps popping up, it drives me nuts," says Bill P., an IT director in Cincinnati. With Windows there's "not much to hate anymore," he says. "Hardware works, software loads. I've only seen one blue screen with Windows 7, and that was bad RAM."

Windows is now more than 26 years old, but to some it feels like a baby. "If Windows were a real OS, it would be able to deal with concurrency much better," says Alan Jackson. "A Unix OS will allow a file to be modified even if something else is holding a file pointer pointing to the file for read access. I don't view this as a problem. Windows does. Or the OS is so stuck in backward-compatibility land that it can't get around it."

The admin side is not always admirable. "I hate it that in all the recent versions of Windows client and server, the Services MMC [Microsoft Management Console] opens in 'extended view' rather than 'standard view,'" says David Nickason. "Extended view requires you to scroll horizontally or go full screen to see all the information. This is really a nitpick, since the view is easily switched with a single click."

Complainers love to criticize, but for every complaint there's often a valid counterpoint. "Each iteration of Windows has been more stable than the last," Marc Wagner, services development specialist with Indiana University, points out. "What really bugs me are those folks who complain about how much more RAM or HDD space Windows 7 takes up than Windows XP. Consider that in 2001, when Windows XP shipped, the typical workstation cost $1,500 and 128MB of RAM cost $100. Then realize that today a $300 computer can run Windows 7, RAM sells for $10 per gigabyte and disk space sells for $0.10 per gigabyte. It's pretty silly to complain that Windows 7 is 'fatter' than Windows XP."

Loopy Sales
Tech sales folks are clearly not all bad. Many are immensely educated, helpful and technical. But there are certain curses that come with the territory. "Software sales people: stop acting like we have some long-standing relationship," demands Bill P. "We don't. I want good service and a good price. CDW? I don't know you, I've never shaken your hand or seen your face. Just send me the quote."

Adds Wagner: "They always promise you the moon, even when they know there are caveats they won't tell you about until you've overspent your budget. There are always hidden costs and your own management is often naïve about those hidden costs until it's too late."

Lousy Licensing
One can spend hours, days -- sometimes weeks -- and still never fully understand software licensing. "Vendors make it over-complex," Bill P. says. "SKUs, agreement numbers and so on change for no reason. My customer number changes for no reason. The saving grace for Microsoft is I get so many value-adds for my volume licensing agreement that I don't really care anymore -- I just hand it off to a reseller to quote me. I get multiple quotes, to keep them honest."

Complexity leads to risk. "It's too complex for any enterprise to realistically stay compliant," says Pat O. And the software sales people that sold you the stuff? "They're never available to answer post-sales questions about license compliance," he adds.

IT often feels exploited. "My biggest peeve with software licensing is the extremely one-sided nature of the whole process," says Dennis Barr, manager of information technology for the Larkin Group Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. "The vendors deserve fair compensation for the work done on development. There can be real risk introducing new programs to a market that can be very competitive and challenging.

"The software is always licensed on an as-is basis," Barr continues. "The vendors absolve themselves of any responsibility for any damages the software might cause. Security is never as good as it should be, and the remedies may be a long time in coming. Of course, there are exceptions to this situation, but the software license is something that would probably be thrown out of court if it were attempted in other markets."

As complex as licenses may be, they don't always keep up with the pace of technology. "One of the worst offenders is Apple," says Wagner. "I don't like licensing that requires hardware locks. When licenses need to be restricted by seat count, using licensed servers is the proper solution. When licensing is restricted to specific individuals, ACLs [Access Control Lists] are the answer."

Support Hosed
Support has long been the butt of late-night jokes. But it's no laughing matter for downtrodden IT pros. Karl Compton, a reader from Houston, complains of spinning his wheels on support calls. Case in point: "Telling first-level DSL support that you need them to clear the ARP cache in the DSLAM and getting, 'Can you explain to me what that is?' Then wasting 20 minutes while they go through their checklist before you can get to Level 2."

Barr sees tech support as a hindrance, not a help. "Ah, tech support," he says. "Either it doesn't exist or it's an endless round of phone tag, voice menus and incomprehensible tech personnel. The essence of tech support is to provide a gauntlet that only the most-determined caller is willing to traverse."

Exasperating Execs
It's fun for journalists to report every snort and report from big-time software execs. But what exalts the press exasperates IT. "Just run your company -- stop trying to be rock stars," suggests Bill P. "Listen to your customers, listen to your devs and leave your ego at the door."

Several lament that vendor priorities are out of whack. "They have to promote a new, better product, rather than get the bugs and kinks out of the existing products," says Robert Thomson, a computer network manager. And with reorgs, Thomson adds, execs are "changing faster than diapers in a day care."

Hacked off on Hardware
Software is, let's face it, more complex than hardware. But hardware isn't hassle-free. One thing that bothers Bill P. is "the lack of easy-to-use, lights-out capabilities," he says. "I can handle everything else: the variety of the hardware and the need to replace often. The biggest pain is supporting remote office hardware at the desktop without being able to easily power on, boot and load the OS. Intel vPro is a start, but only a start."

Hardware should be simple, right? Not. "The instructions are incomplete, in four languages," Thomson reports.

Vexing Virt
Virtualization is a godsend for cramped datacenters and slashed server line items. But it adds a layer of complexity, risk and sometimes expense. "Most management and support solutions are geared toward enterprise," says Bill P. "Small to midsize customers on a budget have to spend more money on management licensing than they do on their server hardware, which makes management ask, 'Why virtualize?' Thankfully Hyper-V has helped immensely, and Server 2012 appears to take it even further."

The complexity also impacts accounts payable. "You need to buy so many pieces, from multiple vendors," says Thomson.

Clueless Clouds
Depending on whom you ask, the cloud is God's gift to computing or Satan's cruel joke. Bill P. feels the cloud's heat more than its cool beauty. "The cloud is nice for personal e-mail and documents, but not when it means losing physical access to data and backups," he says. "Factor in that my single point of failure is now my Internet connection -- over-managed fiber -- and the cloud just doesn't make much sense. Sorry Google and Amazon. Our C-level management sees the cloud equaling loss of control and I agree. We'll work on a private cloud in the future in our datacenters, but we'll never move them to another company."

Sean Sommers doesn't trust remote datacenters, either. "There's nothing about the cloud that gives individuals and businesses a feeling of true security, that their data isn't penetrable by individuals, governments, spies, hackers, marketers and people like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This unprecedented era of corruption and greed, and mistrust in our economies are the reasons why the world's largest companies will never surrender full control of their data to something as nebulous as the cloud," Sommers says.

Like the weather, clouds are unpredictable. "What do you mean, 'The connection to the Internet is down'? How are we supposed to open for business today?" asks Pat O.

Adds Thomson: "Its soft, fluffy exterior hides lots of hard, sharp-cornered servers that can hurt you when they fail -- just like the ones in your server room -- but you have no control."

And of course there are basic IT concerns. "No one ever asks the tough questions about guaranteed service levels, data confidentiality and data integrity. Since 9/11, no one can be sure that vendors will require the U.S. Government -- or any other government entity -- to produce a court-issued search warrant before turning your data over," says Wagner.

Stalled Install
Installation too often turns to irritation. "I'm a one-person IT department, and while I don't have some of the cool tools that larger departments can afford, I automate as many tasks as possible," explains Casey L. McCracken, IT systems administrator for the Augusta County Service Authority. So what confounds McCracken? "Software packages that don't support command-line switches during install. I try to script all of our installs, usually using a batch file to silently install the software, apply license keys, set up shortcuts and so forth," he says. "Nothing is more frustrating than having an installer that doesn't support switches, or always launches a prerequisite installer -- even when the prerequisite is already installed -- in a non-silent mode."

Downside of Update
Updating software can put a pox on problems by stuffing security holes. But updates can also engender grief. "I don't like software packages that assume I want their software to automatically update," McCracken says. "While I can see how this could be helpful for individual users, for a multi-user organization, application-specific, automatic updates only lead to problems."

To improve overall security, none of McCracken's users have administrative rights, which leads to one of two scenarios. "In some cases, whenever an application 'helpfully' checks for updates, the user is bombarded with requests for administrative credentials, resulting in support requests," he says. "Other times, the application will partially update, then discover it doesn't have enough rights and fail. The application is now unable to function, again causing support requests. Rather than spend my time on more useful projects, I'm forced to spend time finding registry keys and workarounds to disable the updates, allowing the applications to be updated by organization-wide patching schedules."

Updates are equally upsetting to Compton, who complains about "not having a simple way to block particular Windows updates. Every company has one or two that break a key application. A GUI would be nice, but I'd be happy with a registry key or even a text file," he says. "Maybe we could call it badupdates.rc."

Compton also dislikes "vendors that ship workstations without Windows Updates installed. I know that's inconsistent with my last gripe, but having to install 50 or 100 updates on a brand-new machine is stupid," he says.

Updates are a fact of life, but they sure can interrupt. "I realize Windows is a complex OS. A stream of updates and fixes are necessary to keep it running smoothly and keep it secure. But don't just throw them at me like a cooked noodle against the wall. Ask me when I want to install the next handful of updates," begs reader L.L.

Updates can go too far, updating working systems so much they stop working entirely. "I hate the auto updates for Windows -- especially when you have to rebuild your machine and download the updates again," says reader Allan Rutherford from Sydney, Australia. "I'd prefer to access the updates in a particular drive where they could be archived for future use in the case of a complete OS rebuild. It can't be that hard, can it?"

Redmond readers have concerns of their own. "When Google does a better job of searching your own help files, you've got to think you're in serious, serious trouble," says one reader, who requested anonymity. "When clicking on a '?' in a window gets you to the front page of a useless help search rather than the details of that particular window -- that's ridiculous."

Another anonymous IT pro explained his disdain for Word. "If you aren't having problems with Word, then you must not use it for much, and your network environment is very static," he says. "Word saves information in files related to your network servers, so when you replace and rename the servers your document will take forever to come up in Word while the program looks for the nonexistent server location. This is a known issue and documented at Microsoft, but never seems to quite go away. The only way I've found to really fix it is to have users resave all their old files once they finally open, and it will strip the old server references out then. But of course no one has time to do that, and so the odd help call comes through on this issue every so often."

Bad Backup
Tom Klima recalls an incident when he used Windows Backup to back up files to a DVD. After realizing that this wasn't the way to go, he cancelled the backup and used an external 60GB USB hard drive and third-party backup software to do his backups. That resulted in a red X in the Action Center alert in the systray. When he opened the Action Center in Control Panel, Windows Backup wasn't monitored. The Backup program prompted him to insert a DVD into his DVD drive, and the backup started but never finished. It stopped and said, "Backup failed." "I don't want to use Windows Backup, and I'd like to get rid of the red X in the alert icon," Kilma complains. "It just bugs me."

Kicking Dead Companies
Software can become an essential tool, comfortable companion or trusted advisor. And just when the going gets good, something bad happens -- the company is sold, goes out of business or dumps the product. "My nitpick? Companies that purchase or develop well-written software and then scrap it, oblivious to the screams of perfectly satisfied customers," complains Ian from Pretoria, South Africa. "Examples: VeriChat, a brilliant, multichanneled IM for the Treo and Windows Mobile. PDAapps was taken over by Intellisync and the product canned -- no replacement. Second, there was Pocket Quicken from LandWare, which was the only truly synchronized mobile client for Intuit Quicken. Intuit terminated its licensing agreement with LandWare in 2010 with no plan to fill this vital gap."

Acquisitions also annoy reader Vic, who is bugged by "vendors that take everything from a new acquisition, and stuff it in on top of all the old stuff, creating software that's so convoluted you can't find your way around. I heard a vendor brag that they've kept all of the navigation structures from the last three companies they've acquired so users of those earlier products would be able to do things the 'old' way," he says. "That led to a product where there are four or five ways to do every task."

Uncool Toolbars
Jim Gramse also grumbles. "Every time I go to install some piece of software, I have to pay very close attention or some non-related software will get installed -- the Google Toolbar, and so on," he says. "Why is this trend so strong nowadays? It's rare to find a clean install anymore."

My Only Friend, the End
If you've stuck with us this far you're a true glutton for punishment. Maybe you deserve all the kluges, bugs and bad design vendors dish out. Barr doesn't see much hope on the way. "The one thing I hate more than anything else in IT is the pervasive bubblegum-and-baling-wire nature of our modern digital ecosystem," he says. "When the Internet was opened to commercial use in the mid-1990s, that whole bucolic era ended, and we suddenly found ourselves in the Wild West. We've been dealing with culture shock and trying to get back to paradise ever since. Trying to patch security onto that open channel has been a farce, for the most part. As always, there has been progress, but it's often too little and too late -- the bad guys always seem one or two steps ahead of those chasing them. I think we may have turned a corner when we began to admit that our systems are already compromised, and the question to consider is how to mitigate that in a cost-effective manner, just so we can get our work done

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