Monday, March 26, 2007

Job Security

As a computer support specialist I always feel a like I am taking advantage of an unfortunate set of circumstances that are generally not the fault of the person I am helping. While I know that I do provide a valuable service, it is a service that I think should not be necessary (at least not the routine stuff). As time goes on and computer systems get better and better (or so one would expect) it seems reasonable to think that some day services such as those I provide would not be needed on such a routine basis.

If Microsoft's latest version of Windows, Vista, is any indication, there will be plenty of work for folks like me for the foreseeable future.

Until recently I have been able to avoid Vista, even though I run a shop that provides support for a few hundred PCs (as well as a bunch of much less needy Macs). Mainly this has been due to my belief that Vista provides very little real improvement over XP, and so I have little interest in upgrading existing PCs. I expect that before long we'll start getting Vista on new PCs that we buy, but so far our preferred configurations from Dell still come with XP on them.

This week, however, I got my first bitter taste. A group in our department that does some database development wanted to test their system on Vista to start getting ready for the inevitable day when their customers using Vista systems. They gave me a reasonably decent PC to install Vista on (a Dell with a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 and 1GB of ram) and I got ready to play.

The first task that requires too much tech savvy is selecting the edition of Vista to use. For those who have yet to look into Vista, there are 5 different editions available here in the US (and one more that is just for 'emerging markets'). The various editions provide a variety of capabilities, and impose a variety of requirements on the PC hardware. Even though most folks will get either the Home Basic or Home Premium edition of Vista, I chose to do my testing with the Enterprise edition, since that is the edition that we'd be most likely to use at our office.

So, I popped in my Vista DVD and got started. After a fair amount of time spent copying and expanding files I ran aground when the following error popped up:

Windows cannot install required files. Make sure all files required for installation are available, and restart the installation. Error code: 0x800706F8

What more could you ask for from an error message? It states the problem, and it provides the solution. If only one actually knew which files could not be installed and how to make them available. A little searching the web on another nearby computer turns up the actual solution - the DVD drive needs a firmware update.

So, its off to the Dell support site to download an update for the DVD drive. A little searching there turns up a slew of firmware updates for this model DVD drive. Now I just have to decide which firmware version I want - A02, A04, A05, A06, M002, M003, T104, T03, XP01, U005, or U007 - and then download it, find a floppy disk to put it on, and then boot from the floppy to update the firmware of the DVD. None of this is rocket science, but it is WAY beyond what someone should be expected to do just to install a new OS.

Now that the DVD drive was ready I restarted and completed the installation. This time it was uneventful, but there were still plenty of questions and choices that could trip up a novice.

Once the basic installation was complete the next task was to download updates for the OS and fetch drivers for any of the hardware components that were not handled by drivers that were included with Vista. This is when the real fun started. Several of the PC's components were not handled by the drivers that came with Vista. One was the built-in ethernet interface. Granted, Dells are pretty rare, so it is maybe a bit much to ask that Vista include drivers for their equally rare 3Com nics, but without a driver the process is once again halted while another nearby computer is used to track one down. Without a working network interface there is clearly no way this PC is going to be able to get the updates and drivers it needs on its own.

So, I head back to the Dell site (do you suppose they notice in their web server logs that lots of the traffic on their support pages is coming from Macs???) to find an ethernet driver, and possibly a couple others, like video and sound card drivers.

This time, instead of too many drivers to choose from, there are too few. None, to be specific. 3Com also does not have a driver for this nic for use with Vista. Nor is there a driver for the video adapter or sound card. There may have been other components that would never work on this system, but once the nic and video adapter were eliminated there was no point in checking anything else.

Game over. Vista is not an option for this PC, even though it meets the stated requirements to be able to run Vista. Not a very auspicious first experience with the next big thing for Windows PCs.

To be fair, this PC was certainly not what MS intended folks to run Vista on, but they did give every indication that it would be fine.

Luckily, all it cost me was an afternoon, and I gained some valuable experience in the process. For the average home PC user it would have cost far more than just an afternoon, and all of the hurdles would have probably seemed much less humorous than they did to me.

1 comment:

wunelle said...

Ooh! That sounds like so much fun! (OK, I'm lying.)

It's hard not to conclude that Microsoft is actively malevolent.

I can't count the number of times that people have seen me typing on this MacBook and, upon learning that it's an Intel Mac, have asked me if I'm going to install windows. (Yeah, just as soon as I chop off one of my hands or stick an ice pick in an eye socket.) They're just all convinced that they'll give up vast capability if they use the Mac OS. My telling them that the Mac has worked just fine for me for 15 years always gets a look of incredulity or skepticism; they're convinced that it's fine for me, but it would never do for them.