Tuesday, December 2, 2008

software: update incompetence, disk space

Our two Windows PCs have about 7 different update programs running: Adobe Acrobat updater, Apple Updater, Flash updater, GoogleUpdate.exe and GoogleUpdaterService.exe, Java update (jusched.exe?), LavaSoft Ad-Aware updater, Symantec LiveUpdate (AluSchedulerSvc.exe?), ThinkVantage updater, Windows update. And that's after I turned off several others in MSCONFIG and Services.

The update code built into Firefox (and the Thunderbird e-mail program, and other Mozilla-powered apps) is the gold standard for a single program updater. Occasionally when you run Firefox (or when you choose Help > Check for Updates), it checks if there's a newer version and if so downloads (in the background while you continue using the program) a single update file that only contains the differences from your current version. Meanwhile it's actively hostile to users when every program they run has its own update checker and update system. My little One Laptop Per Child XO has a single Software update control panel for all installed activities. I believe Linux distributions provide a single updater that knows every package you have installed and checks for new versions and can install all of them en masse.

The Norton 360 v2 upgrade was particulary brain-dead (no surprise). Norton 360 alerted me there was a free new version available. So I downloaded a 760kB stub updater. That downloaded a 76 MB installer, which it left in the hidden obscure C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Symantec Temporary Files directory, apparently forever unless you regularly search for any folder named "temp" anywhere on your hard drive. And then when I ran the installer, it asked if it could download updates to its upgrade installer!!? That shows a company with pathetic automation and no confidence in its processes. Symantec labors for months to create a new version and a setup program for it, and then they can't rebuild the setup program every time they update parts of the program? Mozilla builds a brand-new complete installer and a nightly upgrade for multiple platforms at least once a day for Firefox and their other products.

Then Java announced it had an upgrade available, even though I wasn't running any Java programs! Thanks for slowing my computer down when I'm not using your code. The upgrade itself went pretty smoothly. While it was going I scanned the release notes, and they casually mention
As of JDK 6u10, patch-in-place installation is the default, and the JRE installs itself in a directory called jre6. Previously, it would have installed itself in a directory called jre1.6.0_10.
I checked, and C:\Program Files\Java had five different Java runtimes, each 70 MB. Sun like Symantec thinks 70,000,000 characters of disk space is so tiny it's not worth asking you if it's OK to consume it forever.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

non-support: Symantec can't help itself

I ran Cygwin setup, which contacts the Internet to update this fine free collection of UNIX utilities for Windows.

Norton 360's firewall pops up an alert "A program is attempting to access the internet", which is fine. The bug is that the Alert said "Name: NCH Swift Sound Setup". I don't have any such program. Norton's signature database or algorithm is mis-identifying the Cygwin setup program.

So I contact Symantec Technical Support and say "Please pass on this BUG in Norton 360 to its engineering manager"

But company tech support can't handle that. They only know how to help customers, they're incapable of helping the company. So the first reply I get from "Solomon.S" is this issue might occur if your PC is infected with virus or virus-like programs. I reply that my virus scan is fine and "I am trying to help Symantec improve Norton 360 by informing you of this bug in your program." I get another reply from Solomon.S telling me how to change the status as "Allow" in firewall settings for NCH Swift Sound.exe.

Here's my third message.

You still don't get it and I am angry and frustrated that Symantec as an organization is too stupid to accept my bug report.

I am *BEGGING* you to file the following BUG against Norton 360 in your internal bugbase:

"Customer reports that Norton 360's Internet firewall alert mis-identifies the setup.exe program from the Cygwin product as NCH Swift Sound Setup."

How can I be any clearer? I don't need help, Symantec needs help.

How can you stand your job when you have no ability to improve the quality of Symantec's products?

Open source: experienced users like me get a bug login and file a bug against the project; other users can find the bug and comment on it. Eventually someone with QA or engineering ability looks at the bug and the project gets better. Commercial product: the support organization is a barrier to improving the product.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

computers: Thinkpad dock, applications, Norton

The new Thinkpad T61 laptop computer for my domestic partner other significant arrived. It's quiet and well-designed.

Its dock is great. Unlike port replicators that require drivers to route signals, the Thinkpad actually brings out the wires, so it's purely hardware and the external video can run at high resolution. Push a button, turn a key and the keyboard, mouse, monitor, printer, microphone, speakers, and Ethernet on the desk all connect/disconnect when you dock/undock.

Getting Vista to cooperate with my network and other computers was so awful that I blogged it separately.

I copied over my Dreamweaver and Fireworks applications and pasted in their registry settings, but they complain about missing libraries and fail to export files. The applications that migrated flawlessly were Mozilla SeaMonkey e-mail+browser and Bitpim phone sync, both open source. Simply download the latest version of the app, install it on the new computer, and copy over one data directory. All the effort commercial software companies waste on license checking, registry keys, and serial numbers doesn't add any value to their product and makes it hard to migrate.

The Norton Internet Security that Lenovo provided fought me all the way. Its firewall rules allows "local" file sharing, but its idea of "local" is to hardcode some common private network addresses that routers use by default (192.168.1, 192.168.11, etc.). However I had set my router to a non-standard network address for compatibility with work. Is Norton smart enough to determine or ask you what your local network's address is? Is Norton's configuration able to label an address range as "my home network" so you can reuse it in rules without having to manually change every single one? Will Norton prompt you when its general rules block Windows operations? No, no, damn you Symantec, NO! Networking just fails and you waste hours checking cabling and routers and other computers.

Lenovo has some additions to Vista that just confuse things. Their network security lets you enable/disable "Windows firewall", but it seems Norton Internet Security's firewall runs anyway. They have a network places manager, but it mostly confuses things with another network icon in the system tray. They have a Thinkvantage security center that keeps starting up, with its own upgrade service that didn't work.

Likewise, Intel graphics adds its own monitor control. So there's the Thinkvantage software to choose a layout when you plug in an external monitor, Intel's software to set up your graphics, and Vista's display appearance control panel. They're all covering the same ground! Yet their help explains their relationship to the other competing software.

If this were Linux open source, Intel and Lenovo would modify and extend Microsoft's O.S. code for network management and multiple monitors, they wouldn't have to reinvent it. Any improvements or bug fixes they make would show up in the core software, benefiting everyone.

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Friday, October 21, 2005

software: no path to decent anti-virus, or other system software

The trial Norton AntiVirus I picked when I upgraded to XP SP2 has expired. I was on the verge of ordering Norton AV 2006 when the form prompted me for a "coupon code", and a Google search pointed me to this litany of horror stories regarding anti-virus software: botched upgrades, software that won't uninstall cleanly, incompetent support, etc. Which reminded me of my own Symantec software renewal heck on another PC, and two friends' off-and-on problems with McAfee updates.

Experienced users are clear about what they want from system software like anti-virus:
  • do one thing only and do it well
  • if it does lots of things, install and enable only those features the user wants
  • make it easy to later disable and uninstall unwanted features
  • not litter the Windows registry with lots of confusing values
  • run few startup programs, services, system tray icons, and processes
  • those few should be obvious, well-named, and easy to disable and uninstall
  • implement a simple reliable subscription update service that continues to work for years
  • upgrade in-place cleanly
  • uninstall cleanly
  • have good diagnostics linked to a complete knowledge base for when (not if) it goes wrong
That's what matters to me for anti-virus, CD burners, media players, photo organizers, printers, scanners, etc. because software that does too much and does it badly is going to f*** my computer over.

Yet it's impossible to find how well a given piece of software does on these criteria before committing to it. The worthless reviews in PC magazines never cover these issues: the reviewer obviously installs the software on a virgin PC, does a cursory run-through of its features, runs some dubious performance tests ("It scanned 23,571 files on my hard drive in 42 minutes!"), finds some trivial flaw to prove she or he is paying attention ("It failed to unpack a compressed .ARC file from 1986") then wipes the disk clean and writes a glowing puff piece that's little better than the manufacturer's feature list.

Returning to anti-virus software, the big names do too much and the 'net is full of horror stories of them going wrong. But are the smaller companies any better? It's hard to tell; Trend Micro PC-cillin says "features include Home Network Control and Wi-Fi Intrusion Detection" and AVG's technical FAQ won't even render in my Firefox 1.5beta2.

"It works for me" testimonials are no use; 18 months ago I would have said Norton AntiVirus works fine and updates cleanly.

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