Lessons learned from testing NT products


My real profession is installing software for a living. You probably thought I write articles or do consulting, but I've found that my real job is getting products moved from their CD ROMs to my hard disks. And lately it has become a real challenge.

I recently bought a Windows 95 machine for the family, who had been using various Macs over the past several years. Of course, the better part of a weekend was spent trying to fix all the problems with the software that came "pre-installed" -- things like modem drivers, fax applications, choosing from 27 different Internet on-ramp dialers, and the like. I came close several times to giving up, but each time I managed to keep going. What do people who don't have this much time or expertise do? And I didn't even tell you about the three trips back to the store to replace bad power supplies and speakers.

(And please, don't tell me why I shouldn't give up on Apple. I held out as long as I could, really I did. But when I go into a computer store and can't even find any Mac software anymore, the time has come to face that Wintel music.)

Why do I install so much software? Mainly because there are so many products to take a look at. And so many updates to try out. Now that software is "released to the web" continuously, I almost am guaranteed of testing an out-of-date version, even those that I just downloaded yesterday. (Vendor: You are running version 4.1c. We just put up version 4.1d on our web site. Me: When was 4.1d posted? Vendor: About an hour ago.)

It is nice to know that software is fresher than the food we eat. But I digress.

Most of the stuff I have been looking at lately is NT-based. And I've found out a few things that I want to share with you.

First off is the notion of the "clean machine." In the past several weeks, I've had to set up several virgin NT systems: in other words, with just the OS on the disk and no other applications. For some reason, the applications software that is already installed on my other machines interferes with whatever product I am testing.

This is no mystery, as anyone who has installed any application from Microsoft over the past year can experience. Watch where most of these files go during the install -- what you thought was an application is really an upgrade to the underlying operating system. Internet Explorer is one of the worst offenders -- almost none of this software is visible outside of the \Windows\system directories.

Now, I am one of those purists. So I say let's leave my OS alone and stick your .DLLs and whatever other effluvia elsewhere on my hard disk. The problem is so many new NT products require changes to the registry, and when they are removed they don't necessarily clean up after themselves.

Another issue: there is a difference between a user called Administrator and one with similar access rights. Don't ask me why, but some applications work fine with the latter situation and some don't. Try it and let me know.

Have you ever looked inside your \TEMP directory? I know, you are thinking, Strom sure doesn't get out much these days. But \TEMP is a real dumping ground. Just about everyone these days uses it as one's own personal storage area. Sometimes vendors leave me little gifts there that interfere with other products. I wish they would stop that.

And another thing: If you have to test anything that installs ODBC on your machine, trouble is surely ahead. What is the right order of installation? Do you need the version that Microsoft has on its web site, that comes with the NT Service Pack, or that comes with some other application? Got me. Guaranteed whatever version you have installed is the wrong one. Go back to that clean machine and lose a few hours figuring this out.

How about the vendor that puts the documentation on their web site, only it is in 1,000 little HTML files or 10 megabytes of Adobe .PDFs?

Finally, I seem to spend lots of time on the phone discussing which version of NT is installed. There is that whole nightmare around the Service Pack issues last month -- what was Microsoft thinking with issuing a beta of SP 2? Excuse me, but I use my machines to do production work, in between installing software. I don't want to run beta anything if I can avoid it.

It makes me pine for those simple days of NT 3.5.1, probably the most stable of operating systems that I have ever dealt with.

I don't mean to single out NT -- Novell and Apple both have their share of problems keeping various pieces of their respective operating systems in synch. Ah well, gotta run and install something that just came in the mail.

Site-keeping and self-promotions dep't

As usual, I have been busy writing and have some new titles this week. First is Datamation, with a story comparing the best and worst web sites in the automotive, manufacturing, and financial services industries. I attempt to cover why the sites I picked were appealing or appalling.

The first of a new series of columns for Mobile Computing magazine is also out this week. Entitled, Emancipated Email, I talk about I leave the laptop at home now and use Other People's PCs to get my email.

And the latest review in Infowofld of iCat's eCommerce Suite is available as well.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.