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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Troubles in PC Printer Land

As someone who counts himself as reasonably computer literate, and one who spends much of his life sat in front of a screen trying to bend computers to his will (with mixed success), I am constantly staggered by how difficult even fairly straightforward problems on a home computer can be to sort out. Always the same thought occurs: if it's this hard for me, what must it be like for the layperson?

A couple of days ago I experienced a perfect example of just how far personal computers still have to go. A relative of mine has a laptop, and was trying to print off a PDF file. "It just comes out blank," she said. That rang a bell, so I started the machine up, reasonably confident of a quick fix.

On opening the file, Adobe Reader 8 informed me that it had an 8.1 update ready. Why not? Who knows, it might even fix the problem. While it got to work on that, I noticed that Windows wanted to do an update too. Odd that, because the machine was configured to install Windows updates automatically. (Yes, I know the downsides of that, but I still think it's the best option for users who don't really understand what updates even mean.) Hmm... Windows Vista SP2! I could see why it hadn't just ploughed ahead without permission, but I also noticed that the updater didn't think it worth mentioning that it was now going to take the next half hour to download everything, install it, shut down and restart. I left it running in the background.

It soon became obvious that the Adobe updater was in trouble (unless it really did need ten minutes to delete temporary files), so I cancelled. With a bit of luck the update would have completed anyway. No. In fact, now we no longer had Adobe Reader at all. So, off to Google to find out how to download it from Adobe. Now this is interesting: there's a version 9 available. Why didn't Adobe Reader 8 tell me about that? It downloaded and installed very easily, far faster than the 8.1 update, even before it reached the tidying up stage and jammed.

I say 'easily'. That means ignoring all the shortcuts, quick starts and menu options that Adobe like to pollute your machine with. I can only think of one reason why you might want to start up Adobe Reader, and that's to read a PDF file. The natural way to do that is to just open the PDF. Not so for Adobe: their preferred mode of operation is apparently to launch Reader first, which is why they stick shortcuts to it on the desktop, in the start menu, in the Explorer context menu, and in the Explorer toolbars. For good measure, they also put a quick start program into your startup options so that, on those rare occasions when you need to open up a PDF file, it's slightly faster than it would otherwise have been. On the downside, your PC now takes that little bit longer to start up every single time you switch it on, regardless of whether you plan to look at PDFs at all. I've had enough experience with this arrogance from Adobe to know how to remove it all, but it's still infuriating. Not as infuriating, though, as when you do the next update, and Adobe cheerfully reinstall all the crap again, ignoring the fact that you must surely have deliberately taken it all out, presumably on the assumption that you're too stupid to know what's best for you.

I seem to have drifted a bit from my original topic. If you detect a hint of bitterness here, it's the result of many years' miserable experience of this company's attitude to its users. And don't get me started on their web sites.

So, back to the non-printing PDF. By now I've upgraded Adobe Reader, and rebooted the newly service-packed Vista. Time to open the file again. Sure enough, it won't print--nothing at all comes out. Off to the Control Panel to look at the printer. Here I see that there are several print jobs queued up, dating back six weeks or so. The earliest one is marked as 'Deleting'.

Although I can cancel all the subsequent jobs, the 'Deleting' one stubbornly refuses to go. This is a state I've been in on more than one occasion. What you want is to tell the printer to completely forget about everything it's been told to print, but for some reason it can't. My guess is it needs to confirm with the actual device that all printing has ceased, which should have given me a clue. Instead I decided to delete the printer and reinstall from CD. That didn't take long, and it did clear the print queue, but I couldn't get a test page out. Now it occurs to me that maybe there's a connection problem. And yet, there's the printer cable sticking out of the side of the laptop, and there's the other end going into the printer, which is switched on, with no error lights showing. Try pushing in the connection at the printer: fine. What about the one at the laptop? Well, it's definitely in, but suspiciously loose. Is it really supposed to be able to wobble like that? Come to think about it, since when do USB sockets go into network ports?

Mystery finally solved.

It would have been really nice if the Control Panel hadn't listed the printer as being 'Ready', just as it would have been nice if Adobe Reader had updated correctly, and to the latest version. But I got there in the end. Nevertheless, the printer had been out of action for weeks, and only got fixed because of a relative coming round with enough computer literacy to fix the problem (though, sadly, not enough to fix it quickly). So I'm left wondering how many other home computers around the world have components and programs that have stopped working because of easily solved issues like this.

There will be a day when your computer will sort out stuff like this for you itself, in language that even the layest of lay users can follow, and that's the day when the computer can finally be labelled as 'an appliance'.