For a long time, I supported my employer’s Solaris (a type of Unix OS) computers running Sendmail, part of the corporate email system. I managed these systems via a Windows XP box on my desk. I used another XP box at home to log in remotely, saving me having to carry a laptop back and forth to work. Nonetheless I was given a laptop at some point along the line, which also ran XP. I bought a Red Hat Unix box to use at home to do some experimentation and along the way I also acquired a netbook running Microsoft Vista.
I also had one Apple computer, whose hard drive died in the course of some heavy video editing. When I related that fact to a co-worker, he said,
“Oh, so you’re an Apple guy.”
Putting aside for the moment the preponderance of non-Apple hardware in my house at the time, I’ll concentrate on a little dialog box that appeared on my Dell’s screen recently when I tried to open an attachment sent to me by a co-worker.
This cryptic message greeted me when I attempted to open an embedded Word document. You know, a Microsoft Word document inside a Microsoft Word document. Two things that should know something about each other? That should work together? That are part of something called the Microsoft Office suite, an association that implies these are objects that share something in common?
Mind you, the Windows XP box on which this appeared was running the latest software updates and was in an email delivered by Microsoft Exchange to my Microsoft Outlook email client.
I put aside for a moment the apparent inability of the software to know what to do with something within its own suite. I even overlooked the cryptic code, since it did include a help link. What steamed me was the link led to a page reading “Help does not exist for this item”.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that exactly, but it was a page with nothing in it. Not only did a simple common action throw a “I can’t do this” error, it followed up with a “I don’t know why I can’t do this” excuse. Fine. Really, because Google is my friend and I can plug the relevant part of the error message into a search box. I’ll get 8,340 hits telling me a lot of people had this same error and someone out there has a solution. But here’s where the steam becomes radioactive.
The error results from a bit of code left behind by a previous patch. At some point during the monthly updates issued by the biggest software company in the world, they lost track of what version of Word was being used in the wild, and issued a patch that overlooked a file translator used on a current version. Then, that patch was updated. The net result was that a certain version of Word could cause another version of Word not to recognize its own translator. And the only way to fix it was to execute a registry hack, which is akin to how one used to have to start a car:
1. Open the hood and open the fuel line.
2. In the car cabin, advance the spark.
3. Move the throttle to the prime position.
4. Put the transmission in neutral.
5. Insert and turn the key.
6. Go back to the front of the car and turn the crank until the engine starts.
7. When it is running, jump back into the car, move the spark advance back to the running position and drive away.
I’m not made of time. Thirty minutes later, I finally got the document open and started work I should have been able to do initially with two mouse clicks. I might have done it in less time, but I spent a few minutes hurling invective in the general direction of Redmond, Washington.
I’m not saying this would never happen on a Mac. But it should never happen on a Windows box.
Support for XP ends on April 8, 2014.