My main computer at home died the other evening; there had been subtle signs of illness (disk errors, mysterious freezes, blank screens and poor scores in Diablo II), but I was in denial. It quit for good while I was on a potty break. So after putting the Gibber to bed, I went back to the office and tried to debug things. I wound up tearing it completely apart. During the surgery it beeped a few times (“beep beep beep I was sick and getting worse and worse and you ignored me, so here’s your due, you schmuck”), then went totally silent, even when stripped down to bare essentials. I reseated everything, tried a different power supply, tried swapping out processors, did the three inch drop, nothing. Suck. I guess the smoke inside got tired or something.

Well, in the bigger picture it’s not a problem. I keep regular backups and the old disks were still readable (with a little effort). The system was about five years old and I’d been kind of expecting this, but was hoping that I was off of the upgrade treadmill until (say) next year.

So, $1200 and two days later I’ve got a machine that is *lots* quieter, and I have most of my files back, but I’m still reinstalling the stupid software. Somehow I managed to get through nearly five years without reinstalling Windows, and I’d become dependent on things that I hadn’t realized I was dependent on.

[I won’t talk much about the hardware I bought because that’s boring, except to say that (1) SATA disks are pretty neat and God damned fast, and (2) the old machine had dual processors, and you can really notice that you’re on a single processor machine, even with hyperthreading, even when the old machine was one third the speed. Finally: I buy reliable computing equipment, not bloody light shows or overclocker’s playthings; salestypes who try to sell me LEDs and cases with windows and stupid blinking lights and so forth can go hang.]


A partial list of stuff to install: The OS and drivers, updates and optional components. Office and its updates. Geek tools: Epsilon (my favorite Emacs clone), Perl, Visual Studio, a few random tools. CD burning software. Anti-virus and anti-spyware stuff. Games (the ones I’m still playing, having given up on Freelancer and such). Printer, image editing and camera software. Media player (I’m probably going to ditch iTunes, see below). That’s probably about half of the list. Wups, email client. And . . . you did remember all of your passwords, yes, the ones that you conveniently had your apps save for you?

There are a class of applications that I consider “renting.” Omnipage Pro (at least the version I have) is one of these; the app refuses to install without a “fresh” certificate (first you type in the product key you got when you bought the app, you give that to a server which produces the activation certificate that is good for like thirty days. You can do this whenever — you “own” the software — but a stale certificate won’t work). The problem is that the bastards turned off the certificate-generating server for my version. So a $100 package is really only good for maybe three years.

So, fuck Omnipage Pro [I didn’t try setting my system time back, but I will.] Same deal for some Symantec software; I’m done with that package, it needs cooperation from the server to install the latest working pieces of itself, and the server is just gone. I don’t mind paying for decent software. I do mind paying for forced upgrades that I don’t need, or for software that breaks because the company went out of business or lost interest in ‘supporting’ my version (to the extent that maintaining a server with old, unchanging updates is ‘support’).

Then there are “limited install” programs, such as the ones Popcap games sells. At least these folks are honest about things up front (but note that they can still get bored and turn off their authentication server).

The DRM’d stuff is probably the worst blow; renting your own data SUCKS. I may be able to recover the encrypted iTunes content (not sure), but if I can’t, I’m stuck with the somewhat lossy MP3s (and, of course, the backup audio CDs). Ditto for the audio books managed by Audible’s DRM software; I have many backups of the audio, but the original purchased files are probably unreadable.

So, fuck DRM’d content. I’m not going to do that again.

We can do better than this

You could certainly imagine an OS environment that didn’t require you to reinstall everything in a painful, serial, hands-on fashion, each app with its own tweaky little installer, each app wanting to put you on a mailing list, or re-EULAing you, or ‘calling home’ to let the mothership know that you’re reinstalling, or maybe accusing you of being a pirate.

There should be a similar story for the DRM’d data; why couldn’t it be keyed to something really obvious that you’d have to be a bozo not to back up, perhaps with keys stored on an escrow server somewhere? I’d pay a buck a year for a service that stored my iTunes DRM key for me (and say twenty bucks each time I needed it; insurance).

Disks are big enough now that backups should just happen; you shouldn’t be able to turn them off. You get half of the disk; the OS figures out what’s valuable and makes sure things are replicated enough on the rest that you’ll be able to get to it later. You pop in a CDRW from time to time to safe the data. You get the ability to transport the DRM’d data to another machine under the supervision of that escrow service. All of this is doable. It would probably save the industry many megabucks in support hassles.

I think this is where “utility computing” may go. You do want your own hardware; UC is the infrastructure that makes it reliable. You pick the video cards and processor and OS (if you want), UC provides standard back-end stuff that keeps your valuables safe.

I guess we have a lot of work to do yet.

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