Computers: Disaster strikes 'fun' program: Martin Whitfield's 'freebie' disk turned out to be costly and very time-consuming

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The Independent Online
THE INITIAL reaction was a sick feeling in the stomach. What was meant to be a few minutes of fun with a 'freebie' disk from the cover of a magazine quickly led to a total system failure.

All that was left was a question mark on the screen indicating that my machine did not recognise its own operating system.

The second reaction was panic. Hours of work down the drain, visions of expensive computer engineers being flown in at exorbitant expense to fix the disaster.

Panic turns to anger. How dare these people let such wild disks on the loose to cause pandemonium for the technically innocent?

The culprit in my case was the disk on the cover of the April issue of The Mac. Following instructions to the letter, the disk had been checked as clean by Disinfectant and was in the process of decompressing when the screen froze. It would not come back to life.

Calls to the disk distributor's helpline were not much good as the Apple engineer was on a day off. A further call to the magazine prompted a bemused 'no one else has had any problems', but was followed by a swift return from one of The Mac's technical writers whose advice, after going through the collapse process, was to get a copy of Norton Utilities, a problem-solving and rescue program, as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Norton Utilities costs about pounds 125 and is not something you can pick up in a local newsagent. Back to the magazine and some minor ranting and raving before the required Norton Utilities was located - do not worry Norton, the experience has convinced me to buy my own legal copy.

Running Norton the next day allowed me to rescue my data files, but my hard disk collapsed again, not to recover until placed in the hands of my local Apple dealer. The technical explanation was said to be that disaster had struck by a conflict of the contents of the disk and one of my 'system extensions'. These are the little programs, such as quick keys used to perform routine tasks, unusual fonts, screen savers or 'fun' programs, like eyeballs following you around on the screen.

Once the screen had frozen in mid-activity, the hard disk's directory was then confused about exactly how many files it now included.

The problem is not uncommon. Stephen Tatchell, from Crewkerne in Somerset, said his machine, an Apple LC, has never been the same since he ran a free cover disk. The problem did not arise for a couple of days but seemed to be the result of a clash of programs. 'I've still got problems,' he said. 'I have The Mac magazine which has disks on the cover, but since this happened I haven't even opened the packaging.'

Jim Blestowe, technical support manager of Western Computer in Bristol, which restored my machine, said many customers ran into difficulties as disk software failed to match earlier or later versions of operating systems installed on readers' machines. 'The worst thing is that it can happen and you don't realise what has caused the problems. Some programs that go in the system extensions or control panel run in the background. They can just clash with the system software.'

Mr Blestowe said other types of programs typical of free disk software, such as games or small word processing programs, rarely produce difficulties. But he advises inexperienced users to check with their dealers before allowing strange material near their system's control files.

'We have usually seen most of the disks and have often heard about any problems from customers,' he added.

Karl Foster, of the technical department of Tasha Computers, an Apple dealer in Chiswick, west London, said free disks produced a regular flow of desperate telephone calls. 'We can usually sort problems out and most can be solved by reinstalling the system. It wastes a lot of time but normally doesn't do serious damage.'

The disasters all relate to software compatibility and do not cause physical damage to hard disks.

Henry Nelson, operations manager of TIB, a Bradford- based duplicator which copies more than 600,000 disks a month, including those for PC-compatible magazines, as well as disks for The Mac, said complaints averaged less than 0.1 per cent of all cover disks.

'That includes disks that do not work because they have been exposed to an electro-magnetic field or something. People also don't read the instructions. I'm as bad as everyone else and just put it on and see if it works.'

Alison Hujl, publisher of The Mac, said more than 35,000 disks were despatched with each issue and they resulted in relatively few problems. All the disks are copied from a single master version and are tested on a variety of machines and versions of the operating system. 'There haven't been any complaints at all with this issue. Our technical writers have been able to deal with the handful of problems we have had in the past,' she added.

The experience of spending a few idle moments looking at the free disk was enlightening. More than a day of working time was wasted, plus a weekend of frustration at not being able to do anything to bring life back to a blank screen. I've now made pledges to back-up information regularly and to be careful.

But why do disasters like this always happen on Friday afternoons?

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