Help, I need somebody

Charles Arthur on technology
Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the biggest surprises about the HP Jornada 928, the PDA/phone I reviewed last week, was that it came with a manual. A real, printed manual, with more than a hundred pages of carefully chosen words to explain how to use the system in most situations. Did I read it? Hell, no. Who has time for manuals these days?

One of the biggest surprises about the HP Jornada 928, the PDA/phone I reviewed last week, was that it came with a manual. A real, printed manual, with more than a hundred pages of carefully chosen words to explain how to use the system in most situations. Did I read it? Hell, no. Who has time for manuals these days?

More to the point, what sort of technologies are so bad at explaining themselves that they need a printed manual with explanations? These days, the expectation is that the system, whatever it is, will have been so well-designed that you won't need to consult a manual when you want, for example, to join a wireless network; it will guide you through it. Plus, there's an assumption that if you run into trouble, there'll be a built-in help function, using smart software and driven by a powerful chip, to be able to serve up the solutions.

That's the theory. And the practice? Still a long way off. Recently, I wanted a notebook running Windows XP to join my wireless network at home – which contains a Windows XP and an Apple Mac machine – and transfer a file from it. Reader, I failed. Though I'm not sure a manual could have made much difference.

Why have manuals gone the way of the mammoth? First, companies now try to centralise their functions, so that the PC you buy can be shipped to five other countries with the minimum of modification. They'd rather shopfloor staff only had to pick one manual with many languages. Second, that multi-language requirement means writing manuals and translating them. That's expensive, hilarious (have you read anything translated literally from Japanese?) and generally unhelpful.

And third, they've learnt through bitter experience that people don't read the manuals they spend hundreds of pounds preparing. What's the last manual you read all the way through? (Mine was one for a chain saw – I treat stuff that can lop a limb off differently from a digital camera.) Instead, the money goes on the help software, and on call centres where people are sitting around waiting for your call. Or not.

Anyway, back to my effort to transfer files from Windows machines. For that, you have to share the folder containing the file and, apparently, join the "workgroup" of machines, changing the workgroup name of your machine to match the existing one. (Microsoft seems to think workgroups are an axiomatic concept in networking, so no one needs to be told what they are.)

Fine. Windows XP said it could change the workgroup name for me with its Network Configuration Wizard. I changed the name, it said it was configuring things, and a restart was needed. It restarted, its workgroup name hadn't changed and the machine wasn't integrated. Some wizard.

Could Windows XP help me see what was where on the network? Apparently, a utility called Net View does that. Would it launch it for me? Nope. No clues, either, on where this mysterious entity might lurk.

The official recourse here is telephone support lines, but these are a waste of time and money, only to be used in extremis – such as when you have no net connectivity and need something to work urgently. A serious study in 1998 (Ellard and Wright of MCGI) compared the efficacy of Microsoft's helpline with the Psychic Friends Network, who use tarot cards to answer any question. The psychics turned out to be no better at fixing the problem than Microsoft, but they were cheaper and friendlier. And they didn't advise reinstalling Windows. The cheaper equivalent is e-mail support; even worse because the response takes so long.

No, in situations such as this, the general recourse is to the web, where Google remains the motherlode of all help. Even better, there are millions of people out there who are happy to help once you find the right discussion board or newsgroup – which you can do through Google's "groups" search. My search on Windows workgroups turned up http://www. computing.net/ windowsxp/wwwboard/ forum/37101.html, a thread suggesting someone has had the same problem as me. "That is really puzzling," said one of the people trying to help. "That is crazy. But then we are talking Microsoft here."

So, the laptop maker saved the money on producing a manual, and I saved the money calling a helpline. I didn't solve the problem, but I know it wasn't total idiocy on my part. So, if in doubt, rely on the kindness of strangers. In the meantime, if Bill Gates is reading – how the hell do you change a Windows XP workgroup name?

Got an issue with manuals? Tell us at network@independent.co.uk

Comments