Windows 10 needs to go back to basics

Remote tech support brings home how appalling Windows is when it comes to the fundamentals

Let’s be frank, all of us in the IT community live in a little bubble. We can listen to a colleague talk about how he’s set up his own VPN server, and even if most of us couldn’t do it ourselves (I thought a subnet mask was something found in shops with frosted windows), we get the gist of what he’s banging on about. We all speak geek.

Out in the real world, things are different. Especially if you’re 83-year-old Terry, who I was delegated to look after as part of a Covid-19 community support scheme organised by the football club I’m involved with.

Terry lost his last computer, a Windows 7 Dell machine he’d had for the past 15 years, to what sounds like a ransomware attack. A friend had kindly set him up with a new Windows 10 Lenovo laptop, but Terry was struggling. Nothing was working, it kept badgering him for usernames and passwords he didn’t have. His digital photo collection – which he relied on as references for the pictures he loved to paint – had disappeared. 

His voice was almost breaking as he relayed this to me over the phone. He just wanted to paint his pictures and read his email to pass the endless hours of isolation in lockdown. Why couldn’t he get this “useless” laptop in front of him to do these simple tasks?

My first instinct was to remote desktop into the thing. I didn’t like the sound of the continual password prompts; I was worried Terry was heading for another ransomware fall. 

On connecting, what I found shocked me even more: there was nothing wrong. No pop-ups, no browser strewn with ad-spewing toolbars, none of the evidence of a computing car crash that you usually wade into when an elderly relative complains that their computer’s not working. This was a clean install. 

So what, I ventured gingerly, was the problem? “Nothing’s working,” replied Terry. “My email button’s disappeared.”

“Okay, what app did you use to get email before?”

“Sorry?” 

“Which program were you using to read emails on your old computer?”

“I clicked ‘email’ and it appeared.”

What became clear was that the only problem with Terry’s computer was that he was hopelessly lost. I eventually figured out that his previous PC had been set up with bookmarks to his AOL email (yes, he’s the remaining customer), BBC iPlayer and so forth, and all the passwords must have been saved in the browser. Now he was faced with a blank Chrome window and couldn’t understand where it had all gone. Even when he’d managed to find iPlayer via a Google search, it demanded a username and password to let him watch shows. Those saved passwords had all been trapped in that ransomed machine. He simply didn’t know how to start again.

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The next hour was spent resetting passwords and bookmarking sites, slowly putting Terry’s computer back to how it had been. He would, by his own admission, never have worked it out: Googling would have been futile as he had no grasp of the terminology required to get the answers. He didn’t know what either apps or bookmarks were. When I asked him to click on something, I had to direct him to move his finger across the “black rectangle beneath the keyboard” and press a button. It was an absolutely eye-opening experience of how alien computing remains for many people, not only those of Terry’s generation.

And then, the more I thought about it, the more I grew convinced that computing had the problem, not Terry. Why in 2020 can he – having entered his Windows username and password – not “click on email” and have everything synced for him? Why, when he clicked on the photos folder, did it not display every photo on the PC? (His photos were there all along, tucked away on an external drive.) Yes, browser syncing and Windows Libraries are available, if you know how to use them, but it should be a hundred times easier.

So, when I read that Microsoft is preparing to unleash Windows 10 X – a variant of Windows 10 that’s so marginally different you’d struggle to tell them apart in an ID parade – I want to scream. Windows 10 X should be Windows 10 Starter, a properly secure, designed from the ground-up OS that makes everything so simple that Terry doesn’t waste any more of his life staring at a screen, being made to feel like the idiot he’s most definitely not.

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