Thursday, January 04, 2007

Just say NO to ISP software

by Douglas E. Welch, techiq@welchwrite.com
Reader/Listener Line 206-338-5832

I was called today to resolve a computer problem for a new client. Their wireless connection would start, but then suddenly disconnect. My initial thoughts were that there was some interference from a new cordless phone (cell phones really don't bother WiFi), microwave or some other piece of equipment that had been recently installed. Once I got a look at the computer, though, I recognized a old, familiar enemy -- software provide by the customer ISP (Internet Service Provider).

In this particular case, the software was Earthlink's TotalAccess package, but AT&T/SBC also have their own collection of software that they try to force feed their clients. This software is ostensibly designed to make the Internet easier to use, but while it may help some people jumpstart their experience, I wonder at what cost? I have a number of issues with this software and I will do everything I can to avoid it, for both myself and my clients.

What problems can this software cause? Let me count the ways.

• Support difficulties

For support people such as myself, ISP software makes our work much more difficult. It replaces standard tools that control the wireless connection and provide email and web browsing. This makes it nearly impossible to provide telephone support to a client, as there is no way I can duplicate, on my computer, what they are seeing on theirs. I cannot, and would not want to install all the different variants of ISP software on my computer. This software breaks down the ability to communicate with the client and what might have been repaired in a few minutes on the phone, now requires an on-site visit.

If the client is using the standard tools, which on Windows includes Outlook Express, Outlook, Internet Explorer...even Firefox, as I instruct them in the steps to take to remedy the problem, I can follow the same steps at my computer.

• ISP Software doesn't play well with others

Often, ISP software can conflict with built-in functions, tools and other software on your computer. In the case of today's client, TotalAccess was trying to manage the wireless connection, even though the standard Windows tool was working as it should. The different software would engage in a digital wrestling match until the wireless connection was disconnected. Luckily, I was able to turn off the WiFi management feature in TotalAccess and convince it to leave the connection alone.

Another related hassle is that this software requires that the use step through a login process at the beginning of each session. In a day when computer manufacturers are doign everything they can to make Internet access transparent, Earthlink is still trying to live in the Old World of dial-up communications.

• ISP software often lags behind the standard built-in tools

The software provided by your ISP falls behind in functionality, unable to keep up with advances in the surrounding system. This often leads to computers where I encounter ancient (at least in computer terms) versions of the software since no facility was ever made to update it.

• Data stored in non-standard areas and formats

This is probably the most disturbing problem of all. As you hear me preach again and again, backups are the most important process you can perform to keep you data safe. Unfortunately, ISP software can often store data in non-standard locations and purposefully conceal its location. ISP software can also store data, such as email, in non-standard formats, that defy export and import into a different application. In some cases, this could mean that your years of email archives, stored in one of these programs, might suddenly be rendered unreadable.

For me, most ISP software is more of an exercise in branding than any attempt to enhance user's productivity. Your ISP wants to insure that you see its logo and name as often as possible, throughout the day. Any productivity enhancements that might result are secondary to this.

If you can avoid installing the software that comes with your new DSL or cable modem, I highly recommend it. If you must install software to setup your account, only install the barest minimum required. Then, after the connection is working, you might be able to remove even this. As a general rule, if you don't know what the software is or does, error on the side of caution and don't install it at all.

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