Rules of the tech road--drivers beware!

SAN FRANCISCO (10/27/2003) - Dad's 85th birthday is coming soon. My sister and I keep debating whether to buy him and Mom their first PC. By now we should be deciding which machine to pick and where to buy it. Instead, we can't get past the subject of whether Dad can handle it--and whether we can.

It's a lot like what he must have gone through when we were learning to drive. Presenting a couple of PC virgins with a system and an Internet connection and then letting them go is almost as risky as handing a nondriver the car keys and wishing him good luck. Even for those of us who've been around the block and pretend to know what we're doing, PCs are increasingly hard; for people who come in late, they must be a total nightmare.

Dad's a smart guy, a scientist. He used mainframes back when BASIC was sexy. Mom has two advanced degrees. Yet in the past when we suggested that they get a PC, they didn't want to bother. The critical mass of tantalizing Web content has given them a reason.

But even seemingly uncomplicated decisions often prove problematic. No broadband provider serves my parents' apartment. So for dial-up, do we set them up with the theoretically simple but ever-more-baffling AOL (America Online) or do we turn to a pure ISP (Internet Service Provider) like EarthLink that's actually simpler but offers less hand-holding?

My Mac-loyalist sister offers to be my parents' help desk if we put them in the "Think Different" fold. She uses Mac OS 9. The trouble is that new machines come with OS X, which has a different interface she's never tried--and the next revision will have another one. I use OS X Macs now and then, but I'd hate to have to support one remotely.

I'd be more comfortable supporting a PC--if I hadn't recently had multiple lessons in how much effort that involves. Lately I've been attempting to set up a new notebook and reconfigure my old one for my wife. But Windows Update refuses to work on my old system, and the new laptop's bundled McAfee VirusScan software seems confused about whether or not it has updated itself properly.

At least I finally whacked that elusive virus I complained about recently in "PC Defense Takes an Antinet." Turns out that my machine wasn't sending it to my e-mail acquaintances. Instead the source was my wife's current hand-me-down PC, for which I hadn't bought antivirus updates. The virus used an old Windows Address Book of mine that I hadn't deleted. Problem solved--after months of mystery.

All that is bad enough. But how do you teach neophytes the sheer volume of knowledge they need to fend off bad guys who cruise the Net hoping to take advantage of programmers' errors and users' misplaced trust? How do you explain documentation that's often flat-out wrong when it exists at all? Who sends the memo when the rule changes from not opening attachments from anyone you don't know to being wary of attachments from even your closest friends?

Of course, my sister and I could dump the PC idea altogether and buy Dad MSN TV (formerly known as WebTV). But that set-top box's severe limitations make it the browsing equivalent of a tricycle, and its limited screen resolution is likely to emphasize Web ads instead of Web content. Unless my sister and I have a sudden epiphany, Dad may be getting a really nice, really low-maintenance tie.

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