Driven to hell and back by drivers

I hate technology. How bloody hard can it be, for crying out loud, to upgrade your operating system? "Hah!" I can hear you all shouting, even as I write this. "Upgrade your operating system? Are you mad?" It wasn't my idea. It wasn't my fault.

I hate technology. How bloody hard can it be, for crying out loud, to upgrade your operating system?

“Hah!” I can hear you all shouting, even as I write this. “Upgrade your operating system? Are you mad?”

It wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t my fault. But it is my problem and, frankly, it’s appalling.

By now you’ll know my PC hard drive died of unnatural causes in the last week of the year. After a brief, inconclusive autopsy I have a new hard drive installed and ready to go, and the boys here at work asked which OS I’d like.

Seeing as how we run Lotus Notes for our back-end system, I opted for Windows over anything more exotic, simply for ease of use. They know it, I know it, Notes seems to have a cursory relationship with it. No worries.

But what flavour of Windows? I had been running Win 98 and, apart from its unwillingness to shut down properly, even with the patch applied, I just wasn’t that happy. But my momma didn’t raise no fool, so there was no way I was going to opt for Windows XP at this early stage in its lifecycle, despite the urging of the tech boys. I think they just wanted a bit of entertainment on a slow day, but I wasn’t falling for that. I opted for Windows 2000 pro edition. It’s been out for a while, it’s got history, it’s got support. The Windows sweet spot, it seemed to me.

Many of you will know what happened next, from sore personal experience. It can be described with a word that shall not be uttered here, but I shall call it “the driver”.

Every piece of hardware needs a wee piece of software to make it work in conjunction with the operating system. My Compaq Presario 7800 has a DVD drive, a CD writer and I’ve hooked it up to an HP scanner and a printer. So far, so ordinary.

Except that none of these devices will work with my new operating system. Not only that but my bog-standard graphics card refuses to run Return to Castle Wolfenstein (ah, now we get to the real problem) and that’s not good enough.

But wait, I’ve got broadband. I can go online and fix these problems for myself, right?

If only it were that simple.

A quick squiz at the Hewlett-Packard site turns up a nice, easy-to-use route to the driver I want for the printer. Within a minute I was happily reading my test page.

Brilliant. The scanner, on the other hand, was not so clean. I downloaded what I thought was the W2K software for my scanner but nothing happened. I downloaded an upgrade patch for this application but still nothing happened, except I got a lovely error message that said “download incomplete. OK?” How useful, I thought, as I beat the monitor to death with my favourite toy, a silver baseball bat.

It seems I had downloaded a supplement to the original software that sat on the CD I got with the scanner, but which refuses to run because it’s a Win 98-only kind of thing. No help was forthcoming from the HP site.

Compaq wasn’t much better. Knowing the type of graphics card you have is vitally important when you want to upgrade the driver. The properties box for the graphics card told me I have a S3 Savage4, but the S3 site sent me packing without a new driver. I haven’t tried to sort out the CD writer yet.

And what is it with that whole driver download wizard anyway? First of all it assumed I have some kind of disk, which I don’t, and I’d say most people would be in my position. Apparently we’re supposed to know what to do with drivers once we’ve downloaded them (usually about 15 files of various extensions it seems) and the wizard was no help. Microsoft’s home page made it astonishingly difficult to find out that drivers even exist. Most websites were no help either. They either assume a level of technical knowhow far beyond my grasp or they aren’t actually interested in providing a solution, but simply in showing you ads for better hardware than you own.

I got most of what I was looking for by trolling through various newsgroups via Google and I discovered a whole community of people desperate for drivers. Thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands.

How is it that companies with such extensive communications arsenals as HP, Compaq and Microsoft cannot get their acts together and provide what seems to be an ongoing service to customers? That’s right, customers. Us. I know there are thousands of different types of hardware/software combinations out there, but my set-up is pretty commonplace I would imagine. Is it so hard to organise?

I spent the best part of a weekend looking for these mythical drivers. Every time I found one I downloaded it (cost to me), loaded the thing (time spent) and rebooted the machine (lots of time spent). I imagine trying to wrangle that lot for a company must be astonishingly painful.

On the plus side, at least technology conflict generates columns for me, though that excuse is wearing very thin.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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