Power User: Horror story -- security update eats custom settings

John McCormick

Some days it just doesn't pay to boot up.

Mindful of the ever-increasing breeds of malware, I update my virus signatures with great caution.

Some time ago, a Symantec Norton AntiVirus update temporarily locked up my Microsoft Windows applications, so I avoid automatic updates and wait to download until I see whether security sites report any problems.

Late last month I accepted a Norton Internet Security update after deselecting a few things I don't use. The total download was nearly 9M, a drop in the bucket compared with the gigantic Windows XP Service Pack 2 update I received on CD-ROM as part of a Microsoft Developers Network Universal subscription.

Leaving the Symantec update running after a long day's work, I returned the next morning to find a window telling me to reboot to finish the installation. I OKed that, too'what choice did I have?
But it turned out that I would have been wiser just to turn my hard drive over to hackers. When I restarted, every application had been uninstalled.

I tried reverting to previously saved configurations with GoBack, part of Symantec's security package. Although I progressively lost my saved files as I moved backward, I couldn't retrieve any programs or defaults.

Eventually I forced XP to boot in the Administrator role, as opposed to a named account with administrative privileges, and then I found my saved files intact. But the desktop was still nearly empty.

My extensive macros were gone from Microsoft Word in every account. An hour later, I was still fighting with XP to get Word to default to the account that looks to my personal directory. Until I succeeded, I had to use a shortcut set up to trick Word into looking in the right directory.

I'm not the only user who ever had trouble with a software update. GCN readers have e-mailed me to say they cringe when an operating system or application update arrives. I did finally manage to recover every data file except one, so some people would say I wasn't really harmed. But my productivity certainly was.

Despite the time spent fixing things, I wasn't able to get Internet Explorer to install and use my saved links. I can see them'I just have to reinstall each one.

I worked two solid hours to recover my custom settings without success. At some point, I just had to decide whether it was more cost-effective to fix or just start over. I reinstalled everything from scratch.

A few of my readers might think I'm a novice because I don't try to solve every problem that crops up. I do give my systems a workout, often keeping a couple dozen windows open simultaneously, so I expect occasional trouble. But what struck me this time was the potential effect of the update on average users on the road or in a small office without support personnel.

I've been working with computers since 1963, and I know there's no way to talk those users through all the possible remedies.

One silver lining: Now I can access some Java Web applications that had always been inactivated before by the conflicts between Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. software and the Symantec security settings.

I'm not certain whether all this grief came from the Symantec update and, frankly, I'm not going to spend the time to find out. I do know the culprit wasn't a worm.

Software vendors don't seem to be getting any better. If anything, many appear to be losing touch with their customers.

Users of TurboTax, for example, might have noticed that it does no good to wait and buy the latest version each season. Intuit Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., seems to publish only one CD-ROM version per year, and you must download many additional files and updates before you can start your taxes. This season's download took 6.5 hours over a dial-up connection. I could calculate taxes faster with an abacus.

I didn't start my computing career as a curmudgeon; software vendors made me the curmudgeon I am today. Of course, if computers actually worked as they're supposed to, I'd have to find honest work.

As it is, I am considering writing my next book on an ancient MS-DOS system without a modem so I can be reasonably sure it won't eat my homework.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].


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