I wish we could count on the software and hardware vendors to play fair and treat us well, but it’s not happening. We have to take responsibility for our computers.

When Windows XP/Vista/7 is installed on a freshly formatted hard drive, it is secure, rock-solid, and fast. The operating systems are loaded with features. Vista has a mail program, an address book, a calendar, voice recognition, rich support for multimedia, built-in CD/DVD burning, several backup options (including automatic retention of previous versions of files), and much more.

Mac OS 10.5 offers a virtually identical list of features and a similar secure, stable, fast environment.

Yet Macs have a reputation of being easy to use and “just working” while Windows computers have a reputation of being slow and unstable. The reason has little to do with the merits of the operating systems.

Other than hooking up a printer, many Mac users add almost nothing to their computers. They use the applications supplied with the computer, which work well.

If you installed Windows Vista on a freshly formatted hard drive, installed Microsoft Office 2007, hooked up a printer, and added almost nothing else, your computer would just work – elegant and stable and fast.

It’s hard to do that. It’s up to you to stay as close to it as possible.

Everything conspires to interfere with your computer experience – every piece of software that adds a hundred registry entries, every startup process, every online service that installs a new ActiveX control, every printer monitor and registration reminder and duplicative function and unnecessary utility program. Software and hardware manufacturers make poor decisions about how often you want to see their logo or how much you want badly-designed free programs or how much you care about their partnerships with unrelated companies or how much you need their version of a program that duplicates a function built into Windows.

All too quickly, our Windows computers take three minutes to be usable after our desktop appears. Our programs crash. The system freezes.

Windows is rock solid out of the box. It stays that way for a remarkably long time. Whose responsibility is it when our experience starts to deteriorate?

I’m not talking about blame. There’s plenty of that to go around.

The responsibility is ours. No one else is going to help us. For better or worse, Microsoft has created an environment where other manufacturers can contribute. Few of them are doing it well. Few of them are looking only for your best interests and smooth computing experience.

Our computers arrive with too much preinstalled software. Look at the list in Add/Remove Programs, find out what the unfamiliar names are, and remove the ones that won’t be used.

Don’t install programs unless you are confident that you know what they are and that you will use them to accomplish something you couldn’t do before with another program already installed.

Always do a “custom” installation. Watch every checkbox and don’t install anything that isn’t necessary to use the program to do what you’re going to do.

Never install a system utility or security software unless you thoroughly understand why it’s necessary. Windows is able to be secure and do its own housekeeping without much help.

There are only two choices for happy computing. One is to become knowledgeable about what you install. That allows you to explore the rich world of new devices, programs and online services with a minimum of side effects, while still being conservative enough to avoid harming your computer.

The other is to buy only the simplest hardware accessories and install as little new software as possible. If your computer can’t already do it, maybe you should assume it can’t be done. We live in a world where too many gadgets don’t work and too many programs are badly written.

The third alternative is the one that doesn’t work – buy devices on a whim, avoid reading instructions or web sites or even the descriptions on a box, install whatever is presented on a setup CD, click OK whenever a website asks permission, and expect everything to just work. You already know about the bad guys, but in the long run, we can’t trust the good guys either.

(This was posted originally in 2007 and repeated last year. Maybe I’ll make it an annual tradition or use it as my Xmas letter or something.)

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