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TCWF The Computing Articles
by Daniel Bowen

Beware the beta

I've come to the conclusion that playing with beta software can be a tad dangerous. Why? Well let me tell you a little story.

I'm a sucker for new technology, and when Microsoft released a beta of their new Web browser, Internet Explorer 4, promising all kinds of groovy.web.goodies to play with, I was tempted. But given that our PC at home is used for serious stuff, for things vital to the family mission, like all of our email access for a start, I held back.

It's one thing to install everything going on your PC at work, provided your company is encouraging you to do so, and they are prepared to put up with a slight productivity loss while you rebuild the machine when it all goes to pot. I can handle that, I'm <deep voice> an experienced computer professional <end deep voice>. But it's another thing altogether when it's your own PC at home, and extended downtime like that might bring an end to family bliss. So I don't know about you, but I try to be cautious.

Not cautious enough, however. When Microsoft released a new beta of IE4, and the reviews said "oh yes, it's much more stable", and "oh boy, all these new features are cool", and "wow, I love it", I was tempted. And when a CD-ROM arrived from Microsoft with said beta software on it, I didn't even have the excuse that I'm far too impatient to wait the <argh> hours to download it all. And the leaflet that came with the CD, obviously wanting to push Microsoft's new software as much as it could, hooked me, by proclaiming how easy it was to setup your web site as a channel, to link it in, load it on, hook it up, and push it over people's desktops worldwide.

I was hooked. My mouth was watering. I had to have it, beta or not. Install, install, install!

Now, my computer isn't quite old enough to have been around when the ark was, but it's not far off. Sure, it seemed to be the ultimate in high technology when I bought it two and a half years ago, but things in the computer world move fast. It's still good enough to be very useful though. We get by with it, and I'm not really tempted to go and buy a new one which will reach obsolescence just as fast.

Not to say that age, or not being up there on the cutting edge was the cause of the problem about to befall me. But something was to blame, and I suspect it was some kind of formula involving aging technology and perhaps not every combination of hardware and software having been taken into account by the programmers involved. Which is fair enough. It was, after all, a beta.

Anyway, the result was that once I had installed the spanking new IE4 beta, the computer wouldn't boot any more. This can be a slightly minor interruption to its normal operation, as I'm sure you'll understand, and the rest of the family were not particularly happy about this.

Oh sure, it would boot into what Windows 95 calls its "Safe Mode", but given the facilities that it gives away to get into Safe Mode, they might as well have called it "Useless Mode". No dial-up networking for a start - how would the family survive without email? We'd be cut off from the outside world! We'd have to resort to - gasp - talking in person, or on the phone!

I tried removing the software, but one of the major selling points of IE4 is that it has hooks into the operating system. More like claws than hooks I reckon, it had well and truly buried itself deep enough in Windows that merely removing the program did no good whatsoever.

After spending a few hours virtually banging my virtual head against a virtual brick wall trying to get the computer working again virtually normally, I decided to cut my losses and re-install Windows and all the applications. It would probably be quicker in the long run. And it would give me a chance to clear out the hard disk of various superfluous programs and files. Okay, so these are pretty poor consolations given the surprising enormity of the task ahead, but you have to take anything you can get in this situation.

A few hours later, I had the vital stuff - email and the network connection - working again. Given the lateness of the hour at that point, I left the rest of it to do day by day, as I needed - and remembered - what needed to be re-installed.

It's several weeks later now, and I've got everything working more or less normally again. And as I sit here typing this, I swear to you now, I will never subject an indispensable computer to beta software ever agai.... oooh... look, a Frontpage 98 beta!

Toxic Custard Workshop Files - Computing

Copyrightę 1997-1998 Daniel Bowen