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Why Computers Crash

When you are an IT consultant there are two elements of the job which you have to be aware (or maybe afraid) of: the first is the computer and all it’s complex, and possibly conflicting, parts; and the second is the user, generally an even more bizarre and unfathomable part of the equation.

Many people think computers give far more problems than they should do, and wonder why this issue is so common. They compare computers with other machines which seem to have far fewer faults and accuse computer experts of being somehow negligent in being responsible for these problems.

There is a certain element of truth in this criticism. Computers do seem to develop more faults than most other technology, but I would say there are several really good reasons for this which I will go through here.

First, computer technology is relatively new. The computer as a common workplace tool is only about 20 or 30 years old. Some common functions of computers, such as use of the internet by non-specialists, were developed much more recently than that. So I think there is a partial excuse in saying that computers are still being developed to be more reliable and easy to use and maintain.

Look at how good they are now compared with 10 years ago and it’s obvious considerable progress has already been made. I agree that there is still room for improvement, but how good were cars (for example) just 25 years after they were first mass produced? I would suggest they had progressed nowhere near as far as computers have in the same time.

Second, computers are extremely flexible and tend to be configured with components from a large number of different manufacturers. The computer might come from one company, the operating system form another, various drivers from a third, software from several others, and various peripherals from still others. It is almost inevitable that there will be some compatibility issues when all of these components interact.

Imagine if you bought a car from Ford, then put a Toyota engine in it, with an engine management unit from Mitsubishi and a gearbox from VW. Would you expect these parts to all work together easily? Clearly there are likely to be more issues with this approach, but that is basically what happens with many computers, especially Windows PCs. One reason Macs tend to give a lot less problems is that Apple provides more of the components (hardware, OS, drivers, and some of the software) which are more likely to work together in harmony.

Third, people tend to fine-tune and customise their computers far more than other technology. Traditionally computers have been completely open to reconfiguration by the owner, which has provided clear benefits, but a lot of problems as well. There are exceptions to this approach, for example the iPhone which is a much more closed system, but one where software conflicts, security issues, and crashes are almost unheard of.

To use my car analogy again, it would be like the owner being able to change the way components of the car worked. Would we be surprised if a car stopped working after the owner started fine tuning the engine management system, or disabled the cooling system, for example?

Finally, there has been (especially in the past but not so much today) a trend by major software and hardware companies to engage in a battle with their competitors to see who can create the computer with the best specs or the program with the most features without worrying too much about how relevant those specs were to the average user, or how well those features worked together.

We now have programs like Microsoft Word which can do almost everything but which does all those things really badly, or we have stuff like Flash which comes from the distant past and has just been added to in an attempt to keep it relevant. Both of these approaches result in more functionality theoretically but in less useful functionality in practice.

So when all of these difficulties are considered it’s fairly impressive that computers are as good as they are. It’s not clear which direction these trends will go in future. Apple is making its systems more closed which makes them more reliable, secure and consistent, but also less flexible and configurable. Microsoft is also reducing some of the flexibility of the past. But Google seems determined to offer maximum openness in its Android OS (and that has always been the case with Linux).

As I said above, it’s not clear which is the best approach, but it does seem to me that every other area of technology has become more closed off to the user (few people can service their cars now for example) while becoming more reliable and sophisticated. If that trend also applies to IT then maybe Google is taking the wrong approach.

I think computers will continue to become more reliable and less prone to the problems we still get today, but even now I think a lot of progress has been made. Considering what we ask of them, modern computers (even PCs) are remarkably problem-free.

I seem to have spent a lot of time describing the first difficult element in computer support. The user is in many ways a far more fascinating topic but that will have to wait for another entry.

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