Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Originally published 2002 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


One of the axioms of information technology is that that most computer users' PC-wrangling abilities suck. Seriously. They suck raw eggs. Through a very thin straw.

Tech folklore has forever immortalised the cup holder story, the foot pedal story, and the power outage story.

After recounting a few more recent additions to the canon of Bitter Tech Support Person Humour, the Bitter Tech Support Person with whom you've for some reason decided to have a few drinks is fairly likely to advance the idea that some sort of compulsory test-based qualification system should be put in place to stop this sort of thing from happening.

Computer licenses, in other words.

Clueless computer users can cause harm to people besides themselves, after all, by accidentally running open mail relays and unpatched IIS servers and such. Or just by driving Bitter Tech Support Persons past the point where coming to work with a faraway look and a really heavy gym bag starts to look like a marvellously good idea.

So computer use should be a privilege, not a right. Like driving. You can ride a bike without a license; people who don't have a computer license should be allowed to use some analogously less powerful kind of computing device, like a WebTV. But if they want to be allowed to assemble and use and upgrade a real, general-purpose computer, then they'll have to demonstrate that they know not to put motherboard standoffs in places where there aren't motherboard holes, and not to send HTML e-mail created by Microsoft Word, and not to put their CPU cooler on backwards. Or else they'll, they'll, they'll be flogged. Thassright. Barkeep! More absinthe!

This sort of argument has many variants, of course.

Since graphical-interface operating systems first appeared, there've been old-school gurus grumbling that you shouldn't be allowed to use any computer, personal or otherwise, unless you can handle a command line. And that you shouldn't be allowed to use a good computer unless you can write Towers of Hanoi in the shell of your choice. Which had better be the same shell as the guru uses. Or else.

Today, we've got Linux enthusiasts who're OK with the idea of driving your OS with a GUI at least some of the time - but if you're not running Linux and using whatever their religious-favourite window manager is, you're a point-and-drooler, and unworthy of notice. Fortunately, the My Computer/OS/Window Manager/Chosen-Shoelace-Colour Is Better Than Yours kids do usually mature into actual human beings. Some of them then end up in tech support, though, and then it all comes flooding back.

Some of the people who advocate computer licenses may actually mean it. Most of them are exaggerating for comic effect. What they really want is for people to realise that computers are still difficult to use.

That's right, J. Random Compaq Owner, the salesperson didn't say that. Go and punch the salesperson in the nose, then, if it makes you feel better. Because computers, and PCs in particular, are still difficult to use.

If you're a user who hasn't come to terms with this fact, then doing so will take a great weight off the shoulders of the people you bother with your PC problems.

I'll now trot out the Oldest Technology Analogy Known to Humankind - the car one.

In the early days of the automobile, the car-owning experience was not an easy one. You couldn't just press this pedal for faster, and that one for slower, and turn the wheel in the direction you wanted the machine to go. You had to do things like double-declutching - releasing and re-engaging the clutch not once but twice when changing gear, because your jalopy's non-synchromesh gearbox had to have neutral properly engaged before you could get it into another gear.

These days, double-declutching is for truck drivers and rally racers and show-offs. Today's computing irritations will, most likely, similarly be the domain of industrial and very specialised computing only, in a decade or three.

We're past the point where we have, figuratively speaking, to carry all of our petrol with us because the planet only contains 20 places where we can buy more than two ounces of it at a time. PCs are, generally, considerably easier to use and maintain than they used to be.

I haven't, for instance, had to wrestle with an IRQ conflict for ages. Both Windows and Mac users who've upgraded to the current OS versions no longer have to reboot all the danged time; their computers no longer crash daily as a matter of course. Built-in automatic OS features that do things that separate apps also do are now actually sometimes useful. USB and FireWire more or less work, and beat the pants off parallel and RS-232 and the eldritch rituals that often attended SCSI device compatibility inducement.

But, generally, we're still at the stage where you have to know how to double declutch. You might not like the fact that you have to know that, you may wish that you didn't have to know that; tough. You still have to know.

People shouldn't have to learn lots of abstruse stuff just to be able to write a letter, of course. In the analogue world, the pen-and-paper letter writing system is a pretty straightforward one.

But PCs let you write letters and paint pictures and edit video and recreationally kill people who live on the other side of the world. It's not entirely surprising that such gigantically complex general-purpose information processing devices, selling for well under 10% of the average Western annual wage, are just a tad tricky to get to grips with.

There's a part of me that finds the idea of brutally enforced computer licenses highly appealing. Pocket-protectored compliance squads kicking down the doors of people who tried to get a warranty replacement on a video card that they pushed into the slot while the computer was on. That works for me.

In the real world, though, all we need is for new computer owners to have a more accurate idea of what they're getting themselves into.

So, first, let's kill all the marketing people.

Who's with me?

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