Thursday, 21 September 2006

Service packed

Our story starts with the release of Microsoft's Service Pack 2 for Windows XP. I believe it was quite a while ago.
I waited to see what the general opinion of this release was, and it turned out to be fairly good for a Microsoft release. However, there were some warnings: Apparently, Service Pack 2 didn't really go well with certain Intel CPU's and motherboards made to work with those CPU's (you can read all about it here), and as I am a proud owner of a non Service Pack 2 friendly CPU I decided not to install it. Its safety related enhancements hardly mattered to me anyway, so I lived life happily ever after without it.
That is, until several months ago my rather annoying Windows Update agent told me that support for Service Pack 1 would cease in October 2006, which would leave me vulnerable to all the Windows vulnerabilities to be discovered as of that point in time (and probably many of those that were already discovered, too). I had to do something about it.
I tried investigating to see whether my particular combination of CPU, BIOS version and motherboard were susceptible for the Service Pack 2 problems using the Intel diagnostic utilities mentioned in the above link. Alas, this didn't get me anywhere: the utilities say something like "if the result you get is 0, you're not ready for Service Pack 2, but if it's 1, you are". Well, they don't say what the outcome is if the result is neither 0 nor 1, which was the case in my case.
I searched a bit more and found a patch made by Microsoft that is supposed to prevent the problem in the first place. However, given that this was a Microsoft patch, one can never know whether to trust it or not.
Eventually I just decided to take the dive: If Service Pack 2 works, then it works; if it doesn't, then it would be time to reinstall Windows all over again, something one has to do from time to time anyway given the "impressive" stability of all Microsoft products.
I backed up all my files on my external 300gb hard disk, and took the dive, and... it worked fine. Fine minus an incident or two.

And what follows is an account of one of those incident, which took place very late last night.
I connected my Toshiba Gigabeat S60 MP3 player to my desktop in order to acquaint it with the latest crop of ripped CD's (I'm now about 80% of the way through my CD collection).
I did a synch with Windows Media Player, the software used by the Toshiba for synchronization. It all looked fine and quick, and I was happy and about to go to bed.
Then I noticed something about my MP3 player: it only had 15 songs on it. It should have had something like 7500 songs occupying some 35gb of space, but instead it had 15 songs over less than 100mb! Something very wrong took place.
It didn't take much of an investigation to figure out what took place here: the installation of Service Pack 2 has reset the settings of Windows Media Player from "manual synch" to "auto synch". This meant that instead of Windows Media Player uploading just the new songs to the player, it did a complete synch - that is, it uploaded the new songs, but removed all the old songs.
And thus, in 1.5 seconds and without any warnings at all, it managed to delete 35gb of songs. Just like that! If ever there was an event that so fully captured the spirit of a Microsoft product, that was it.
Luckily, I have all of my music collection stored on my 300gb external hard drive, which is very suitably named "Backup". So after an hour of so of a really tough synchronization, which left my Toshiba player rather too warm to the touch, I had all my music back on my MP3 player.
But the questions remain:
  1. How could Microsoft design a product that would let a user so easily delete so much information?
  2. Why is it that I need to maintain copies of my music on my hard drive, instead of using my player as my primary storage? What is the point in having a hard disk based player if you cannot count on it for securely storing stuff in the first place?
I think the answer to the second question is some sort of an anti piracy initiative made by both Apple and Microsoft. Basically, they want you to pay for downloading music protected using nasty DRM technology which means you have to keep a copy on your hard drive; they definitely do not want you to visit all your friend and upload each of their collections into your player without paying for it. And in order to support this policy of theirs, they design their players to be inadequate when it comes to the thing each storage device is supposed to do best: reliably store information.

My final point is with regards to the new Microsoft Zune MP3 players (photographed above).
These players will be made by Toshiba, running the same software and featuring the same interface as my current Toshiba S60. Just check the photo of my S60 here and compare it to the photos above: it's exactly the same, except that the trademark Toshiba hard cursor like buttons have been replaced with a poorly imitated iPod like wheel.
The Zune is supposed to have wireless capabilities to enable you to download music without a wired connection; I also truly hope it has a better battery than the one on my S60 (the newly announced iPods are supposed to have significantly better power sources). But the point is, it is essentially the same player as the one I have.
Which essentially means that its users are going to face similar Microsoft nightmares to the one I had last night.

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