Personal Computers as Multistratal Technology

HP-Sure-Run-Error
HP “Sure Run” technology here getting into conflicts with the OS and/or computer BIOS itself.

As I was struggling through some operating system updates and other installs (and uninstalls) this week, I was again reminded about the history of personal computers, and about their (fascinating, yet often also frustrating) character as multistratal technology. By this I mean their historically, commercially and pragmatically multi-layered nature. A typical contemporary personal computer is a laptop more often than a desktop computer (this has been the situation for numerous years already, see e.g. https://www.statista.com/statistics/272595/global-shipments-forecast-for-tablets-laptops-and-desktop-pcs/). Whereas a personal computer in a desktop format is still something that one can realistically consider to construct by combining various standards-following parts and modules, and expect to start operating after installation of an operating system (plus typically some device drivers), the laptop computer is always configured and tweaked into particular interpretation of what a personal computing device should be – for this price group, for this usage category, with these special, differentiating features. The keyboard is typically customised to fit into the (metal and/or plastic) body so that the functions of a standard 101/102-key PC keyboard layout (originally by Mark Tiddens of Key Tronic, 1982, then adopted by IBM) are fitted into e.g. c. 80 physical keys of a laptop computer. As the portable computers have become smaller, there has been increased need to do various customised solutions, and a keyboard is a good example of this, as different manufacturers appear to resort each into their own style of fitting e.g. function keys, volume up/down, brightness controls and other special keys into same physical keys, using various keyboard press combinations. While this means that it is hard to be a complete touch-typist if one is changing from one brand of laptops to another one (as the special keys will be in different places), one should still remember that in the early days of computers, and even in the era of early home and personal computers, the keyboards were even much more different from each other, than they are in today’s personal computers. (See e.g. Wikipedia articles for: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_keyboard and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key).

The heritage of IBM personal computers (the “original PCs”) coupled with the Microsoft operating systems, (first DOS, then various Windows versions) has meant that there is much shared DNA in how the hardware and software of contemporary personal computers is designed. And even Apple Macintosh computers share much of similar roots with those of IBM PC heritage – most importantly due to the influential role that the graphical user interface and with its (keyboard and mouse accessed) windows, menus and other graphical elements originating in Douglas Engelbart’s On-Line System, then in Xerox PARC and Alto computers had for both Apple’s macOS and Microsoft Windows. All these historical elements, influences and (industry) standards are nevertheless layered in complex manner in today’s computing systems. It is not feasible to “start from an empty table”, as the software that organisations and individuals have invested in using needs to be accessible in the new systems, as also the skill sets of human users themselves are based on similarity and compatibility with the old ways of operating computers.

Today Apple with its Mac computers and Google with the Chromebook computers that it specifies (and sometimes also designs to the hardware level) are most optimally positioned to produce a harmonious and unified whole, out of these disjointed origins. And the reliability and generally positive user experiences provided both by Macs and Chromebooks indeed bears witness to the strength of unified hardware-software design and production. On the other hand, the most popular platform – that of a personal computer running a Microsoft Windows operating system – is the most challenging from the unity, coherence and reliability perspectives. (According to reports, the market share of Windows is above 75 %, macOS at c. 20 %, Google’s ChromeOS at c. 5 % and Linux at c. 2 % in most markets of desktop and laptop computers.)

A contemporary Windows laptop is set up in a complex network of collaborative, competitive and parallel operations networks of multiple operators. There is the actual manufacturer and packager of computers that markets and delivers certain, branded products to users: Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and numerous others. Then there is Microsoft who develops and licences the Windows operating system to these OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), collaborating to various degrees with them, and with the developers of PC components and other device makers. For example, a “peripheral” manufacturer like Logitech develops computer mice, keyboards and other devices that should install and run in a seamless manner when connected to desktop or laptop computer that has been put together by some OEM, which, in turn, has been combining hardware and software elements coming from e.g. Intel (which develops and manufactures the CPUs, Central Processing Units, but also affiliated motherboard “chipsets”, integrated graphics processing units and such), Samsung (which develops and manufactures e.g. memory chips, solid state drives and display components) or Qualcomm (which is best known for their wireless components, such as cellular modems, Bluetooth products and Wi-Fi chipsets). In order for the new personal computer to run smoothly after it has been turned on for the first time, the operating system should have right updates and drivers for all such components. As new technologies are constantly introduced, and the laptop computer in particular follows the evolution of smartphones in sensor technologies (e.g. in using fingerprint readers or multiple camera systems to do biometric authentication of the user), there are constant needs for updates that involve both the operating system itself, and the firmware (deep, hardware-close level software) as well as operating system level drivers and utility programs, that are provided by the component, device, or computer manufacturers.

The sad truth is, that often these updates do not work out that fine. There are endless stories in the user discussion and support forums in the Internet, where unhappy customers describe their frustrations while attempting to update Windows (as Microsoft advices them), the drivers and utility programs (as the computer manufacturer instructs them), and/or the device drivers (that are directly provided by the component manufacturers, such as Intel or Qualcomm). There is just so much opportunity for conflicts and errors, even while the big companies of course try to test their software before it is released to customers. The Windows PC ecosystem is just so messy, heterogeneous and historically layered, that it is impossible to test beforehand every possible combination of hardware and software that the user might be having on their devices.

Adobe-Update-Issue
Adobe Acrobat Reader update error.

In practice there are just few common rules of thumb. E.g. it is a good idea to postpone installing the most recent version of the operating system as long as possible, since the new one will always have more compatibility issues until it has been tested in “real world”, and updated a few times. Secondly, while the most recent and advanced functionalities are something that are used in marketing and in differentiation of the laptop from the competing models, it is in these new features where most of the problems will probably appear. One could play safe, and wipe out all software and drivers that the OEM had installed into their computer, and reinstall a “pure” Windows OS into the new computer instead. But this can mean that some of the new components do not operate in advertised ways. Myself, I usually test the OEM recommended setup and software (and all recommended updates) for a while, but also do regular backups, restore points, and keep a reinstall media available, just in case something goes wrong. And unfortunately, quite often this happens, and returning to the original state, or even doing a full, clean reinstall is needed. In a more “typical” or average combination of hardware and software such issues are not so common, but if one works with new technologies and features, then such consequences of complexity, heterogeneity and multistratal character of personal computers can indeed be expected. Sometimes, only trial and error helps: the most recent software and drivers might be needed to solve issues, but sometimes it is precisely the new software that produces the problems, and the solution is going back to some older versions. Sometimes disabling some function helps, sometimes only way into proper reliability is just completely uninstalling an entire software suite by a certain manufacturer, even if it means giving up some promised, advanced functionalities. Life might just be simpler that way.