When even a power-cycle fandango cannot save your Windows desktop

On Call It’s Friday! Come board the On Call bus to a time when Program Manager was king and Windows was a mere teenager.

Today’s dip into the archives comes from a Register reader dubbed “George” by the Regomiser and takes us back to the golden days of Windows 3.11.

George’s task back then was providing tech support to a team of researchers, some of whom were clearly not entirely at ease with the then new world of windows, icons, menus and pointers.

“The librarian,” he told us, “was a sweet, kind person, full of knowledge about labour law and card indexing systems, and was one of the first in her team to get a PC.”

Her knowledge, alas, did not extend to the workings of Program Manager.

For the impossibly young, Program Manager was the Windows 3.x (and NT 3.x) shell. It consisted of icons arranged into program groups. Those icons would launch applications such as File Manager, Excel, and so on.

Solving a big, yellow IT problem: If it’s not wearing hi-vis, I don’t trust it


Windows 95 did away with the poor thing in favour of the Start Menu and Windows Explorer, a move that generated nearly as much gnashing of teeth as the dumping of the Windows 7 Start Menu did many years later.

By default, Windows 3.11 would “remember” where the icons and program groups were so that on restart a user’s configuration would be as it was left. This was all well and good, except in the case of this librarian, who would accidentally delete or move around the icons, “leaving her desktop looking like a box of Lego strewn across the screen, every day,” according to George.

“She was always mystified when it happened, swearing that’s how she found them in the morning.”

Ah yes, those pesky evil Program Manager pixies. Coming in the night and fiddling with the desktop.

Every morning George would get a call from the librarian, wailing that all her work had been lost. Every morning he would bound up the five flights of stairs (using the fire escape because the lift was always out of order). And every morning George would rearrange the desktop icons and warn the user not to delete or move them around.

Eventually George worked out what he needed to do to stop the PC retaining the messed-up desktop and boot back to a pristine configuration every time.

“I changed the setting in triumph,” he said, “and explained that if she ‘lost her work’ she must just reboot. I showed her how to reboot and went back downstairs, looking forward to a future of quiet mornings without the daily step exercises.”

“Not two hours later,” he said, “she phoned. She had lost all her documents.”

Patiently, George explained that all that was needed was a reboot. The user, naturally, had forgotten how to do that.

“Just switch it off and switch it back on again,” said George.

Ten minutes later the phone rang again, and an increasingly tearful user insisted that everything was still missing.

George trudged up those stairs and, as expected, the icons had been messed up. Sighing, he asked the user why the PC had not been put through the power-cycle fandango.

She managed some indignation through the snot and tears: “I did! I switched it off and back on again!”

Gazing at the screen, George insisted that she could not have. However, being a kindhearted person, and conscious of the tears and wavering voice, George gave her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they’d stumbled over one of Windows’ many, many bugs. Perhaps this PC had missed the configuration update. Perhaps it was those evil Program Manager pixies.

George asked the user to try the reboot again.

Tearfully she did so, and hit the power switch.

Of the monitor.

Mystery solved.

Ever had a user swear that black was white, only to find the actual colour was a fetching shade of puce? Or had to draw upon reserves of goodwill that you’d thought were exhausted by a career in IT support? You have? Then perhaps the time has come to share your story with an email to On Call. ®

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