Wednesday 28 December 2011

Tools of the trade: Part 1

We like free things. A great many of the tools we use every day in our work are free. Many of these fall into the category of technical utilities, and some of them require a fair measure of expertise to use. On the other hand, some are pretty straightforward. There are a few products that we recommend to businesses and home users alike which are offered for free initially, with the option to upgrade if you like the product and want to get more out of it.

One of our favourites is Dropbox, a utility which allows you to synchronise a folder on your computer with the cloud. There are a few similar free products available, but what we like about dropbox is the ease with which it can be used, as well as the flexibility it offers.

In the first place it’s a simple way of making sure you are backing up important data offsite. There’s another trick up its sleeve though – it allows you to connect to the same cloud storage from different devices, be they Macs, PCs, iPhones or Android devices. This means you can easily share data between your devices, and whenever you make changes to a file on one device these changes are pushed out to your other devices.

Businesses can use it to share information both internally and externally – you can quickly create new folders and then send colleagues a link to that folder which allows you to create a collaborative workspace with the minimum effort.

Once you start using it in anger you may well want to upgrade from the free account, which has a 2Gb limit, to a paid-for account – it costs $99 for a 50Gb account and $199 for 100 Gb. This certainly isn’t the cheapest storage option, but when you consider the alternative of running a dedicated file server (as well as the responsibility of backing this up) it represents excellent value.

For home users a great tip is to use your Dropbox as your My Documents folder. In Windows Vista or 7 this is easy to setup. Simply right click on your My Documents folder then select the Location tab, click on Move... and select your Dropbox folder. When you hit OK it’ll ask if you want to move all your files and folders to the new location; click Yes and you’re done. 

Note: first check the size of your My Documents folder as music and photos will quickly push you over the 2Gb free storage limit.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Peace and Good Will to All Men

V lets me into her flat with a smile and offers me tea.  At 67 she’s a tiny woman. She leads me down the gloomy hallway, then turns, her eyes magnified by the thick glasses she’s wearing, and asks me if I need more light. I knew that she was partially sighted but it’s only when we get to her PC that I realise how poor her eyesight is. She holds her face four inches from the screen and peers at the huge icons that Windows Magnifier has increased to 400% of their original size. On a good day she’d represent a glowing triumph of the Windows 7 Accessibility suite, but today isn’t a good day.

Yesterday she’d been called by a man claiming that he worked with BT and that they’d identified a problem with her PC. Over the next hour he installed several tools that would allow him to access her PC and spy on every keystroke and mouse click. He also claimed to have installed a 12 year license for antivirus software that was remarkably conspicuous in its absence when I arrived. For some reason he also screwed up her Windows themes so that her colour scheme had changed to some contrastless brown mess, and more importantly she couldn't use the magnifier tool. So having messed with a woman who he knew to be almost blind, what else is he going to do but charge £150 to her debit card for the trouble.

Today I set about undoing his work. The task is made harder by the absence of Windows task manager which means I’m prevented from checking on the running processes, and that in itself is a sure sign of a malware infection. After fumbling around for a few minutes on a painfully slow machine I work out that the hardware is fine, so the performance is down to the malware. For ease of use I turn off the accessibility features that are blocking most of the screen and reboot into safe mode. We have a varying palette of tools according to the changing nature of the threats we meet – today it’s Combofix followed by Malwarebytes, two superb free tools that we rely on pretty much every day. Interestingly the remote tools installed by the scammer have been embedded with nasty payloads – classic Trojans that I swiftly delete. A couple of reboots later and everything is running at a good speed and along the way I remove shedloads of crap installed by the nasty man. Then I do a low level sweep for any AVG components that I suspect may have been doctored, before installing Microsoft Security Essentials which is one the best free antivirus packages out there.

Now that I’m working on a responsive PC it only takes me a few minutes to figure out the issue of the themes that are affecting the magnifier tool (it requires an Aero theme to be turned on). Somewhere along the way V takes away the cup of tea which I’ve let go cold and brings me another. Then we sit down and I make sure she’s able to use the PC again. I’m learning as much as her – because she can’t see them very well the huge icons (four to a full screen) have to be in the right place – the scammer had added a few of his own, and it’s a bit like someday moving the furniture about – until I’ve got rid of them she can’t find her way about. I’m impressed that she know the exact order of each of the 20 or so icons on her desktop.

At the end she wants to pay me, but I've already decided not to charge her – it is Christmas after all. But actually it’s more than that; I wouldn't want to profit from the actions of the scum who caused her the problem in the first place. We arrange to talk later about recovering the £150 from the bank- I just hope they share the same ethos. And as for good will to all men? I'm afraid that doesn't stretch to everybody today.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Thieves and Scoundrels

She is an attractive woman in her late twenties. Her accent is East-European but her command of English is fair to middling. She knows very little about technology, only that her laptop isn’t working. It’s soon evident that this is a motherboard issue, and we start by explaining that given the age of her laptop a repair wouldn’t be economical. We’re surprised by her claim that the laptop is only two years old, so we look up the specifications to confirm that manufacture of her particular model had stopped over four years previously.

It turns out that one of our local competitors had sold her the laptop a month earlier. She’d already been back to them but they had refused to look at the laptop without payment, so she’d come to us, as we do this for free. We advise her to return the laptop and insist upon a refund, but first we want to recover her data from the hard drive which is still working. And there’s surprise number two. The drive cover is removed to reveal a drive encased not in a drive housing but wrapped in corrugated cardboard and wedged into place. It’s amazing it’s still working as hard drives get hot, and wrapping them up in an insulating layer is a perfect way to kill a drive in very short order.

The absence of the drive housing is in itself telling – the original owner would have removed the drive for privacy reasons (always essential when you’re disposing of an old computer). If you are scrapping a laptop there’s no point in unscrewing the drive from the housing before getting rid of the laptop, which tells us that this laptop had been consigned to the scrap heap once already.

I return to my desk and return with a letter on headed notepaper for her to give to the other computer repair shop. In it I explain the concept of merchantable quality and warn them that if they don’t give her a full and immediate refund I, not the customer, would take up the matter with the local trading standards officer.

Sadly this is not an isolated incident – some of our local competitors even make national news. At present there's no recognised national trade body to represent consumer interests in our field. A few years ago  - we joined the Technology Channel Association only to discover that it did little to regulate its members; I remember smiling when I heard a critic describe it as a glorified golf club for the trade. After a year I wrote them a long letter explaining why I was leaving. I didn't get a reply.

So what does a consumer do if they want a trustworthy service? That's a question I can answer - over 70% of our business comes through referrals. A marketing consultant once took exception to this fact and insisted that it meant we were getting our marketing strategy completely wrong. I disagree. It turns out that all you have to do is ask a friend.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

On Changing Trends in Computer Hardware Problems

We often spot the most unlikely trends in hardware failure – it’s a bit like the old adage of waiting for ages, and then three come at once. This can be as simple as a specific model of laptop which will come in with, say, a failure of the graphics chip due to overheating. Followed quickly by several others of the exact same model. Sometimes this can be explained by, in this case, the first flush of spring bringing unseasonably warm weather to thermal paste that has spent a cold winter decomposing.

Sometimes it can be a little sinister – several laptops, again of the same make and model, all failing just days out of warranty, again with, GPU issues.

Nathan has recently spotted an new trend – we get an inordinate amount of MacBooks that come in  with damage caused by white wine spillage. Recently we’ve noticed that this has, with the colder weather, changed to red wine damage. I wonder if there’s a demographic indicator in there somewhere?

Wednesday 23 November 2011

An Introduction

People often ask me how I came about starting my company. There are many answers to this - I was looking for a fresh idea, the timing was right, and there was virtually no competent competition in this field back in 2004. But the real reasons are that I love building a company that change people’s lives, and I love the technology we work with, and the way it constantly changes.

My father was a great bridge player (a county master no less) and could knock off the Times crossword in 30 minutes. My own intellectual challenges come at me thick and fast all day, every day, as I try to ride the leading edge of a huge wave of new technology. I haven't completed a crossword in years; there simply isn't the time.

It wasn't always like this. Back in the late eighties when I first owned a PC I also had copies of a sizeable proportion of all the commercially available software that had been written at that time (some of it was even legal).

Ten year later that would have been impossible as the market for software was so much larger, but I was able to master the skills of windows server administration in just a couple of years.

Move on another decade and a single administrator will struggle to cover even half of the Microsoft server technologies that have been spawned from the original product family. 

The truth is that to even understand the capabilities of what we can do with computers is a full time job, and it’s a job I love.