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Compatibility Suckage

Every so often, the compatibility pigeons come home to roost, and you just have to grin and bear it. Last night was one of those evenings. 

Exhibit A: My faithful Toshiba Tecra A1 laptop.  I’ve had this PC since the spring of 2004, so, while it’s getting old, it’s not dead yet.  Some time back I decided to scrub it, and reinstall everything fresh.  That’s where the trouble started. I had assumed, incorrectly, that I could just grab a Windows disk (got a bunch of them around the house), load it up, type in the key on the certificate of authenticity with the OEM PC and… bob’s your uncle, it should just work.  Boy… was I wrong.  

The first thing that happened was that the standard XP install wouldn’t accept the key that was on the PC.  I phoned Microsoft, and then three different numbers at Toshiba, and eventually learned that I had an OEM key, and this would require the Toshiba OEM version of the operating system disks. “Oh”, said I, “could you just send me one?” “I can sir”, said the polite young lady (PYL) on the other end of the phone, “how would you like to pay for that?” 

Now, wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute here!  Pay?  I’ve already paid for the OS, when I bought the darn PC!  Well, it transpires that Toshiba will send me a “recovery” disk, and cost for that is $65.  $65 for a 50 cent piece of plastic, plus whatever Toshiba charges for “handling”.

At this point, I am beginning to feel extreeeeeeemely taken advantage of.   The PYL on the other end of the line explains that I should have a recovery disk already, and that this is merely the replacement cost if I have lost it.  I explain to the PYL that I never received a disk, and I feel extreeeeeeeemely upset to have to pay for something I’ve already paid for.  The PYL and I talk for a while, and eventually she promises to call me back after talking to her supervisors.  Suprise surprise, she never does call back. I go ahead and cheat the system by putting in one of my Windows license keys on the standard OS and it installs.  It’s at that point, though, that the compatibility turds hit the fan.  The standard Windows XP install doesn’t have drivers on it for the Tecra’s graphics card, sound system, or network system.  Essentially, my laptop has become a brick unless I pay Toshiba $65.   I telephone in several more times, each time speaking to a different PYL and hoping to get a CD from them, and each time getting the same answer. 

Toshiba, you suck.  You didn’t have to make it so hard to reload the OS.  It would have cost pennies to drop the disk I needed into the box when I bought the laptop, and at most a buck or two to send the disk when I wanted it.  Microsoft, you suck for not making the drivers I needed available on Windows update. 

Exhibit B: Windows Vista.  Eventually, I decided “what the hay, I’ll try Windows Vista” on this laptop.  I know, it’s a little radical, but I do it anyway.  I download the image from the MSDN, back up my hardrive, format, and install.  Wouldn’t you know it?  Vista has the drivers I need. Yeah, it’s slow, and some of the software I rely on (like the iotum Icetray) doesn’t work, but at least I’m up and running. 

Hmm…..

Fast forward to today.  I am about to install Vista Beta 2. I had to remember that Microsoft broke the file tree by moving Music and Pictures out of documents, which breaks another Microsoft product I rely on (Foldershare) but it was generally a pretty smooth install… except that it had to be done clean, because the Vista installer for Beta 2 crashes when run under the CTP… but I digress.  While I’m at it, I download Office 2007 beta and install that as well. 

So far, so good.  Install Skype 2.5… Sweet! Install Foldershare… restore my files… this rocks!  Install Gizmo Project… BOOM.  It’s beta… what can you expect?  In general, Beta Software sucks, but Microsoft, you didn’t have to break my applications by doing dumb things like moving directory names around.

Exhibit C: Skype.  Everybody rags on Skype for using a proprietary protocol to move their traffic around.  That’s a compatibility nightmare.  So, imagine how compelling something like GnomeLink (basically the NCH SwiftSound Skype to SIP Uplink) is.  Install on your PC, and presto, Skype calls get routed to your home phone via PhoneGnome.  I didn’t know how it worked, but I learned last night. 

I was working on a presentation on the big Athlon I’ve got in my home office.  This fella gets overloaded.  It’s my office PC, a music server for a couple of UPnP music boxes I’ve got, and a family PC used by a lot of people. About 9 PM Andy Abramson Skypes me.  It rings on my telephone, thanks to GnomeLink, and I am now talking to Andy, gratis.  He called me free on Skype, and I answered it free, on my phone line.  And it’s all free because of Skype’s zero cost North American calling promotion. ‘cept, there’s a brutal echo. Andy says “let’s switch to Gizmo, I’ve noticed it doesn’t echo as much”.  Sure says I. I’ve got virtually every soft client known to man installed on this thing.  That’s when the gates of compatibility hell are opened, and I enter purgatory.

You see, the Skype uplink program has grabbed my USB sound drivers.  That’s how it does its magic.  Since Skype has a proprietary protocol, it gets around that by pretending to be a sound device, having Skype play sounds on that imaginary device, and then rerouting the packets via SIP to PhoneGnome.  It’s a very clever hack.  But it also breaks every other USB headset on the system, even when it’s turned off.  Essentially, Gizmo is no good to me unless I dig out one of my legacy headsets and plug it into the soundcard.  Moreover, I can’t just turn this hack off.  The driver is still held by the NCH program.  I can’t kill it, I can’t reboot… it’s a Zombie, and it won’t stop chasing me!

Skype, you suck! Forcing hacks like the NCH Uplink programming on us because you refuse to be compatible with standards puts you in the same league as the trust barons of the 19th century. 

Compatibility is the bane of every PC users existance whether it’s a result of stupid business decisions, or dumb engineering decisions.  Using a PC doesn’t have to be, nor should it have to be, this difficult.

At this rate, I may just go buy a Mac.

{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Frank Miller May 26, 2006, 5:40 am

    I gotta comment on your soft client woes with Windows.

    This is probably not what you would expect but, quit whining, it could be worse, you could be running on Linux! Having first hand experience with this, I'm here to tell you, you Windows users have it easy! The Windows sound subsystem is so much more advanced than Linux. Linux has just now gotten to the point where they are thinking about a generic multi-access mixing system that sits in front of the soundcard(s). Skype's hack is basically what happens with every single application under Linux, one app grabs the soundcard, an MP3 player, a softphone, a DVD player, whatever, and everything else is shut out. Its awful. Now there are things like Jack out there but they are not that stable and definitely not widely deployed so, you're screwed.

  • Jim Courtney May 26, 2006, 6:15 am

    As one who has become quite familiar with Skype, Skype hardware and the USB drivers associated with Windows Sound Device settings over the past month, the problem is NOT Skype's. The problem is that neither NCH's Uplink (not a Skype product) nor PhoneGnome are Skype Certified. If you look at the Skype Certification program, you will find guidelines that, fundamentally, these products do not adhere to. This is a classic case as to why Skype has its Cerfication program. More at:
    http://www.skypejournal.com/blog/archives/2006/05
    http://www.skypejournal.com/blog/archives/2006/05
    http://www.skypejournal.com/blog/archives/2006/05

    Bottom line: Skype has tightened up their certification program to encompass the fact that installing new USB drivers cannot kill old ones (as I have experienced with one sound card's drivers used in several products.) More to follow on Skype Journal.

    (Oh, and when I phoned Dell for replacment OS CD's, they arrived the next business day at no cost to me.)

  • Rick Claus May 26, 2006, 8:48 am

    I've had similar problems troubleshooting a re-install on many friends and families laptops / machines that have "recovery CDs". Nice twist to go with Vista Beta 2 – bravo! I am glad that you decided to try out Beta 2 for Vista and that it seems to be working for you on your hardware. I've been running it on my primary production machine (Toshiba Techra M2) for a number of months to help out our DogFooding effort.

    As for your A1, you should be able to get the drivers for your vanila XP-SP2 install, should you decided to go back to it… Even though it was an XP-SP2 CD you installed from, it wouldn't have had any driver updates/additions since XP was released – hence one of the reasons no drivers were present. I just checked Toshiba's DL site to find over 42 files available for your Tecra A1. I can pass you the link if you like – it's rather long to post here. I do have to admit – I am not a fan of a recovery disk as an option for a machine re-install for a technical person, but it is a necessary evil for non technical people. I can't see my 65 year old father-in-law try to do a bare bones clean install and then get drivers working without a recovery disk option. For a tech person who wants to build a clean install – it's not the best solution.

    Whenever I have a friend or family member who is purchasing a new system and the option comes up for getting the recovery CDs OR the OS install CDs, I always recomend they opt for the second option.

    If you would like some help getting your Toshiba A1 up and XP'ized again, drop me a line. I'm local and I'd be more then happy to help.

    If you wanted to learn more about Windows Vista Beta 2 or Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2, my team from Microsoft Canada is dropping by Ottawa June 6th to do a free full day show on the technologies. I'll be working the "Ask the Experts Booth".

    Visit http://www.microsoft.com/canada/technet/future/ for more details on the tour stop.

  • Dave Siegel May 26, 2006, 9:25 am

    Let us know if your compatability problems lessen after you get that Mac. :^)

  • Alec May 26, 2006, 11:55 am

    Rick – I'd love some help. Really all I need is the disks, which Toshiba is not willing to part with.

  • Luca May 26, 2006, 12:37 pm

    With Gizmo, the same problem for me. "BOOM" too many times, also on 80% of my collegues' PCs.
    I'm going to buy a Mac as well 😉

  • mac user May 26, 2006, 5:25 pm

    A Mac is not the solution, but the beginning of a new set of problems.

  • MatthewS May 26, 2006, 8:52 pm

    I would encourage you to buy a Mac big brother. You should have at least one in the house! And you can always load windows on it if you really want to.

  • David Beckemeyer June 1, 2006, 3:00 pm

    Jim Courtney: Skype certified or not, does not change the fact that at the network-level Skype is closed, so third-parties are forced to connect to the Skype App, not the Skype network.

  • Alec June 1, 2006, 3:27 pm

    No, it doesn't, does it David? At minimum, Skype could choose to document the protocol.

  • Daniel July 8, 2006, 6:33 pm

    For your Toshiba A1 Laptop, all you needed to do was go to the Toshiba website (www.toshiba.ca if you're in Canada) and look for the download section.

    I recently reformatted my A1 Tecra with XP SP2 and installed all of the downloads from the site – laptop is running smoothly.

    Unfortunately, I don't have a removable floppy drive, and can't install the BIOS upgrade (the one that is SUPPOSED to install in Windows keeps tellin me it's not the right file – even though it has to be!)…

    I'm shocked that the Toshiba Rep you talked to didn't refer you to the website, as it would have gotten you out of her hair as well as solving your problem.

  • Alec July 10, 2006, 7:45 am

    Daniel, I don't know why I wasn't referred to the website, but I wasn't. A big problem for me would have been the fact that the Windows XP install disk didn't have the drivers for the network card.  I wouldn't have been able to install this way unless I had first downloaded all the drivers, and burned them to a CD, because, like you, I have no external floppy disk. In any case, thank you for the tip. The laptop is currently running Windows Vista beta 1.   

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