music, opinion and technology

“It should all just work”…

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Why are PCs so problematic? Can’t it all just work? No. Why not? Because PCs and software are as complicated as they are because that’s what we, the users want. When it comes to games, we’re not happy to stay back in the days of Donkey Kong and Tetris, are we?

Microsoft is the target of most complaints about system instability, crashes etc. But: they can’t do it all, so Intel make the chips, ATI / NVidia etc make the graphics and motherboard chipsets, and there are thousands of makers of accessories. Apple claimed that they were more stable because they did it all, but all they were actually doing was forcing you to buy stuff with their brand on it, and even then it isn’t that reliable. And now we have the same situation with the XBox, which is specified and controlled by MS, but not made by them at all.

When Windows XP came out a few years ago, Microsoft publicly talked about one specific change they made to the architecture to get better graphics performance. The graphics driver would operate at a higher “runlevel” that gave it direct access to the Hardware Abstraction Layer, but if there was a driver problem, it would be much more likely to crash the PC. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the time, and a general expectation that graphics driver crashes would be more widespread, but MS made their driver testing and signing more stringent. Or, you install a video driver that MS has not tested and signed, and it warns you. So the expected crisis never happened, and we get decent graphics performance today.

The problem that inspired today’s rant was an attempt to play online games with a friend who lives in the United Arab Emirates. On his side, the ISP uses Network Address Translation (NAT) for all customers, meaning that I can not make a direct inbound connection, because he is not actually on the Internet, as such.

But NAT is common and widely used, and I even use a little wireless router that offers that facility, and this is why we have an intermediary service such as GameSpy. It’s even built in to the game we’re trying to play (Civilization IV), so what’s the problem there?

“It should all just work”… but “it” is 2 different PCs and ISPs in different countries, with a public Internet in between, where anything goes. Nevertheless, it did all just work last weekend, and rather well too. Between last weekend and this something changed. After a lot of troubleshooting and experimentation, I came to the conclusion that my ISP must be filtering ports. I expect they will have an excuse like “it’s for security”. I’ve only had this service for two weeks.

Meanwhile, back in the UAE, there is only one public ISP, Etisalat, which enjoys an almost complete monopoly, which seems to be the natural state of affairs in a monarchy. They filter the websites available to all their customers, and have blocked the ability to log on to Skype, the free Voice-over-IP (VoIP) service, to preserve their lucrative communications monopoly.

“It should all just work”… and it could, if people could just leave well enough alone! To be continued…


Written by brian t

December 10, 2005 at 6:10 pm

Posted in technology, work

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