September 2, 2013


How Microsoft’s Albert Carter took control of Olivia’s new MacBook Air, and deleted stuff…

This is such a 21st century story. Imagine my annoyance as someone in a land far away was able to take control of Miss O’s new computer, and delete the record of the Live Chat conversation we were having before I could copy it, in order to take the record of the extraordinary chat somewhere it could do some good. This is the back story:

We bought a new 11″ MacBook Air yesterday; a custom build (max RAM, i7 fastest chipset, etc.); we then faced the task of ‘migrating’ all of her present applications and data files over to the new machine. Accordingly, we made a Time Machine backup (because the Airs do not have an Ethernet port, and Thunderbolt can’t be used by Migration Assistant; and Time Machine backups are supported for this function) and, after de-activating all Adobe software, 27 minutes later, the backup was complete and error-checked.

Now, in addition to the Creative Suite, she uses Microsoft Office 2011, too. You might think ‘Office 2011 is so yesteryear’; I know, but the back story to this part of the back story is that we bought Microsoft Office 2013 earlier this year and it was crap: major bugs—Miss O may weigh in here and add detail. So, we took it back after seeing plenty of other ‘this software is complete shite’ reviews, got our money back, and Office 2011 was re-installed after uninstalling 2013. Each install of a version of Office requires a process called “Activation”; I am sure readers have been there themselves.

The two parallel sets of problems began when we tried to open Adobe’s Dreamweaver, now part of Creative Suite 4: the resulting error message (150:30) when searched for on the net reveals gems like THIS; click if you want a headache. Byzantine hardly begins to describe the suggested fix processes (theres not one, there’s nine); and the first two ‘solutions’ were not even possible: the file you are supposed to delete did not even exist on the new machine.

And a glance down the rest of the multiple ‘fix’ levels showed that even Adobe does not give a rat’s ar$% for its customers:

Show me you care

The list has not even been completed, and clearly has not been checked.

Contacting Adobe’s Live Chat was a complete waste of 40 minutes; the position the tech took (after futzing around completely unhelpfully for 35 minutes, and all of this in a Live Chat type-only interface) was that CS4 was now two generations old, and tech help only applies to CS5.5 and CS6. His solution was to say ‘we can’t help you; and that’s what’s written on the Adobe site’ (that tech help only applies to current versions). Why not say that 40 minutes before?

So, going old-school, I used App Zapper to delete all software and all system-generated Adobe files, and then reinstalled the entire Creative Suite 4 afresh. The installer accepted the serial number and, once installed, allowed activation. That problem is solved, and she has been able to edit her Rowing Australia site several times since without a problem.

Now to the fun part: opening Word from the Microsoft Office suite brought up the Activation dialogue; entering the correct product key brought up an error message with the words “Product has been activated too many times”. WTF? It’s true that Miss O and I change our machines annually (or more often sometimes), but we bought a three-person ‘Family’ pack, and there is zero indication anywhere of any limit to the number of times the product can be activated on one’s computers.

As an aside, other software vendors control activation one’s email address being registered with them, and it works perfectly for the other 30-odd softwares I use. Both our emails are registered with Microsoft; and from the user’s perspective, that approach looks like a reasonable way to control piracy. I run Office on both my machines, and she runs the third copy on her single machine; all should be legal and A-OK. Not so, apparently.

So I tried phone activation; that did not work either—after entering the nine strings of six numbers from the Activation pane multiple times via the phone’s keypad, I was connected to a number that has no one attending it—three times. A google search revealed a hidden technique: if you dial the Help number, and say nothing and press no keys, then (after listening to all the options three times, a process that took four minutes and was only marginally preferable to root canal work sans anaesthetic), then you get a live person.

This person listened to my description of the problem; and promptly handed me over to tech person #2, who (of course) knew nothing of the immediately previous conversation and needed the entire explanation once more. Tecchie #2 yielded a six digit number that I was told to enter into a particular window that I had been navigated to, via the phone. This URL connected me to a a Microsoft Help portal, and clicking on the link downloaded, then installed “LogMeinRescue“. My “conversation” in the Chat window within LogMeInRescue began with someone who identified herself as Deborah.

Now, the scary stuff begins: I “talked” with Deborah, tech #1, and explained the problem for the seventh time; she promptly handed me over to Albert Carter, tech #2. I described the entire background once again, and asked Albert to reset the Activations register, as I owned the software, and had been using it in the way it was advertised as being able to use; Albert replied, “Certainly”.

Albert then asked to take control of my machine to look inside the registries ‘to see if I can work out where the problem is); I said OK. Not only did he do that (I could see the logs of all the places he copied from and/or visited), he looked through all my Applications, Preference panes, and all this at lightning speed (might have been an automated process, thinking on it now). As well, he looked through the Documents folders and elsewhere, and then declared that I had “two options”: a ‘OneTimeFix ($59.95 + GST) or an escalating series of “Help” options, including the $399 + GST one, where Microsoft would remotely take control of my machine on a regular basis and “clean the registries and caches…” and a whole lot more. I declined, and said that I did all that routine OS maintenance myself, already, and we had had no problems up to now.

I then repeated my request for having him reset the Office suite Activation register; he insisted that my only option to be able to use software I legally owned was to pay more money; the $59.95 + GST was the cheapest option.

I told him (still via the typing interface) that was disappointed in his response. I then said that I was copying all our Live Chat to take the discussion up the line (and was about to move my cursor to the window)—whereupon he once again took control of my machine, selected and deleted the entire record of the interaction, closed down LogInRescue, and vanished.

Miss O and I looked at each other—what just happened? Is this the face of Modern Microsoft? Was this series of actions even legal? Was this even Microsoft’s real Help site???

I decided immediately to search for alternatives to MS Office—and there is one: Open Office, an open source program. It’s free, and regularly updated. Miss O and I tested it; it opens and edits all Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents, has the identical command sets, and a nicer looking interface as well. We brought App Zapper out, locked and loaded, and zapped every Microsoft product on her machine; ran Cocktail and repaired Permissions. We are hoping that Albert does not reappear. It’s anxiety provoking, frankly: this individual has been deeper into the hardware and software than the machine’s owner has.

On reflection, it’s clear that Adobe and Microsoft both are doing their best to push customers to an on-going payment scheme (on Adobe’s side, it’s their “Creative Cloud” pay-by-the-month-forever solution; on MS’s side, it’s forcing users to enter maintenance contracts simply to be able to continue to use software you own). I say no to both. We do own CS3 and CS4 separately, and these copies are working on our machines (presently), but over time we will be searching for other open source alternatives to these programs, too. I find the business practises of both these companies to be utterly unacceptable and coercive—and, for all I know, some of their actions may even border on illegal; personally, I find them repugnant. I will never use a Microsoft product again, of that I am sure.

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