A long walk to nowhere

OpenOffice (technically "OpenOffice.org") used to be clunky and slow and questionably compatible with Microsoft Office. But nowadays it's pretty darn good. I've recommended it to many people who need a proper office suite - or just a proper word processor or spreadsheet - but don't want to pay for MS Office, or rip it off.

(Which is not to say that I think you should pirate MS Office, but that does seem to be a pretty popular pastime, and it's silly to pretend that it's not at least an option for a lot of users.)

I just downloaded the current version of OpenOffice to install on this computer, though, and had one of those experiences that us computer suuu-per geniuses can deal with quite easily, but which would have been an utter disaster if I'd just sent some hapless Ordinary User off to openoffice.org to claim their free office suite.

I went to download.openoffice.org, and selected the friendly green option at the top of the list. That earned me a brief look at a "You are about to download OpenOffice.org..." page that redirected, long before any non-cyborg could have read its contents, to this PlanetMirror page.

I got sent to PlanetMirror because I'm in Australia, and so are they. As it turned out, this choice could have been better made.

I, like many of you faithful readers, have been on this particular fairground ride before. So I could quite easily figure out that the thing I wanted would be in the last of the listed directories - "contrib", "developer", "localized", "packages" and "stable". Never mind whether Great-Uncle Fred could figure this out, though; many perfectly competent computer users who know about backups and spyware and other such things would be taken aback by this.

Into "stable" I went, and then into "3.3.0", after briefly checking to make sure that 3.3.0 actually is the version number of the most recent stable release of OpenOffice.

(The "You are about to download..." page actually says "You'll find the OpenOffice.org downloads in the subdirectory stable/version", but only down at the bottom where you won't have time to read it. And I can just see a normal human being looking at these directories with numbers for names and saying "but there's isn't one called 'version'!")

Now PlanetMirror proudly presented an ordinary alphabetic view of all of the very-long-named OpenOffice 3.3.0 downloads, which thanks to alphabetic sorting put the Windows version right at the end, after the SPARC Solaris versions and the source-code archives.

Page down, page down... ah, there it is, "OOo_3.3.0_Win_x86_install-wJRE_en-US.exe". Obviously. So I click on it, and...

File not found.

After all that, the damn file is not actually there.

OK, no problem, how about "OOo_3.3.0_Win_x86_install_en-US.exe", the version that doesn't have the Java Runtime Environment bundled with it?

Nope, that's not there either.

Not a single damn file in that directory listing actually exists.

So I just said "oh, for pity's sake...", and headed off to ftp.iinet.net.au. IiNet is my ISP, and like many ISPs has a general-purpose FTP server dangling off its main domain like a vestigial organ (non-iiNet users probably can't access it).

OpenOffice is exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to find on such an FTP server, and indeed I do find it, in "pub", then "openoffice", "stable", "3.3.0", and then the same big list of big-named files, except now they actually bleeding exist.

I'm sure this OpenOffice.org/PlanetMirror Australian-download... issue... will soon be fixed. I shudder to think how many potential Aussie OpenOffice users have given up in entirely justifiable disgust, though. Anybody who already knew about BitTorrent would probably find it easier to rip off Microsoft Office 2010 than go through all this.

And I know, I just know, there's some poor Aussie geek out there on the phone to his mum, trying to walk her through the process and rapidly losing the will to live. You'd rather just e-mail the installer to her, if it weren't 150Mb.

Most, if not all, of the other official OpenOffice mirrors actually work. If, once again, you know what you're doing, you'll be able to go back to the "You are about to download..." page and whack Escape before it redirects, then click the "select a mirror close to you" link, which leads to this page. I picked one of the Indiana University ones, which actually works.

Even if the auto-redirection takes you to a working mirror, though, it could work a lot better. Obviously there should be a brightly-lit and cheerfully-signposted path directly to the Windows, Mac and Linux installers, not just a page-flip to an FTP directory that expects ordinary users to find their way down through "stable", et cetera, by either trial and error or mental telepathy.

I could have avoided this whole rigmarole by downloading LibreOffice instead. It's a recent fork of OpenOffice and thus far pretty much identical, and has exactly the sort of sane download page that I wish OpenOffice.org had. So I'm doing my best to search-and-replace OpenOffice with LibreOffice in my mental tech-support database. If I hadn't been writing this whinge-y blog post, though, I probably wouldn't even have remembered that LibreOffice existed.

I hereby throw the floor open for your own similar tales of woe. Bonus points will be awarded for each hour over the first two which you spent on the phone to a family member on any "five-minute" computing project.

16 Responses to “A long walk to nowhere”

  1. Bern Says:

    Ah, I'm sure there would be plenty of examples I could give you of the time I've spent on the phone to my dad... many would be something along these lines:
    "Ok, select 'options' from the 'Tools' menu, then click 'advanced'. Ok? Now click Now, does it work?"
    "Oh, no it doesn't. It pops up a window."
    "What does the window say?"
    "I don't know, I just clicked Cancel"
    "[sigh] Ok, run it again, but *DON'T CLICK CANCEL*"
    "The window says [some error message that points out the setting we've just spent the last 15 minutes configuring hasn't changed from it's previous value]"
    "Hmm, that's weird. You did click 'Save' for those settings under the 'Tools' menu, didn't you?"
    "Oh, no, I went to the 'Options' menu instead."
    "WTF DID YOU DO THAT FOR? THAT'S NOT WHAT I TOLD YOU TO DO!" [although I usually use more diplomatic language - it is my dad, after all]
    "Oh, I thought that might help..."
    My current technique is to get him to read out every single bit of what he can see on the screen, but DON'T CLICK ANYTHING until I tell him to. Then ask him if there are any other buttons, or messages, or textboxes, or anything that he didn't mention (there usually are, and often quite important ones!). Then get him to start all over again, because he clicked something...

    Or there's the time I bought a 40GB drive to replace his overflowing 8GB one, but had to image the old drive onto the new one because his 'got it from a mate' Windows CD refused to install thanks to WGA ["But it's a genuine copy, he told me!" "So why is it a burnt CD with the Windows licence key written on it with felt pen, then?"]. The imaging went ok, though took half a day of massaging to get it working smoothly. So I went home (a 4-hour drive away), thinking it was a job well done.
    Two days later, some cover-disc crapware started causing him a lot of problems. Before ringing me, he decided he'd re-image the HDD. And proceeded to image the 40GB drive onto the 8GB one...
    Luckily the crapware problems were solvable (with liberal use of the uninstall button in Control Panel - couldn't believe how much crap he had installed on there in only a few days!)
    Even now, he always installs at least 3 or 4 "computer cleaners" or "registry watchdogs" or whatevers... despite me assuring him that I haven't used any of those programs for 15 years, and my computers still all run ok - in fact, much, much faster than his. With a whole lot less bluescreens...

  2. perryizgr8 Says:

    i find open office very painful to use. i find the online cloud version of ms office running on bleeding edge chromium better (faster, less confusing) than the native oo running on ubuntu. also, office home/student version is quite cheap nowadays. i think i got a 3 license thing at ~50$.

    ps- your comment system is a bit confusing.

  3. corinoco Says:

    Two weeks ago, during all that wind we had, some trees fell on my parent's house. My wife and I went down there for the weekend to help clean up, cut up lots of fallen trees, and take photos of the place for the insurance company. Mercifully, they got away with only minor damage and a rather spectacularly destroyed solar hot water system.

    But I digress.

    I also took down my nice new shiny - an iPad 2 I won in a design competition. (Oddly, I only got second place - the lucky winner got a HP Z200 workstation! Needless to say, after we had been presented with prizes he offered to swap; I said no.) To show off my new shiny toy, I had to connect it to my parent's wifi point. Luckily I keep a list of all the passwords they use on their system, so it was easy.

    During my show-and-tell of the shiny (one of which my Dad now wants to be able to watch the Tour de France in bed) the conversation drifted to dad's HP/Compaq laptop. He told me how he had left it on one of the dining room chairs, and a neighbour had dropped round for a couple of drinks one evening, and ended up sitting on it for a couple of hours. It still works, says Dad. 'OK' thinks I.... file for later reference.

    So we head back home. As is customary, you phone parents to tell them you got home safe, especially when the wind was gusting over 100km/h when you left.

    Dad: "What did you change the wifi password too?"
    Me: "I didn't change it."
    Dad: "well my laptop won't connect, your iPad must have done something"
    Me: "no, it didn't. I just connected it. That won't effect your laptop."
    hmmm... the laptop that got sat on?
    Dad: "well it wont work, so help me fix it."

    At this point I will skip the rigmarole that is diagnosing a wifi problem on a HP/Compaq laptop running Windows Vista Home blindfolded, using another person as your eyes & hands. A very impatient other person, who clicks on things without telling you, clicks ahead while I'm still googling error messages - you know the drill. All I can say is thank science it wasn't Linux.

    We get to the point that I have diagnosed the problem as likely to be 'very common 2008 Compaq Presario v6000 wifi card death'.

    I explain this to Dad, leaving out the bit about how pissed off I was when he told me 2 years ago he had bought this run-out model laptop at Dick Smith (shudder) for a bargain of only $2,500! For a display model!

    A quick Google in 2009 before he bought it would have revealed the thousands of abusive forum posts, the anger at HP for peddling such shoddy laptops, the product recalls due to flaming batteries...

    The accepted fixes mainly involved 'buy a new laptop', but the more optimistic posts recommended a BIOS update to a new firmware that made the laptop switch on it's internal fans constantly. Some people reported success if the laptop hadn't been used too much since the problem. Dads had only been running for about 20 mins, so it was worth a shot.

    OK, lets get onto the HP support site.

    First problem - the HP support site. You've been there; it blows chunks. WHY do they give all files weird names like "SD334566.exe" when "Compaq_v6000_BIOS_V2_3_4.exe" would be mildly more helpful? Maybe they are serving their support FTP site on MSDOS6.22. The download speed would seem to indicate they are still using coax ethernet and Netware...

    Ah, now I've got the file it's 15MB. For a bloody BIOS. Oh, it's a 512k BIOS file supported by the customary 14.5MB of HP bloatware to load it. So I can't email it, and I don't feel like talking Dad through installing Dropbox.


    Talk Dad through downloading the file from HP support site. Much quiet cursing. My wife walks by; she hands me a glass of scotch with a look of concern.

    Me: "OK, has the download finished?"
    Dad: "yep"
    Me: "alright, we'll need to run this as Administrator, so right click on the file..."
    Dad: "What file?"
    Me: "the one we just downloaded. You did save it to the desktop didn't you?"

    I asked him to save it to the desktop as his Downloads folder is notoriously full of a year's worth of downloaded junk.

    Dad: "yes, I did, but now I can't find it amongst all the other icons"
    Me: "huh? what icons?"

    Over the years I have trained Mum & Dad to use folders, and NOT just save everything to the desktop.

    Dad: "I wanted to be able to find the file, so I moved all of the files from the Downloads folder onto the desktop; but then you said to copy it to the desktop anyway."

    protracted silence

    Me: "okay, open explorer..."
    Dad: "which one, Internet Explorer or Windows Explorer?"
    Me: *makes mental note to smash Gates & Balmer in the head with a hammer at earliest oppurtunity; adds mental note to large pile of similar mental notes*

    Several minutes later...

    Me: "right click on it and choose 'Run As Administrator' "
    Dad: "Ok, done that. It's asking me for a password."
    Me: "type in your Admin password" (it's sticky taped to the bottom of the laptop)
    Dad: "Oh, I didn't have to"
    Me: "umm... why?"
    Dad: "I got tired of typing it in, so I made a new password and left it blank"
    Me: *quitely curse myself for not setting a Group Security Policy for passwords*
    Dad: "Okay, it's doing something"

    Further to-and-fro of dialogue boxes, warnings, do-you-really-really-really-want-to-do-this boxes...

    Dad: "Right, it's saying it will take 3 minutes and CLICK" beep... beep... beep... the phone has cut out.

    I call back on the landline. "The number you have called it not connected" oh crap.
    I call on the mobile.

    Dad: "Hi, thanks for calling back, we just had another tree come down on the wires. We lost power again. This won't hurt the laptop will it?"
    Me: "Is it still going?"
    Dad: "No, it's switched off."
    Me: "what? what about the battery?"
    Dad: "Oh, I take that out when I'm at home because it keeps getting really hot."

    I'm looking forward to trying to recover the laptop the next time Dad is up in town.

  4. Itsacon Says:

    Let me put it this way. Installing remote assistance on the PCs of family members might be a security risk. But it'll probably make you live longer.

  5. Ziggyinc Says:

    I have replaced phone calls from my parents/in-laws with Hamachi and Ultravnc. Makes those calls that start with "I'm having a problem with my computer... very short. and when my son tells me " just let me finish this level dad!" i just log in and pause or shut him down.

  6. Pile of Pooh Says:

    And that, in a rather large nutshell, is why the OpenSource "movement" -- along with the umpteen zillion flavors de jour of Linux -- is still largely confined to basement-dwelling obscurity. I recently put Ubuntu on a repaired laptop which my wife had fried some time back. It was a simple job to install the OS; the problems came when I wanted to download anything remotely useful. Dropping to a command prompt to manually input installation instructions, route libraries, etc., is NOT an option for 99.999% of the home computer user base.

    To be fair, there are plenty of people who understand that this problem exists -- there just aren't many of them willing to address it, either with funds or time. Microsoft dominates the market for a very simple reason: they cater to the lowest common denominator. Penguin-heads and OpenSource champions (moreso the former than the latter), tend to have fully developed infections of elitism, and that's always a really bad approach to selling anything.

  7. Stark Says:

    The ONLY reason any of my family and friends are even allowed to have computers of any sort is LogMeIn. I have an account for my business needs and have all my family members and most of my friends setup as clients. As long as they don't actually manage to knock themselves offline I don't have to play the phone support game. I just log-in and take care of the issue.

    I highly recommend remote support tools of any kind. The increase in vulnerability they represent is nothing compared to the willful actions most people take everyday (Hey! It's Ok I put my credit card into a website that that came up with some sort of certificate warning that I had to click past 5 different warnings to get to right?). I firmly believe that remote desktop technology has saved many lives... namely all the people I'd have taken out when I finally snapped on the other end of a support call.

  8. mayhem Says:

    Teamviewer is your friend - it is easy to download, free for personal use, and very simple to talk someone through getting up and running.

    I've now supported several guildmates in Canada from the UK when they have computer issues, and its one of those great pieces of software that Just Works.

  9. Coderer Says:

    Can't believe nobody has mentioned Google Docs yet -- haven't had an office suite actually local to my machine for at least a year now, and no complaints.

  10. Fallingwater Says:

    When a file I'm searching for is not found in its proper location, my usual fix is just to google the filename in between quotes. This almost always results in something - a download page, a file listing, a rapidshare page, a torrent - that allows me to download it.
    Not that it'd be any easier than your method for Joe Average, of course...

    As for phone-walking people to do stuff, these days if I can't solve the issue in five minutes I give up. Standard answer is "either wait for me to be available, get the shop to do it, or contact your second-best choice of nerd".

  11. Fallingwater Says:

    Also, there's a better solution to downloading and installing an iso of Microsoft Office. There are now unauthorized "portable" versions of Office applications; they're as pirate as they can be, but much more practical than doing it the usual way - just doubleclick the program and off you go, thanks to some sort of clever emulation. This is useless if you need some specific feature that only full-fledged Office has (for instance, no way you could easily run Trados on portable Word), but for the average user the portable versions are perfectly useable.

  12. Alex Whiteside Says:

    I just remembered that Remote Assistance exists. Has anyone actually used it to help someone? I've seen one too many "placeholder" features in Windows to trust that it actually does what it claims.

  13. geewhizbang Says:

    Perhaps Libre Office will be better but so far all Open Office has managed to do is copy way too many of the worst features of Microsoft Word and then add a great stinking pile of bugs.

    Styles and templates, and autonumbering metaphors are too similar to the kludgey MS Word. If we are going to start over with an open format, it would make sense to implement something better.

    It is almost impossible to get a good looking table with columns and text rows properly aligned in Open Office. It also is very infuriating to save a document and then reopen it with the formatting badly messed up.

    So I went back to Microsoft Word. I don't like it very much, but at least it works.

  14. alphacheez Says:

    I'm surprised no one mentioned ninite.com. It does all the downloading and installing for you and doesn't select any of the cruft that is too often incorporated with free software installers like toolbars and such. You can find many of the free software and tools you'd want on the page and can run the .exe to update the software later.

    As mayhem mentioned TeamViewer is a great application to use for support when you need to just see what's happening yourself and make the changes yourself. It's nice for giving walkthroughs as well. I recently got my 83 y.o. grandfather set up with a new computer by mostly using TeamViewer which was downloaded via ninite.com.

    I did give up on setting up wireless router over the phone (it seems his DSL modem used the same default IP address as the router which caused all sorts of craziness.

  15. KD Says:

    Pile of Pooh @ 6: If you installed any recent version of Ubuntu, there should not have been a need to use command line tools to install applications.

    Did no one ever tell you about Synaptic and the Ubuntu repositories? Synaptic is a very easy to use graphical interface to installing applications on Ubuntu. It is entered from the Administration menu, found at the middle of the top of the screen. If you don't find what you want immediately, check to be sure that all of the repositories are checked in the dialog for specifying which sets of software you want it to search.

    Using Synaptic with the Ubuntu repositories makes application installation very easy, and the version of the software that gets installed has been verified to install and work properly on your version of Ubuntu (there are separate repositories for each version of Ubuntu). If you must install something that is not in the Ubuntu repositories, or a more recent version of something that is in the Ubuntu repositories, then you might have to resort to the command line. But as long as you are satisfied with what is in the repositories (and there are more than 30,000 packages available), you don't have to do that.

    (Sorry for being a couple of months late with this explanation -- I've been out of touch for a while and I'm just catching up.)

  16. suchan Says:

    My partner wanted ringtone of a clip from her favourite song on her iphone (Yolanda Be Cool's No Speak Americano, if you're interested), and I was too tight to spend $2 to buy it.

    Simple job for a tech, right?

    So I,
    1. Had to find the song online
    2. Register download site account
    3. Create fake email account for site account
    4. Wait for account to be activated
    5. Find Usenet download software
    6. Configure Usenet download software
    7. Configure gateway firewall to correctly port forward information
    8. Download tar/gz/rar decompression software
    9. Configure decompression software
    10. Trawl through 3116 copies of said song and similar nomenclature
    11. Didn't get right version, download several other versions
    12. Download PAR2 recovery software to restore broken downloads
    13. Download audio conversion software
    14. Convert audio file to uncompressed audio format
    15. Download audio editing package
    16. Download crack for said package
    17. Enable crack/more mucking around to make it work
    18. Crop file to specific part, add filters and head/tail fades for loopback match
    19. Save file as Nokia-specific format
    20. Download Nokia USB drivers
    21. Waste time trying to get these to work, fail
    22. Get more USB drivers, also fail
    23. Download Nokia PC suite
    24. Install Nokia software and configure
    25. Find it doesn't work with my phone anyway
    26. Transfer to my phone as a simple file over USB
    27. Enable and configure Bluetooth ad-hoc links between the phones
    28. Bluetooth file to her phone
    29. Set file as ringtone on her phone

    Or I could have installed iTunes, except Apple bloat/malware is banned from my system.

    4-5 hours and much frustration later... *sigh*

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