Do we all need a personal system administrator?

My family has embraced the home computer. They use Hotmail to keep in touch with relatives. They use a scanner, despite absolutely terrible software that came with it (Canon). They use MSN Messenger to chat with friends (a lot). They use Microsoft Word to write papers, letters, and memos and print them off on an Epson printer ink-jet.

The trouble is, every few weeks, they’re Windows XP computer becomes overrun with spy-ware, viruses, and general crap. A knowledgeable friend told me that if you put a plain-old Windows XP, unprotected, directly on the Internet, it will be compromised in hours. I thought he was exaggerating. After another visit to my parent’s computer, I know that he is not.

They have pop-up windows coming up when you don’t even have a web browser running (some spy-ware app). I ran a slew of anti-virus and anti-spyware apps and discovered hundreds of unwanted apps and files.

The trouble is, I would rather dig ditches in the hot sun than do tech support. I am terrible at it. My girlfriend tells me that it uncovers an ugly and angry side of me. I have no patience. I find doing tech support more stressful than almost anything else in life. It is a massive personality/character flaw of mine.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that my parents do need someone to help them with their computer, and that I’m not sure I can do it. So what do I do? I thought about buying them an iBook (or eMac). That would solve a lot of the spyware/virus issues. However, I’m afraid it would uncover a whole slew of new issues. They would have to learn a new OS – not matter how good it is. I would be less able to help them, as I’m less familiar with OS X than I am with Windows.

I wish I could give them a simple locked-down system with a word-processor and web-browser, and not let them (or anyone) install anything else. I could probably do this with Linux, but that would be a whole new can of worms – and I’m not really qualified.

They are willing to pay someone else to help, but I have no-where to point them. Most tech support at local computer firms is too expensive and the people can be clueless.

Surely I’m not the only reluctant-relative-system-administrator (while talking with Stephen DesRoches about this, he enthusiastically agreed). What can we do to make this easier (for me and my parents)? Help!

My plan for now is to block of Saturday afternoon and re-format their machine, put it behind a hardware router (as a firewall), and hope it doesn’t happen again.


27 thoughts on “Do we all need a personal system administrator?

  1. With the proper software, your family’s PC shouldn’t need too much maintenence.

    Spy-Bot you can actually “immunize” your PC against about 250 spyware programs, blocking them before they infect. SpywareBlaster can protect against malicious ActiveX controls. It can also lock down the hosts.txt file as read only.

    As we all know, with Firebird you can block confunsing pop-ups that install spyware. It’s sister mail client, Thunderbird actually has adaptive junk mail filtering whereby you can teach it what’s junk and what’s not. If you didn’t lock the hosts.txt file yet, you can download a good one online to block most ad servers too.
    Norton AV can be setup to scan all downloads, both through the browser and email.

    Most of these products can also be set to automatically update and run once a week.

    It shouldn’t be that a standalone XP installation is wide open to all sorts of security exploits, but Microsoft has only themselves to blame for that. Delete all the IE and OE shortcuts and instruct them to under no circumstances use those products. It seems that for now, the solution is to intergrate open source with the best virus checking program you can find.

  2. Of course, your first inclination of how to avoid these headaches (yeah, the voice in your head that you’re trying to quiet) probably is the best move. For the things they’re doing, it would take a week tops to get used to in OS X.

    {extremely biased opinion}Trust me, I help so many people every day make the switch (I’ll pass on mentioning my job) and they come back and tell me how happy they are. The things your fam is doing is super simply on Mac, spyware is practically unheard of, Apple’s own browser has pop-up blocking, Hotmail is hotmail, (a mess that many people run from) and unless they pay for POP, they wouldn’t get to use the awesome junk mail filter in AppleMail, but will run fine in their browser of choice. Firewall built in, everything closed by default, one click to activate. The Canon scanner would likely run w/o extra software, since OS X runs many scanners with the built in ImageCapture, then use iPhoto to edit, store and output. MSN Messenger is fine on Mac, too. Worried about supporting them? That’s only an issue if they have problems like the ones you’re describing, which aren’t usually an issue on the Mac. The lock down can be done really easily on Mac, too, just don’t give them admin privileges on their account.{/extremely biased opinion}

    Or you can just ween them from the programs from that are most prone to these issues, but that ignore the root of the problem: the OS prone to these issues the programs sit aloft of.

    About personal tech service: many techs want to avoid in-home work due to the personal nature: businesses are more likely not to whine about rates, sit over top of their shoulder, and be “so needy.” It’s tough, and there are only a select few with the talent and patience to do it right.

  3. For my parents’ computer, I reformated it, put win xp pro on it with all the updates. Next, I installed firebird and thunderbird and made them the default apps. I also made sure to install java and flash so my dad wouldn’t go to IE to see some of his sites. I added an anti-virus program (Norman, not Norton) and ad-aware to keep spyware and virii off it.

    I put it behind a linksys (with port 3389 forwarded to his machine), and also installed a dyndns client so I could reach his box by dns name from anywhere on earth and use terminal services from the outside whenever he needs my help to fix things. So far it has worked out ok, though he uses IE to view some financial news sites (I think they use weird plugins or java applets that run better in IE) no matter how much I beg and plead for him not to.

    His next computer will be a mac, though it’ll be tough to teach him a new OS. After five years in windows, he barely understands how file systems work.

  4. I couldn’t believe that a system could get compromised that fast until just this evening when I experienced it first hand.

    I’ve been helping my in-laws reformat/reinstall their system with something other than the dreaded Millineum Edition. Sounds simple? I thought so.

    After way too many typical support headaches, we finally reached the point where we could connect and download the latest MS patches. Over a 28.8 dial-up that is no small feat. During the few hours that the system was connected it became infected by some type of Worm/Trojon horse and started behaving strangly (shutdowns, disconnects, etc.). I couldn’t believe it.

    We’ve since gotten it cleaned and all the updates installed, but the time and effort to do this kind of work is getting to be ridiculous. I’m definitely ready for alternatives. Or at least giving the job to somebody else. Ugh. Family.

  5. I was confronted with this situation too, and what I did was this:
    * format the hard drives using NTFS
    * make limited accounts for the normal users (Mom, Dad, Sis)
    * disable all access to IE and OE
    * install Mozilla Firebird (and plugins + extensions) and Mozilla Thunderbird as the default browser and e-mail client
    * install Microsoft Office or
    * disable write access to all dirs except %HOMEPATH%
    * make a ghost image

    That pretty much gives them everything they need, and makes it a lot harder to screw things up.

  6. Steve, I know I yap about my 1996 75 Pentium with Windos 95 but no one gives a rats ass about me in the spam-app, virus, etc. world. It runs much as it did when I got it – slow, clunkey. But I do not do anything with it other than do web based stuff now which is exactly what it sounds like your family does. So, knowing little, I’d suggest trying 95, web based email with the filtre Craig loves and Opera browser on their much newer machine. A little antithetical but isn’t that what you want?

  7. The answer to the question “Do we all need a personal system administrator?” is simple. Yes! We all need someone who is better at computer tech stuf than ourselves. I have a friend who is an absolute computer angel regarding these things. He has helped me out so many times I cant count them anymore. Though I dont have the spyware-XP-problems (anymore 😉 I have other computer related issues that he can help me solve. I can imagine that the complete tech expert still have some problems (and someone else to ask about them).

    Your parents may need someone who is better at these things than you, but maybe you are the only one they can turn to, or their obvious choice. They need you, do what you can.

    Cheers! (good post, enjoyed it very much)

  8. Here is another vote for a Mac. For the simple things they are doing, things should a whole lot better for them. My teenaged little sister, who I convinced to switch to a Mac, explains it this way. “On the mac when you do the same thing, it does the same thing.”

    But if you do decide to get them a mac, let them be a part of purchasing decision. It is important it is “their computer” and not “that computer”.

    Mac’s are not for everyone, but it sounds like they would be a perfect fit.

  9. Until a year ago I was my parents and wife’s personal tech consultant for their Windows boxes. A year ago, after using Mac OS X I stopped doing this. My reply was get a Mac. I was getting weekly (at least) calls and e-mails from my Dad with problems that something had been corrupted. My dad has always been rather computer savy and was a lover of CMOS and DOS, the Windows kept mangling something as he was always adding and removing software and external hardware. My wife is having to get a WinPC for home as her old and my old PC will not cut it for her work needs. When they initially said I could help her I backed down and said I would only provide her support on a Mac. Her company is going to provide support for her home computer (a company of 17k workers that just moved to WinNT last year from Win98 and is now moving to XP Pro).

    A little more than a week ago my Dad got a Mac and he has loaded everything he needs. Not once has he had to call me or e-mail me with problems. His problems with his network connections did not materialize as they do every time he updates his Win XP box. His PC Only applications are running fine in VirtualPC, which he only needs to use for 15 once a month for reporting.

    It seems a solid operating system should not need a personal tech.

  10. I do lot some work with genealogy groups where the average age is somewhere between 65 and 75. I am totally convinced that senior citizens are better system administrators than Generation X (at which I am at the tail end of). In Canada, at least last year, the fastest growing segment of Internet users are senior citizens. This group, that has seen more turmoil than any other, seems to have a capacity to deal with technology. I sometimes think those that are a decade or so younger treat computers as cars, where having family fix a machine is like getting the engine looked at after a family gathering. The difference is, particularly with something like WindowsXP, it’s also like the hood is opened as soon as you leave and rouge mechanics line up to mess up your hard work. Many senior citizens had to fix their cars, tractors, and the like on their own, and genuinely want to know what’s happening with the system.

    I have been in the position with video games of wanting my children to provide tech support, and it doesn’t work out that well. Computer support introduces a funny dynamic to family relationships, and I know it drives my kids crazy that I make the same mistakes over and over again. One of my oldest son’s friends once said that you can never help someone with a computer that you are not comfortable saying “you idiot” in front of. That being said, I like tech support, though I know things like doing the occasional backup is something that I would immediately expect in my workplace and have no hope of enforcing with anyone I am related to.

  11. “I wish I could give them a simple locked-down system with a word-processor and web-browser, and not let them (or anyone) install anything else.”

    I think that’s all most PC users want. If I could do that for my parents that would make their technology tribulations much easier and my poor attempts at tech-support much less trying.

  12. why not just buy a zaurus linux pda it have realy all normal ppl need and dwenoald and install a smnger thing that exist to it and maybe buy na lcd screen if they want biger screen
    hmmm strange that pda producers have not marketing pdas as computer for humans not itrested in computer….

  13. I’ve actually been free-lancing in this exact field for parts of the last 6 months, starting with my parents and my parent’s friends and now I have more business than I can handle (I live on PEI). I find that most people do enjoy having someone who is willing to help them with any problem for a more reasonable fee than a local computer shop (My rate is about 1/3 of what Garden Isle will charge per hour, the closest to home and #1 choice by my neighborhood). I find that most people also want more personalization on their system than most computer shops will provide. Remote administration makes this field infinitely easier (how I wish I had this capability in my current tech-support gig), but the one thing that I’ve learned is that you cannot EVER idiot-proof the idiot-box. I stress two big things when I agree to do work:

    1)Windows update, windows update, windows update. If the problem is that they’ve not been keeping up on their security updates, I put it on the back-burner and tell them that because it’s something that I told them to keep up on and they’ve failed to do that, they will not be a big priority for me. When people realize that a computer “guru” is not going to be available at the snap of a finger, they tend to be a little more willing to maintain themselves.

    I find that most computer shops do not spend the time to get the security updates after a fresh install of Windows XP, which really is a shame because it’s just lazy and hazardous to the user. This should be everyone should know to ask for when they go to the computer shop as it’d save a good number of users from problems. Like going to your doctor or to your mechanic, there should be articles out there telling you what to ask for at your computer shop.

    2)Cold boot. See if that works first : )

    If you have any tech support knowledge and all and need a good source of short-term income in between gigs/on top of your day job, consider pushing 500 flyers into mailboxes saying you have this “gift”. You’ll be surprised at how much business it will drum up once they find out that someone in the neighborhood is good with them there computers.

  14. I was reading something the other day, don’t ask me where as I rarely bookmark anything, that there is something in Windows called the Internal Windows Messaging Service, not to be confused with the Instant Messaging Service. Companies have figured out how to exploit this ‘feature’ and use it to send pop ups to unsuspecting users. The problem is uses many of the standard ports that connects your computer to the web so there is no easy way to disable it without inhibiting the users access to the ‘net.

    Lo and Behold, a quick search turned up the following:

    Alternatively you can just get a Mac. 🙂

  15. Great article (and replies), Steven. I can empathise with you completely.

    I’ve used AVG for virus protection over the last few years, with fantastic (non-)results. It has an auto-update feature, covers email as well as files and … it’s free for personal use. Download from [I am not connected with Grisoft in any way whatsoever, just a very happy user. Registration requires a valid email address — I’ve had absolutely no mail, never mind spam, from Grisoft in all the time I have been using this].

  16. Dave Fleming,
    I know someone that does personalized tech support, and people love him. The problem is, their are too many people in the town for him to handle. It does indeed seem like the kind of business that could make your phone ring non stop.

  17. Another happy vote for the Mac here. As ~bc mentioned, everything your family needs to do can be done faster and simpler on Mac OS X, not to mention more worry free. Virus, spy ware, pop up ads, not a problem. Heck word on the street is that there is yet a working virus to be written for OS X.

    As for supporting them, I’m sure you can learn enough about OS X (especially after your brief stint with a Mac) in order to help them out with whatever issues or learning curves they may have along the way, which shouldn’t be too many. Hotmail is still Hotmail, a browser is a browser, MSN Messenger is identical. They would just need to navigate through the OS itself. Heck, I find I get lost in Windows when I’m stuck at a Wintel box ;-). There’s a lot of great help in the Mac community as well, from local to online.

  18. What about installing Outpost firewall ( + Kaspersky Antivirus (, teach the first one to allow http, mail and IM trafic only (and don’t even ask the user *anything* – just to block unknown traffic) and the second one – to fetch updates on the regular basis plus making your family just “users”, not admins, on their home pc?

    I did so on my parent’s computer a year ago and it is still rock stable – even without the service packs and updates.

  19. A router with hardware firewall support is your best bet. Slap one of those on and you are good to go.

    Now, to get rid of spyware, you could set them up with Firebird, or turn off all the install-on-demand options in IE. Oh, and if they’re gonna be using IE, get them the Google toolbar to block popups.

    I follow those simple rules and have never had any problems at all.

  20. [quote] Of course, your first inclination of how to avoid these headaches (yeah, the voice in your head that you’re trying to quiet) probably is the best move. For the things they’re doing, it would take a week tops to get used to in OS X. [/quote]

    A few weeks?? yeesh, I didn’t realize checking Hotmail, chatting with friends and typing up a few letters was so complex on a Mac.. I better switch back to a PC.

  21. Your parents are not the only people with this problem. I outlined this situation in a piece I did entitled Fellow geeks: it is time to let go

    The problem is us, the geeks. We are poor advocates for real-world users that just want to use a computer for some simple tasks and they just want to use the computer not ‘play computer’ for the sake of playing computer. The comments to this thread alone should be enough confirmation. The problem is epidemic and the general computer geek, especially the Windows XP ‘super-geeks’, only make matters worse.

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