File this!

A family member recently upgraded from an “old” Windows XP machine to new brand new, “direct from the big-box electronics store” Windows Vista machine. Since he had a lot of data on the old computer’s hard drive, he took advantage of (or, based on how the story ends, was taken advantage of by) the store’s offer to extract his existing files to DVD-Rs and re-load them on the new PC, for a small service fee, of course. Sounds like it should save some time, correct? After all, those documents, spreadsheets, and digital photos might be a bother to burn to CD-R and then re-copy. And while a direct copy might be easier yet, that procedure is solidly outside the realm of most novices’ capabilities.

So, nartually, after paying this fee and taking home the new PC with two DVDs of archived files, I got the phone call:

“I can’t find any of my files. They said they’d be there. I only see shortcuts.”

I thought, surely something as simple as migrating files couldn’t have been botched. But indeed, after I took a look at the new computer, sure enough. No files. Only shortcuts to files… shortcuts pointing to the discs in the DVD drive.

Okay, I’ll spare you the details, but as it turns out, the electronics store used a little piece of “helper” software to streamline the archival/migration process. And for some reason, this Piece Of Software (POS?) on the new computer decided to only create shortcuts to the files rather than actually copy them. So instead of this little piece of software saving time, it made me wonder if my family member would have been better off without it. Now, I understand helper apps — little pieces of software designed to “shortcut” procedures that would normally require lots of manual user intervention — are designed with rather narrow focuses. But when I wrote about “shortcut software” in one of the first postings of Explain Technology (Are We Teaching or “Giving Fish?”), I never thought I’d see one of these little apps create nothing but shortcuts when all it was supposed to do was copy some files from disc to drive. So, for something as simply as moving some files, why even use such software at all? What’s really so hard about locating and copying files?

Believe it or not, I’ve found again and again that file management is the skill most absent from the arsenal of novice computer users. This seems odd to me. In the realm of PC data, files are everything. There is nothing but files. Everything in the computer is a file. How else can I say this? (Actually, I spent an entire chapter in The Ultimate PC Primer attempting to make this clear.) To fully understand the computing experience, the user must understand files! How are new users even remotely productive without understanding how to locate, move, or copy a file? Apparently there are enough pieces of “helperware” out there to keep users from needing to know how to fish for themselves.

I won’t beat this fish any longer, but I’d recommend you stay on the lookout for novice users who don’t understand file management. It should be pretty easy. They won’t know how to organize their data. They won’t know how to get it back unless it’s done with the same program that put it there to begin with. They won’t know how to locate it or copy it to anywhere else.

Oh, and how did my relative’s story end? I copied the files from the DVDs back to his new hard disk. (Fortunately, the helperware had succeeded in burning them to disc correctly. So at least he has a failsafe copy on disc, and on-drive copies now, too.) So I suppose it wasn’t a horrible ending to the saga, but I cringe when I think of the look on his face… like I had done something magical to solve the problem. I never thought I’d see the day when simply copying files was considered a magical solution.

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