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Your ‘personal’ computer – who’s really in control?

New columnist Walter May takes a sideways look at technology.

We live in an increasingly IT dominated world.  Popular opinion suggests we are liberated by being connected 24/7, constantly in touch via laptops, iPads and smart phones (according to a recent report from Ofcom one third of UK adults now use smartphones).  On-demand, on-the-move seems to be the mantra of the 21st century generation and a small percentage of us baby boomers.

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are the platforms on which we build our professional and social lives.  Increasingly we are also watching internet TV via mobile devices using the BBC’s iPlayer, etc.

Happily and seemingly with little of no restraint, we give up our personal details and information on our likes and dislikes, needs and wants to those unseen, unknown data analysts who categorise each of us via some demographic algorithm or criteria that feed ads and other promotions aimed at appealing to our purchasing preferences.

Whilst we accept that this is the price we pay for free access to the world of the internet and popular TV, there are other areas of our personal IT world that impact us in less obvious ways.

Have you ever been frustrated by trying to meet a deadline only to find your PC runs incredibly slow or locks up, ultimately resulting in a complete reboot in the hope that the problem goes away? We shrug our shoulders until the next time we are forced to do the same, no wiser than before.

Why is it that external processes such as updates and other intrusive, even sinister, applications are given higher priority use of your computer memory and disk space, leaving you increasingly frustrated waiting for a response from a web page or a painfully slow graphics application? Are you left thinking, “it’s my computer, I paid for it and I seem to have little say on how it is being used”?

Ever felt someone, somewhere is creating this situation for commercial gain?

If poor customer service or product failure can be confidently attributed to the supplier, then that organisation will suffer the consequences in terms of a lowering of turnover and profit. However, in the network and increasingly ‘cloud’ dominated application environment, we cannot easily assess good or poor service or attribute blame when things go wrong.

Is the problem related to the hardware, software, network, ISP, virus, spyware, etc?  It sometimes feels like you are a victim of a conspiracy to force premature replacement of a perfectly functioning product. If you think that’s a little far fetched, remember the millennium bug?

The fear of IT meltdown at midnight on December 31st 1999 forced the biggest IT investment ever seen. Application software providers and IT consultants cashed in, in a big way, as every responsible business the world over scrambled to replace their business critical systems and migrate their data. Once the date had passed without incident, IT Directors breathed a sigh of relief, patted themselves on the back and moved on – not wanting to reflect on if the threat was real or an IT industry con.

Can anything be done to remedy the progressively poor performance of your PC?  Investing in tune-up software, in my experience, suggests not.

We all know who stands to gain when a 2 to 4 year old PC stops performing to the point where increasing frustration and declining personal productivity forces you to buy a new one.

Is it always wise to switch off automatic updates (surrendering the benefits of additional functionality and a shiny new interface) and/or disable your resource-hungry anti-virus software, or are we too risk averse when it comes to our IT dependent world?

The call for openness and transparency is being echoed in many aspects of our daily lives (banking, politics, media) so let’s end the fear, uncertainty and doubt regarding how our personal networked PC’s (which an increasing number of home-based self-employed people are relying on for their income) are being utilised to the benefit of others, often to the computer owner’s detriment and cost.

I for one would like more control on how my critically important gateway to the outside world is used with easy-to-use and understand management tools to ensure I maximise my personal productivity and return on investment.

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