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Helpware: Software that goes bump in the night

By Noah Matthews, McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

Sometimes I think software developers stay up nights dreaming of ways to flummox the trusting masses. Free software programs have their share of bugs, even when a user deletes those programs from their hard drives.

But software programs for which you pay dearly can and usually do have their share of bugs. All too often, an innocent user who has forked over a day’s pay is faced to call tech support, only to find out that help is not free, as it should be, but that it starts at $19.99 for one incident and $59.99 for four. In fact, tech support fees have been known to surpass the price of the software itself.

At the risk of digressing, that is why I always buy Apple’s excellent AppleCare when I buy one of my many Apple products. For two years, sometimes three, I can get unlimited tech and hardware support. (The first 90 days of tech support are free.)

AppleCare is not cheap, except that if you make several calls during the three years, you will have paid for it. And the support you get is unparalleled. I have had a tech support person spend an hour with me until a thorny software problem was resolved. I can’t say the same for most software support.

Way too often, free support, usually via email, is unsatisfactory at best and uncaring at worst. You would think that the developers would be interested in exterminating bugs in their software, but I have witnessed more concern from pest control workers, who truly are interested in getting rid of household bugs and will return, usually at no cost, to make sure no ant dares to enter my pantry.

My latest misadventure comes with Spotflux, which I reviewed last week. I was pleased to learn that it did indeed make my Internet browsing anonymous, not that I care who knows I visited Amazon’s website and bought a case for my new iPad. I run Norton Internet Security and count on it to protect me from hackers. Speaking of Norton, anyone who has ever installed it or uninstalled its products can tell tales of nightmarish bits of code left behind, bringing sensitive users to tears. Halloween comes early and often to many of us on the fringes of software insanity.

Anyway, after reviewing Spotflux, I deleted it, as I often do with software I review. The next time I tried to use the Internet, though, I couldn’t. I emailed the good folks who wrote Spotflux, but after 24 hours, I hadn’t heard back from them. Luckily, I learned from a users forum that the problem could be solved by changed the DNS parameters in my Network and Sharing settings.

Would a newbie have the slightest idea how to do that? Even experienced users might find that solution difficult. If they could even find the information they need to fix it.

I tried a few other programs for this week’s column. One had so much nagware in its free version (pointing me to its website to buy the paid version) that I got disgusted and erased it from my hard drive, praying that after I uninstalled it, I could still connect to the Internet, and that the detritus it left behind won’t cripple my PC. The jury is still out on that potential nightmare.

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