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The joy of being tech support

For a while when I worked at British Airways I was in charge of the department that did all the support for PC users - and I was also one of BA's first PC programmers - so I think it's fair to say that I know more about computers than most people of my generation. This can be handy. But the downside is that the family regard me as official PC support guy.

This came home with a bang when one of my daughters reported one of the weirdest errors I've come across. Every time she tried to save something in Word the above error box came up. She couldn't save a single file. Even with the default Document1 filename. Yet other programs - Powerpoint for instance - were fine. Word is something she uses heavily on her course, so it needed sorting, but what could possibly be happening?

At the time the laptop was at university and I was at home, so several local attempts were made to sort it out without success. This weekend I finally got my hands on it and spent a couple of hours tidying up various bits and pieces, plus fully de-installing and reinstalling Office. End result? No change.

I was under a bit of pressure, as I had a train to catch. But three minutes before I was due to leave I had a really silly idea. And 2 minutes and 50 seconds before I was due to leave, I had fixed the problem. What it comes down to is a subtle divergence between Word, with its Windows background, and the Mac's OS X operating system, which is basically a tarted up version of Unix. Windows comes from a DOS heritage where filenames were very limited. Who remembers names that had to be no more than 8 characters in length? And there were lots of forbidden characters in filenames. Windows has loosen up since then, but there are still a number of limitations on what can appear, and this proved to be the secret to fixing the problem.

It might seem this doesn't make any sense - after all I was trying out totally legitimate filenames. But the whole path that specifies where the file is located also had to meet with Word's approval. And at some point, the hard disc of the computer had been accidentally renamed ]q - which the Mac had no problems with. But this meant that file's path, which includes the name of the hard disc, had a ']' in it, which Word didn't think was possible.

So there are three problems here the developers should have spotted and prevented. First, by default the Mac puts an icon for the hard disc on the desktop, which makes it far too easy to accidentally rename it. (Easily removed, but it's probably a mistake to have it there in the first place.) Secondly Word, like Powerpoint, should have coped with all possible Mac file naming possibilities. And thirdly the Word error message should have been a lot more explicit, rather than leaving you guessing just what it was complaining about.

Sigh. Computers, eh?


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