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An Empty-Headed TV Commercial

So you see someone in his home complaining that his computer is running slow, so his other half urges him to visit an online PC diagnostic site. In a few seconds, he realizes that his computer is infected with malware, and, further, complains that he’s had to restart a few times a week. By the way, this particular service also promises to speed up your PC.

Now I’m sure you realize that such problems are largely the province of the Windows world, as is the malware-removal service in question (one of a number of similar products). Of course, that particular fact isn’t mentioned in that ad. All you know that there is a magic elixir that will, after a few minutes, make any PC run like new. It also assumes that PC users, particularly those at home rather than in offices, routinely suffer from malware infections. How could it be otherwise?

I’m not about to judge the value of that product. It may be a five-star service that will work precisely as advertised. The mere act of removing malware, particularly disposing of spyware apps that clog a PC’s resources, ought to clear out the most serious performance hangups, but that also assumes that the product will clean every vestige of malware. In some cases, a basic scan and removal process won’t work. You have to erase your hard drive, and reinstall everything to get your PC back to normal. That’s something the casual viewer of such ads doesn’t realize.

Now it’s also true that billions of dollars are lost by businesses each and every year as the result of computer virus infections; at least, that’s what Consumer Reports claims. Of course, CR also neglects to mention that this is largely a Windows problem.

Sure, there was a recent Mac malware episode, involving scareware — or fake software promising to fix a non-existent virus infection — which resulted in an unknown number of Mac users paying for worthless user licenses. But that is a singular episode, one that Apple addressed by updating Snow Leopard to protect you from that sort of problem. But don’t forget that the presence of such malware wasn’t the result of any security lapse on a Mac — or a Windows PC for that matter. It’s all about social engineering. You’re fooled into believing that you have a problem that only that one product can fix for you.

But that is the same approach taken in that TV ad. If you want your PC free of malware and running at optimum speed, go online and get that Windows fixer-upper. Of course, it’s not free. After all, they can afford TV ads, which includes hiring a couple of actors to play the husband and wife role. So they have to charge a fair price to cover their costs and deliver a reasonable profit.

Another ad, this one on radio, talks about a repair service that offers to come to your home or office to fix your PC. The reason is, according to the ad, you shouldn’t have to figure out how to disconnect all the peripherals from your PC, lug the computer down to a repair shop, and then reinstall everything after you bring it back. After all, how can you know if your problem isn’t really caused by your monitor, your printer, or another peripheral? Well, I would expect that a few simple phone diagnostics ought to help even the novice user figure out which component might be broken. If not, you can always bring everything over to the service facility.

But the real reason you are offered this in-home service is because they can charge you more money for it. The shop needs to cover the cost of having someone drive to and from your home, and to work in unknown surroundings that may or may not require extra work to diagnose and repair the problem. It’s understandable, and I suppose many of you don’t want to schlep your computer to the shop. On the other hand, most people buy note-books these days, so the number of connected peripherals are probably limited to a printer and perhaps an external hard drive. Besides, what if you need a part that they don’t have on their truck? They may have to return to the shop to get that part, or perhaps take your computer with them, which makes your repair bill that much higher.

The assumption for such promotions is that you aren’t very smart. You are confronted with strange technology that you can barely understand, and thus are willing to pay whatever it costs for someone else figure out what ails your computer.

In contrast, Apple is trying, at least to some extent, to empower you to figure things out for yourself. At the same time, the so-called dumbing down of Lion is clearly an effort to insulate the Mac user as much as possible from the more confusing aspects of the OS. That way you can run your apps without having to have someone hold your hand over every little step. If that’s not enough for you, Apple has established the Genius Bar at their retail stores to provide free expert guidance, and, if need be, repairs under warranty or otherwise. Some AppleCare warranty programs will also provide in-home service; that’s particularly true if you live too far from the nearest Apple Store. And, yes, that’s true of PC makers too.

As to the PC world, since Windows 7 is reportedly pretty decent from a security standpoint, I suspect those scary ads about malware infections are going to have less and less impact in time. These days, the people who have the most problems are those who, for one reason or another, never upgraded from Windows XP, which was malware heaven. And, of course, for failing to install up-to-date security software.