A couple of weeks ago I was asked to set up a web cam on the PC in our basement, so that James could video chat with one of his school friends who is leaving for a different school. I stopped on the way home from work on the Friday evening and bought a fairly cheap (£25) webcam from Staples. The basement PC is the only thing I have at home that runs Windows. I use an Apple PowerBook, and I have a Linux server and an OpenBSD firewall.
When I got the webcam home and unpacked it, it started to annoy me straight away. Anything made for the PC seems to have pretty similar installation instructions these days. The thing is I know, from when I used to write software for Windows, how the plug-and-play system is supposed to work. You plug the device in, and Windows pops up an alert saying “oh, it looks like you’ve plugged in a WidgetMangler 2000, if your device came with a disk then insert it now…”. You put the disk in, it installs everything it needs, restarts your computer a couple of times for good measure, and away you go. Of course, that system fails so often that manufacturers now have to resort to requiring you to install the software first.
I know the sort of things that go wrong as well. Because the manufacturers insist on building the CD so that it automatically runs a “take-over-your-entire-screen” installer when you insert the disk (because most people would otherwise never figure out how to install it), you end up with the installer software fighting Windows’ own driver installation thing, because when it asks you to insert the driver disk it ends up running the other installation program over the top.
So anyway, the flap on the side of the box said “INSTALL THE SOFTWARE FIRST” on it, as did a slip of paper inside the box. And, just in case you were a complete idiot, the manufacturer had also taped over the plug of the webcam with a red sticker saying the same thing a third time. God knows what would have happened if I’d plugged in the camera first. Maybe I wouldn’t be sat here typing this now. Perhaps I would have created a singularity in our basement which would have sucked up the entire solar system? Who knows.
Eventually it installed. Of course, it added a little icon to the “tray” next to the Windows clock. Why does every piece of Windows software assume that you will want to have it running all the time?
Next, I installed MSN Messenger. The install went fine, but I got no video. I went to the preferences, found the “video” tab, and it informed me that video only works on Windows XP or above. So I uninstalled MSN, and tried AOL instant messenger. Exactly the same, I installed it and then found out that video only works with XP. Off it came.
By this point I was fuming from all the wasted time. I’ve been saving up for a new computer for a while now, and straight away I hit the UK Apple Store website to see how much a new iMac would be. Could I afford it? Just about, if I used all my savings…
I rang the Apple store in Birmingham the next morning and confirmed that they had stock. I got it the car, and about 3 hours later I was back at home unpacking it. I bought a base model 17” iMac, and it’s great. The only thing it needed was an extra 1GB of RAM, which I bought from Crucial on the Monday (and they delivered it the next day). The base system came with 512MB, and I’m used to the speed which comes from having 1.5GB on my PowerBook (although the iMac is of course loads faster than my PowerBook anyway).
James and Matthew spent hours playing with the Photo Booth application (it lets you take your picture using the built in iSight camera, and you can add various effects to the image which you can view in real-time). They now have hundreds of pictures of their warped faces.
We still have the PC. James likes Lego Racers too much to get rid of it. I did a bit of research and found out that it’s available for the PlayStation, so I only need to pick one up off eBay or something and we can banish Windows from the house forever!
What became of the video chat with James’ friend? Well, although iChat is supposed to work with AOL Instant Messenger, we couldn’t get it working. After a bit of Googling around it seems that it only works with older versions of AIM. Skype don’t do a Mac client capable of doing video. In the end I found something called SightSpeed. It has a fairly crappy UI and a tiny video window, but guess what - it’s available for the PC and the Mac, it’s free, and it works! Amazing.
James and his friend have chatted once so far, while I was at work. Apparently it swiftly degenerated to a raspberry blowing competition.