Avoiding internet access traps

Following the inanities of BT in the last post, I was musing on how people get caught in traps that are designed to lock them in to one computing or internet service provider. It is of course fairly common practice (sadly) for companies to try and get customers to have high switching costs rather than rely on a great service. Their are a few exceptions – Amazon for example. I’ve bought quite a lot via their recommendations, and it has generally been helpful. But, they don’t really lock me in. I can say I own a book already, get their recommendations and go elsewhere if I so chose … but I don’t.

I thought it might be worth jotting down some thoughts. As I’ve done this I realise it’s a (much) longer exercise than I had thought, so I’m posting this with the brief notes, that identify areas of concern, but not necessarily how to use alternatives to avoid them. But I will return to this and update it more fully and/or find good guidance on the internet and link to that.

Use an independent e-mail service, not the e-mail address from your Internet Service Provider

The Internet Service Provider (ISP) will very often provide an e-mail address when you sign-up. It’s a bad idea to use this address. The intent is that you can start easily, then get locked in as more and more people know your e-mail address (which is linked to the ISP). Instead, use one of the large free e-mail services.

The three most used as far as I know are Google mail, hotmail (from Microsoft), and Yahoo mail. We use google and yahoo, and would choose google as the service is more reliable, easier to use, and more accessible. Some others who use hotmail and google have switched to google. You can get a google mail address from www.gmail.com.

One thing to note is that you may need a ‘reserve’ address to allow recovery of your account if you forget the password, or in some cases for sign-up. google mail doesn’t require it for sign-up. But, you may want to have two mail accounts (e.g. with Yahoo and google) and use them as the reserve account for each other. It’s also worth having an account you use just for internet sites that ask for one, as it’s an easy way of seperating junk e-mail from real mail.

If you have started using an ISP address, it is possible to migrate relatively simply. Set up the new mail account, and if you use a mail program like outlook express, start using the new mail account via an internet browser to avoid confusion (see below). Then, for all the people who have mailed you, send them a message from the new mail account to let them know what the new mail address is. I’d run both mail systems for a month or two, and for anyone that keeps sending to the old mail address let them know the new one. It’s likely to end up being a load of internet sites or spam that can probably be ignored (and whose disappearance may be welcome!). For many e-mail systems you can set them up to forward all mail to another address, and if your ISP account can do this then you should set it up to go to the new e-mail address. You may loose this when/if you move from the ISP, but it should provide cover for a while. Finally, you can move to use the new e-mail account from your normal mail tool (like Outlook). this does require set-up (which I’m not going to detail here. At least not at the moment) – or just carry on using the version running in the browser which is actually a pretty good solution since it means you don’t have to worry about things like backing up, or how to move from one computer to another. Even if you do pick the mail up, DONT set it up to delete the mail from the server, or you won’t be able to use the mail from a browser if you find you need to.

This is definitely something to do BEFORE you have a problem or want top move ISP by the way (i.e. now).

Edit – I forgot one time you need the ISP mail address.  Some internet forum sites require an ISP mail address to get an account, so that they can trace folks who post anything dodgy.  Undertstandable, if frustrating.  Most will allow you to add more e-mail accounts later though, so you can sign-up with the ISP mail address and the use your ‘real’ one later.  Don’t be tempted to leave it as the ISP mail address or you ‘how do I move ISP’ problem gets even worse!

Know how to use e-mail via a web browser, not just via a mail program

As noted in the previous section, you may not yet have discovered that you can use e-mail on a webbrowser like internet explorer or Firefox. It can be the best way of managing you mail as you don’t need to worry about backups and the like. But, even if you want to carry on using a mail program like outlook, it’s worth trying out the internet access version just so you know how to use it if you need to.
Firstly, if for any reason your internet service is out or your computer broken, it means you can see your e-mail from another computer, like one in a public library or a friend. Also, if you are trying to understand what has gone wrong with your system at home it’s very helpful to be able to diagnose it if you can test pieces independently.

Use a router, not a broadband modem

I’ve used broadband modems a couple of times, with Windows, and they have been a complete pain. When they work they fine. But, if they don’t then it can be hard to work out why.

Using a router, which is a separate box that does the connection to the internet, does mean another box to set-up, but it is very helpful in working out issues, and also allows more than one person to use the internet at once and to use it via a wireless link (called WiFi). I think it is also is also worth using a completely standard router. My parents in law went for a BT home-hub last time, and whilst it worked well enough, there were a couple of tricky moments as we tried to get new computers hooked up to it. And, as a BT special, if you want support you have to ring BT, which is a 50p/minute call that is routed to India. I’ve no issue with Indian call centres at all, but my parents in law found it very hard to understand what they were saying, as the combination of accent, hearing aids, and unfamiliar terminology all conspired against them. That results in multi-hour calls (really).

Finally, you need to be careful in choice of router. I’ve now had three. The first used to overheat, the second was great but I stupidly bought one without WiFi, and the third (a Belkin) looked fine when I got it, but will not automatically reconnect if the internet service fails, which is infuriating. I’m going to be looking for a new one for someone shortly, so I’ll do some research and find a useful set of links/update this/post the result.

Use standard set-up tools, not ones computer manufacturers or Internet Service Providers

Tools from a particular manufacturer or ISP can be real trouble. They try and hide the complexities from the user, but usually just provide another layer to have to work through. They also mean you waste space in your brain understanding their tool rather than what’s really going on. That would be fine if you could use that tool forever, but one day you will want to move provider, or will get a new computer with a new tool, and you will be worse than back to square one as the terminology and methods used in the first tool will have mis-educated you on what is going on.

Using the standard tools is often less whizzy, and may require a bit more time to understand, but you will end up understanding how the internet connection really works, which will stand you in great stead when you need to understand why it has stopped.

I’d note that for most computers bought with Windows, avoiding manufacturers tools can be actually quite hard. They install them, don’t give you an option, and it can be very hard to remove or bypass them. The basic Windows tools are very good (as are the ones on the Apple Mac and Linux), but unless you rebuy Windows then they can be so hard to get to that’s it’s not worth the trouble. I’ve had to try and help both our parents at various points with exactly this type of issue, and though I’m pretty competent, I’ve had to give up sometimes. However, it is quite possible to avoid ISP programs that claim they will set you up properly. I’ve found various set-up sites on the internet before, and I’ll link to these in future.

Use Linux or a Mac, not Windows

This might seem contentious, since Windows is used on almost all computers sold today. But, as noted in the last section, for most of these computers you are on a slippery slope towards having to use manufacturers tools right from the start, with no easy way to avoid it. Apple Macs, as I understand it pretty much ‘just work’, but you are more restricted on the programs that you can run – Windows programs will not run on Mac.

The same is true of Linux, but since there are programs for almost every purpose available free for Linux, and you can still run Windows when you need to, this is much less troublesome. You can also try out Linux without installing it, by running it from a CD-ROM. It will run slowly, but you can find out whether it works properly on your computer, and whether it suits you, very easily. It can be installed as well as Windows, and you are given a choice which Operating system to use when the computer is turned on. When installed it will run very quickly – in many cases faster than Windows on the same computer (this is a good way of ‘rescuing’ a Windows computer that is running too slowly).

There are multiple suppliers, but one of the most popular is called Ubuntu. If you are used to Windows then it is worth the version called Kubuntu instead as the interface is much more like Windows (Ubuntu is more like an Apple Mac). You can find these on https://shipit.kubuntu.org/ or http://www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu. There you can download the program, or even request a free CD is sent to you (this takes a while, but can be easier as the download needs to be put on a CD in a special format, and you may not have the program to do this on Windows, though you can find and download one if you need to).

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