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Would you like fries with that?

Simon went to buy a laptop from a big shop. He has sent in this shocking report from the front-line…

It probably serves me right. Recently, my brother had a pressing need for a brand new laptop, which for reasons I won’t bore you with, I pretty much ended up having to get there and then. Thus, I was out of options: I had to go to a large store that I don’t like, and try to buy a unit in the quickest possible time. My mission was to avoid eye contact with the sales assistant until the last possible minute, and to give monosyllabic answers to any questions I didn’t like the sound of.

I learned this trick in the Nineties, when, for further reasons I won’t bore you with, a friend of mine was buying a desktop PC in a large UK electrical chain. The assistant then was busying himself trying to sell my friend the after-care service, and I assured him that we had a further friend who would be able to resolve any problems should they arise. “Oh”, hissed the assistant in question, “so your friend is a qualified Mitac engineer is he?”. I played this one simply and succinctly. “Yes he is”, I calmly answered. The sales assistant gave up. I felt, in truth, really quite pleased with myself.

This time, though, I wasn’t quite so lucky. Once I’d found the laptop that I needed to get – with the only OSes on offer being Windows 7 and Mac OS – I called the assistant over. It was going well. “I’d like this one, please,” I said, expecting some favourable acknowledgement in return.

And then he threw me. I’d like to think that if I ever run a shop and someone wants to buy something, I’d show some appreciation, or courtesy, or something vaguely human. Here? The response was simply this: “What anti-virus package are you looking to use?”

All I’d asked for was a laptop. In return, I got a question about security software. An ironic one, given that the laptop in question actually came with some pre-bundled. I recovered my composure and replied: “I’m sorted thank you”. But the assistant wasn’t finished. “But which package are you using?”, as he hovered next to a Norton display. “I’m sorted thank you,” I repeated, with as much of a sinister glare as I could muster. It wasn’t very sinister, in all honesty, but it just about did the job.

At this stage, the assistant went off in search of easier prey. And I suspect it won’t have taken long to find some. But I couldn’t help but wonder: how did it come to this? How has the software industry got to a point where it’s the selling of two packages that matter, come what may? Does this chain get a bigger margin on selling security software than a laptop? I’d wager that’s very much the case, which would explain the desire to sell security software at the earliest opportunity. But what a screwed-up state of affairs that is.

I’ve talked before about the Windows ecosystem, and about how its existence keeps the anti-virus and security specialists very much in business. But I’m not naive, either. I know that whichever operating system owned 80 per cent of the market or higher would instantly become a target.

However, the ethos is plain wrong. A security package and an operating system should be the hidden tools that we barely notice, the platforms we look for in order to facilitate day-to-day computing. When people talk about computing and how it enthuses them, they talk about creating things, experimenting, playing games, that sort of thing. They don’t get charged at the idea of buying Norton’s latest yellow box, or in watching Windows install.

But, as the retail stores know, it’s easier to convince people that operating systems and security software matter, and that they should be invested in. Sadly, the latter now also seems to have taken priority over good manners.

I had to give up my once-hobby of hovering in electrical stores and correcting the bilge that sales assistants spat out, because it felt like an unwinnable war. I’d imagine I’m not alone in hearing stories of the 320GB of memory, of people being told they have to have Windows for their computer to work, or that they have to buy Microsoft Office if they want to write letters. Perhaps you might share some of yours with Linux User & Developer…