Phases of Windows Use

As a geek in his thirties, as someone who grew up with Windows in all its ugly incarnations, I’ve noticed that there are distinct stages in the life of a Windows user.

Just as writers can’t pen books about teenagers without advancing into their forties, computer users can’t write articles about these phases until they’re well into the latter phases. Allow me to explain.

Phase 1 – “What does this error mean?” Even the most optimistic users start at Phase 1, because they have to learn some of the basic ground rules that every other computer user takes for granted. Concepts like the C drive, the difference between drives and memory, and saving things on the network are all foreign at the start of Phase 1. These users are scared off by innocuous error messages, and when they raise concerns to more experienced users, they are quickly brushed off. They gain self-reliance as they learn how to master the computer, and they accomplish their day-to-day jobs with more speed and accuracy. As they see less error messages and more success, they begin to see their computer as their friend.

Phase 2 – “I got this great joke via email!” The awkward pre-teens of computer usage, Phase 2 users are personally responsible for the vast majority of viruses, chain emails, and the Hamster Dance. They love the joy their computer brings them, especially by way of the uplifting stories and jokes they get via email and then proceed to forward to everybody they know. Their complaints in Phase 1 taught them that error messages are meaningless, so they disregard any and all warnings, including dire ones from their antivirus program. They back up their documents on dozens of unlabeled floppy disks. They toy around with all of the manufacturer’s strange software included on their PC. They call technical support lines with the honest belief that they will get prompt, helpful and accurate support. The floppies and the support calls are sadly all for naught, which sparks a mistrust of the mainstream support network, leading to Phase 3.

Phase 3 – “Lemme show you this trick they don’t want you to know.” The rebellious teens: the user gets tips via word-of-mouth, computer magazines off the rack at the bookstore, and from web forums. They believe they’re in on a special Phase 3 society that knows the secrets that the mainstream consumers can’t quite handle, and that their network administrators don’t want them to play with. Phase 3 users don’t call for technical support because they believe they know as much as the first couple of levels of tech support, and they can figure out the rest. Eventually, they start to overclock processors and video cards in an effort to screw The Man, and they despise the major PC makers like HP and Dell because those makers put in controls to stop overclocking. Users in Phase 3 jump at the chance to give misguided computer advice to family and friends, but they’re hated by everyone because when they fix a computer it ends up worse than when it started. Phase 3 comes to a close when the user realizes that they have to fix the problems they create, and they start to dread the computer-related phone calls because they signal yet another tech support problem that they might have created themselves.

Phase 4 – “Don’t try that trick.” Jaded from hacks that have failed, CPUs that have failed from overclocking, and the constant roar of half a dozen case fans, the user decides that maybe some of the free tricks and hacks are worth what they cost. This stage is usually accompanied by the realization that if a computer is 10% faster, but locks up and crashes once a day, the reboot time outweighs the speed gain. A sure sign that a user has passed from Phase 3 to Phase 4 is that they no longer seek to dispense advice to others, and instead they try to avoid tech support calls at all costs. Ironically, network administrators are usually in Phase 4, and they’re exactly the people who have to handle tech support calls. They can close their eyes and recite whole routines of Control Panel maneuvers to fix common problems. Phase 4 turns into a daily monotony of driver updates and OS patches, marked by annual Windows reinstalls because it feels like it’s just about that time.

Phase 5 – “There’s gotta be an easier way.” Also known as the mid-life crisis, the user starts to ask if there’s anything more to computing than a constant struggle with the machine. The user regards computers as a necessary tool to get a job done, and wishes that they would work as reliably as tools for other professions. Bakers don’t need to reboot their oven every day, carpenters don’t need to update the drivers for their saw, and why should programming or accounting be any different? Windows users eye Mac users with envy, but don’t initially admit it. The turning point of Phase 5 often starts when it’s time to buy a new computer, and they decide to give mainstream computer makers like HP and Dell another try rather than building their own machine. They’re stunned by how quiet the computer is and how after the initial round of driver updates, they simply don’t experience device driver crashes. They become one with the computer: they treat the computer with respect and dignity, and the computer treats them likewise. They answer tech support questions with patience and without bias, and try to make both the computer and the user happy with the outcome.

Brent Ozar is a project manager & database administrator who sings to his computers and his plants, but draws the line at aromatherapy. He can be contacted at