Decades ago, back when I started to dabble in the computer business, everything was DOS based, the IBM operating system. It was awkward, cumbersome, counter-intuitive and basically just a pain. Getting anything done involved a knowledge of cryptic commands that took forever to learn. Bill Gates realized that we all needed a better way to interact with computers and helped to developed the Window's GUI (Graphical User Interface) based in large part of the work of Xerox and Apple. Windows 1.0 was born and would soon become the dominant desktop interface on more than ninety percent of the world's computers. Soon Microsoft starting flexing its wings and got involved in a growing trend to have local networks linking computers together with a central server. At the time the dominant player was Novell who had the majority of the networking market.

Back in those heady days I got involved in installing local networks. My first was using Novell, which came with thirteen extremely thick and complex manuals on how to setup a local network. I started on page one and six weeks later had a working office network. Over the course of several subsequent installs and although Novell was somewhat helpful, the best help came from Microsoft. Support was always free and incredibly responsive. On one install at midnight our time I had two Microsoft engineers on the phone helping me install a network card that wasn't working. Their research showed that I had to cut a track on the card, which back then cost over three hundred dollars. As we were discussing the potential danger of destroying the card I went ahead and cut the track. It worked and we all shared a laugh at my gutsy move.

Yes. Those were the "good old days" when Microsoft focused on their customers and did everything humanly possible to help them. Not only did they release better and better versions of Windows over the years, but they also developed a flagship desktop software program, Office, which also quickly became the worldwide standard in desktop productivity software. Among it's many integrated systems, Word and Excel quickly became the standard.

Over the last few years, ever since Bill Gate's departure as Chief Software Engineer, Microsoft has made a number of missteps. They completely missed the boat on the huge potential of search engines, effectively giving the market to Google. Their foray into music sharing with Zune was a disaster, giving the market to Apple's iPod and iTunes. They completely missed the obvious growth of smart phones and tablets. Even Windows now has a ridiculous amount of versions, and not since Windows XP, the de facto standard for years, have consumers readily understood what Microsoft is doing. Their branding has been pathetic and inconsistent at best. Their next version is widely expected to be Windows 9 and hopefully they'll be smart enough to roll all other versions into that moniker, such as Windows 9 Professional for business.

Besides all these obvious missteps the biggest change at Microsoft has been their total lack of concern over customer complaints, best illustrated by the disaster that is Office 2013. For some completely unknown and unexplained reason, the Office team took a giant step backward and released only three themes for this version, all of them virtually unusable. The response from the prerelease focus groups was terrible. No one liked the themes. Everyone found them to be very hard on the eyes, with many visually challenged users stating they could not distinguish the "colors" of grey and they developed serious eye strain. Despite this clear feedback Microsoft decided to unleash these themes on the public. Corporate users, who, partly because of volume licensing agreements that included upgrades, but more out of habit, began rolling out the "upgrade" to Office 2013, only to be met with howls from their users that they HATED the lack of themes. At great expense they were forced to roll their thousands of computers back to Office 2010. Hundreds of posts began showing up on Microsoft's forum under the heading "how to change the themes in Office 2013". The early post from Microsoft ignored what users were saying and simply showed how to select from the three themes, all of which were horrible. Soon visually challenged users were complaining that they couldn't even use the new version because of the lack of contrast. Most damaging were the posts from corporate IT people saying they would not roll-out Office 2013 until the themes from Office 2010 were restored. New users quickly began insisting that their new computers came with Office 2010 and not Office 2013.

You would think that with this massive and predictable response to the lack of themes that Microsoft would jump on this and get the Office Team working overtime to restore the themes, right? Not so. Instead the second post from Microsoft was that they were measuring "pain points", but did not anticipate releasing any upgrades to restore the themes. The frustration and anger being expressed on this forum topic is unprecedented in Microsoft's history. Many people are predicting the demise of Office and even Microsoft itself, but Microsoft continues to show incredible arrogance by refusing to respond to the complaints. There are even suggestions that so many programmers have left the company that they no longer have the resources to solve the problem, regardless of how pressing the issue. No one is asking Microsoft to reinvent the wheel here. They just want the previous themes to be restored. How difficult is that?

Microsoft grew to be the behemoth it is today by listening and responding to the needs of customers. Without the vision of Bill Gates the company has clearly lost its way. They've invested millions, if not billions, in failed ventures, often long after the market has already been captured by others. Witness Bing. Internet Explorer, once the dominant browser, has now fallen to the least used browser, allowing Chrome to now dominate the market. Apple has run away with the iPhone and iPad markets because Microsoft failed to pay attention to what customers wanted. With the release of the first iPhone Ballmer stated that it wouldn't capture more than one or two percent of the market. Yeah, right. How's that for "vision"?

Are we really watching the fall of the once mighty Microsoft? They may well still have billions in the bank to keep them afloat, for now, but if they continue to make the same costly missteps even money in the bank won't save them. If I were a Google I would be investing every penny I could in developing an Office alternative. That would sound the death knell for Microsoft because it has always been their cash cow.

Reflections on my 64th birthday

I suspect that, like many people, I am not where I expected to be at this stage of my life. In my romantic thoughts of youth I expected to have a loving family with a partner by my side, my kids and grand kids sharing their lives with me and maybe some travel once in a while. From the age of nineteen I worked hard both at my career and renovating whatever home we were in, building equity for that day in the future when we would downsize.

One of my favorite sayings has always been "life is what happens while you are making other plans". My life has been that saying personified. Although we are in control of some things in our lives, like what we do for a living or where we live, most things are a result of things beyond our control and how we deal with what happens unexpectedly.

After a life best described as what most would call "normal", a long term marriage of twenty-three years, two kids, a nice home and two cars, two things happened to change the direction of my life. The first was realizing that I was trapped in a loveless marriage that had no chance of getting any better. After a year of living apart but paying all the bills for our last house, while my wife sat doing nothing to help, not working and not even filing for unemployment, I knew it was time to end it. The other was my mother being diagnosed with fifth stage melanoma and being given only a five percent chance of surviving more than six months.

My parents, brother and sister, had moved out West in 1970 and had I not met my wife and she got pregnant I might well have gone with them and my life would obviously have been completely different. Given where I am today it would have no doubt been a lot better, for many reasons. Back then the Okanagan was full of so much opportunity, mostly in Real Estate. The prices compared to Ontario were insane. I wanted to form a syndicate, buy up properties, renovate them and put them up for rental. Homes on the lake that I could have bought for less than two hundred thousand dollars were soon selling in the millions. They weren't making any more lakefront so I knew demand would force the prices up and I was right.

With the exception of a couple of visits back and forth and taking the whole family out to Expo 86, I missed having my parents be part of my life. It wasn't my decision to move away from us but my feelings about that all changed when my mother was first diagnosed in 1991. The thought of losing my mother and not spending whatever time she had left with her made me feel selfish and guilty, especially when my own life in Ontario was falling apart. I made the decision to move out West in 1993, partly accepting that my failed marriage was over and partly to be with my mother during her last days.

When I left Ontario I naively thought that my kids would come out to visit us, especially because of my mother's failing health and because we had such a wonderful time when both of them came out for a three week vacation in 1986. As I said a tearful good-bye to my daughter I was shocked that she told me to stay out West because she knew how bad my marriage was and she said she had never seen me happier. I didn't listen and returned to Ontario mostly because I couldn't stand the thought of being apart from her. It was a mistake.

What I never anticipated was that my kids would abandon me for the next seventeen years, something I have deeply regretted every single day since I moved. My mother did beat all the odds and lived until 2007 although she suffered from Alzheimer's the last few years.

The next truly life-changing thing that happened was when my Dad died in my arms in 2005. Not only was this the most traumatic time in my life but it also sent my life into a downward spiral of bad decisions, bad timing and incredible bad luck.

Although prior to his death my father had struggled with caring for my mother, he had done nothing to get her into a care home where she belonged. His drinking escalated and he called me every night crying, telling me that he could not take this anymore, but he was consumed by guilt at putting my mother in a home. Finally he agreed to sell their place although he had no plan as to what to do when it sold. Their home was very dated and he asked me if I would renovate it for sale. I spent four of the toughest months of my life working long days, seven days a week, with them calling me from Revelstoke where they were staying with my sister, constantly pressuring me as to when they could come home.

After my father passed away and given my mother's health we decided it would be traumatic for her to lose her husband and move, so we took the house off the market. I was elected to move in to care for her, although I hoped this would be short term until I got her into a care facility. It wasn't. For months and months I did everything humanly possible to get her into a care facility with no luck. Her condition was deteriorating rapidly and she was put on an emergency first available spot basis. Unfortunately there were three hundred and fifty people on the same basis, so I had to spend my days harassing anyone and everyone who could get her into a facility. Finally I got a call that there was a spot for her and as much as it broke my heart I had to lie to her to get her to go. The day I left her there was the saddest day of my life.

How my sister ended up killing our mother by pulling her out of the care facility is another story, but it's enough to say I have not spoken to her since and I don't forgive her.

After the house sold I moved into a place where, no sooner had I got there than the by-law officer told me I had to move. On short notice I couldn't really find anything decent, but I did find one basement apartment that wasn't terrible in Kelowna. I was on my way to give the landlord the first month's rent when, for some unknown reason I checked my email. There was an email from my Real Estate agent telling me about a place In the Princess MHP that was about to go into foreclosure. He said it was a mess but I could probably just take over the private mortgage, renovate it and sell it for a nice profit.

I ended up losing my deposit on the basement apartment in Kelowna and I moved into the disaster in Princess. Even with the pad rent I was paying less than the basement apartment and I had a place of my own, albeit a mess. Thus began fourteen months of very long days, seven days a week, completely gutting the place and redesigning the layout and rebuilding it from nothing but the shell. As I neared completion I started getting opinions of value from several local Realtors. Without exception they all said it was one of the best manufactured homes in the valley and they all priced it around $159,900. At the time I had been researching other places to renovate and had found three ideal properties so I wanted to sell quickly and firm offers on at least one of these other properties. I listed the place for $139,900, much against the wishes of my Realtor.

The day before it was to hit the market one of the local Indian Chief's came out in the local paper stating that anyone who bought on native land was "stupid" because there was no long term tenancy and all the parks would be closed for redevelopment with no compensation to the owners of the homes. Overnight the market collapsed. No Realtor, lawyer or bank would touch a property on Native land. Even worse, the commitment I had for a private mortgage, just in case the place didn't sell, fell through. Even the Band's own credit union wouldn't touch financing. My world fell apart and the stress was killing me.

My doctor told me to get out from under this stress or it would kill me. The cold, grey winters were starting to get to me so I started researching somewhere warmer and settled on Panama. Another huge mistake. I left my place in the care of my electrician friend who I had let move in when he split with his wife. Another huge mistake.

Long story, but I ended up getting ripped off for everything I owned in Panama, plus the guy I left in charge of my place back in Westbank let the snow build-up on my roof, something I had warned him about, and the roof collapsed resulting in twenty thousand dollars worth of damage. If the place was unsellable before, it sure was worse now. I ended up getting less than half of what I would have gotten if I'd sold it before the collapse.

I managed to sell everything I had left in Panama and returned to Toronto to stay with my cousin. Another long story but I met a girl from London on the internet who eventually came to Toronto and for me it was love at first sight. I ended up moving to London to be with her. Another huge mistake. She ended up screwing around on me with, surprise, surprise, a guy she met on the internet. My world had been shattered yet again and now I found myself stuck in a place I loathed.

London has not been kind to me. My wacko landlady threatened to seize all my stuff so I ended up moving out with no idea where I was going. I ended up sleeping on the vacant office floor of a friends and finally got into the Centre of Hope, only to be turfed out because Ontario Works screwed up my paperwork. I then went to The Mission men's shelter, a disgusting, filthy, dangerous place. After also getting kicked out there I ended up at the Unity Project, a wonderful place full of caring people. With their help I managed to get a job at Home Depot and eventually got my own apartment. It didn't last. My contract ended at Home Depot and I was laid off along with a whole bunch of other people. I couldn't pay for my apartment but I got a call from London Housing that a place had opened up in my current building.

So Much for the "Power" of Social Media

There was a job back in Kelowna with a company owned by the son of a colleague I had done business with many years ago. I thought it might be interesting and maybe help me get the job if I asked all my friends and colleagues to send a simple email to him with the subject line "Hire Gary Jones".

At the very least I thought getting maybe thirty or forty emails would help to get me noticed. Okay, so some of my 136 friends on Facebook don't know me well enough to send what looks like a recommendation, but a lot of them do. Not only that but a lot of them are friends I have helped out when they needed it; everything from help with moving to renovating to taking them out on my boat. A simple one-line email wasn't too much to ask, I thought.

No such luck. It backfired on me big time when all he got was TWO emails. That's right - TWO! If he read into it that I had asked all my many friends and colleagues in the Okanagan to send him a simple email, and the response was a big fat TWO, then it's not surprising that I never heard from him again.

Given my current desperation to get the hell out of London and back to my beloved Okanagan, this experience sure brought me down, which is the last thing I needed right now.

Are we heading for an economic collapse?

Back when my in-laws were looking to buy their first home, first they saved for a couple of years to come up with a down payment of a couple thousand dollars. They then qualified for a mortgage with a twenty-five year term and an interest rate of around 5% for the entire term. New homes at the time were about double the average annual family income, based on the wife staying at home to raise the kids and Dad working. Dad was an electrician making about $6,000 a year and their three bedroom new home in Brampton was $12,900. Affordable.

Moving on to my first home. My first family home, a fixer upper, was $42,500 and our family income was just over $20,000. Throughout our more than twenty years of marriage and eight homes, the price we paid was always right around double our annual family income. Even our last matrimonial home was sold for $189,000; my ex was not working, but I was making about $90,000 as a computer consultant.

Fast forward to today. I am working at a call centre, making just over eleven dollars an hour, not an uncommon wage in London for people who work at the few jobs available here - The Tim Hortons, the Home Depots, Wal-Marts and so on. If you are lucky enough to work full-time that adds up to a whopping $23,400. Assume that two people in the same family are working, which is a stretch considering that 54% of people are now divorced. Let's round that off to $50k for the household anyway, so, if the same relationship is true we should be able to buy a home for $100k, right? Not a chance! The average new home price in most urban areas is at least $400k, four times what we earn!

The housing market has always functioned on the concept that young people buy their first home and throughout their lives they move up to bigger and better homes, gaining equity for that day when they retire and sell their last home. If no one is entering the bottom of the market the whole thing grinds to a halt. Prices will fall dramatically when there are no buyers entering the market for the first time.

The same thing is going to happen with cars. Car payments through a bank or lease payments were always affordable, even for those who wanted a new car every three years. Car prices today often require payments that look more like a mortgage payment on a small house. These car payments together with astronomical mortgage payments are what is pushing the average amount of debt through the roof. Older Canadians usually have no mortgage and no car payments, so that leaves all the rest of the younger population shouldering more and more of the debt load. A minor hiccup in interest rates is going to result in the kind of foreclosures we saw in the US and prices will crash the same.

Add to all this the costs of operating a vehicle. Interest rates on car leases are absurd. Buyouts are insane. Insurance costs are over the top. Repairs, particularly on parts for foreign cars are out of site. Now add five buck a gallon fuel and people are no doubt going to question the value of owning a car. Trips of any kind, whether to the local store or a Sunday drive in the country, must be rethought when the price of gas is factored in. When my kids were young we traveled all over Ontario and the north-eastern states for their hockey and soccer, all year round. Today I could never afford that and my kids would suffer if they wanted to play organized sports.

It's what's behind things like the Occupy Movement. More and more people are feeling disenfranchised because they see the rich getting richer and richer, yet the majority are falling further and further behind. It could all serve to bring on an economic collapse. Thoughts?