Unfriendly Hosts

I am experienced. At IT, that is. I'm not trying to brag, only to indicate that when I have problems with information technology, it's not because I'm technically incapable. I had one of the first PCs and one of the first laptops and still have a Palm Inc. I. At one point I was a systems administrator (though, admittedly, it was a couple of decades ago).

Having job-hopped a bit and hung around lots of universities, I probably worked on more than a hundred different computers over my life span. I have never spilled a Coke into my keyboard, never used my CD-ROM drive as a cup holder, never sought the "any" key in response to the "press any key" prompt.

But I am perplexed. By remote communications, that is. This morning, for example, I decided that I would work from my vacation house on Cape Cod. I wanted to start the day bright and early by replicating my Lotus Development Corp. Notes messages. I connected successfully at first (to a local number in my own little town, which I happily observed was added to the phone listing since last summer), but Notes couldn't find my server. Rebooted. Dialed up again.

The modem hissed, quavered, yelped, barked, twanged and made a few sounds I don't remember ever hearing before, but never settled down and got quiet the way it's supposed to. I tried a few more times. By that time, I realized that I had spent 40 minutes doing all this, and it was no longer bright and early. Dialed up technical support. Was told it was a system problem. Guess I was oddly reassured.

I tried to do the same thing last week. That time it didn't work then either. (OK, I forgot my modem-to-phone-plug cable--but wouldn't you think that some store on the Cape should carry such a pedestrian item?) The point is, I have failed to connect hundreds if not thousands of times over the years. I have failed at home and all around the world. I've failed from dirty phone booths (the ones in London are particularly dirty, if you catch my drift) and pristine luxury hotel rooms. I have failed at 110 volts and 220 volts, with every kind of adapter you can imagine. In short, I am a remote access loser.


Has any of this affected my self-worth in the slightest? Do I blame myself for this orgy of wasted time, for the endless busy signals and "the port was disconnected by the remote computer" messages? I do not. The only stupidity I feel is for enduring it all--for not chucking these computers and becoming a gentleman farmer. Or for not being a stay-at-home novelist who hands in his completed manuscripts in longhand or, at best, on a diskette.

No, I blame the system--the vendors, the IT establishment, the trilateral commission. I know it's not just me, because my colleagues and friends admit to similar difficulties. My buddy Dave DeLong, for example, reported huge problems in this particular area last week during a coffee-machine conversation we were having. I promised to mention him if I wrote about the issue.

Still, I know it's not just my company, in part because our IT people are smart and hardworking, but also because I've had these problems wherever I've been employed. And I know it doesn't have to be this way, because some organizations are able to get it right.

Take America Online, for example. Sure, the company had a few problems with busy signals a few years ago. And my wife and kids have an occasional problem with a dropped connection. But in general, America Online Inc. supplies its cheery "You've Got Mail" almost anytime anyone dials up, as the movie e-mail correspondents Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan can attest. Imagine the fate of their love affair in You've Got Mail if they had been dealing with busy signals, line drops and incorrect protocols? There is nothing very exciting or interesting about AOL; it just works.

I also have a cable modem at home, and it works perfectly--all the time. It is such a relief not to have to dial up that I am willing to use multiple e-mail systems, to risk hackers getting a hold of my computer from afar and to pay an exorbitant $50 a month to use this device. It is faster than a 56K modem, of course, but to me the speed is less important than the convenience and the reliability. It's like being in the office, except that you can't get through the corporate firewall. Well, supposedly there is a way to do that, but I prefer to write books and be a Little League coach (even though we were 3 and 13 this year) over having the world's best home office setup.

That's really the choice in today's world. I have no doubt that I could overcome my problems with remote access and raise my connecting average to somewhere over Nomar Garciaparra's. But I'd rather have a life. I don't really have the time to tinker with all the little switches and parameters and error message interpretations.

It should all just be simpler. How much television would we watch, for example, if we had to dial up before we tuned in? What if we had to worry, for instance, about whether our baud rate was sufficiently speedy to download The West Wing? Or would we redial if we kept losing our connection to The Practice?

One would think that this technical problem would pale in comparison to others our society has solved. After all, we've cracked the genetic code, solved Fermat's Last Theorem and removed the blinking clock from most new VCRs. Yet dial-up communications today are no more reliable than they were when I had a RadioShack Corp. TRS-100 at the end of my phone line. Apparently we have topped out in terms of dial-up modem speeds (I must say, it's hard to believe that 56K is the result of an immutable law of physics), so perhaps now we can concentrate on actually connecting.


I guess I'm supposed to be constructive in these columns, so let me venture a few words of free advice to CIOs and other denizens of the corporate IT establishment. Do whatever you can to make life easier for us remote communicators. We don't need anything fancy, we just want our e-mail. Now that server and general computer reliability are pretty high, devote some human resources to working out the bugs. And offer a special service for mobile executives who want to bring in their laptops for a telecommuting tune-up.

I just tried to dial up again. I did get a connection! But again my hopes were dashed: "The Notes server is not a TCP/IP host." Somehow I received 29,709 bytes without accomplishing anything at all. It's fascinating to have such precision about a failure to communicate!

Tom Davenport cogitates at both Andersen Consulting Inc.'s Institute for Strategic Change and Babson College. He welcomes reader comments at davenport@cio.com.

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