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Too much to ask?

May 08, 20064 mins
Network Security

Bob just got a Treo phone, and he loves it. It does all the things he wants a phone, PDA and coffee maker to do. But he admits that as much as he likes the device, it does weird stuff – specifically, locking up randomly.

Hmmm. Interesting. The first time I got my hands on one in a Cingular store (manned by antisales people) . . .

Why do the cellular companies set up shops that appear to exclusively hire 20-somethings with absolutely no idea of customer service, minimal manners and a grasp of technology that makes the average fish appear to be well informed? It is like the company wants you to experience just how bad its service can be so you won’t be surprised when you call and customer service really sticks it to you.

. . . I pressed two keys, and it transformed magically into a paperweight. A nice-looking paperweight but a paperweight nonetheless.

I asked an antisalesperson about it, and he mumbled, “Oh yeah, they do that a lot . . . but they’re really cool.”

Really? Cool as in what? When I was young (no comments, please) cool meant good, slick, neat – something that was cool did what it was supposed to do and did it with style. It didn’t mean a dang fashion accessory that might work if the wind was in the right freakin’ direction and the gods deigned to smile upon me.

Bob also complains that while his Treo phone has a bigger and more colorful screen, it also has smaller fonts, which is great when you are 20-something, but once that big four-oh passes, it requires reading glasses and squinting.

And Bob can’t turn off the 2001-style female voice that insists on announcing all of his calls. Now Bob will freely admit that he hasn’t read the manual, but you know what – cell phone company executives and manufacturers, this is where you should be paying close attention, because this is really important – Bob shouldn’t have to read the manual.

No one should have to read a manual for a cell phone. They’re phones, not scanning tunneling microscopes or nuclear reactors. It shouldn’t be that complicated.

For example, I have a Motorola Razr. I acquired it when my AT&T Wireless contract ran out and I had to migrate to a Cingular contract (it felt rather how I imagine being mugged feels).

The Razr has a nice physical design; sleek, the right weight and with one exception, mechanically elegant.

Before I leave the physical side of the device, I must mention (OK, rant about) the one major mechanical exception that plagues the Razr is dust under the screen. Apparently not all units suffer from this screw-up, which seems to be caused by vent slots that relieve the potential pressure buildup between the LCD and its cover.

For the lucky owners whose phones are for whatever reason just fractionally differently built, dust floating around with apparently nothing better to do targets these vents, enters the gap between the display and the screen, and makes the screen at least 50% unreadable in anything but total darkness. To cure this is either a return to manufacturer warranty repair or purchase of a new $10 cover.

But as slick as the Razr is, its software is a testament to uncontrolled engineering. Everything is there but organized as inefficiently and as counterintuitively as possible.

What I am arguing for – no, pleading for – is that vendors stop focusing on features and start thinking about usability. We don’t want manuals, weird key combinations to do basic things, text that can be read only if you have Superman-like vision and faults that should have been identified in the design process. We want stuff that works!

Is that too much to ask?

Is it? Answers to Gibbsblog or Whatever takes the fewest keystrokes. (Thanks to Bob Cagle for becoming, inadvertently, this week’s muse.)


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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