Quote of the week:
"These are the guys who regard putting a new operating system on their PC as a form of entertainment." -- Chris LeTocq, Dataquest, commenting on the strong retail sales of Windows 98.
I just spent the past four hours trying to get a network card installed in a new PC. Now, I know what you are thinking: Strom is either some doddering old fool, lost his touch, or just having a bad hair day. Maybe all three. Certainly, this doesn't come under the entertainment label. The reality is that getting a network card up and running, even in these days of Plug and Play and Windows 98, isn't a slam dunk. It makes me wish I had a Macintosh, or chose some other profession.
I have about ten different network cards here at Strom HQ. They range in age from my trusty NE2000 and SMC cards to some EISA cards (remember that?) to the newer 3Com PCI cards with all sorts of nifty features. And one of the things I do is purposefully spend time trying to get at least one of them working every time I buy a new machine. Call it a hobby, call it self-torture, call it strange. But it helps ground me in what the average Joe or Jane is faced with when they have to setup a new PC. And it still is pretty ugly.
Mind you, we have come a long way since the early "Year of the LAN" that I think happened in late 1989 or maybe 1990. Back then, we couldn't even buy network adapters, cabling, or hubs at retail computer stores: you were lucky to find printers, let alone anything fancier like an Ethernet card.
Back then, when I toiled in the fields of corporate systems support, we used to say it cost us $1000 every time we had to open up a machine and do something to it. Based on my current consulting rates, this price has gone up. Certainly, the four hours I spent on this task were work out to more than the $600 it cost me for a new PC.
What took so long? Partly it was my fault: I was trying to do two things in sequence: first, install the card. Second, upgrade the machine with Windows 98. To be fair, I did manage to get my SMC card working under Windows 95, but once I went through the upgrade it stopped working. Honest, officer, I didn't touch nothin'! And cards that didn't work under 95, such as my Dayna PCI card, now work fine under 98. Go figure.
My favorite scenario was when I tried to delete the configuration of one card, and then try to reinstall it. I got a message saying to the effect that since I was trying to do this with a Plug and Play card, I would first have to reboot my PC! I kid you not. And I thought Microsoft had made some improvements on the PnP side with Windows 98.
So this is why home networks won't happen anytime soon. Even if you buy a PC with the network card inside, you then need to know enough about protocols, DHCP (assuming you'll eventually have IP running around your home), proxy servers (we covered that issue in WI#111 with the cable guy trying to get things going), and so forth.
On top of this is the challenge of once you get a working setup, you then have to keep the kids from changing your system configuration. Some parents have abrogated their responsibility for computer support to their teenage children. These are the network installers of our future, perhaps. Of course, these same parents laughably have their kids next install their Internet filtering and porn blocking software.
We have a small ray of hope, however misdirected. Last week saw the creation of the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance. (You can read more about what they are trying to do here.) But they are trying to solve the wrong problem: rather than make Plug and Play actually workable, or standardize how IP gets setup, they are trying to deal with wiring. The alliance uses the Tut Systems 1 megabit standard to run over existing household phone wire. That is nice, and I wish them well.
But wiring is just one dimension of the problem. And in the meantime, if it takes me a half day to get a network card installed, the home market is far from happening. Maybe 1999 will be the Year of the Home LAN. Maybe 2000.
My latest review for Computerworld is a review of Open Software Associates' NetDeploy software distribution product.
Finally, I have begun writing for a new publication called Web Builder. Published by Fawcette, my article is on eCommerce catalog products.
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