Web Informant #290, 5 June 2002:
Don't try this at home


It is the middle of 2002, and I am still having piss-poor experiences with major-league web sites that should know better. And it makes me mad.

I went to register for Microsoft's Fusion conference, and found myself trapped inside a hall of mirrors, like something out of (actually inside of) Alice in Wonderland. It must have taken me the better part of an hour to sign up for this event. Obscure links, broken pages, poor design, bad instructions: someone should use this site as a case study of what NOT to do in web design.

I'll give you an example: I wanted to figure out which of the sponsored hotels in downtown LA had reasonable prices that would pass muster of the CMP T&E police. Try as I could, I could find out everything about the dozen or so hotels clustered around the show -- everything but the nightly rates! Hello, Microsoft: nice that you put so much effort into designing a fancy interactive application that could show me which hotels have rooms available and such, but what happened to the price tags? Ironically, I ended up booking my hotel room on Expedia, which is owned by Microsoft. Didn't really do it purposely, but it just worked out that way. I guess that is the definition of a monopolist: no matter where you turn to, it is all Microsoft, all the time.

Moving on, I next had to dredge up the latest drivers for a Netgear phoneline network card for a friend's home network installation. We were into my third visit (first: spec out the project, second: bring the gear, third: try to get the gear actually working) and I still couldn't get the card working properly. Luckily, we had access to another, working computer, with an Internet connection. Luckily, before I took the network card out of the PC and tossed it high into the night, I realized that perhaps the version 1.0 drivers that were dated back to the dawn of time (or 2001) were perhaps the culprit.

Eventually, I found the drivers, (really, they don't make it easy to find them) and downloaded them to a floppy. Run downstairs with the floppy with the downloaded driver. Oops, the problem PC doesn't have Winzip. Run upstairs and Unzip the files, and copy to two floppies. Run downstairs and find out one of the floppies is unreadable. Run upstairs and copy to another floppy. Eventually, after running this marathon of stair climbing (luckily it wasn't a bigger house), I get the network card working. But then, I find out something is wrong with the house phone wiring, even though it had just been redone a few months' ago. Luckily, I had brought along two powerline network adapters, and they worked just fine, and I didn't even have to download any drivers. (I'll have more to say about this new breed of networking after I try them out in a few other places around town, but things look promising so far.)

So it goes. Another friend's distress call was relatively minor: a few tweaks of their PC here and there, winding my way through Windows XP menus and prompts and I was out within an hour. But I begin to realize the theme for this week's column: how do civilians (people without Professional Computer Skills, or failing that, a graduate degree from Stanford) do this on their own? How can companies get away with these shoddy products? (Well, I guess that is what keeps me in business, and being able to write these columns and other articles. If everything worked Just Fine, I would be out of a job and we would have trade magazines like the beef or carpeting industries.)

I mean, my friends undergoing post-traumatic PC stress that I visited this week are very smart folks. They have high IQs, make a good living and live in nice houses, and all their children are above average. But their computers perplex them, as well as the various applications that occasionally run on them and how their kids wantonly install software on them. It doesn't have to be this way, really. But it is.

Travel and self-promotions dep't

Yes, I am finally coming out west after a long dry spell. If you are in the LA and SF metro areas and need to spend a few quality moments with me during July 12-16, drop me a note and we can arrange a meet. The two conferences I'll be attending are Microsoft's Fusion (I am now invested, after having spent so much time registering for the darn thing) and the Burton Group's Catalyst. It will be nice to catch up with some old friends again.

I have written a bunch of things for VAR Business, as you might suspect since I am now on staff. Some of them have already been published, and more is in the works and on the way that I hope you will enjoy. It has been a blast to be back on the inside of a pub once again after all these years, and the crew at VAR is first-rate. And while sometimes I think it might be better to be on Beef Producers Monthly or Carpet Week, I like our industry and still find it lots of fun. Check this page for links to my articles and further details:

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David Strom
+1 (516) 562-7151
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entire contents copyright 2002 by David Strom, Inc.
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