» Archive for February, 1997

The Trouble with Computers

Wednesday, February 19th, 1997 by Jonathan Spira

Review:  The Trouble with Computers: Usefullness, Usability, and Productivity by Thomas K. Landauer

From its title, The Trouble with Computers sounds as if it is a work founded on pessimism. Do not let the title fool you. While Thomas K. Landauer, a Professor of Psychology and Fellow of The Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado, does believe that the computer age has been over hyped and has fallen short of promised gains, we are instructed that we shouldn’t necessarily conclude that this has been an experiment gone amiss. Computers and computer users are, however, in a lot of trouble, and unless changes are made in the way that computers and applications work, look and feel, productivity will continue to remain flat.

So, end-users, do not throw away your computers, sharpen your pencils and take the abacus out of storage; instead, urge developers and hardware manufacturers to take your needs and abilities in to account when they design their products. For, according to Landauer’s thesis, the broken productivity promise is largely the fault of these same developers. They are often too concerned with an “elegant solution”; needless features are added to applications, because they help the marketing process along. Products are designed in such a way as to make the software uninviting and even impossible to use.

There is, however, a solution to this problem, and it makes Landauer’s view of the Information Technology productivity “myth” an optimistic one. Developers, listen up: listen to and notice your intended users. Test your products out on the intended users of your products, and listen to the feedback they provide. This is user-centric design. And what are the benefits of user-centric design? Try, if you will, a reduction in training costs, lower employee turnover, and an increase in satisfaction among your users and customers. On a more long-term basis, one can expect from time to time that user-centric design will act as an incubator for new and exciting ideas.

Landauer presents a compelling argument, with incredibly on-target (and often quite amusing) anecdotal backup. There are countless applications on the market today designed in such way as to make them unusable; interfaces are cluttered and complicated, manuals are impossible to read, and processes are nonsensical. Even if you disagree with the econometric data supporting his productivity argument, Landauer’s book serves as a cautionary tale as to the excesses of software development teams. His is an eye-opening argument, and all who are involved with the implementation of information technology would do well to consider his remedies.

You can order The Trouble with Computers right now from Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).

Moving Along The I-Way

Sunday, February 2nd, 1997 by Jonathan Spira

In December 1996, the FCC refused to allow phone companies to charge a different rate for data calls than for voice.   Since the divestiture of AT&T in 1983, under the Modified Final Judgment (MFJ) that has been supervised by Judge Harold Green, long-distance phone firms pay local phone companies for access to local phone lines, but Internet-access firms and other non-voice service providers are exempted from such charges.

With the exploding popularity of the Net, local telephone companies are charging that this exemption has left them unable to unclog the public switched voice networks and, more significantly, has discouraged them from making the investment required in their data networks that would truly let the Internet meet consumers’ needs.

The phone companies argue that the small number of users should bear the cost of upgrading and supporting access to the Net.  Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) counter-argue that access charges would slow or possibly even strangle the growth of the Net and that the phone companies are crying wolf because they are trying to get into the Net access business themselves.

Blair Levin, the chief of staff for FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, spoke at the Comnet and noted that “Now is not the time to act,” indicating that the federal government is unlikely to subject Internet providers to access charges for using local telephone lines.

Levin also mentioned that it would be unreasonable to impose old rules (access charges) on new technologies and that reform was needed on the part of the FCC and access charges.

The underlying logic of the phone companies is that while typical residential voice calls average 5 (3 ccs) minutes in duration (typical business calls use twice as much line time), data calls can go on for hours, overtaxing the public switched network. They want these data users to pay for upgrading the network.  It is perhaps a tribute to the increasing maturity of the Internet in terms of richness and variety of content that more and more users are staying on line longer.

This increase in data calls does appear to have been a boon for the local exchange carriers, in that second residential line installations were up 25% in 1996, compared to an average increase of 8% in years past.

Curiously enough, NYNEX, in the New York City metropolitan area, created a new twist on unlimited, untimed service last year. [Previously, in New York City, the only calling plan available was one where callers paid for each local call.] They offered an unlimited service to residential customers, based on call usage patterns of that customer in a given three-month period that rolled forward depending on when you signed up.  It seems paradoxical for them to argue that they’re losing money on local calls while they’re creating unlimited services at the same time.

By any measure, however, the increase in volume and length of Internet-related calls does have an impact on the existing circuit-switched voice telephony networks.  The potential for bottlenecks is greatest at the terminating central office (CO) switch that provides service to ISPs, but they can also occur at originating points where there is a high concentration of Internet users or telecommuters.

Depending on the extent of congestion, users can expect delayed dial tone, denial of dialtone, and ACB (All Circuits Busy) messages — clearly an unacceptable level of service in an era of instant gratification.

What is the alternative?  Nortel has developed an innovative approach, Internet Thruway, which minimizes traffic congestion by migrating long-duration data and Internet calls from the public switched network onto a more efficient, highly scalable packet-data network.

This is technically an enhancement to the public switched network, in that it maintains the traditional circuit-switched pathways for voice calls while adding packet-switched capabilities for data.  The telephone companies will enjoy a new revenue opportunity by providing outsourcing of modem management functions to the ISP, removing obstacles presently inherent in the ISP’s business model.

As the popularity of the Internet continues to soar, more and more telephone company customers will go “on line.”  It is likely that many of these customers will use phone company facilities for access.  As this occurs, it will no longer remain a question of how to service an “elite” minority of users but how to provide the ubiquitous “data dial tone” that has long eluded the public-at-large.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).

Book Review: Dave Barry in Cyberspace

Sunday, February 2nd, 1997 by Jonathan Spira

Dave Barry in Cyberspace

Dave Barry in Cyberspace should have been entitled “Dave Barry Reveals the Mysteries of the Cyberworld” as Mr  Barry takes us on a tour of Cyberspace in a “simple, practical, well-organized” manner, much of which he admittedly makes up as he goes along.  And lest you think his topics are strictly relating to the nuts and bolts of computing, Barry explains concepts which may have baffled even the most sophisticated users.  For example, take the airline business.  According to Barry, the airline industry, now that it has developed a computerized fare system that ensures that no two passengers on the same flight pay the same fare, is now working on a system that ensures that no two passengers in the history of aviation pay the same amount.  Progress, eh?

And Barry is well-equipped as a master of Cyberspace, having owned everything from a Radio Shack TRS-80 (which he describes as a “mutant toaster oven”) to the latest Pentium models, which enable him to multitask.  Multitasking is so fascinating to him that, while authoring this tome, he checks his e-mail and plays “ABM Commander”; he also points out that those less technically sophisticated authors, Chaucer among them, would have had to exit their documents before starting their favorite game.

Curious about the history of MS-DOS error messages?  You can find the answer within. Planning on buying a computer?  Barry will tell you where and how much (usually, “$350″ less than you will have paid).

Not certain as to which operating system you should install on your computer?  Emphasizes Dave Barry:  “Whichever one is already on your computer.”  Indeed, in Barry’s world, installing a new operating system can result in the following error message:

“The Installation Program has determined that a conflict exists … Shall the Installation Program reallocate the Motherboard Transfer Polarity Replication Allotment…?  Bear in mind that if you answer this question incorrectly, … innocent people could die.”

If you do install your own software, however, the advice Barry gives is invaluable.  “Open the software packaging and remove the manual… Throw it away.”

The hottest topic, of course, is the Internet.  And Barry addresses a question that has puzzled research institutions and computer scientists worldwide, namely, who runs the Internet.  Explains Barry: “A thirteen year-old named Jason.”   And if you’re concerned that, as you embark upon the Information Superhighway, you might make a mistake in typing the complex names of various Web sites, relax, as Barry advise that the worst that could happen if you type a single incorrect character is that “you will launch U.S. nuclear missiles against Norway.”

Barry also  provides the definitive reference on emoticons, those “smiley” symbols that people use to express emotion, such as :>).    Here, for the very first time, are
:-|     Person unsure of which long-distance company to choose
>8-O-(&)Person just realizing that he or she has a tapeworm

Don’t read Dave Barry in Cyberspace in public; you most likely will feel an uncontrollable urge to burst out laughing and, if you’re reading this during a meeting during which you’re supposed to be paying attention, there may be some undesirable side effects!

You can order Dave Barry in Cyberspace right now from Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).