Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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1707 words

The world of telephony is one of staggering incompetence. It is unclear how huge rich companies with decades of experience manage to produce such a world of constant FAIL. A world in which - despite the underlying technology being more powerful and less expensive than ever - actually using any feature of their products is pretty much impossible.

I am personally living a low-tech life with an analogue phone line and the cheapest mobile phone (mostly out of battery power) I could get. But when visiting my parents recently - an occasion that’s regularly used to present the newest technological problems to the kids - I was confronted with the world of high-tech FAIL.

Back History

For some reason my parents’ household has always been close to the forefront of communication technologies. When they moved into their house in the 1970s, they rewired all the walls with phone lines, establishing a phone network throughout the house (a fact that proved surprisingly advantageous when we wanted to build a PhoneNet network for the Macs in the 1990s). Back then there was an analogue phone exchange in the basement which connected six phones inside the house to an outside line and let you make calls inside the house and put calls through, saving a lot of shouting up and down the stairs. The exchange came in a huge 80 by 80 centimetre metal case and was full of relays wired by orderly arranged coloured wires. They’d make a nice clacking sound while people were dialling. The machine was simple to use and it worked well.

At some stage in the 1990s we wanted a second phone line and got a ‘modern’ in-house exchange for that. The huge metal case was replaced by a small plastic one the size of a hardcover book. It didn’t make any noises and it did its job. We could have a fax and a modem this way and it was hooked up to the door so you could speak to people and open the door for them from a phone. That feature worked for a short while at least. A bit later we got another upgrade. To ISDN.

This was when things started being a bit complicated. Not only because the exchange needed for ISDN to hook up the phones inside the house came with many more features - all of which had to be set by punching numbers into a phone - but also because, somehow, that exchange never worked quite as well as its predecessors. Calls might be lost while transferring them from time to time and the door magic never worked with it.

Since I moved out things evolved further. DSL arrived, strange DSL with ISDN routers arrived, plenty of new technology made its way into the house and I’m not sure I’d even know how to dial the phone in the next room at this stage. Each of these increasingly more powerful machines seemed to make things work less and less smoothly. Add a few DECT handsets which bring their own idea of an internal network with them and you’re set for a royal mess.

The Residential Phone

So my parents’ clever idea was to switch over all their phones to the DECT system. Just buy a few more handsets to replace the remaining cabled phones and voilà things should be easy again. One should be able to do internal calls, external calls, put calls through and possibly even do neat things such as having a shared phone book on the wireless handsets. That seems to sort-of work (even though, for some reason, my parents are still irritated by two phones which should be identical in both hardware and setup displaying different things on their display while idling).

The centrepiece of the whole setup is a single Siemens desk-phone. It comes with any acronym and non-acronym you can think of: ISDN for the phone line coming in, DECT for the wireless phone network it provides, an analogue phone line so you can hook up ‘legacy’ devices, USB and even Bluetooth. Naturally, whatever setup software there may be for the device does not work on the Mac, so most of the whizz-bang stuff is rather useless. More relevantly, though, it proved impossible to hook up the existing fax machine to the phone’s analogue port.

Of course I was quick to argue that nobody uses a fax these days, but that’s not a way to argue with my dad and his fax machine. Somehow the fax would get a signal for a second or so and then the line went dead (add a bunch of wiring variants here which are too involved to remember, one of which even managed to induce static in the the allegedly all digital ISDN-DECT phone lines). But I was quick to suggest to just dump the fax machine and simply use the USB modem my dad has on his MacBook. Of course my dad didn’t even know it could be used to send faxes (I at least know this on a theoretical level).

But the computer modem showed the same effect as the fax machine, effectively getting no signal. We tried different cables and plugs (the German TAE plug is notorious for being picky / stupid as far as the wiring is concerned, and companies like Apple are notorious for getting it wrong), hitting my head while crawling beneath a table to reach the sockets but we couldn’t find a reasonable way to make this work (it kind of worked by hooking up yet another ISDN phone exchange to the system, one of the devices that’s supposed to be retired).

But high-tech to the rescue! As I had noticed that the desk phone appeared in the Print & Fax preference pane via Bluetooth, I figured we could just dump the whole analogue technology and use that. I have no real clue how that would work (the phone pretending to be a mobile, providing a fax service via Bluetooth and then sending it as analogue signals?), but who cares? Nobody is actually going to send a fax anyway and I was happy to see the option. It was easy to set up. And it completely failed to work as well. Welcome to the future!

The Mobile Phone

After this first world of FAIL, we headed for another one: My dad’s mobile phone. The task was simple enough: put some music on the phone so my dad can listen to it. His computer comes with a widespread music application called iTunes, so this shouldn’t be a big deal. If iTunes weren’t designed to be incompatbile with all mobile phones except Apple’s.

But no problem, the phone, a Sony Ericsson K660i, comes with Bluetooth and USB connection options as well. It doesn’t have a standard USB connector, but my mum managed to find the matching cable (orderly left behind in the original packing naturally). I hooked it up to my Mac and nothing happened. Apparently OS X refuses to mount those volumes (two of them apparently, for the phone’s internal memory and the conveniently accessible memory card in it). There were just mount_msdos processes running but they didn’t seem to actually do anything. Mac FAIL.

The next step was to try Bluetooth. Bluetooth is very confusing. You seem to have several ways to connect to a phone, everything is painfully slow and somehow the phone considered it funny to ask for confirmation for every single file I tried to transfer. Too nerve-wrecking.

Thanks to Apple’s switch to Intel, we now have the easy option of Windows coming to the rescue. Perhaps it’s not literally ‘easy’, but Windows has a reputation for making more of an effort at communicating with non-Apple devices than Mac OS does. And indeed, Windows immediately presented me with a bunch of excitement notices that it detected the phone on the USB port and would present it to me. It let me (still quite slowly, but I didn’t have enough energy to mind at that state) copy the files over to the phone and they promptly vanished on there. Well, they didn’t actually vanish it just seemed that the phone automatically moved them to a different folder or something. I didn’t understand that either, but the phone could play them which was the main point.

That went well until I tried to copy an AAC file to the phone (remember kids, you really should have stuck to traditional MP3!). While the phone is perfectly capable of playing those files, somehow Windows figured out the opposite and claims that the file is not ‘supported’ on the device:

Windows claiming that a file is not supported on the device

This is wrong in so many ways, it’s hard to list them all. A few obvious ones seem that the information given is wrong, that he 1990s want their attention icon back, that the dialogue seems ignorant of the device in question and doesn’t even state its name, that the dialogue gives an opaque hint at Windows Media Player without being specific and that pretty much everything you can click in that dialogue seems to be equivalent to a cancel command. A ‘workaround’ to this was to not copy the files in question into the music folder, but into some other folder. That stopped Windows from trying to be smart and somehow the phone has some magic elves inside which find the files nonetheless.

So - quite surprisingly - we still ended up with the phone being able to play some music in its music player (which is nothing to write home about and even turns simple tasks like changing the volume into a surprising ordeal), but it required far more effort than it should have. Computers and phones FAIL FAIL FAIL.


It baffles me how people can put a lot of resources into developing telephones and telephony systems and get no further that this. They should be ashamed of themselves. It is unclear to which extent this is due to technological difficulties and technical incompetence and to which extent this is due to ‘strategies’ which forbid companies to develop and follow interoperable standards. As far as the sad result is concerned it doesn’t really matter why these problems exist. And neither of incompetence and malice are particularly trust inspiring.

September 19, 2009, 11:23

Tagged as bluetooth, phone, usb.


Comment by dan: User icon

Hey Sven,

I hear your pain! As a gadget geek I’ve had my share of Mac/Windows/Phone hell. Every time something fails to work, or works in a crappy way, I find it’s usually something that could easily be fixed or should have been fixed in software. But the fix never comes - because if it did (and every thing worked as it should) geeks like me would yearn less for next years phone and be less likely to upgrade.

Soo… I imagine that (shitty as it is) it’s not in the interests of commercial gadget makers to make stuff that works well, they just need to make it sort of work and then the marketing wonks will take over and persuade everyone that they need this latest greatest gizmo phone.

My slightly ranty 2 p.

September 20, 2009, 13:17

Comment by ssp: User icon

I guess that – sadly – you got the business side of this right.

So the only way to fix this would be to hurt their business, right? Just stop buying stuff, kids. It’s going to be crap anyway. I wonder why that’s such a hard lesson to learn.

On the other hand, I want to believe that the old people market for such stuff should be much larger and richer than the geek market. And my parents certainly didn’t ask ask for all the gizmo bits in the phones they bought, they mainly want to be able to make calls, possibly send a fax and listen to some music. And I imagine they’re not alone with that. It’s unclear why that ‘market’ isn’t served better.

September 20, 2009, 13:56

Comment by d.w.: User icon

I think even in the ideal case, the problem is that the gadget vendors and the phone/network companies are working at cross purposes. In theory, the gadget makers want a great top to bottom experience, and the network providers want to maximize revenue. Why do mobile phone vendors insist on such long and redundant instructions on how to leave a voicemail? Because it increases the amount of time a caller stays on the phone to leave a message. Why does the ringtone racket exist? Because the record companies and phone networks see it as free revenue.

No one has a financial incentive to make things work better, so no one does.

Just stop buying stuff, kids. It’s going to be crap anyway. I wonder why that’s such a hard lesson to learn.

Good luck with that. :)

September 20, 2009, 19:35

Comment by ssp: User icon

Your argument is as convincing as Dan’s. I still find it depressing. I also sincerely hope that it will hurt the gadget companies and network operators in the long run. As far as I can tell people tend to get burned by stuff like ringtone rip-offs. But when they’re older than 15 they tend to remember that and it makes them be scared of ever wanting a ringtone again because they fear they’ll be screwed again and they’d rather do without the ringtone than having to worry about being ripped off or confronted with a lot of fine-print. It’s not even that people take serious financial harm from those rip-offs, many of them couldn’t care less. But the feeling of being made a fool by those companies seems to stick. [Admittedly I only know people with university degrees, so the picture may be a bit different and more profitable once the rest of the population is taken into account. And I guess that getting rich on customers being uneducated is a time proven successful ‘business model’.]

No one has a financial incentive to make things work better, so no one does.

That’s a key problem. And it is why I think it’s important to be vocal about the shit people serve us. It’s hard to cause financial damage to a large corporation, but I never give up the hope of succeeding :) Every little step helps.

In a way I see this as a question of being well-balanced. Companies want to create ads that people like to make them buy their products. They also ‘sponsor’ events or sports for the same reason. Somehow they never mention that people who dislike those events may be appalled by that and certainly wouldn’t want their money to be wasted in that way, hence avoiding to spend it with the company in question. I try to be ‘fair and balanced’ in that way.

September 20, 2009, 23:12

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Received data seems to be invalid. The wanted file does probably not exist or the guys at last.fm changed something.