Network: Laptop manufacturers want to steer us away from easy connectivity, to keep us coming back for more advanced (ie, expensive) upgrades
Tuesday 03 February 1998
Well, after years of fighting with mobile communications, nights spent curling on the floor trying to fit a British power plug to French sockets or an American modem to a Japanese telephone, I can assure you that portability is an illusion. It's an elusive myth which, like the Holy Grail, keeps escaping us every time we upgrade our portables. The average price of laptops keeps going up instead of down, as we search for the ultimate answer to a mobile work device. Plug and play wants to replace "sweat and curl".
However, as far as I can tell, the state of portability is poor. We aren't just light years away from a "plug and play" solution, we're moving away from it, as the increasing complexity of telecommunications puts more obstacles between us and the heavenly song of a connecting modem. These days, you need a PhD in electrical engineering to connect from a hotel in Ireland to the office just to collect your e-mail.
The list of ills is a long one, and it starts with the mysterious inability of notebook manufacturers (yes, the same ones that just robbed you of the best part of pounds 3,000) to build modems into the laptops. If you find yourself on a beach in Cancun with a connectivity problem, it would be nice to have one worldwide number to call for help. But no such luck. Modem suppliers don't want to get involved and your laptop's warranty only covers major hardware disasters.
Your UK Internet service provider will ignore pleas for help, as it is not in the business of providing global support. The local ISP will only help if you buy its connection. If a week's subscription to Cancun.com is not your cup of tea, then there isn't a chance in hell of getting its help.
Microsoft, the provider of your operating system and therefore responsible for the hassles of the modem settings on your control panel, is not in the business of supporting beach bums, either.
As a result, if, after hours of trying out every single combination of settings on my laptop, I still don't get a dial tone from a remote hotel room, then the only response is tearing my hair out, screaming loudly and practising disk-throwing with the laptop case. Nobody will care, particularly the laptop manufacturers' mafia that sold you the latest gizmo and are laughing all the way to their Japanese or Taiwanese bank.
I can't connect, so I can't work from a conference room at a Boston hotel, where I am marooned for a week on a trade show. But never mind. My machine has the most expensive active matrix screen, in case I want to stare at my Word document in great detail, driven to despair by failing modem handshakes.
It has also a massive processor, which I will only use if I ever become a games addict. Its case is beautifully designed, with an elegant keypad and top-specification speakers. But it doesn't get my e-mail, so it is pretty much useless.
What's the solution? Forcing the manufacturers to get their priorities right would be a good start. Since they are the ones who get the bulk of the portable industry money, the responsibility for the current portable hell rests firmly on their shoulders. Extending the warranty to provide worldwide connectivity support would be a nice first step. I never know if the dial tone is not there because of my modem settings, wrong telephone number of the local ISP or some other magic variable. So a central help point would go a long way towards alleviating my jet-lagged struggles.
But the path to consumer connectivity paradise is also blocked by other culprits, such as Microsoft, which should simplify Windows 95 modem settings. We all know that user-friendliness has never been high on Bill Gates's agenda, but now is the time to change that and support the shift from desktops by cutting the crap from configuration nightmares. I expect many fellow notebook sufferers would appreciate a good dial-up location finder that would work for all ISPs, not just MSN.
I would also expect laptop manufacturers to show mercy and throw in international modem and mains adaptors to save me the trouble of having to hunt down the right converter for each country. At present, those are available via third parties, but somehow they always lack the solution for the country I happen to visit.
The real solution would be to cut down on the gizmos, excess RAM and luxurious active matrix screen and focus on making the notebook a real connectivity tool. But then again, I sometimes think that laptop manufacturers want to steer us away from easy connectivity, to keep us coming back for more advanced (ie, expensive) upgrades in the vain hope that one day their laptop will work like a telephone.
The moment things get easy on the remote Internet access front, we may stop upgrading our portable hardware. How long since you upgraded your telephone? I last changed mine at least three years ago. In the laptop manufacturer's language that means quick death - no more mugs chasing the ultimate on-the-go solution.
So until consumers unite and start boycotting the ridiculously difficult to use notebooks, the Great Laptop Conspiracy will keep us from a truly portable working environment. Meanwhile, mail me with your round-the-world- with-a-laptop stories.
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