Living in Digital Hell

I’m an early adopter. I don’t just analyze technology from the safety of my own cubicle; I bring it into my home and live with it.

I find that by doing so, I gain a perspective that would otherwise be lost. I thought I would share some of that perspective with you today.

Adapting to VoIP

About a year ago, I disconnected my traditional landline phone and signed up for VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service. I even got an extra Hong Kong number for the line so when my girlfriend called me, it would be a local call.

A few days later, I came home and found I could no longer get online. The VoIP terminal had crashed, taking the whole network with it because it sits in front of the router — recommended in the manual to ensure better quality.

Getting it back online — I would soon learn — requires rebooting not just the adapter, but the modem and router. Moreover, they all have to be done individually and in the right order. The entire process takes about five minutes and requires me to get on the ground and start unplugging things.

This quickly turned into a game of Russian roulette between me and the adapter. “Time to check the e-mail. Urgh! The network’s down!” “Gotta make a quick call. Augh! No dial tone.”

Kneel Before the Tech Gods

This kind of conditioning makes a guy very humble in the presence of technology. On more than one occasion I came home past midnight, needed to make a call and soon found myself on my knees before the technology gods power-cycling modems, routers and adapters, hoping that it would all be over soon and I could get to bed.

Another unforeseen consequence of getting VoIP was Cantonese telemarketers. Recall that I have a Hong Kong number for my VoIP line. Hong Kong is on the other side of the planet and 12 time zones away, so when most of America is tucked into bed, Hong Kong is in the midst of a chaotic business day.

As a result, about once every two weeks I’d get a call at 3 a.m. from a women enthusiastically selling Jackie Chan collector’s sets. (I now have two copies, in case you’re wondering.)

Portable Music Players

The first glitch I had here was that my playlists would not sync with the player, and so I had to manually queue up songs to play. This isn’t a problem if you’ve got five songs on the player, but between the CDs I had personally ripped and the tracks I imported as part of my online music subscription service, I had more than 5,000 tracks.

Moreover, the general tagging on all these files was … I believe “Byzantine” is the best description. I probably had more than 100 genres of music officially listed. So, I dutifully spent an afternoon — two, actually — retagging all the tracks.

However, changes made on my media software — for some reason — would never carry over to the player. I was stuck with over two dozen categories of “rock” music.

So, there I would be, driving through traffic while simultaneously hunting and pecking my way through a musical labyrinth. For those of you who haven’t been to Dallas, the morning commute is a full-contact sport. People here drive at least 90 mph, and that’s assuming you’re in a school zone. Needless to say, my music player introduced an element of adventure — dare I say danger? — into my music listening.

“A little Aerosmith would be nice this morning.” Click. Click. Click. “Now was that album listed under Classic Rock, Vintage Rock or Rock & Roll?” Zip! “Hey buddy! Watch where you’re going! I think it was Vintage Rock.” Click. Click. Click. “No … not Vintage Rock.” Beep! Beep! “Sorry, that was my fault. OK … maybe Classic Rock.” Click. Click. Click. “Hmm … maybe it’s under 70s Rock. Whoa! Red Light!”

Musical Misadventures

Ordinarily, I’m not opposed to risking my life for the sake of technology. Unfortunately, my musical misadventures usually led to a dead end. You see, the subscription tracks on my player needed to be synced with a computer every 30 days or they wouldn’t work.

I also learned — the hard way — that tracks downloaded at the office are not reauthorized when you sync with your home computer and vice versa. If you do the math, it means, if you’re smart, you have to sync the player with two computers every 30 days on an alternating basis.

If you’re not so clever — like me — you have to sync the device with two different computers every 15 days. Or at least that’s what you should do if you want to be able to play music. I would forget, and so at any given time, anywhere from 25 to 75 percent of the music on my player would not be authorized for use.

Thankfully, my portable music player was eventually stolen by a valet parking my car. All I could think was, “Ha! That poor chump is never going to know what hit him.”

Digital Media

I was one of the first people in America to rent digital movie downloads. About 75 percent of the time they would work fine. Seventy-five percent’s maybe not so bad, but it hardly compares to the five-nines reliability of Blockbuster.

Moreover, it was never immediately apparent when the downloads were going to work and when they were not. On one occasion, for example, I decided to rent “Gangs of New York.” I keyed in my credit card info, started the download and then twiddled my thumbs for two hours waiting for it to finish. Once it did, I settled down onto the couch, started the movie and discovered that for some unknown reason, I could only hear the movie. The screen was completely black.

I called technical support, and after about an hour, my copy was up and running. However, the technical support guy could no longer see video on his machine and was asking me for help. (As Dave Barry says, I swear I am not making this up.)

I politely wished him good luck and hung up the phone. (A guy’s gotta look out for No. 1 sometimes.) Settling back down into the couch, I restarted the movie and made it though most of it before the computer crashed. Tired and frustrated, I went to bed. The next day, when I tried to start it again, I found the rental period had expired, and I no longer had rights to watch the film. I’ve still never seen the ending of the movie, so if you see me, please don’t spoil it.

Digital Media Adapters

I have two. One for the stereo and one for the TV. The one for the stereo works about 95 percent of the time. (Again, still not the five-nines reliability of a CD player, but not so bad.) The trick is, the connection drops every couple of days and reconnecting entails restarting the configuration software. Once you have reestablished the connection, you then need to close and restart whatever software is playing your music. None of these steps is too onerous, but it hardly makes for a smooth user experience.

“A little Pink Floyd might be nice.” Click. Click. Click. “Why’s there no sound? Oh, the connection has dropped again.” Click. Click. Click. “What’s wrong now? Oh, I need to restart the player.” Click. Click. Click. “Ah … the bliss of music on-demand.”

While the music adapter is fairly well behaved, its older brother (the video adapter) is going through a rebellious phase. Just setting up the adapter took several weeks, a VCR, a small TV, a variety of cables and a humbling call to customer support. After being on hold for two hours, the call dropped when the technician told me to power-cycle my router. Remember … I have a VoIP telephone now.

Once all that was done, the adapter would work with a few important limitations. One, the adapter was not compatible with any of my wireless access cards, so I have a lengthy stretch of Ethernet running from the computer, across the library, downs the stairs, and to the TV. (Luckily, I’m single so I have the option of stringing Ethernet all over the house if I want to.)

The second limitation is that the adapter will only recognize new media after you import the files using the PC. Now, like I said, it does work (usually), and I really shouldn’t complain. Watching TV is now a much healthier activity because whenever I want to watch a newly recorded program, I have to run from the living room, up the stairs, through the library and to the computer to import the new files. (The Ethernet cable now doubles as a jogging path marker.)

Digital Media Servers

My computer isn’t really on speaking terms with my PVR (personal video recorder) card — literally. The “media” software that came with the PC won’t recognize the card, so none of the built-in features work. Instead, I have to use a software package that I purchased from a third party. Unfortunately, the new software is no longer talking to the PVR card either, so my “media server” will only “serve” media — it won’t record any new media.

Before all that happened, there was a stretch of about three weeks when things were actually working (relatively speaking). The computer would periodically crash, which sometimes meant I missed my favorite shows. (If I forgot to restart the media server software after rebooting, more recordings would be missed.)

It also had this rather peculiar habit of creating multiple dummy files for recordings. It won’t create just one file for “The Simpsons” episode I recorded but, rather, three to four, of which only one is actually usable. What can I say, my media server enjoys a good game of “find the good file.” “D’oh! File is corrupt.”

Home Networks

Of all the digital devices in my home, this is the one that gives me the least amount of trouble — at least so far. However, I suspect it is patiently plotting strategy and moving pieces into place for the final coup de grace. My music adapter will not work with wireless security enabled, so I had to shut it down. Likewise, the video adapter won’t work with the Internet firewall turned on. (Shutting down the firewall is actually recommended in the manual.)

I’ve given into these concessions because I simply don’t have the strength to keep fighting. Deep down, I know I’m being lured into a trap. With the security and firewall shut down, it’s only a matter of time before the neighbor’s kid shows up with a Ferrari charged to my credit card. Either that or I’m going to get slapped with a billion-dollar lawsuit from the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) — again, courtesy of the neighbor’s kid.

I know what you’re thinking. “Idiot! Shut down all the crap, throw it into the garbage and go back to an agrarian lifestyle where sweat and sun are the only power you use.” That’s what everybody I know thinks. My friends and family don’t come over to my house and envy my “digital home.” They shake their heads and think, “Man, that guy was doing fine before he started working in the technology business.”

Just Inspire Envy

There are lots of theories about how and why new products achieve mass-market success. I’d like to offer my own little rule of thumb. No product will ever achieve mass-market success unless it inspires envy. People must look at the early adopters and want to become one. For me, the reverse is happening. My friends are now terrified of going into Best Buy — they don’t want to come home with something that will ruin their life.

A final point I’d like to make is that I think everyone in the technology industry should do as I’ve done and invite technology into their homes. Use the products and see what it’s like to live with them. Then you too will have a “consumer” perspective on the market. By the way, having an IT guy come by and do everything for you is cheating.

At best, this will help us as an industry develop better products and services. At worst, well … misery loves company.

John Barrett is director of research atParks Associates. E-mail John Barrett at[email protected].

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