Two years ago, I tried to get on the web, using Cix, my local friendly Email provider. I failed, and made myself very unpopular by exploding with disgust all over Cix's conferences.
I then tried Compuserve, but that seemed even less geriatric-friendly.
This year, I tried again with Cix, who had launched a new Internet package.
The manual was even worse than the previous one, but a Saturday afternoon on the telephone with the helpline got me going at last.
In the last month two friends, Martin and Jack, have chucked their ISPs because of just the sort of problems I was having. Martin failed to connect, and the only advice available from the Cix help-desk was to reload. After trying this three times, he gave up, and is switching to AOL. I will be fascinated to see whether he does any better with them.
Jack's trouble was with Demon. When trying to connect to the web, he got an error message and the suggestion from the helpdesk that he should download a new version of Internet Explorer. This was 3Mb, took an hour to download and then put out an inexplicable error message. Another suggestion from the helpdesk was to edit two lines in a file, iexplore.ini, without initially saying where the file was to be found. When Jack did eventually find it, there were no lines which corresponded exactly to the lines given by the helpdesk, and the preamble to the file warned "do not edit this file unless you know what you are doing."
At this, Jack blew his top. In his first letter of complaint to Demon, he said "I've only just bought this software, so I don't know my way through the labyrinthine details ... I've a PhD in Mathematics, but what I need here is a child's guide."
It is not as if we are ignorant yobs. Martin is an ex-IBMer who cut his teeth writing assembler programs for the 1401. Jack (CBE) installed a Ferranti Pegasus at Harwell in 1958, and went on to be the first director of the Atlas Laboratory up the road at Chilton. What, however, he is not prepared to do, forty years later, is mess around with unfriendly comms software.
From April until July, Demon did not reply to Jack's letters requesting a refund of the joining fee of u55.75, and has since curtly turned it down, on the ground that he did manage to connect three times to their network. The fact that the version of Internet Explorer which Demon supplied was iffy, and the help supplied by the helpdesk was unhelpful, with the result that the Jack's primary purpose, access to the web, was frustrated, counts for nothing in the eyes of Roz Clifton, Demon's director of customer services.
She and the other ISPs, particularly the British ones, should take a hard look at themselves, if they are to achieve a mass market among real people. Martin puts it this way "as executives, we are used to telling people what to do and they do it. In the old days, with about 8K for an operating system, computers used to do it too. Why can't they do it now?" At the moment, comms software does not do what we tell it, the manuals are inadequate or wrong, the helpdesks assume they are talking to nerds not real people, and the managers are contemptuous of their most distinguished customers.
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