Cannot Connect

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan. 2002

It was a gathering of networking experts, but the meeting had bogged down before it could even get started.  Everyone was trying to configure their laptops for the wireless IEEE 802.11 local area network that had thoughtfully been installed by the organizers.

For several hours the meeting degenerated into chaos as people traded suggestions as to how to configure their connections.  There were looks of disgust, resignation, hope, and the occasional triumph.  The snippets of conversations that I overheard were familiar ones.

“Are you configured for dynamic addressing?”

“Have they got any more fixed addresses?”

“What are you using for your DNS address?”

“Have you got encryption turned on?”

“Let me look at your protocol bindings."

Three gurus had already had a crack at connecting my laptop, but the message on the screen stayed the same.  “Cannot connect,” it said.  Very helpful.  My unspoken response was unprintable.  What I want on my computer is a button that says “connect.”  You figure it out, I say to my computer.  Don’t push all this complexity off on me.

It seems that a sure way to stop a meeting is to offer network connectivity to the participants.  I’m thinking: these are networking gurus and they can’t connect.  How do we expect the public ever to do this? 

I observe people dealing with the complexity of communications equipment in one of those big computer stores.  I’m always curious to see what they are buying, and I look to see what products are in the biggest piles of boxes on the floor.  Recently it has been home networking equipment.  I watch people lugging Ethernet adapters, hubs, and cables up to the checkout counters, and I imagine how they will cope with their purchases.

That athletic guy in jeans looks like an engineer, I think.  I always believe that I can recognize an engineer.  Of course, I can’t, but I always think that I can.  Anyway, he looks like he knows what he’s doing.  On the other hand, there is a confused-looking older man in a suit holding incompatible boxes -- a retired lawyer, I imagine.  I think to myself that his network will never connect.

A youngish girl looks decisive about her choices.  This is a computer science student, I believe, and she’ll have that network humming this afternoon.  A man who had already spent considerable time pawing over various boxes has been watching her quick choices.  Like some kind of scavenger, he is picking up the same boxes in her wake, but now he stands indecisively, studying the labels.  He is silently mouthing the words as he reads laboriously.  Poor guy, I think.  Judging by the smudges on his clothes, this is a house painter.  I have the feeling that he will persevere eventually, but no thanks to the usability of our technology.

I was proud of how well I had handled the configuration of my own home network.  After only two consultations with gurus, I had experienced that exultation that can only come the first time you see that one machine recognizes the other.  Of course, I did have one little problem after that.  The two machines got so interested in each other that they started ignoring me.  It was like they had been really lonely before.  I could see the lights on the hub blinking busily while the computers would be unavailable for nearly a minute after every mouse click.  What were they talking about, I wondered?

That time even my gurus had failed me.  I had to install a packet-sniffer to eavesdrop on their unending conversations.  Finally I discovered that one machine expected to find a certain file on the other machine, which was unfortunately missing.  This ultimately required open-heart surgery on the registry.  This is a place where, as most of you know, you don’t want to go.  The feeling of ultimate triumph when I shut them up was tempered once again with the realization that users shouldn’t have to go to such lengths.

What I want is a “push-to-talk” button on the computer.  We’ve taken something that should have been simple, and we’ve made it into rocket science.  Look instead at the simplicity of the ordinary telephone.  You plug it in and listen for dial tone.  If it rings, you pick it up and say hello -- none of this “cannot connect” stuff.

To be fair, the problem with the telephone comes when you try to do something else with it.  For example, everyone knows that when you want to transfer a call, you must speak certain magic words.  Those magic words are, “Now if this doesn’t work, here’s the number you should dial.”  And then there are all those special codes, star-this and star-that, that do wondrous things if you could only remember what they are, while forgetting what they cost.  But at least there’s a basic default mode of communication that we all understand.

Ultimately, I did get my laptop configured for access at that meeting.  Now as I sit here back at work, I can’t connect the reconfigured machine to the corporate LAN.  I’m not a happy camper.


 Robert Lucky