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Thursday, March 07, 2002

BobF at 8:24 PM [url]:

Lessons from the GigaSet

It's not nice to be called a consumer. I am a contributor. In the worlds of the PC and the Internet that is understood. But, for old line consumer electronics companies, I am indeed a consumer.

For a long time my family has been getting increasingly vocal about the lack of (working) telephones in the house. I actually have a top of the line system -- the Siemens 2420 Gigaset. It's a 2.4 GHz two-line system with a base station and all sorts of features. I bought it as soon as it became available because it was the first system that didn't need special wires and, in fact, no wires at all.

Before they became unavailable, I had a set of Radio Shack phones which used two wires to support two phone lines and overlaid them with the intercom. I was able to plug the phones in anywhere and could still transfer calls flexibly. Nothing fancy, but they were effective. Most important, they worked fine even when I plugged in modems and other devices.

The GigaSet doesn't play as well with others but that's less critical now that I have a cable modem and do my faxing over the Internet.

Aside from being wireless, I also liked the notion of not running "home-run" wires (wires that go all the way back to some central point). It's less an issue of cost than the effort and the idea of having to rip open the walls or, more problematic, finding an electrician, each time I want to make a change.

At first it was wonderful but over time it became increasingly problematic with the voice quality becoming very bad. Some early problems such as screeching in place of normal sounds on one line were fixed by resetting or replacing the base station. But I worked around the problems and often used my cell phone instead because dealing with customer support is not fun. I even bought extra handsets and another base station. I found it very annoying that software problems could only be solved by swapping equipment and there simply wasn't the concept of a software update.

In sharing my woes with another owner, he said that Siemens had swapped out his set and sent him a whole new system. I tried and eventually got them to replace the base station after I proved that just resetting wasn't enough. They were nice and it came the next day! But when I tried to use my existing handsets I got a version error. It was nice that they sent a newer model but software compatibility didn't seem to be a consideration. So, Siemens then swapped out all my old handsets.

The good news is that they were nice about this and didn't give me warranty arguments (well, I actually had my assistant speak to them and she took "no" for an answer but I quickly got past that).

For the European readers I should point out that this is basically a DECT (2.4Ghz packet protocol) cordless phone system but (at least) two differences. One is simply that the American protocols are at slightly different frequencies. The more important one is that there is no compatibility between models and series let alone different manufacturers. In fact, this particular series has been discontinued.

This is a strong example of the cultural gap between consumer electronics and the PC industry. All problems are treated as hardware problems and are thus very expensive and inconvenient to deal with. It is also hard to figure out what is really happening when things go wrong. One big reason I didn't just replace the system is that there was no reason to assume any other manufacturer's system would not be just as quirky and such a change requires completely replacing everything and discovering the quirks of the new system.

By treating the product as a closed system, there is no real evolutionary path. I must change everything at once and, more to the point, must wait till Siemens has decided what the new feature set is.

And that's the real problem - it's an all or nothing choice. This makes customers seem loyal but at the price of being resentful. Sometimes people do identify with those who take them hostage -- it's called the Stockholm syndrome though, unfortunately, it's often called brand loyalty.

Telephony wasn't always like this -- the interface to the phone system was very simple and standard. But those were the days when, as far as most people were concerned, there was just one Phone Company in the US. In fact, it took the Carterphone decision in the late 1960's to make it legal for everyone to connect to the interface, the now ubiquitous RJ-11 jack.

The real frustration is that I am still stuck with Siemens' choice of features and interfaces. Again, Siemens is not alone in this. I know that PBX systems with home run wiring are more like the old phone system with RJ-11 interfaces but, even there, the feature phones are "special".

Telephony is nothing but an interactive audio stream with particular characteristics. 802.11b uses the same frequencies as the DECT phones and with 11mbps the audio should "just work" without complex QoS and isochronous protocols. This will be more obvious with 802.11a (and g) with over 50mbps available.

Once telephony is a software app, we can then have a marketplace for new capabilities as software. And there is no need for a tight and limiting definition of telephony.

At that point, how can a large company like Siemens be able to keep up with a marketplace? It is a marketplace that is not only able to create new capabilities but rapidly take advantage of experience as we learn what works and what doesn't and get to rethink assumptions that limit our thinking.

While I happened to use Siemens as an example, the problems, however, are fundamental. Differences in one manufacturer's design and manufacturing are minor compared with the limitations of a market model that doesn't let others add value and can only react very slowly.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

BobF at 1:39 PM [url]:


I didn't intend to keep anyone in suspense but have been distracted by other issues and, well hacking (the good kind). Once I open up a piece of code my IT staff feels obliged to complete the work. And since that's me �

So, I'll try to write shorter pieces with the hope of addressing these issues in more detail in the future.

The Out Of the Box Experience issue is an old one. The problem is that too much UE (User Experience) is focused on those first few minutes while most of us are in the FFBE (Far From the Box Experience) stage. While it might seem helpful to have menus that try to anticipate my choices such behavior becomes annoying when we learn idioms and rely on muscle memory.

Rather than five mouse clicks, I want to be able to type, for example, {ctrl-esc}PCC and know I will get the calculator every time. Personally, I've added my own menu item (Toolbar) so I can do {ctrl-esc}T and know the toolbar commands will not scoot around.

The good news is that there are enough FFBers around so that it will be hard to take away at least the option for the "Classic Interface".

Remember that not all of us confuse the bug crawling on the screen with a virus. (Though it still happens � just last week a friend of my wife was told her problem writing to a floppy might be due to a virus because of the nature theme's wait cursor that looks like a bug).

While providing task assistance for the OOBers, don�t forget to give us FFBers the ability to create our own solutions. I don't want Microsoft to make my PC into an entertainment center until after they give me the ability to do it myself.

For more, see the Archive.

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