VSJ – October 2000 – Sounding Board

Recently, my ISP sent me an email announcing a change in its hosting mechanism that would entail changes to passwords, server names and so on. They would email me later with the specifics. OK, I thought, but why two emails when they could have sent the information in the first?

As it happened, ‘later’ turned out to be a day when I was away and so didn’t read my email. When I got back, the changes had been made, so I could no longer log on to read the email telling me how to log on. Catch 22! I called the telephone support line; repeatedly; over several days. It was, of course, permanently engaged. Obviously, some other people had the same problem.

Being of a suspicious and cynical nature, I already had an account with another ISP. So all this didn’t inconvenience me overmuch. I emailed everyone I’d contacted recently to tell them that, if they’d tried to reply using a particular address, it wouldn’t have reached me. It’s unlikely that any unsolicited mail got lost, because I only publish address aliases and I redirected them as soon as the problem surfaced. Naturally, the original ISP has lost a customer and I’ve opened another account elsewhere.

All this made me wonder, though, how many users were more than mildly inconvenienced. It’s easy to set the scene. Many people started their Internet experience as a novelty. Email was just an appendage of Web surfing. It was quick and convenient. It wasn’t, to start with, a primary communication mechanism. So, even if they’d thought about the possibilities of servers going down, inadequate bandwidth and so on, most people probably wouldn’t have taken precautions to protect themselves because they were ‘just playing’. But the technology is insidious. It creeps up on you and takes hold of processes you rely on without your being really aware of it. Maybe there’s an order confirmation lost in cyberspace that a supplier denies ever having sent to a customer. Maybe there are hundreds. Maybe… well, you get the idea. Many people have had their confidence in our brave new globally connected world dented repeatedly in the last few months. Banks, Utilities, Credit Card companies – all have had their security questioned and, sometimes, demonstrably breached. (It is, by the way, no good the Credit Card companies saying that you are more at risk when you give your plastic to a waiter in a restaurant than when you do business on the Web. This merely begs the question: ‘How do you propose to design out potential security breaches in restaurants?’)

So the issue isn’t so much ‘why aren’t more people using the Web?’ as ‘why aren’t people deserting it in droves?’ And the concern for us, as an industry, is ‘why are systems that fail in what surely ought to be predictable ways still reaching the real world?’ If we can’t answer that question the public will probably bracket us, under the heading of ‘Promise Delivery’, with politicians, estate agents and second hand car salesmen.

I guess we’ll deserve it.

Robin Jones

[Want to offer your views? email eo@iap.org.uk.]

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