THINK ABOUT IT: Consumer nightmares

THINK ABOUT IT: Consumer nightmares

In March, I left the tranquil security of employment to try my hand in the tumultuous world of freelancing. One of the first things I did was set up a home office, with a new notebook PC and printer, and a state-of-the-art wireless network to link all of the bits together.

I wish that I hadn't bothered.

My home office consists of a four-port wireless router, two notebook PCs (one with a built-in wireless card), a printer with a wireless port, and a wireless audio receiver (for playing files off my PC through my hi-fi), all hanging off a cable modem broadband connection. Do all of these devices talk to each other? You have to be kidding.

My first mistake was to trust in standards. All devices in the network (barring one wireless network card and the router) are from different suppliers. The notebook with the wireless port built-in cannot see the wireless router (although it can see routers in airport lounges across the globe). A second router from the same vendor failed to solve the problem. The printer also cannot see the router, although it can see my neighbour's wireless network. The router can talk to a network card from the same manufacturer - for a few hours at a time, at least. And the audio receiver can't see anything.

Despite protestations from vendors that their products can be used straight out of the box, the opposite is often the case. It is true that computer networking is a complex beast, but this complexity should not be foisted off onto hapless consumers.

After wasting much of two days on the phone to tech support and reading through Web pages looking for the solution, I called in a local network technician to give my set up the once-over. His advice was that for most of the home wireless networks he services, the only reliable solution is to plug the cables back in, or start again with a single-vendor solution.

What's the point of telling you all this? The technology industry is moving inexorably on a collision course with consumer electronics. But the technology industry does not behave with the same disciplines as consumer electronics. The suggestion from tech support at the wireless router maker was that I should download a patch for its operating software. Can you imagine the outcry if DVD owners were told to do this should their newly-unwrapped players had failed to work? Or if your Sony plasma screen TV would only work reliably with a Sony DVD player and surround system? Any attempt by vendors to lock consumers in through use of non-standard tech­nology has proven to be futile. It is a common expectation among buyers of consumer electronics that their systems should just work out of the box, with referral to the instruction manual an option of last resort. The average consumer should not need to spend three hours on the phone to tech support when they try to connect their new TV to their surround sound system.

The computer industry has already made numerous attempts to get closer to consumer electronics, and many of these have ended in disappointment for all parties. Now, with the arrival of Microsoft's Media Centre technology, the industry has a chance for another crack at this lucrative market. Is it ready for the challenge of meeting the same standards of the consumer electronics industry?

If experience so far is anything to go by, it's looking doubtful.

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