February 24, 2005
Uppity peripherals: the printer joins in
My taskbars are beset by noisy peripherals. I have already mentioned the modem, the mouse and the screen. Now my printer has joined in. And not only does it insist on putting an icon in the tray, but when I log in it has taken to putting up a modal dialog complaining about my lowly status and telling me to log in again as administrator.
And I've already had to delete two admin-protected icons it insisted on adding to my desktop.
And it adds nine, count 'em, nine entries to my Start menu. These include one to restore the tray icon, but not one to get rid of it!
All this for a grotty little inkjet so cheap and nasty it's practically disposable. My old PostScript laser, a chunky, dependable workhorse that had long since earned the right to some attention, never asked for any of this. It didn't install shortcuts, advertise itself on the taskbar or demand administrator attention. It just sat on the table and printed.
Both of these were from the same manufacturer, admittedly some 8-9 years apart. When did it become fashionable for peripherals to get uppity and demanding instead of doing their job? And more important, whose idea was it and where do they live?
Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005
The Register: "Do not pass court, do not have sight of evidence, do not even think of saying 'beyond reasonable doubt'."
The article also emphasises an interesting point about the authority granted by the legislation to the Home Secretary: "an important part of the wondrous utility of the legislation is the facility to choose not to nick people. This means troublesome civil rights activists can't use the legislation to pursue, say, passing members of the US Government who might have a dubious past supporting Central American or Afghan insurgents." Actions that would get me (or, more likely, for somebody of middle Eastern ethnicity) banged up indefinitely without trial are okay if one of the Home Secretary's friends does them. What happened to equality before the law?
February 21, 2005
More taskbar intruders
My rant about the bandwidth accelerator that puts a useless icon in my tray reminded me of some even more bizarre intruders.
One Microsoft mouse I had very helpfully put a little icon in my tray to tell me I had a mouse.
Most bizarre of all, though, was an ATI display driver, which put an icon in my tray to tell me "You've got a display." So audaciously obvious was this statement that I was secretly disappointed when it didn't provide a balloon tip saying, "See? There it is, just up and left from where you're looking!"
February 20, 2005
Vodafone GPRS Mobile Connect usability issues
I've been using GPRS to stay in touch while travelling in New Zealand. In theory, a GPRS card works like a modem for GSM mobile networks. Whereas modems have become almost invisible devices, however, Vodafone's GPRS implementation seems designed specifically to maximise the amount of time and effort the user has to spend interacting with it.
Installation initially seems archaic but benign. After the software installs, you're prompted to configure it with details of your hardware. I thought this kind of thing went out with HIMEM.SYS, but as it turns out the program can figure it all out anyway and is merely pointlessly telling you what it has found out. (At least, the current version does this. The earlier version which is actually distributed in the Vodafone Mobile Connect pack does require you to manually enter the hardware details, and also to know that, despite the card being branded as "Vodafone Mobile Connect," you must not choose "Vodafone Mobile Connect" as the make of card.)
However, this "archaic but benign" feel rapidly disappears if you are not an administrator. In this case, the admin installs and configures the software, but when you log in under your normal account and launch the Vodafone Mobile Connect applet, it prompts you to reconfigure it. Moreover, the configuration applet is deemed by Windows to be an installation program, so Windows helpfully advises you to run it as admin and provides a "run as" dialog defaulted to the admin account. If you fall for this you are doomed because the profile you create will be under the admin account, so when you try again to launch the VMC applet, it again demands that you create a profile under your account. I eventually figured out that I had to tell Windows to run the configuration applet under my user account even though it was non-admin. All this so it could tell me something that both it and I already knew.
But wait, you ask -- what's this about launching a Vodafone Mobile Connect applet? Didn't you say a GPRS card was basically like a modem? When was the last time you had to launch a modem applet?
I'm afraid it's true. VMC is a full-window application, with menus and toolbars and tabs and status bars (two of 'em!) and branding splodges and everything. With my modem, I'm used to just clicking OK on the dial-up dialog whenever I need to connect; with GPRS, I need to launch this whole separate application.
So what do I get for my screen real-estate? There's a toolbar of six big buttons: Connect/Disconnect, Email, SMS, Web, Usage and Support. (You'd normally see an IM button on there as well, but I told it I don't use instant messaging.) This is a weird mix of commands and views -- e.g. the Web and Email buttons launch external apps, while the SMS, Usage and Support buttons switch between different screens within the VMC app. The different kinds of button are not visually distinguished or separated -- e.g. the SMS button is mixed in between the Email and Web buttons.
The app always comes up on the SMS screen. This is an insane default -- who uses a GPRS card to do SMS? I had to dig out my contract documents just to find out the phone number allocated to the GPRS card -- is this really the number I'm going to give out to all my text-happy pals? Yes, it is useful to be able to receive and view SMS messages, as Vodafone uses these to confirm over-the-phone bill payment, but (a) it should not be the default and (b) it should be a separate SMS applet rather than occupying space in the connection applet.
The one useful screen is the Usage screen. GPRS is billed by the byte, not by connect time, so it is useful to know how much data one has consumed in the current billing period. VMC allows you to enter your billing period and your bandwidth allowance so it can show you usage to date on an easily readable bar chart. Unfortunately it always forgets your usage data when you disconnect, and periodically resets your billing period to the first of the month, so in practice you have to keep track of usage using old-fashioned biro-and-back-of-envelope technology. This isn't a usability thing per se, but since this is the one worthwhile bit of the application you would have thought they could at least have tried to get it to work. And again this doesn't justify a whole full-window application. Just as modem icons in the notification tray tell you the usage this session via their tooltips, so the total usage could have been shown in the GPRS connection icon tooltip.
As an aside, I'm baffled by why the usage data is lost, and why I need to configure the billing plan. Vodafone obviously has this information, as they use it to bill me. Why doesn't the program just pull them down from the network instead of buggily trying to keep them in fragile local storage? And don't give me any nonsense about security issues with people looking at my usage data -- if they've nicked my card/SIM, they can go download-crazy on my bill, so having them find out my pricing plan is the least of my worries.
The Support screen, brilliantly, has a Help Desk tab which you would think would mention the Vodafone help desk, but actually all it says is "if you've got a corporate help desk, you can ring them on whatever number they're on." I'm not kidding. I knew this product was aimed at clueless corporate sales droids, but this takes stating the obvious too far. On the other hand, of the other two tabs, one points you at the VMC Help menu and the other invites you to ring the UK tech support numbers (which are not the same as the New Zealand ones) or consult the UK Web site (not much good when your problem is that your Internet connection doesn't fucking work), so perhaps I shouldn't mock this one too much.
The Email and Web buttons just launch your default email client and Web browser. Well, actually, the Web button launches Internet Explorer, even if your default browser is Firefox, which makes it even more useless than you would think at first glance.
VMC's greed for screen space doesn't stop there, though. It puts not one, not two, but three icons in the tray. One is the usual modem icon indicating data being transferred. The other is an application icon: VMC minimises to the tray rather than the taskbar, so you need this to get it back. The third is a bandwidth acceleration icon. This has no purpose: it doesn't tell you anything, you can't do anything with it (clicking it just produces an About screen) and you can't even make it go away (even if you tell Windows to "hide always" it just comes back). This is pure arrogant self-advertisement. Listen, Bytemobile, it may be important to you that Vodafone has licensed your crappy compression technology, but it's not important to me. Get off my screen. And stop mucking up my JPEGs while you're at it.
It would be unfair to complain about VMC's appetite for screen space without mentioning the "Small View" option. In "Small View," the body screen is hidden and you see only the toolbar, the two status bars... and the Vodafone branding bar. The Vodafone designers apparently feel that when screen space is tight, what users need to see is not a one-line summary of SMS and usage data, but a large Vodafone logo. Remind me, guys, is this app designed for the benefit of me, or of the Vodafone marketing department?
Enough about what it looks like. On to how it behaves.
Since with GPRS you only pay for usage, not for time connected, you might look for a way to automatically connect at startup. And the good people at Vodafone have provided such a thing: two things in fact, one to run the VMC app at startup and one to have it connect when it starts. If you choose "run at startup," VMC starts as a taskbar icon. You can click this icon to have it connect, but this is annoying, because it takes a little while for VMC to discover the GPRS card and then the Vodafone network, and trying to connect before discovery is complete produces an irritating message box. When the app is running normally, the status bars tell you whether you have a network or not, so you can wait before pressing Connect; but this information is not available through the icon. No problem, just choose "connect automatically when the app starts." Surely this will take account of the discovery issue for me...
It turns out that if you choose "connect automatically when the app starts," what you actually get is the "no network" dialog when the app starts. You then have to dismiss that dialog, wait for the discovery cycle to complete, then connect manually anyway.
Uh, did anybody even try this before shipping?
The desired behaviour for this mode is: on startup, fire up the app in the tray, and have it attempt to connect as soon as it finds the network. If it can't find a network within some timeout, then alert me, though with a balloon rather than an error message. The tray icon tooltip should also indicate network availability and connection status, rather than always saying "Vodafone Mobile Connect."
Finally, the error handling. I had a couple of billing hiccups during my first month, each of which caused a temporary call bar on my GPRS account. (Neither of these problems was caused by Vodafone, and Vodafone were quick to resolve them.) VMC's way of telling me there was a call bar was to report "Error 734: The PPP link control terminated" and advise me to check some setting or turn off some obscure NT TCP/IP thing. This is not helpful. Ideally the GPRS network should have been able to indicate that there was a call bar. If this was technically impossible -- I don't know enough about GPRS or PPP to say -- it should at least have said "Couldn't dial out" or "No dial tone" rather than "Error 734." Given that the app gives such prominence to SMS, a simple solution would have been to send a text message to the card explaining that the failure was due to a call bar.
Enough. We are surrounded by bad usability, but it has been a long time since I came across anything quite so in-your-face about it as Vodafone Mobile Connect. Implementation-centric, bloated by marketing demands, buggy and riddled with technobabble, this is as far from the right UI as it is possible to get without actually being written for Unix. Something that should have been invisible and operated transparently is instead one of the most intrusive applications on my PC. Vodafone (and Bytemobile) have forgotten a basic principle: it's not about your software, it's about my job.
As Alan Cooper puts it, "No matter how cool your user interface is, less of it would be cooler." As I put it, "I could piss better usability than this. And so could my cats." Everything about this program is embarrassing. A company as large and rich as Vodafone could do GPRS right without even noticing the cost. But when you have a captive audience, I guess there's no incentive to bother.
February 15, 2005
ID cards for the rest of us
Katie Lucas: "Politicians and the police will be given opt-outs to all this. Their records will end up sealed or wiped 'for security reasons'. Their data won't be for sale, but yours will."
February 10, 2005
Leave the penguins alone!
Under New Zealand law it is illegal to "disturb or harass penguins" according to this sign seen at Curio Bay in the Catlins:
Mr Evans, Ms McGowan, I'm looking at you.
February 01, 2005
Moving to New Zealand
My old nemesis Harvey G Pengwyn takes me to task for leaping straight from having my EOI selected to buying a car. Is there an episode missing?
Well, not particularly. Because NZ will let in pretty much anyone these days, there is something of a glut of permanent residence applications. The immigration service is prioritising those with job offers, which means that us shiftless reprobates are scarcely getting a look in. I'm told that my PR application finally arrived on my agent's desk a few days before I flew out. Therefore, I've mostly been twiddling my thumbs.
The only real insights I can offer into the waiting process are:
- Get your police clearance request in early: it really does take a long time (though not as long as I was warned it might be)
- Britannia Movers seem to offer reasonable rates, though their sending a 17-tonne lorry to collect a relatively small amount of stuff from a very small street does not bode well for their ability to deliver it to the arse end of South Island -- we shall see
- Do not put important immigration documents (in my case, birth certificate and degree certificate) in a filing cabinet where you won't forget them, and then allow the movers to put the filing cabinet into storage
- Singapore Airlines are pretty congenial as cattle-movers go, particularly when it comes to turning a blind eye to excess baggage
- Don't be tempted to throw out all your sterling at Heathrow in a grand symbolic gesture, unless your plane goes to Auckland with no stopovers. No airport cafe or bar in the world takes NZ dollars, but sterling stands at least a chance
- The Post Office does not send foreign redirection renewal notices in time for you to actually renew, so it's worth taking out a redirection that is longer than you can possibly need
- The Inland Revenue form for leaving the country is the P85, but this is kind of moot because most of the questions are stupid ones to which the only possible answer is "I don't know" ("Will you be returning to the UK within the next four years?" "Uh, try asking Mystic Meg.")
- It takes longer than you expect to say goodbye to your friends
I also wish to subject the Reverend Harvey to a tirade about banks but that will have to do for the time being.