The joy of simple boxes

January 21, 2006

My life appears to be ruled by small plastic boxes which take active pleasure in misbehaving.

For instance, my mobile phone reacts very badly to being in a low signal strength area. Out of, I am sure, pure spite, in these circumstances it shows the strength of the incoming signal, which can be good, but fails to mention whether the network can hear it. It went totally wrong after I came home from Norway and swapped my UK SIM card back into it, I had to hard reset it. And finally, perversely, it can receive and display Cyrillic letters in SMS, but I have no way of actually writing them!

Then last week my Freeview box started acting up, firstly by having very bad reception, then claiming there was no service at all. I fixed this, but only by unplugging the damn thing for an hour. That really isn’t acceptable.

Then today my ADSL modem-router thingey started dropping it’s ADSL connection at irritatingly regular intervals. On checking the line statistics, I was told I had a downstream noise margin of over 2 million decibels, which is clearly bollocks.

I think all this misbehaviour comes down to the fact that these days almost everything consumer electronic in nature is really a small computer in a box pretending to be a phone, freeview box, or adsl modem, or a whatever.

This exposes us to two problems, bad UI and bad programming.

Bad UI is a problem because it can mislead you. The phone says it has a signal, when it doesn’t have a connection. The Freeview box says it has no signal–you’re naturally inclined to believe that there is a problem with the transmitter and not the box. The router says it has an impossibly high noise margin… how exactly does that help me find out what the problem actually is?

But the real problem is bad programming. Bad programming makes it possible for a phone to lock up when you swap SIMs. Bad programming stops the simple TV receiver from working, for no apparent reason. And bad programming makes the router guess at an impossible noise level rather than saying “something is wrong here”.

These are complicated boxes pretending to be simple boxes, and it is unforgivable for them to fail when doing something simple and entirely predictable with them–whether it be roaming into a weak signal area, watching TV or being an internet connection.

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