Welcome to Computer Hell

Opinion: The maddening lack of coordination among tech companies is a nightmare of square pegs in round holes.

Conventional wisdom says columnists should write about their own problems. But who pays any attention to conventional wisdom?

For the past month or so, Ive been in a sort of computer hell caused by a confluence of things. Its not one persons or one companys fault. Its just the way things are right now in tech.

Which, of course, is the problem. This maddening lack of coordination—which sometimes feels deliberate—between phone and cable companies, consumer electronics manufacturers and their sales outlets, and computer hardware and software vendors is a nightmare of square pegs in round holes.

And thats for folks who know whats going on—the ones who know where the pegs should go.

The details of my situation arent particularly unusual. A part failed on my laptop, and I took the downtime as an opportunity to upgrade to new software.

I also decided to start running a wireless network in my home. So far, so good.

The repair got done in a timely manner, and the guy who has long helped me with my computer did the upgrade. All looked fine.

But then, as I was installing the networking software and equipment, the DSL modem failed.

This is where the big trouble started and where I discovered the absence of compatibility between the wireless hook-up, my printer and some other devices I use with the machine.

Just buying a DSL modem was an eye-opener. At two different retail outlets—one of which advertises the modems for sale on its Web site—clerks told me that they didnt sell modems.

Instead, they insisted, the modems are free with the DSL service. I should call the company that provides the service.

Now, its Christmastime and you cant expect great things from sales clerks. But "Have you ever heard of a DSL modem?" from someone standing in front of a display of MP3 players was just a little disconcerting.

The traditional geek response to this situation is condescension: I should be making self-satisfied jokes about minimum-wage sales clerks. They just dont "get it."

That attitude was obnoxious when it was just us. But thats not the situation anymore.

Which makes these sorts of off-hand dismissals more serious. Tech is in the living room, the kitchen, the kids rooms. Its in the car, at the office and at Moms house, too.

In short, computerized devices of all sizes and stripes have made their way into the average—clueless—persons home.

Why is this important? Because it highlights—again—the differences between people who see themselves as part of the network and those who have no idea theres a network to begin with.

Geeks enjoy fooling around with new software, getting it just right, exploring its capability. But regular folks prefer a somewhat quieter existence:

You plug the thing in, maybe you make a few adjustments, it works. End of headache and heartache.

The confusion thats out there now isnt going to go away anytime soon. Were still at the very early stages of what used to be called "convergence."

But the "not us" thinking that typifies so many large tech corporations reactions to complaints or cries of frustration isnt helping.

More importantly, this continued state of affairs runs in direct contrast to the tech industrys self-styled aversion to regulation and government oversight.

Tech may not want to be regulated, but its behavior—and only bad behavior counts—says otherwise.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about VOIP (voice over IP) providers reactions to FCC rules.

There are two good historical examples. The auto business whose disregard for its customers was legendary. More recently, cable TV provides a few lessons.

The cable guys came to town bearing HBO and all kinds of cool stuff. They used high-tech satellites to send TV programs around the world at the same time installers were drilling holes in water pipes, mucking up ceilings, roofs and streets and with no care—or worse, no apology for their mistakes.

Oh yeah, and they charged as much as they could and raised rates every year. Eventually, Congress stepped in and laid down a few rules.

Why? Because doing business with the car manufacturers and the cable operators got to be more trouble than it was worth.

So if youre in tech and youre wondering what the future holds, maybe its not such a bad idea to think, just for a minute, about someone on the other side of the screen, someone whos never heard of a DSL modem.

eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. She is editor and founder of Spot-on.com. She can be reached at cnolan@spot-on.com.

/zimages/3/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis about productivity and business solutions.