Tradition versus Simplicity

If you work in the computer industry long enough, you realize that certain things are done more from tradition than from keeping things simple.  Recently I helped one of my wife’s friends install an ADSL Broadband Internet connection.  In theory this should be a simple thing to do.  Not only have I installed these before at home, I also have a fairly deep understanding of how these things work.  You would hope that someone with a computer engineering degree and 18 years experience would know something about installing the modem.

The problem, however, becomes clear when you involve a person who does not have a computer background.  Typically, they are unsure and can be easily frustrated.

So, that was why I was there.  I was meant to make sure that nothing went wrong and if it did, fix it.

Well, something did go wrong.  I suspect it is a common problem so that is why I’m going to dissect it here.

When this woman had gone to the shop to buy her Internet connection, someone had helped her but clearly this person did not know heaps about computers.  They had suggested a six-character or less password.  On top of this, the salesperson did not provide her with any paperwork about the account.  The salesperson had instructed that the username and password would be assigned as desired.  If it did not work then the customer was to add the numbers ’61’ to the end of the password.

I won’t get into how this advice was bad or even how the salesperson should not have known what the password was anyways.

I will say this.  Without confirmation that a username and password are valid, the information needed to get on the system is useless.

So, that is exactly what happened.  I did everything by the book and even paid attention to what the installer was saying.  When it came time to access the Internet, it came back and said essentially “access denied”.  After a bit of guessing it was clear that we needed help.

So, after messing with it for about 20 minutes, I called the support line for the Internet service.  About 15 minutes later we were actually talking to someone.  After another 10 minutes of fiddling around and being forced to hand over the phone for the new password, we were given new access information.  The new username/password worked and after a reboot to clear up the IP stack, we were in business.  By the way, Vista is currently more frustrating to use than XP.  It is nice to find out warnings about potential security risks but largely overkill.  I think the point is that most users will just start ignoring Vista crying wolf all the time.

So, we wasted at least an hour of time trying to fix the username/password problem.  This was largely a people problem (the salesperson specifically) but I then realized that this is only the traditional way of looking at it.

When you activate your phone line when you move in, it is understood that you will pay your phone bill and you are responsible for the calls.  While there are some people that might be wary of plugging in a phone, it is widely accepted that all you have to do is plug a phone in.  This is true of DSL/ADSL as well except for the nagging problem of configuration.  Is it common that you need to configure your phone?  No.  You can change options with cordless phones and even program the older phones with speed dial and other convenient features but it is not necessary for operating the phone.

I would argue that the same should be true of these DSL/ADSL modems.  They should be configured in such a way that guarantees they work as soon as they are connected.  There are two options.  You can pre-program the  devices with the configuration (including user/password).  Or, you can make it so the device does not need a username/password.

But what does that mean?  Well, I think it is fairly trivial.  Just like you pre-select your long distance service, you can pre-select your Internet service.  Once this is known, all access from your modem is billed to that service.  Simple as that. No need for a username/password at all.  Technically this is possible.  The real question is why isn’t it being done?

I think the answer is simply based on tradition.  Modems are associated with needing a username/password.  From the old bad days of async dial-up, it was a necessary evil.  Now that we are dealing with fixed lines with high-speed digital transfers, this really does not make sense.

I’m sure there is a decent argument against this.  However, just keep in mind that authentication issues are perhaps the majority of issues with ISPs.  I know I have wasted heaps of time getting things reset on my own devices.

So, assuming it is possible to tie the modem to a ISP without additional authentication, it would be possible just to plug and go.  Out of the box, you would have a working configuration.  The ultimate goal would be to make it a non-install transaction and act as simple as plugging in a new phone.

Please let me know if anyone is doing this.  I’m very curious about what the telecommunication industry is doing about this.


Live near Brisbane, Australia. Software developer currently focused on iOS and Android. Avid Google Local Guide

Posted in Ideas, Observations
3 comments on “Tradition versus Simplicity
  1. James Kahn says:

    All the ISP’s I’ve signed up with wanted to send out a preconfigured ADSL modem. In some ways this gets around part of the problem. In one case I was impatient, so I set up my old modem myself. In the case of one ISP I had to spend an hour on the phone with them (of which 45 minutes was on hold!) to eventually figure out that they’d spelt my name wrong, which was part of the username. I’m used to having my last name misspelt, but it was the “James” they had trouble with!

    A non-techie friend of mine told me that recently their BigPond cable PC-based logon software uninstalled itself, and now they don’t need to enter a username and password to connect to the Internet. I’m not sure if Telstra have moved the logon to their cable modem, or if they’ve changed their billing system to not require one. That would seem like a move to what you suggest.


  2. Ken Bell says:

    In the UK, BT do this now – their BT Home Hub (aka ADSL Modem / router) come pre-configured with a standard username and password. They have to activate ADSL at the exchange, so there’s no way you get the service for free – the username and password are just an historical artifact.

  3. jeffreymuir says:

    These are good examples of things moving forward. Thanks James and Ken for giving this feedback.

    In this case an old model is actually causing more trouble than it is worth.

    I’m glad to see that companies like BT and Telstra are making it easier for their customers.

    Ken, your point about being activated at the exchange highlights the fact that authentication is not needed. Potentially only if someone tapped your line would you be in trouble. If that was true, then you have much bigger troubles.

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