Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shooting themselves in the foot? Blocking customers from your website.

Why do some sites make it so hard to do business with them? Is it because they want customers hardy enough to jump through the hoops? Perhaps if the customers prove their stamina and cleverness by making it through to order a product, they will be the ones less likely to need support?

I've gotten some good deals from, so it is taking me longer than usual to give up on them. My first bad episode was when I ordered a laptop, got the confirmation, then the next day got a message that the order was canceled--seems they didn't like my being in Nigeria even though the order was paid from and shipped to the US, as well as sealed by one of those "prove your identity" credit-card pop-ups. However, their customer service was very helpful and made sure that the order got filled eventually.

Turns out that one of the laptops I bought from them as a Vista system actually had been downgraded to XP, and badly done so that the right drivers were missing. Oh well, mistakes happen.

Now, though, I can't even browse their web site! Since switching our hospital system from transparent to non-transparent proxy (so that we can force user logins), I just get an error message on their site, "Sorry, but the activity from your computer has tripped an alert on our server. This maybe because you are using some form of web browsing accelerator software. If this is the case, please disable this software while browsing our site." There is a bypass -- type "GO" and press the button, be patient for a 30 second delay -- but it doesn't work.

Now, is this business really so swamped by bots or web accelerators or whatever that it can't manage, and has to block legitimate customers? Are they so far above their competitors that they can afford to annoy their customers and actually ask them to disable their web browsing accelerators? Since those possibilities are hard to to accept, I can only conclude that TechForLess is trying to screen out customers who don't fit their mould, who might just say "oh well" and go on to NewEgg where at least they can start shopping. TechForLess is by no means unique ... at least for international shoppers, there are many other businesses that seem more interested in keeping us away than in getting our business.

For ease international shopping, I have to give the prize to Amazon. In fifteen years and with hundreds of purchases on Amazon, I have never had a problem. If I want to ship to a new address, no problem. If my ip address is in Nigeria, or Kenya, or South Africa, no problem. No surprise cancellations, no denied credit cards, just good service (ok, now and then a little problem, but 99% good).

Friday, June 20, 2008

Broken Bridges

bridgeWe still remember Bevelyn's restaurant here in Jos as the "Broken Bridge Restaurant," since through the '90s it featured the beautiful mural shown on the right, of a long bridge (across San Francisco Bay??). As you can see, there was one small problem with the way the panels were placed, thus giving the restaurant its nickname.

That name has been going through my mind in the past couple of weeks as I've spent nearly half my time dealing with a certain type of network problem, the kind where you're on one side (usually the wrong side) of a broken bridge.

The problem is, you have to have both sides of a communication bridge working properly if they're going to function. When there is a breakdown in a local setting such as an office, it's not much trouble to go from one end to the other to sort out the problem. But what happens when one end of the bridge is a block or two away at another site, and there is no one there to help (and no good way to communicate even if there was someone)? The result is a lot of walking back and forth, trying one thing on one end, something on the other end, until the two sides can talk together again, to mix my metaphors.

Worse yet, our internet connections via satellite have broken down twice recently, both at Evangel and the SIM office. The network technicians could not solve or even diagnose the problem from their side, so I spent many, many hours following their instructions given over a barely intelligible cell phone, waiting and waiting to see what happened next, reporting back, and so on. If only we had the luxury of two connections, so that we could use the working "bridge" to get to the other side of the broken "bridge" and fix it.

In yet another metaphor, I'm learning (trying) to pay attention to which part of the branch I'm sawing off -- the part I'm sitting on or the far end. It's always tempting, when working over a remote connection, to change something and hope that it will work. It's often a risk worth taking, but sometimes I fall with the branch.

Suppose I am working over a wireless bridge, with one end in the office and another across the street, and I want to reconfigure the radios to talk to each other in dialect Y instead of dialect X. I have to first tell the far radio to change to language Y, then tell the local one to make the same change. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, I've sawn off the branch I was sitting on. I can change the local radio back to the way it was, because I'm connected to it, but the far radio is now dangling in never-never land--"I'm not hearing you, I'm not hearing you!" I have to walk to wherever it is and directly connect to it, to tell it "never mind, we'll stick with dialect X."

A simple solution, which I've never seen or heard of being actually implemented, would be for the radios to have a trial period whenever you make a change that might break the connection. In effect, the radio would say, "ok, I'll switch to dialect Y, but if I don't hear from you in 5 minutes, I'll assume that this didn't work and I will go back to dialect X." Operating systems like Windows do that when they change your graphics settings, with a button that says "Click to accept these settings, or I'll revert in 30 seconds" That saves you from the problem of having a totally messed up display and no way to change it back. Alas, with all their amazing technology, wireless network devices don't seem to have figured this out. But then, many don't even allow you to save and restore the settings that it took you so long to figure out.

As I finished writing this and sat wondering what the point was, it struck me that the greatest broken bridge story is the way God relates to people. He created a perfect world, including people, and loved his creation wholeheartedly, especially the people, but then they went and broke the relationship, the bridge. In the end, no kind of remote troubleshooting would to, and God put on his shoes and took a long journey to the other side of the broken bridge, to a zone barren and devastated by the long loss of contact. It cost his life, but the bridge was restored.

(cross posted from my main blog)