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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY : PC FOCUS : Incessant Beeps, TV Wake-Up Calls and Other Signs of Tech Run Amok

August 30, 1999|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I've been writing about computers and technology since the days of the Apple II, Radio Shack 1, Commodore Pet and VCRs that cost $1,000. Since that time, I've seen lots of new products and, for the most part, have been pretty pleased with the way things have been progressing. But there are times that even a technology fan like me has to stop, take a deep breath and wonder if technology is starting to run amok.

In most cases, it's not the technology itself that bothers me, but the way people use it.

Take answering machines and voicemail systems. They can be great, but I hate it when companies are so reliant on voicemail that they don't even have a real operator to answer the phone. Technology has turned receptionists and secretaries into an endangered species, which is a shame because sometimes there's no substitute for a human being.

If companies must use an "auto attendant" to answer their phones, they should at least program them to let the caller speak to a real person by pressing 0. If you have a voicemail system at work, it might be a good idea to identify yourself and your department as part of your outgoing message. When I call a company and ask to speak to someone in public relations, I usually wind up leaving voicemail but not really knowing if it's the right person. I'm also annoyed by people who never pick up the phone when you call. Presumably, they'll return the call at their convenience, but what happens if two people who never pick up their phones need to talk with each other? Seems to me they'll wind up in an endless voicemail loop until one of them finally gives up.

Let me also put in a bad word for phone companies, banks, investment firms and other companies that insist that you enter your account numbers via touch tone before you can reach someone who can help you. I don't mind making it an option because it can sometimes save time. Fidelity Investments, for example, allows you to enter your Social Security number and a personal identification number (PIN) of your choice to get directly to a person who can help you immediately. I can remember those numbers so I don't have to refer to a cheat sheet and they save time because I don't have to identify myself or verify my identity when the person answers.

When I call AT&T Wireless customer service from my cellular phone, however, I not only have to enter my phone number but, when the person answers, I also have to say it aloud. In any event, a cell phone company requiring a customer to enter an account number strikes me as dangerous. I know--you're not supposed to use a cell phone while driving, but let's face it, that's when people use them most and you might have to enter a 12-digit phone number once the machine answers.

I hear a lot of people complain about computers being complicated to use, and it's true--they do need to get simpler. But at least computers have been moving in that direction for the last few years. Consumer electronics is moving in the opposite direction. Have you bought an audio system or TV lately?

I recently broke down and bought a home theater system. The Sony Wega TV, which is terrific, has been relatively user-friendly once I figured out how to plug in the VCR, DVD player, Nintendo system and surround sound receiver, but it took me days to figure out how to use the Sony (STR-DE825) Dolby Digital receiver that I bought. There are enough options and dials to drive an astronaut loony. Eventually I figured it out, but I wound up taking it back to the store for a cheaper and simpler Kenwood (VR-309) model after my daughter wisely asked, "Dad, why does this have to be so complicated? All I want to do is watch TV."

Speaking of TV, the new receiver and DVD player support in Dolby Digital is a very cool way to listen to movies. But before you can listen to the soundtrack, you have to fiddle with two remote controls to configure both the DVD player and the receiver. Which brings up another pet peeve. A lot of TVs today require that you use a remote for even basic functions. Lose the remote and you may as well throw out the TV. Those programmable universal remote controls might control the basic functions, but they won't usually let you access menu items that you sometimes need to switch the TV into the correct mode. It makes me long for one of those sets with a single dial that switches between channels 2 and 13.

Even something as simple as hotel messages and wake-up calls can become overly complex. The Hotel Russell is my favorite London hotel. The stately 100-year-old building is steeped in charm and tradition, but if you get a phone message or ask for a wake-up call, you get a modern and not-so-pleasant surprise. In the middle of the night my TV turned on to tell me I had a phone message. I read the message and turned off the TV. A minute later it turned itself back on because I hadn't selected the correct option to acknowledge that I'd read the message.

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