Written by David Tebbutt, PC Dealer 08/87 item 01 - scanned

Who really has to pay the price for bad systems?

By David Tebbutt

Cobbler's children - they're the ones who are poorly shod, aren't they? Well, let's bring this up to date. Computer experts - they're the ones whose data is poorly secured.

Yes, you guessed it, I had a long-threatened hard disk crash last week and my last full backup was at least a month old.

The stupid thing about it was that I was running a program which I'd been given as a present. I'd never seen it before, I didn't really need it but it actually quite appealed to me. It organised my life, keeping track of things-to-do lists, diary dates, phone numbers and so on. Oddly enough, the first sign of hard disk trouble came when I began using this program.

When the hard disk started to play up, I couldn't believe it. I'd been using the same machine for a year or so and hadn't had any serious problems, so I just rebooted and carried on. What a twit! (Actually, I took the precaution of then copying my current work to a floppy.)

The problem became worse until, eventually, I couldn't use the hard disk at all. I still don't know whether the program was to blame. What I do know is that, since it was quite new on the market, I should have known better than to trust it. But I'd gone further than that - I'd come to depend on it.

Imagine what it's like for someone who's had to pay for their software. They're doubly likely to want to use something they've paid for. And computers are supposed to give us something extra, not to replicate something we're quite able to manage without the use of these machines.

This episode reminded me that I was guilty of computerising just for the sake of it. The marginal increase in efficiency in my office was more than offset by the inconvenience when I was away from the machine.

The day following this disaster, I went on one of my rare expeditions to fortress VNU (to visit the publisher of PC Dealer among other things). At the local underground station, instead of the usual cheery faces at the ticket kiosks, I found a queue of puzzled businessmen trying to extract their tickets from a complicated machine. Complicated to them, that is. They had to press a destination button, choose a type of ticket and feed in enough money to cover the price.

All of us were carrying five pound notes, which had to be inserted in a slot the correct way up, whereupon the fiver would be gobbled up, the ticket issued and the change given. Once the first person mastered the machine, the others had no trouble.

When it came to my turn, it didn't want to know my crisp new fiver. 'Exact money only' was flashed up on the display screen. It was a waste of time looking for help, since the traditional booths were closed. A ticket collector informed me: The bleedin' thing's been playing up all morning. You'll have to pay the other end'.

After a more than usually fraught rush-hour journey, I arrived at Oxford Circus to find a huge queue at the excess fare kiosk. When I reached the head of the queue, I asked the man how many people in the queue had, like me, been caught out by robot ticket machines. 'Most of them,' he replied.

So, given an average wait of 10 minutes (and that's being kind to LRT), plus the time queuing for a return ticket at an average salary of at least 10,000, each person was wasting at least another quid on top of their fare. After all, someone has to pay for the lost time. If it's not the commuters themselves, then it's their employers.

And what about good old LRT? Well, they're laughing, they've replaced lots of ticket issuers in the suburbs with machines, and done nothing about upping the excess fare facilities in the central zone. The end result is that they've exported the cost of staffing their kiosks to the poor old customer. We pay for LRT's incompetence and lack of foresight, and LRT gets away with it.

I arrived home in the evening to find a message in my Telecom Gold mailbox from someone I didn't know and, as it turned out, someone I didn't want to know. The trouble was, I'm a curious individual and I wanted to know why this stranger had written.

I typed RE to read the missive and was treated to a huge list of the numbers of mailboxes to which he'd also sent copies of the letter. Page after page of them, and I was paying for the call and the connect time. Had Telecom Gold already started charging for characters received I would have been apoplectic. What right had this person to cause me such expense?

These three episodes made me think about the effects of our system design decisions. Perhaps we should include a couple of extra questions in all our systems investigations: who really pays when the systems you install go wrong - is it your client or your client's clients?

And, does your proposed solution solve a real problem - or are you guilty of slipping in irrelevant products simply to bolster your own income?