A Bob Djurdjevic Column, August 1991
TORONTO - Telephone companies, hotels and computer laptops have never been known for falling in love with each other at first sight. At least that's been my experience while traveling with a laptop around the world in the last five years. In March 1987, for example, the Swiss telephone company managed to thwart my first effort of on-line communication with my home office in Phoenix.
A month later, however, I prevailed in Sweden and the Netherlands despite the hurdles thrown my way by the local telecoms. In May 1987, I repeated this feat in Australia, thanks to the ingenuity of a local computer whiz and my hook up with MCI Mail.
Not so in August the same year, when my experience with the British telecom in London inspired a subsequent column which compared the British telephone system with the Flintstones -- the cartoon characters who had a TV set, yet lived in a cave. The column even provoked a protesting letter to the editor from BT's PR people. A year later, however, I discovered that they'd fixed up their system. My transmission worked on the first try. My next column praised BT's market responsiveness.
As years rolled on, the incidents which frustrated the businessman but inspired a writer in me grew ever more scarce. In June 1990, I even completed the first-ever transmission from my laptop in Eastern Europe -- flawlessly. And so it was until I arrived in Canada in August 1991 with my new IBM laptop...
OF LAPTOPS AND ALLIGATORS...
A really neat thing about the new IBM laptop is its FAX modem. Just plug the hotel room telephone jack into your laptop, specify the number of the FAX machine to which you want the document sent, and off it goes... In a matter of seconds, you can reach any destination around the world. Besides being faster, this "paperless" FAX also remains CONFIDENTIAL -- tucked away in the memory of your laptop. No longer do you have to "babysit" your confidential FAXes in the bowels of the hotels' back offices. And if you really insist on a hard copy, just send the FAX to yourself -- to your hotel FAX machine, that is. In a few minutes, you should have it in your room. Neat, ha? Right. On paper... (the pun WAS intended).
Right after checking in at the Ontario lake front Hotel Admiral in Toronto, Canada, in early August 1991, I plugged in the telephone jack to "test the system" and send some messages which I had written during the flight from Phoenix. My wife, who had never seen before the new IBM laptop in action, and who is just starting to catch on to the traditional FAX technology, asked if she could watch this incredible "paperless" FAX being sent. I explained the process to her, and dialed the number. We waited the customary few seconds for the telephone connection to be established. Nothing happened.
Wouldn't you know it, I thought. Just like when you take your car in for service. The rattle which drove you crazy all day long suddenly disappears when the mechanic sits down behind the wheel.
We waited, and waited... Finally, "NO ANSWER" message flashes across the computer screen. "Something's wrong," I muttered as I repeated the process. Again, nothing happened. I tried next sending the FAX to myself, i.e., to my hotel FAX machine. It went through without a glitch. "Hm..." I puzzled looking at the computer. I was thinking about how discouraged my wife will probably be after this IBM laptop "demonstration." She has always been rather apprehensive of computers. Now she'll have one more reason for feeling that way.
"Dad, when are we going out to dinner?" our younger daughter asked casually chewing a piece of gum. I gave her an angry look for an appetizer. "Just what I need," I thought to myself. "An impatient kid!"
I unplugged the jack from the laptop, and tried calling the same number from the telephone set. Even though I followed the instructions for "long distance direct dialing," a female voice intercepted the call. "May I have your room number, please?" she asked. "And who are you?" I asked. "I am a Bell Canada operator. May I have your room number please," she persisted. "Wait a minute," I said. "These instructions said 'direct dialing.' How did I get you? I don't want you. I am trying to send a
FAX." "No problem, Sir," she replied matter-of-factly. "Just give me your room number and I'll put your call through directly, just as you dialed it."
I looked at my wife in disbelief even though I knew she could only hear one half of the conversation. "You don't understand, Madam," I said to the operator. "Once you cut in, it is no longer direct! You ruin my FAX transmission!" "I am sorry," she replied. "I don't know anything about that... I am just trying to get your room number for billing purposes."
"What if I gave you my room number in advance and then dialed again? Would that work?" I tried a last ditch effort. "It might," she said hesitantly. It didn't! I just got another Bell Canada operator who was interested in my room number.
That's when I threw in the towel and asked the hotel FAX operator to transmit on the (paper copy of the) FAX I had sent earlier to myself.
"Since we are right on Lake Ontario, how about some fish and chips?" I suggested to the kids. They agreed. I got the impression, though, that the choice of a meal didn't matter much to them at this point. They were just relieved to see the end of the "demo."
How IBM Didn't Save the Day...(at least not on first try)
The following Friday, I called IBM in New York and explained my problem to the head of its Consultant Relations Department. I said I was leaving for a small northern Ontario town, and I needed to get instructions urgently about how to bypass the long-distance telephone operators. At first, she asked a few questions along the lines of: "have you ever made a long distance call before?" Then, having assured herself that she wasn't dealing with a total imbecile, she promised to act quickly.
Not having heard from her, by late afternoon, I called again. "All you need is a pair of alligator clips," she said. "A pair of what?" I asked in astonishment. "You know, alligator clips... For splicing of telephone wires." I was relieved. For a moment, I had visions of having to find an alligator in Canada, the country usually blamed for all the "cold fronts" which hit the U.S. weather maps.
This IBM manager then proceeded to explain to me how, if I had these alligator clips, I could have used them to rig up the telephone jack in the wall. Yet, as she was speaking, she must have managed even to confuse herself. "Pretty complicated, ha?" she asked, concluding a long-winded explanation. "You're darn right!" I replied. I was thinking of how this laptop was supposedly intended for executives' use. Could you just imagine IBM's chairman, John Akers, for example, dashing off to his limo, and shouting back at his secretary: "Did you remember to pack my alligator clips?" Or trying to rig up a hotel telephone jack later in his hotel room on his hands and knees?
Worse, it turned out all this was supposed to enable me to RECEIVE (?!) FAXes, even though I told this IBM manager that I had problems SENDING them. Finally, she said she'd have to talk to an engineer again, and would call me back right away. She didn't. Three days later, my Phoenix office received a FAX from her with instructions on how to RECEIVE the FAX messages. It took IBM four days to give me a useless answer! And it took them four more days to tell me that they are now working on engineering the required bypass into the laptop's FAX modem software.
By that stage, of course, I was back in the U.S., where I have not yet had to catch an alligator before sending a "paperless" FAX.
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