A Travel Vignette

A Big Apple

From an U.S. Travel Diary (1991)

Laptops? Not at the New York Hilton

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, March 1991

NEW YORK - I spent the entire 4.5-hours of the non-stop TWA Phoenix-to-New York flight working on my Toshiba laptop. I was writing the Annex Research Bulletin - our analysis of Amdahl's "Huron" announcement. I wanted to get the report ready for publication the following day, which was the planned Amdahl announcement date. By the time the plane had touched down, I was about 75% finished.

Outside, light rain was falling. My umbrella, however, one of about five I own (all of which had been purchased in New York), was packed away. I refused to make it six!

The check-in procedure at the New York Hilton was a breeze. On the other hand, it took about five minutes to squeeze into an elevator which took me to the 41st floor. That's because the whole hotel was jumping. It looked as if all of the U.S. teachers had descended upon it for a pre-Easter convention.

Just before 19:00, I met the party with whom I was supposed to have dinner. I figured to be back at the hotel by about 23:00 and finish the Amdahl report. I got back about 22:30, sans my umbrella. As the rain had stopped, I promptly left it behind in the cab. Oh well, I thought when I realized what I had done. At least the next one won't be No. 6....

The "Plan A" Fails: No Jacks at the New York Hilton!

The remaining 25% of the report took longer than I thought (they always do...) It was exactly 00:30 when I saved my work, took out my laptop telephone cable, and started looking for a telephone jack in my room to plug it into. But alas, none was to be found. And that's even though my room had no less than three telephone sets! Trouble was, all of them were hardwired into the wall.

I could not believe my eyes. Ever since my 1987 "Flintstones" column about a fancy London, England, hotel, which had a similar problem, which led to a successful transmission the following year, I had quit bothering to ask if the hotels had modular jacks.

After all, you've been receiving the reports which I transmitted without a hassle even from Eastern Europe, let alone from London, or the 6th Avenue in New York.

I got on the phone and asked for the duty manager. I explained my predicament to him, and the urgency of the report I was trying to transmit. I asked him to do something about it. "I can't," he said. "What do you mean you can't?" I asked. "I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do for you. We do not have such a jack anywhere in the hotel," he replied. "What?" I was shouting in disgust. "The New York Hilton does not have a single modular jack? That's preposterous! You are living in the last century by today's business standards!"

The man quickly agreed with my assessment. He continued to apologize profusely. "We were supposed to have a new telephone system installed six months ago," he said. "Now it is scheduled to be done on April 1." "That's great," I said. "A lot of good is it going to do me tonight!" He added that a while back, a business service called "Wall Street..." had an office at the Hilton which did have a modular jack. "But, they've now moved to the Waldorf (Astoria hotel)," he explained. "Looks to me like they've made the right move. I only wish I had done the same," I snapped back before hanging up.

By this stage, it was nearly 1:00. My options were rather limited. I called my office and left a message about the delay in my planned release of the Amdahl bulletin. I said I'd try to do it in the morning from the IBM location at 590 Madison, where I was planning to attend the company's laptop announcement. In the distance, I heard the wailing sound of a police siren, an ever-present reminder that the city I was in never sleeps. But I had to as I had a 7:30 breakfast meeting.

The IBM Laptop Announcement: None Available for Sale...

My breakfast partner and I strolled into the IBM building at about 8:45. The announcement was scheduled to start at 9:30. I explained my Hilton problems to the head of IBM's consultant relations' department who promised to try to help. Indeed, after a few minutes I was introduced to a very nice gentleman (let's call him "Mr. Nice") who took me to his office at the IBM Media Branch on the fourth floor (of which John Akers was once branch manager). I took my Toshiba out of its case, and we plugged the telephone cord into a jack at an empty office. After failing to make the connection there, this IBM gentleman took me to his own desk. We unplugged his phone and tried again. No luck! I wasn't even getting the dial tone.

"Let me try to get an SE to help you," Mr. Nice offered. "Before you do," I said, "let me call my office in Phoenix first to make sure everything is in order at the other end." After a brief conversation with my assistant, I discovered that he had never tested the unit before this trip after it had been returned to us from a service on a ROM-type problem. "No need to call your SE," I told Mr. Nice after hanging up. "The problem seems to be all ours. My guy never tested the Toshiba after it had been serviced." I told him that if he could find me another system with a modem and capable of reading 31/2" disks, we should give it a try after the announcement was over. He agreed. I looked at my wrist watch. It was 9:22, time to go down to the IBM windowless announcement auditorium, a claustrophobic air-raid shelter-like bunker underneath the "Gallery..."

After the announcement, one of the IBM executives who was on hand accompanied me to the demonstration area. He said he wanted to make sure I got a proper demonstration, and waved some one on to join us. Along the way, I told him jokingly that I had brought a "trade-in," pointing to the Toshiba case slung over my shoulder. I asked him if IBM did have a trade-in program for its new laptop. He said it did not.

After the demonstration, I realized that I could possibly kill several birds with one stone. I had intended to upgrade my Toshiba anyway. The IBM laptop seemed impressive. I had an urgent need to transmit a report. And my own laptop seemed to be on the blink. I walked over to the head of the IBM Consultant Relations Department.

"You may think that I am kidding," I said, "but I am not. I want to buy an IBM laptop. Can you get me one today?" The IBM manager looked perplexed. "But, we don't have any supply for the consultants," she replied. Realizing I was not talking to a "sales person" (a "real" sales person would have asked me how I intended to pay for it, or what color I would prefer, rather than share with the buyer his/her problems in life), I immediately discontinued any further conversation, and asked the Consultant Relations head to have a specific IBM executive call me who I thought may be able to get me a unit quickly. Five days later and back in Phoenix, I am yet to receive that callback...

I looked for and found Mr. Nice. By this stage, he and I were quickly becoming good pals, as is usually the case with people who share a common suffering. I told him about what had just happened, how I tried to buy the laptop on the spot and failed. A 35-year IBM veteran, who had come from the old Office Products division of IBM, understood perfectly the importance of timing in sales. He just shook his head. "Timing isn't everything, it's the only thing," some one said.

The "Plan B" Fails, Too...

Back at the IBM Media Branch, Mr. Nice quickly mustered two SEs who went to work on my problem. After about 15 minutes of efforts to get my Toshiba to work, they were about as successful as Mr. Nice and I were some two hours before. Since they were working with a suspect computer, with a questionable cord, with an uncertain telephone jack -- I urged them to stop and get another computer. Low and behold they brought in the new IBM laptop, less than half an hour old!

I'll spare you the rest of the gory details. Their attempts to get the job done with the new laptop also failed. In part, this was because most IBM branch computers were hardwired and used the IBM mainframe-based PROFS system. Mr. Nice even offered to have my disks shipped to Phoenix by an overnight courier. I thanked Mr. Nice and his SEs on their efforts, but explained that I had to go. It was 11:30 and I had a luncheon appointment. I said I would go to my "Plan C" -- print the report in my hotel room (on my "non-zero weight" printer -- actually a 4-pound Kodak Diconix), and then FAX the copy to my office for retyping. "I know this is slow and inefficient," I said, "but, I've run out of options with Plans A and B."

Mr. Nice was only half joking as he muttered under his breath, "wouldn't you know it: we get a chance to show off our wares to an important consultant, and nothing seems to work. Now he's gonna tell Akers about it." I thanked him again and assured him that, should Mr. Akers hear about the incident, I will not fail also to mention that he (Mr. Nice) personally had certainly done everything within his means to try to help me. "That's nice," he said. "But still... It would have been even better if we had succeeded..."

Epilogue. My Plan C worked, although I had to postpone my luncheon appointment to finish printing the report. Thanks to a two-hour time difference between New York and Phoenix, we managed to get the report done and mail it to our clients by the end of that business day.

The Score: Humans 1; Laptops 0.

P.S. The author is a veteran laptop user who had traveled over 500,000 miles with his laptops even before the 1990s, and had filed reports directly from his computer from over a dozen countries around the world.  But sometimes it takes more than just local accessories to make things work...

When the writer was about to reboard a flight after changing planes in Chicago, for example,  carrying a briefcase, a garment bag and his laptop, a stickler-for-the-rules-type flight attendant asked him to have one of his three garments checked (the FAA regulations allow only two carry-on items).

"Just a moment," he told the stewardess taking down the laptop which had been slung over his shoulder. He unzipped his garment bag, and put the laptop into the back pocket.

"Now," the writer told the flight attendant, "I have two pieces, right?"

She nodded, trying to hide her embarrassment.

"Governments and airlines have never been known for their common sense, have they?" the writer added entering the plane. He then took the laptop out of his garment bag and added this P.S...

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