Windows, Not Walls - 26 Aug 2008

In less than two weeks, Microsoft will debut the fruits of a $300 million marketing campaign for Windows Vista that will star comedian Jerry Seinfeld and run under the moniker "Windows, Not Walls." I've always liked that phrase and its positive connotations about the technology that Microsoft sells. Clearly, Microsoft does as well, and the company is hoping that the campaign will change people's perceptions about an OS that it says is misunderstood.

I guess I'm not hugely concerned about that either way. But the inherent promises in the phrase "Windows, not walls" really resonates with me. It speaks of the possibilities of technology, possibilities that today, alas, are not a reality. Making these possibilities a reality is, I think, something that the United States as a country should approach as a national agenda akin to FDR's New Deal. Think of it, perhaps, as a Tech New Deal.

OK, I spent the past weekend on a mini-vacation with my family in Washington D.C., and it would be hypocritical to suggest that this hasn't colored my thinking a bit. But in a city that has been so purposefully designed to celebrate the successes of thinking big, it's appropriate, I think, to do so in my own field.

What does Windows, not walls, say to me? For starters, it says that broadband Internet access should be like the water or electrical services we all enjoy. That is, it should be always on and always available. And yes, perhaps it should be metered as well, as long as it's available at a far more affordable rate than it is today. Increasingly, Internet access is a requirement or a commodity, not a luxury.

Today, however, it is treated as a luxury. On the Amtrak down to Washington D.C. from Boston, I was struck by how much more productive it would have been if my laptop had had broadband Internet access. I have used such a thing in the past, but had to give it up when I switched to the iPhone (which offers no modem tethering support, locking whatever Internet access it provides inside the device). Broadband wireless access, regardless, is expensive. The iPhone, which requires a data plan, is about $80 a month in the United States. And I know that Verizon charges an additional $60 over and above whatever you're paying to use a smart phone as a tethered modem for a laptop. (Or to use an internal modem in the laptop.) These prices are exorbitant.

This access needs to be reliable as well. My FIOS-based home broadband access (another $60 a month) has been hugely unreliable since I added TV service months ago, causing no end of pain. Of course getting a technician to actually come to your home involves the same combination of back-room dealing and sheer luck that was likely common in the Soviet Union two decades ago. I can't recall the last time I approached a light switch and worried that the light wouldn't come on, or the last time I went to shower fearing that no water would come out of the tap. But intermittent Internet connectivity problems play with the psyche and I approach my Web browser with a sense of dread these days. Please work, I think. Geesh.

Wireless Internet is even worse, and while I'd love to blame AT&T Wireless for that, let's face it, Apple's rollout of the iPhone 3G hasn't exactly won that company many fans. While in DC, my iPhone stopped connecting to any Internet-based services at all. Eventually, I simply turned off access to the superior and faster 3G network, clued in by online reports that that might fix things. And sure enough it did: My expensive new iPhone 3G can now access the Internet using only the old EDGE network that hobbled the original iPhone. The culprit: Yup, you guessed it, a software update that was supposed to fix connectivity issues. Seriously, I give up.

As I write this, the Internet connection in my hotel room--for which I pay a princely sum of $10 every 24 hours--has gone down, again, for what seems to be a routine, scheduled break. The solution, I've found, is to disable the network connection in Windows, re-enable it, and then reconnect. You know, something that would occur to just about anyone. And exactly the type of activity we should expect people to have to perform in order to get online. (Please note the sarcasm if it's not obvious.) What's next? Stand on my head for faster downloads? Stupidly, I'd probably go for that.

Windows, not walls. Yes, it is something I dream of every time I boot up my computer and pray that everything will simply work for once. It never does, of course. And until it does just work, the very notion of Windows, not walls will simply be a promise, while the reality of pervasive computing and connectivity is far less than ideal. I wish it weren't so.

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