Well, IBM has read the last two columns and there is a good resolution – and I don’t just mean my visit from a 34-year computer veteran who speaks six languages and could single-handedly repair the space shuttle if he had to. But before I get to that, some of your feedback:

John Lemon: ‘Get a Mac. They’ll ship it to whatever address you want, the OS works, Airport kicks ass (I’m using it right now). The card is ‘only’ $99, takes about 20 seconds to install, and comes with instructions.’

Darrell Granger: ‘The new Mac operating system is completely compatible with PCs, and you can even buy Microsoft products for Macs. Mine worked wonderfully right out of the box.’

Mike Brown: ‘Why didn’t you call Dell? The people at Dell were very nice to me and they answer your questions as long as you live.’

☞ Well, yes, but see below – nobody’s perfect.

Doug Jones: ‘Sorry to hear about your troubles with receiving your IBM laptop. However, where I work (Spokane County Engineering Division), we have a (sarcastic) saying for this type of event: ‘God bless the efficiency of the private sector.”

Alan Silver: ‘The problem is exactly what you said: IBM is just too big. This does not make them a bad company, only one where the proverbial right hand seems not to know what the left hand is doing.’

Mike Dominy: ‘I am not a Mac Whacko. I work on PCs for the Army, but I would only buy a Mac for my own Personal Computer. To me, IBM means I Bought Macintosh.’

John Mulhern: ‘I have purchased dozens of desk top and lap top computers for my company, AT&T Wireless, and several for my personal and family use. I have tried IBM, Compaq, Gateway and Dell. The only brand that always, without fail, worked perfectly right out of the box, was Dell. I have no idea how their customer service is as I never had to use them.’

Namewithheld: ‘PLEASE DO NOT REPRINT OR SOME LAWYER WILL LIKELY FIRE MY ASS. I’m one of those famous IBM scientists who works in the Research Center here in Westchester. Your story makes me really sad. I personally apologize to you for the bad service you received. There is simply no excuse for the poor quality and bureaucratic rigmarole you went through. If you still need a battery, let me know. Either call me at 914-[xxx-xxxx] or email me at [xxxx]@yahoo.com and I will overnight you the battery from my own Thinkpad.’

☞ I believe almost everyone at IBM feels this way. Individually, those I’ve dealt with have been nothing but eager to help. The frustration comes in making an organization as colossal as IBM work in a logical, human way. The lawyers say pages and pages of disclaimers must be included with every item; the logistics guys determine (I guess) it is cheaper to print one 40-page pamphlet in 35 languages and put it in each box rather than a single-page disclaimer customized for the purchaser’s country. And everyone is so bright, and so tech-savvy, they can’t imagine the need for baby-talk instructions. (It’s a big thing that we actually have a notary public where I live. We are years from having an MIS director.)

The products themselves are pretty great. My sense is that – especially when price is removed from the equation – ThinkPads are generally considered the class in the field. (But why doesn’t my ThinkPad have a START button on its keyboard? I know keyboard real estate is tight, but Compaq handles it just fine. START buttons are for idiots. IBM needs to realize that most of us are idiots.)

Anyway . . . here’s what happened. (And then don’t miss the reader comments that follow, because there are a couple of potentially money-saving suggestions.) I got a call from a very nice woman in Toronto who seemed to have the mandate to make this right – Georgina. A lot of her colleagues had read my two columns, she said, and they were going over every line trying to see how to improve the various aspects of their systems that had caused trouble. Believed her – and why not? These are bright, well-meaning people – like the anonymous Research scientist quoted above – who want to be the best. Not to mention that, in the long run, their livelihood depends on it.

They had spent the day coordinating with their guy in my area and finding him a battery to bring to my home (I had paid for on-site service, after all) – would around six o’clock work OK for my schedule?

Up he came with a battery and, as I say, 34 years’ experience with computers, battery technology, amps, joules, fiber optic cabling systems for nuclear power plants – and, yes, he spoke six languages. (By now, he could just be retired; he does this for fun, he told me. He likes solving problems. He’d be receiving some parts at 2AM at his home tonight, he said, to solve some other problem he’d been tasked to resolve – happy to do it.)

Just before he came I had gotten this e-mail, which I thought it might be helpful to print out for him (I wish I had gotten it sooner):

Tim Redding: I used to have a Thinkpad that did this exact thing. In fact, your battery might not be dead. When I used to take mine out to start the computer, I would then put the battery back in and everything would work fine. Go figure!

The linguist put in the old battery and it worked fine. Tried starting cold with the battery alone, with the battery and the power cord – no matter what he did, all worked as it should have.

Part of me was beginning to feel like the guy who calls the TV Repairman – worse, has been abusive to the TV Repairman – only to find he had forgotten to plug it in. And I do feel a little sheepish for not having tried harder to solve this on my own. But IBM tech support had walked me through each step, and the screen had gone black each time we tried to start up with the battery installed, and it was the IBM phone tech support guy who told me I must have a bad battery or a bad connection and that I needed service.

In fact, as best I can fathom it, when the virgin machine is turned on for the very first time, if the battery level isn’t just right, the start-up routine shuts down. It’s only after the machine has installed itself and done some initial self-settings that it is prepared, thereafter, to cope with whatever battery level it finds at boot-up.

Tech support should have told me to persist – to try it with the battery after I had fully installed everything. But with a billion different products and models and configurations, how can tech support to get every call right?

Anyway, I seem to be in business. And the good news is not just that I can use my ThinkPad, it’s that – conceivably – the IBM really may be looking at ways to improve the system. (One small example: Apparently, if you have bought the on-site service package from IBM Direct, IBM’s service department doesn’t find out about it from the Entitlement department until three to five days after you register the machine online – if you can get online. ‘Gee,’ I said. ‘What if IBM Direct made that part of your record from the moment the machine is shipped out to you?’ Georgianna seemed to be on very much the same page.)

Now let’s save a little money – and beat up on Dell:

Scott Nicol: ‘I’m a little surprised – you drive a used car but buy new laptops? Computers depreciate much faster than cars, and laptops are among the fastest depreciating computers. Add to this the fact that computers don’t wear out many parts and you really don’t need a 2GHz processor to do a little word processing/money management/internet access/games (would you pay more for a Saturn with a 1000 HP engine?), and the laptop purchase starts to look really extravagant. I’m a programmer, I work from home, and I have far too many computers. The last time I bought a new computer was 10 years ago. Between auctions (eBay) and surplus dealers (geeks.com, to name just one), I’ve purchased about a dozen computers and many more peripherals (network switches, printers, monitors, UPS, etc). Generally they were off-lease or factory refurbished, no more than a year old. Some were brand-new-in-box, leftovers from a model change – in one case the only difference between the old and new model was the face plate. Prices are typically 25% to 90% off of new retail. I’ll probably even end up buying a laptop like yours – two years from now when I can pick it up for $500.’

Jonathan Hochman: ‘How nice of you to send IBM a $1500 holiday gift. I have bought at least six systems from Dell’s Factory Outlet. These computers have been shipped to a consumer, and been returned to Dell for some reason. Dell tests, repairs, and repackages them so they are indistinguishable from new. They are already built, so there is no waiting. Only once did I have a problem with a Dell notebook. They sent me a replacement hard disk the very next day. Please don’t pay a big premium for the fastest processor. Unless you run weather-prediction or code-breaking software, you will never use that much CPU power. Also, you don’t have to pay a computer manufacturer for extra memory. After-market memory from crucial.com is simple to install, and costs less. Usually it’s worth increasing the memory if your computer seems slow. If you need a Wi-Fi card, D-LINK makes good ones that can be had for $80. If you install a wireless access point in your home, I suggest hiring a consultant to configure the thing, and also a router to keep your network secure.’

Michael Joy: ‘I have a similiar tale of woe, though it involved furniture rather than a computer. Took 6 months to iron out. Was only solved when I called the CFO of the company and his secretary solved the problem in 15 minutes. MORAL: Let’s be honest about it and let the secretaries run the world. They already run the only parts of the world that actually work.’

Mark D Hiatt: ‘Please allow me an IBM story of my own. I used to travel quite a bit and learned to place a heavy premium on light weight (pardon me). When I needed a laptop, I bought this amazing little ThinkPad that, while only slightly larger than a trade paperback book, opened up a full-sized keyboard when you raised the lid. The keyboard split down the middle and shifted slightly when you lowered the lid and the whole thing was small, light and worked as expected. I used this little guy for months. (If this was a Capra movie we’d see one of those Page-A-Day calendars now, with the pages blowing off into an unseen wind.) I’m in Speedway, Indiana on my way home from Washington DC. I’d opened the door to judge the weather and my wife came by to have one of those moments with me at the door, her arms around my shoulders – Gee, isn’t it great we’re on the road together and it’s going to be so nice today and all of that. I turned, which she anticipated, but she thought I’d go clockwise when I went the other way, bumping into her arms, losing my balance and sending me onto the laptop’s heavy-duty case. I heard a cracking noise. I unzipped the case to remove the ThinkPad. Sure enough, one edge of the lid was cracked and when I opened it up the screen was shattered. I dialed the ‘800’ number and was told to expect a special box to ship my remains back to IBM would be at my home almost before I would be there myself the next day. Then it would be three days to wait for their estimate. Two days later, I got the bid: $2275 to fix the screen of my $1750 laptop. I was ready to spit nails! That night, NBC’s Tom Brokaw was interviewing Lou Gerstner of IBM and Lou was telling an amazed Brokaw how high-tech he was. ‘I even have my own web page,’ he told a slack-jawed Brokaw. There it was on national TV, bigger than life. And while the rest of America marveled at the techs-pertise of the IBM CEO, I was busy copying down the URL to Give Him A Piece of My Mind. I let him know what I thought of spending more to replace half of a computer than I’d spent on the whole machine. It felt very satisfying to hit the Send button on that one. I thought I was done. But the next day, there was a phone message waiting for me from one of Gerstner’s minions. And within the week, I had a replacement for my battered ThinkPad. No charge. Andy, there isn’t a computer company anywhere in the world that warrants their laptops against Fat Guys Walking On Them. When it came time to buy another traveler, I bought another ThinkPad, and when it came time to replace my desktop computer, I bought another IBM, and for years now friends and family have commented on the marvelous styling of the sleek, black machine and I have told them this story. And now I’ve told you: IBM is Good People.’

☞ I agree. But if the system is designed to charge you $2,275 and not to allow people the flexibility to do what they think the Chairman would do if he knew about the problem, then the people are good, and the Chairman is good (or wants to be liked), but the system that the Chairman presides over needs fixing – which at the end of the day is ultimately his fault.

Michael Burns: ‘Between my two businesses and my personal life, I order well over $100k worth of stuff by credit card every year. Almost all of it on-line. The billing addresses are PO Boxes, the shipping addresses are real street addresses. I’ve learned one very important lessen over the years, namely that any place that even hesitates to ship to an address different than the billing address is a place to avoid as their customer service always stinks. They are more concerned with not getting taken than they are with servicing their customers. So if I place an order and they balk in any way, we simply switch suppliers. And yes, both of my businesses accept credit cards, so I do understand the merchants’ perspective about being taken.’

Parks Stewart: ‘Now that you’ve teased us all with the ‘Patience, jackass, patience’ line, I think it’s somewhat incumbent on you to tell the whole joke.’

☞ Patience, jackass — patience!

Sorry, but that basically WAS the joke. After an endless shaggy-dog buildup . . . the jackass asking his owner for water and his owner responding ‘patience, jackass, patience’ and the jackass asking his owner for water – ‘water, master, water!’ – and his owner responding ‘patience, jackass, patience’ and the jackass asking his owner for water and his owner responding ‘patience, jackass, patience’ . . . my dad fell for it and asked my brother to get to the point, for crying out loud – and my brother responded, ‘Patience, jackass, patience!’

The idea of my brother, aged 11, saying anything that incredibly disrespectful was so risky, so out of character, so edgy for 1954 – well, it was Lenny Bruce come to Apartment 6C. We were convulsed. And now you know.

Finally, let us be clear: nobody’s perfect:

Ed Farber: ‘About a month ago a friend of mine purchased a computer from the Dell kiosk in a local mall. Yesterday, he called Dell to find out when the computer would be delivered. He was told that there was no record of his order (but there was a record of the check that was used to pay for it). The Dell rep then told him that the model he ordered is no longer available and it would cost an extra $150 for the replacement model. He said ‘no thanks’ and asked for a refund. He was on the phone for over two hours and spoke to six different people from Dell and they still couldn’t get it right.’

Jeff: ‘I own a Dell and had such exceptional customer service problems that they sent me a free, moderately high-end digital camera to induce me to keep rather than return the laptop. Even after accepting the camera, their support still stinks, and is disconnected in the same way you described IBM’s to be (i.e., tech support doesn’t know what customer service has said and they can’t transfer you to each other’s phone lines, etc.). Their tech support has never once found me a solution which wasn’t, basically, ‘Do this obvious step that any moron would have figured out to try,’ followed by, ‘That didn’t work, huh? I have no idea what’s wrong then.’ (I’m paraphrasing a little bit.)’

☞ By all indications, Dell ordinarily does a very good job – how else to account for its ever growing market share? But IBM draws a lot of raves, too. If my frustrating little saga actually led IBM to reexamine some of its procedures, at least on the home-user side, it would be a great win-win. Could one user in a million – even in Bratislava, let alone in Budapest or Beijing or Biloxi – actually read the two-page Bratislavan Declaration of Conformity shipped with every ThinkPad? Somehow, the creative Ben & Jerry types (well, let’s face it: the Apple types) need to be given a little more juice in IBM’s overall power mix.


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