We are frequently told that government is good for nothing and that only private industry – or the charity that spends the first 30 cents of every dollar just raising every dollar – is the only efficient way to get anything done.

I’ve always felt this is unfair; that government does some things tolerably well, and that even some of our most esteemed and profitable private and nonprofit enterprises can have their inefficiencies.

I am reminded of this virtually any time I try to order anything from IBM.

IBM is, let us acknowledge, a spectacular human asset. My ThinkPads are superb. The fundamental, quantum-level breakthroughs IBM comes up with – not least the eraser-head pointing device in the middle of my keyboard – would blow me away if I were bright enough to understand them. Even what little I do understand blows me away.

But then I try to order something, certain that by NOW, surely, they will have gotten all this worked out – I started doing this in 1984, so they’ve had 20 years – and, well, you be the judge.

I have two ThinkPad T30s. This is not the latest model, to be sure, but not a relic, either. Millions of them have been sold. I wanted another hard drive to go in the ‘swappable bay’ – that place you can put in a CD or DVD or extra hard drive.

I have to think this is not such an esoteric request. I’m not looking for the Hindi instruction manual for a discontinued 1986 PCjr – just another hard drive for my ThinkPad.

I go to IBM on-line, click through to Notebook stuff, and it offers to detect my model ‘type’ – promising me that it will not share this information with anyone – so I click OK and it gives me an error message. Can’t detect my model type.

It gives me a place to enter it manually, so I do – 2366-XXG – but it won’t accept that, and keeps offering to show me how to find the model type.

But 2366-XXG really is it, which I know for two reasons (and, yes, I tried it with and without the hyphen, upper case and lower case). First, I know it’s the correct model type because it follows the letters-digits format given as an example. Second, I know it’s the correct model type because it is embossed on the bottom of the ThinkPad directly to the right of the word TYPE.

OK, so you can’t order a hard drive for your ThinkPad on-line from IBM Direct. I call 800-772-2227, the number I’ve used for years, and get a recording that it has been changed to 800-IBM-SERV.

After some not too onerous branching and a short wait time I get a sales guy who finds the 40 GB hard drive that will work with my ThinkPad T30 and gives me the Part Number – which I do not want, I just want to buy it – and a phone number (800-388-7080) to call to find out the price and place my order.

This being the new, consumer-friendly IBM, with 20 years improvements under its belt, the rep offered to connect me himself, advising me to select options 2, 1 and 1 and then tell the human I would reach the Part Number I wanted, which was #08K9683.

I get connected quickly, reach a human, convey the desired Part Number and am told I will be connected to someone in sales.

After a short wait, I get a sales rep and tell her I would like to order part #08K9683.

That F.R.U. has been discontinued, she explains. It is now #13N6705. But it is out of stock.

I ask how this is possible. ThinkPad T30s have been around a long time, there is no sudden surge in demand for them or for their accessories . . . what business is IBM in?

She was sympathetic and explained that their system would check all IBM venders worldwide to find one, and it generally would take no more than two or three weeks . . . oh, wait . . . there appears to be one at a vender in Hong Kong, so it may be just a week or two.

Once it arrives stateside, I have a choice of shipping options. It’s important we discuss this, because one costs $1 more than the other. A dollar is at stake, so we are taking time to discuss whether I prefer to save time or save money.

After I make up my mind, she says I should understand that whether the drive that arrives is new or refurbished, it will cost $280 plus the shipping (new and used cost the same?), and I will have 90 days to return it if it’s the wrong part or it’s defective.

I will be charged 10% sales tax, I am told, because this division of IBM lacks the capacity to calculate individual state sales taxes, but – not to worry – that will be adjusted down to the actual sales tax by an IBM department that can.

At this point, being someone who wants IBM to succeed, I ask if I can offer her a suggestion to put in the suggestion box.

She says they don’t have a suggestion box.

‘Aha!’ I say, with some enthusiasm. ‘Then, I have two suggestions.’

She laughs – she is very nice – and I would guess there is a 65% chance that the part will come as promised and be compatible with my ThinkPad and work fine. If not, I’ll probably just throw it out, because even for $314.05 (I do have the capacity to calculate sales tax), it probably will not be worth the effort to get an R.M.A. for my F.R.U. and call U.P.S. . . . there’s just not time in the day.

But I am an optimist. It may well all work out just fine.

Dell must be quaking in its little $90 billion boots.


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