World’s Best Company: PC Connection — 800-243-8088. I ordered a $300 10-gigabyte LaCie external hard drive from them this past Sunday and had it Monday morning.

World’s Worst Company: LaCie. This is seemingly the only company on the planet that makes an external USB hard drive. At least the only one I could find. (It is headquartered in France, I think.) USB is yet another of those funny little connections that allow massive amounts of data to stream unimaginably fast across a wire. How it could possibly work so well and be so small and — well, I’ve just come to accept it as magic.

What I find odd is that the hard part of this job LaCie seems to have done brilliantly. This attractive book-size device can receive 10 billion bytes of information flawlessly in a matter of minutes and store them without forgetting a thing. Even if you turn it upside down. Can you even imagine the mega-brilliance that had to go into the creation of such a thing?

And then you have the one other little chore — trivial, really. The part where the product interfaces not with the computer to which it is hooked up, but with the customer who bought it. This is done through a series of very simple, but critical decisions.

The first decision LaCie made was not to ship two separate versions, one “plug and play” for the Mac, the other for the IBM. LaCie ships all its drives formatted for the Macintosh. This choice was made in order to inconvenience the maximum number of customers.

The next decision was to ship this miracle drive with a faux User’s Manual that does not match the product — e.g., it tells you to “insert floppy disk 2/2” yet comes with no floppy disks. I could go on, but basically the only way to use this drive, if you happen to be one of those rare customers with a PC rather than a Macintosh, is to call customer support in St. Louis (a good French saint).

But I need hardly tell you there is no phone number for customer support in the faux User’s Manual. I found LaCie’s number by finding its web site — which is also not listed in the Manual. (A good place for it might have been page 5, which reads, in its entirety: “This page intentionally left blank for pagination.”) Nor need I tell you that even on the web site there is no section — let alone a prominent one — titled, Click here for help formatting your LaCie hard drive.

No, you have to find the phone number, call on your own dime, wait 20 minutes on hold, and then get a nice person who is almost as frustrated as you that LaCie has done it this way. An hour later, you might succeed in getting the drive formatted for Windows — or you might not. (Once I did, twice I did not.)

Stupidity of this magnitude could perhaps be understood, though not condoned, if it somehow led LaCie to greater short-term profits. But having half their disk drives returned in frustration can’t help the bottom line; and neither can the cost of a tech support operation that spends all day long listening to angry, confused, disappointed customers. Surely I am not the only person with an IBM-compatible. I know Apple is doing well again — bless my little January leaps — but surely they’ve left a little market share for PCs.

What if Ford shipped cars that were all set to go, except they needed you to install the electronic starter, for which it gave you incorrect instructions? Now there’s a marketing plan.

It is for these reasons I am pleased to present to LaCie the award for the World’s Worst Company. Nominations for next year’s award are welcome. But LaCie will be hard to top.

PS – For your laptop-at-the-beach reading, here is Chapter 16 of Fire & Ice. (You already have Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.)


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