Again! Tech That Doesn't Work Won't Let Us Work

Companies that can't do things the old-fashioned way are out of luck when their business technology falters. Need I say Palm? Skype? Word?

Yes, I am an angry guy.

I yell at other drivers. I roll my eyes when I have to stand in line for more than two minutes. I complain about Wall Street's greedy executives, out-of-touch politicians, and our local newscast idiots, with their pancake makeup, chiseled cheekbones, and chirpy laughter.

Stuff that doesn't work—especially business technology—is at the top of the list of things that make me angry.

Computer equipment and software were the sixth most-complained-about category at the Federal Trade Commission in 2007. More than 27,000 people were sufficiently ticked off to bother reporting stuff that wasn't working to the government. And that doesn't include angry guys like me. Thank God these tech companies don't make things that need to work all the time—like airplanes, water service, or Viagra.

Even TiVo Fails Me

Here's a handful of the tech products that have been failing me or my business lately. Thinking I could save a few bucks for my company, I laid down $40 and purchased MagicJack, a device that attaches to my computer and promises that, for only 20 bucks a year, I can make unlimited calls to anyone in North America from my regular phone, over the Internet. And I can. Most of the time. Unfortunately, the quality is bad sometimes, or the call drops, or I dial a number four times before it can be connected. Ditto for Skype (EBAY) and some other Internet-based calling services. Can my business rely on this? No way. No how.

Then there's TiVo (TIVO). I pay a monthly fee for my TiVo service at home. Except my TiVo sometimes loses the connection to my router and doesn't get updated with new data. And about 1 out of 10 times it records the wrong channel. Doesn't happen a lot. But it happens. At the worst possible times, too.

My frustration isn't limited to TiVo. Users of Sirius XM Radio (SIRI) are accustomed to dead spots and lost signals—especially in the bottom of the ninth. As I write, my Comcast (CMCSA) Internet service is down. Oh, and it so happens my new Comcast Digital is kind of snowy today, too.

Even the Exchange Crashed in London

I have a Palm (PALM) Treo 700p. It works—most of the time. But then there are moments when it just freezes, sometimes in the middle of a call. Or locks up when I'm trying to send a text message. Or just reboots itself for no reason. Yes, I've installed the latest firmware. But the problems keep happening. Think I'm alone? Check out Palm's support forums. And no, Palm, your admonition to "Just upgrade to the newest version" isn't good enough. I can't wait to trash my Treo.

I sit on the board of a company that publishes technical manuals. Its software, specifically designed for the publishing industry, has been incorrectly calculating subscription revenue for the past 12 months. By coincidence during this period, Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry service went down, leaving users without communications. Twice. Oh, and this past month the software that drives the London Stock Exchange crashed, closing the markets for a full day.

Throughout the week I'm faced with other business technology that sputters on me. Don't even get me started on Microsoft's (MSFT) Word and other applications.

Keep That Pencil Handy

So what's a business owner to do in response to the vast array of business technology that fails to work properly, if only part of the time?

For starters, we never, ever completely rely on technology. Especially if it's mission critical. Doing so would be irresponsible.

Nowhere is this more clear than with data backups. We're positively anal retentive about backups. We back up our main databases using online backup services like Carbonite and Mozy. And even these applications, like everything else, work—yep, you guessed it—mostly.

How do small businesses place orders or make calls when the Internet is down or phone systems fail? A client of mine still keeps a stack of the old, three-part, paper order forms that were printed up during the Kennedy Administration. Sometimes they get used. When the printer is on the fritz or can't be found on the network, my client is prepared to type up invoices. And when a friend's phone system crashed a few years back, he got a crash course in how to redirect phone calls made to his company's toll-free number over to his own cell phone.

Cope We Must

Finally, we always, always have support. And we budget for it. Software companies want us to believe that they'll solve all of our problems if we just buy their product. They don't tell us that for the product to really succeed, it'll need to come hand in hand with a technology support contract. And this is above and beyond their extortionist maintenance plans. Software and other business technologies need human beings available—to make them work. We know that without support, our businesses will be inconvenienced. Probably at the precisely worst time.

Working 90% to 95% of the time is not working. When my company's services fail to deliver, we don't get paid—and our customers get angry. When a technology product doesn't do what it's supposed to do all the time, we're stuck. Unfortunately, the technology my company buys fails way too much. But like everything else that makes me angry, I just deal with it. And so can you.