Written at my hotel in Orlando during a weekend stopover between assignments. Dispatched to silicon.com via free wi-fi from the unreal atrium of a world only possible, it seems, in Florida
Years ago moving office automatically meant a lot of IT grief. Computers, scanners and printers that had worked well for years would suddenly refuse to function, and things that had happily networked in the old location would suddenly refuse to see each other, let alone communicate, in the new.
It always seemed that no matter what precautions were taken IT was out to spoil your day.
Well, I have just moved office and have to report the angst was not palpable, and the need to keep business up and running did not involve prayers, incantations and other unnatural acts! For sure I had put a lot of time and effort into testing and installing the LAN, WLAN, broadband, telephones, television and radio feeds beforehand. But every switch, laptop, printer, scanner and device moved over seamlessly. Phew!
So where did the grief go to? Well it got me from an unusual direction and by an unexpected mechanism, as grief always does. Our new building is a renovated Suffolk barn and I enjoyed the opportunity to do a near 100 per cent rewire. So in went 1.5km of CAT5 plus telephone, intercom and coax TV wiring. All I had to do was install the sockets, switches and amplifiers.
Broadband, wired and wireless LANs, analogue and digital TV went in a treat. No problems. The SNAFU turned out to be the telephone system. After installing all that wire and a lot of sockets, the phone didn't work. I started fault finding by checking for dial tone on every socket, and then worked back to the midpoint termination hum. No sign of life anywhere.
At the phone company termination there was dial tone but at every socket throughout the building there was nothing. In fact, at a distance of just one mile away from the inlet termination, at the first socket, there was nothing. This was all a bit embarrassing for an ex-phone company lineman, I can tell you.
Out came my tester and off came the wires. It turned out the wiring was live at the back of every socket but nothing was getting to the connector pins. I dismantled a socket and probed around the printed circuit to quickly discover dry joints. Someone somewhere needs a lesson in soldering and the need for cleanliness and flux.
One-by-one I opened up each socket - and everyone had the same series of dry joints. Two telephone lines on each panel and four to six dry joints on every board. Bingo! Problem solved. I had unfortunately picked up a batch of bad sockets. Easily fixed of course with the purchase and installation of new sockets but at the unfortunate cost of a full day's work.
What had really gone wrong here? I have become so used to things being well manufactured by machines. Quality is no longer the issue it was 30 years ago and I always assume things are going to work. But it was obvious machines did not produce these items - people had been involved and probably ill-trained people at that.
I suspect my local hardware store buys from a supplier with links in the second or third world with low cost labour operating in less than ideal conditions. Anyway, they are now fully aware of the problem. The only question is, will they bother addressing the issue?
This trying episode took me back to a world some 40 to 50 years ago when you could safely assume if something you purchased wasn't faulty on day one, then it soon would be! Automated mass production has transformed everything to the point where product failure at the point of purchase is now a rare event and everything seems to last forever. I just hope that these telephone sockets are not a portent of globalisation going wrong.
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.