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April 2006 - Vol. 6, Issue No. 79
By Scot Finnie
IN THIS ISSUE
My move to Computerworld means that the IT-oriented content I write, which has in past appeared in other publications, will in future appear in Computerworld instead. But the change has no effect on the newsletter, which will continue exactly as it has. Nor will it affect the monthly column and occasional feature articles I pen for PC Today. So it's all good.
In fact, it's great to work for a company that fully understands who I am and the many ways I can contribute, both as a professional technology editor with more than 10 years of online publishing experience and as the author of a five-year-old newsletter with nearly 50,000 subscribers about advanced desktop computing. It was time for a change, and I'm very excited about the opportunity to do great things with Computerworld.
Apple has given Windows and Mac users the first realistic way to run both OS X Tiger and Windows XP on a Macintosh computer. Although other solutions, including Microsoft's $130 Virtual PC for Mac, have employed different means to accomplish the deed, in real-world use they've been less than satisfactory.
Apple has dramatically improved on the Windows-on-a-Mac experience over emulation-based solutions. After completing Boot Camp, Windows XP runs extremely fast on the Mac with very few quirks or issues. So fast and well, in fact, that the notion of having your cake and eating it too comes to mind. That decades-old fork in the road between being forced to choose either the Mac for its superior design or Windows for its wealth of available software has disappeared. With a recent model Mac, a large hard-drive, and for the cost of a full-install version of Windows XP, you can have both operating systems on the same computer the best of both worlds.
So how did Apple achieve this? Boot Camp is designed solely for Intel-based Macintoshes, including the new MacBook Pro and specific iMac and Mac mini models the ones with dual- or single-core Intel CPUs. Intel-based Macs can run Windows XP natively, which means there's no emulation process running to handle the differences in the way PowerPC and Intel chips run software. So, the hard part of the equation was accomplished by Apple's adoption of Intel CPUs. Apple's Mike Shebanek, product manager for Mac OS X product marketing, affirms that Apple is ahead of schedule with the roll out of Intel-CPU-based Macs, and that it expects to complete the transition to Intel chips across its Macintosh product line by the end of 2006.
To finish out the solution, Apple needed a way to set up the hard drive and install Windows XP on supporting Macs, and it accomplished that by creating the Boot Camp Assistant software. Boot Camp is essentially a dual-boot utility. It works similarly to the multiple-boot functionality supported by all recent versions of Windows. The only real downside to that is that any time you want to switch from Windows XP to OS X or vice versa, you must reboot the computer.
When you run the Boot Camp Assistant utility, it carries out several steps:
1. It burns a Windows driver CD specific to your Mac hardware.
2. It dynamically repartitions your Mac hard drive, creating a new logical drive for Windows.
3. Then it initiates the Windows XP setup process (using the "full install" copy of Windows XP Pro or Home Service Pack 2 that you must acquire separately).
The Windows installation routine asks you to select the partition to install Windows (the answer is always C:), formats the partition, and installs Windows on your Mac. After you successfully boot into Windows XP, the last step is to install the Windows drivers from the disc Boot Camp burned. The process is less complicated that it sounds. For detailed requirements, preparation tips, and step-by-step instructions on using Boot Camp to install Windows XP on a Mac, see "Boot Camp Basics: How to Setup Windows XP on an Intel-Based Mac" elsewhere in this issue of the newsletter.
Apple's beta release of Boot Camp was offered as a test in preparation for the release of OS X Leopard, the next major release of Apple's operating system. Leopard, which could arrive early next year, will include Boot Camp. Apple will not distribute Windows XP with Boot Camp. The company won't comment on whether it will upgrade Boot Camp and OS X to perform the same feat for at least some versions of Windows Vista. But there's no question that Apple has already delivered a breakthrough.
Meanwhile, Virtual PC has a couple of advantages over Boot Camp. You can switch back and forth between OS X and Windows more rapidly, without having to reboot. It also runs on PowerPC-equipped Macs. In fact, it's a bit ironic that Microsoft's Virtual PC software does not support on Intel-based Macs. For details, see this Microsoft FAQ.
Beyond Boot Camp Assistant
The first thing you'll notice about running Windows XP on an Intel-based Macintosh is how very fast it is. This is the way Windows XP was meant to perform. It may not sound like a good thing to some people, but after only a few minutes of working with Boot Camp-installed XP, you may entirely forget that you're using a Mac. Windows XP works exactly like it should when Boot Camp installs it.
There are a couple of minor shortcomings, mostly due to hardware support issues. Because of a difference in the way OS X/Unix and Windows handle system time, every time you boot into Windows the system time will be several hours ahead. It's possible to fix the problem using the Date and Time Control Panel's Internet Time update button, or you can adjust it manually. In the Boot Camp Beta, Apple's hard drive motion sensor, iSight camera, MacBook Pro Trackpad, and some other devices don't have driver support. You also can't use Apple's Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse with XP on your Mac. The MacBook Pro Trackpad works, but at something like a 40% of its OS X functionality. Apple has done a great job with drivers it has supplied for the video, audio, wireless networking, Ethernet, Bluetooth, Eject button, and others. The mission critical hardware works well under XP. Although this is beta software, Apple hasn't publicly committed to further hardware support, and was cagey on this point when I asked them in an interview. In case it's not clear: Windows users would like more hardware driver support from Apple with Boot Camp. A MacBook Pro Trackpad driver is required, and the ability to use the wireless input devices, iSight, motion sensor and so forth is highly desirable.
Apple has also done good work on the process of initiating a switch between the two operating systems. Boot Camp builds on a long-standing Mac process that employs very simple but effective tools for managing its dual-operating-system-boot process.
On the Mac the operating system you're currently booted to will be the one that loads the next time you start or restart OS X or Windows in the conventional fashion (a very different starting assumption than the one Microsoft uses for Windows). There are two ways to alter that standard Mac boot behavior. The first is more useful when you're powering up from an off state. As the Mac begins powering up you'll hear its "bong" tone. Press and hold the Option (Alt) key. A graphical menu appears that depicts Mac and Windows hard drives. You simply choose the one you want to boot.
The second method is easier when the Mac is already running in either OS X or Windows. Boot Camp adds a Windows startup option to OS X's Startup Disk System Preferences pane and a nearly identical Startup Disk Control Panel to your Windows XP installation. To switch to the other OS, you merely open the Startup Disk settings applet, choose the OS you want to boot to, and press the Restart button. The Mac will then restart to the operating system you chose.
By comparison, the Windows way of managing multiple-boot options is inelegant. It uses the expedient of always displaying a boot menu at system startup that you must be vigilant about making a selection from or, by default, Windows will wait 30 seconds and then launch your default boot setting. Changing the default setting is a not-intuitively-discovered process that will probably become a downright arcane and difficult to manage process in Windows Vista. Apple's solution is far better. Microsoft's chief advantage is it is able to handle multiple boot partitions, while with Boot Camp OS X is limited to dual-booting with Windows XP.
After putting Apple's Boot Camp Beta through its paces, I have to applaud the company's decision to release this functionality. The work Apple has done so far is excellent. With some additional hardware support and a few tweaks, Boot Camp will be all that it can be. And nothing will put a smile on your face faster than watching how quickly Windows XP runs natively on a 2GHz dual-core MacBook Pro. Boot Camp is a boon for both Mac and Windows aficionados not an easy thing to achieve.
What's It All Mean?
I don't want to read too much into the significance of Apple's Boot Camp, but it's difficult to ignore an emerging trend borne out by the arrival of this software. If Apple aggressively pursues the course of making it possible to run Windows software on Macs, the company's attractive hardware and superior operating system may well win back lost market share. There is a possible future where Apple wises up and works to open the closed nature of the Mac experience.
When you look at Apple's stars over the last few years they seem to line up, pointing to a strategy. Apple develops OS X, an operating system that is underpinned by the ever-portable Unix. Apple fixes the problems with OS X and networking in a Windows environment, arguably the first time when Macs and Windows PCs became easy to integrate on a small peer LAN. Apple announces that it's dumping PowerPC processors in favor of Intel CPUs for all future Macs. First quarter 2006, Apple rolls out about half its Mac product line with Intel CPUs, ahead of schedule. It affirms its commitment to finish the job by the end of the year. April 2006, Apple releases a stable beta of a utility that allows you to install Windows XP and run it natively on Intel-based Macs. What's Apple's next step? The company certainly has my attention.
Is it absolutely inconceivable that someday Windows apps could run under Mac OS X? Probably not. But could it become a lot easier for independent software makers to port their Windows apps to OS X? Could a Rosetta-like emulation layer run Windows apps under OS X with better performance characteristics? Would a virtualization solution designed for Intel-based Macs (such Parallels' new OS X tool now in beta) run faster than Microsoft's Virtual PC for Mac, which only supports PowerPC Macs? Can Apple's engineers make Boot Camp a spit in the bucket compared to the additional things they do to make it more possible and more convenient to run software written for Windows on Macs? Every small step Apple takes in that direction has the potential to win over Windows users and sell more Macintoshes. The most important goal for Apple, though, should probably be to help software makers write for the Mac. Apple has not always done the best job of supporting Mac software and hardware makers.
One thing Steve Jobs' company should stop doing is focusing entirely on its different drummer persona. As it has done more of in recent years, it should embrace the best technologies available. Many software and hardware companies have innovated for Windows in ways that have become quite popular with that very large user base. Remember how long it took Apple to release its own four-button mouse with scroll functionality? While Lenovo's ThinkPads, for example, have for years come with an innovative three-button pointer/touchpad input device with a vertical scroll feature that lets touch-typists keep their fingers on the home row. Apple's otherwise excellent MacBook Pro is limited to its imprecise one-button Trackpad with a hard to control two-finger scroll feature.
Update: I owe the Apple Trackpad's two-finger scroll an apology. After several readers wrote to tell me they find the two-finger scroll ffeature to be both a highly usable and elegant solution, I tried someone else's MacBook in Microsoft Word and found that two-finger scroll was great there. But back on my MacBook Pro, in Firefox (the main app I use this feature in), as I two-finger scrolled I continued to see hesitations, skips, unexpected rapid motions, and out and out no moveoment at all as a slowly moved my fingers across the Trackpad. It was unusuable. It took me a few days before it dawned on me what might be happening. I launched Safari and Firefox, loaded the same long test Web page in each, and did a two-finger scroll comparison. Safari handles the two-finger scroll brilliantly. As does Microsoft Word. The problem was Firefox. It didn't take long to narrow the problem down to the "Use smooth scrolling" option in the Firefox Preferences. With that turned off, the problem disappears. Bugzilla, are you listening?
Back to my original argument, though. Another example of the sort of thing that Apple and its users should keep an open mind about: Microsoft's customizable Start menu is similar to OS X's Apple menu, but you can't customize the Apple menu. Apple's user experience standards are supreme, but it's not the only company with good ideas. Sometimes its zeal for simplicity prevents it from doing something more useful.
There are signs, though, that Cupertino is beginning to lose its not-invented-here syndrome. Is it too little too late? Almost certainly if you're thinking about Macintosh world domination. But there's clearly plenty of cachet in the Apple brand and enough great thinking in its operating system to attract advanced users. Microsoft appears to be dozing at the switch with this user segment. But they're influential people. IT people, for example, are advanced users.
Another change Apple should make is to build cheaper hardware. The company's industrial design has always been first class. On the MacBook, the Apple logo is made of a translucent material that glows because it allows light from the LCD's backlight to pass through. The LCD cover and bezel comprise the thinnest computer LCD I've ever seen. Engineering and manufacturing hardware with these aesthetics costs a lot of money. Money that enterprises and small businesses just aren't willing to have passed along to them. Apple is building a Maserati instead of a Ford Model T. But what if the company set its sites on building an affordable but powerful "Business Mac"? I'm not talking about the iBook, which is patently aimed at consumers, or a white box computer running OS X. I mean a business PC without all the consumer software and hardware niceties, and maybe some added hardware and software targeting business users. It will be interesting to see what power Apple puts in its Intel-refreshed iBooks, but will they be truly aimed at business people? Apple is smart enough to engineer something with a modicum of style, with features targeting business users, that doesn't cost that much to build. The time is now.
I don't know about you, but I'm tired of the lack of viable alternatives to Microsoft's Windows operating system. Windows has improved significantly in this decade. Windows Vista also appears to be a major upgrade, well worth consideration. But the advent that would go the longest way toward improving Windows would be the emergence of real competition from Apple and possibly others.
It may take longer to read about the installation process than to complete most of its steps. The most time-consuming part is the lengthy period of time required by Windows XP's installation routine. On my 2GHz dual-core MacBook Pro with 1GB RAM and a 5400-rpm 120GB hard drive, Windows XP Pro's installation took over 90 minutes, nearly twice as long as the average time needed for a Windows XP clean installation. (Some other testers have reported 45-minute XP installation times, though.) The good news is, that's not at all a harbinger of XP's performance on your Mac. When all is said and done, Windows XP runs very quickly on Intel-based Macs.
For another perspective on installing Windows XP on an Intel-based Mac, please read Hands on: A MacBook Pro heads to Boot Camp, by Computerworld's Ken Mingis.
Basic Training for Boot Camp
There are several prerequisites for using Boot Camp to install Windows XP successfully on your Mac. You may find one or more of them to be deal breakers, so read carefully:
1. You need an Intel-based Mac. Apple sells three MacBook Pro models, two iMac models, and two Mac mini models that sport Intel CPUs. Prices range from $600 to over $3,000. Boot Camp does not work on PowerPC-based Macs.
2. Your keyboard and mouse must be connected via USB or integrated in your Mac. Boot Camp does not currently support wirelessly connected input devices.
3. Your Mac hard drive must have at least 10GB of free disk space, and if you intend to install several Windows applications and regularly use Windows XP, allocating 20GB or more to the Windows XP partition would be a good idea. Note: Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2 requires almost 4GB of hard drive space to start.
4. Before running Boot Camp, you must upgrade your Mac to OS X Tiger 10.4.6, which was made freely available recently to all Tiger owners. Open the Apple menu and choose Software Update to initiate the process.
5. Before running Boot Camp, you must upgrade your Mac's firmware to the latest version. At this writing, the most recent update was posted on April 5th, and was offered specifically to support Boot Camp. To download the update for your Mac, visit the Apple Support Downloads page.
Updating your Mac's firmware is an easy process. This Apple support document, About Firmware Updates for Intel-Based Macintoshes, provides excellent detail on the procedure, which takes only a few minutes.
6. You need a blank, recordable CD or DVD, which will be used by Boot Camp to create a Windows XP drivers disc for your Mac.
7. Lastly, a valid, unused "full install" version of Windows XP Professional or Home Edition with Service Pack 2 is required.
A. Valid Windows XP CD: Windows XP uses product activation to prevent software pirating. And Microsoft's end-user license agreement is based on the notion of one copy of Windows XP per machine, not one copy per person. So once a copy of Windows XP has been installed and activated on any given PC, you will not be able to install that same copy on a second machine without receiving permission from Microsoft via telephone. Without that permission, your Windows installation will lock you out.
B. Full Install Version: You also can't use the less expensive "upgrade" version of Windows XP. Windows Upgrade discs always validate ownership of a previous version of Windows. This is completely invisible to you if you have a previous version of Windows installed on the computer you're upgrading. That clearly isn't the case with your Mac though. When you're clean installing from a Windows Upgrade disc, the installation process asks you to insert the retail CD for your previous copy of Windows as proof of ownership. Unfortunately, Boot Camp will not let you eject your Windows XP Service Pack 2 disc until installation is complete. For that reason, you are forced to use a "full install" version.
C. Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2): Apple made the decision to require a Windows XP CD with the latest version of Windows XP, Windows XP Service Pack 2, for Boot Camp. That's a questionable decision given that Microsoft freely offers an online upgrade of Service Pack 2 and a solid process for downloading and installing it. Possibly, this decision was made because of added device support in XP SP2. Bottom line: If you have a valid, unused, full-install Windows XP CD that was issued before Service Pack 2, you will be forced to acquire a new CD to comply with this requirement.
Update: It's possible to burn your own "slipstream" Windows XP CD, which combines the XP Service Pack 2 code with the code found on an earlier full-install version of Windows XP. I recommend against that for all but those who have successfully done it before. In other words, I would test any such custom-made XP disc with a straight Windows installation before using it with Boot Camp. The Apple Boot Camp beta process sticks the Windows XP installation on near auto-pilot. If there are any issues with your slipstream disc, it could create serious problems on your Mac. There's already enough going on in Boot Camp given that it contains Apple's first dynamic partitioning software, and it's beta. In case you have any doubt that a small number of people are having serious trouble with Boot Camp and their OS X installations, please review this Apple forum thread. You don't want to be one of them.
Street pricing on Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 2 is in the $190 to $200 range. Street pricing on Windows XP Home with Service Pack 2 ranges from $100 to $200. (Source on pricing information: PriceGrabber.com.)
To get started with Boot Camp, begin by downloading the Boot Camp Beta Installation Guide. This 17-page PDF does an excellent job of detailing the entire process. Be sure to print this document and read it before proceeding further. You also need to download the 83MB Boot Camp installer.
Caveats and Warnings
Before you install Boot Camp, there are some caveats and potential pitfalls you should know about.
For more detailed information, please review this detailed Apple FAQ about Boot Camp.
Boot Camp Step by Step
Now that you're forearmed with the knowledge you need to make it through Boot Camp, follow the steps in Apple's Boot Camp Beta Installation Guide. In a nutshell, you open the Boot Camp download and follow the onscreen instructions. The program will install into your Mac's Applications/Utilities folder.
Boot Camp Assistant's first step is to burn the Windows driver CD for your Mac, which goes off just as expected. I used an inexpensive 700MB CD-R, and the drivers for the MacBook Pro I tested with required under 85MB on the disc.
The second step is partitioning your hard drive, adding a logical drive for Windows XP. Although Boot Camp will let you create a Windows XP partition as small as 5GB and that's even the default size don't do it for anything but a temporary test of Boot Camp. A permanent Windows XP installation needs 10GB minimum, and more disk space would be smarter if you've got it to spare. I created a 31GB partition for Windows XP, which still left me 65GB of free disk space on my Mac partition.
The Windows XP installation routine takes over for the third step of the Boot Camp process. After you insert your Windows XP SP2 full-install CD and setup finishes initializing, you'll be asked to select your Windows partition. As mentioned earlier, the only right answer to the question is "C:".
The next screen asks whether to format the Windows partition with Microsoft's FAT32 or NTFS file system. NTFS is the more reliable, more secure file system, but so long as your Windows partition is less than 32GB in size, I recommend you choose FAT32. My reasoning is based on this fact: While the Mac can read and write to FAT32 volumes, it can only read NTFS volumes. In a dual-boot environment, it's better if at least one of the operating systems is able to read and write to the other. That can be useful in the event of system trouble. If your Windows partition is larger than 32GB, you have to use NTFS because Windows XP's installation routine won't format a FAT32 partition larger than that (even though FAT32 supports larger partitions). With a 31GB Windows partition, I went with FAT32.
Formatting the drive takes a few minutes, and once that's done, Windows setup gets to work with the main part of installation.
With the Windows installation completed, your Mac will reboot to the new Windows XP installation. The fourth and last Boot Camp step is to install the Mac drivers for Windows using the CD you burned. When you insert the CD, Windows' AutoRun feature should begin the driver-installation process automatically. If not, you can open My Computer, open your Mac's CD/DVD drive, and double-click the file named "Install Macintosh Drivers for Windows XP.exe." You'll see dialogs asking whether you should allow unsigned drivers to be installed, just say yes. Sometimes these Windows come up under other Windows, so if the process halts unexpectedly, poke around. On the MacBook Pro, at one point an installation wizard asks whether to allow it to search the Internet for drivers. It will find the driver locally, so choose This Time Only (what I selected) or No.
After the drivers are installed, Windows XP reboots, and when it comes back up the video will be properly configured, as well as the audio, 802.11g wireless, Ethernet networking, and Bluetooth. Apple includes a Windows system tray slider control for screen brightness, a nice touch since the MacBook Pro keys for raising and lowering brightness don't work under XP. Apple also had to create support for its keyboard Eject button (since the SuperDrive relies on software eject). And there's an Apple-created Windows Control Panel called Startup Disk (like the Apple System Preferences pane) that let's you select which operating system to restart to.
A quick glance at the Windows Device Manager tool (the easiest way to check for improperly configured hardware in Windows) shows that there are three devices that don't have drivers installed, and there's an issue with one of the USB HID drivers. According to Apple, the following hardware devices don't work in XP with the Boot Camp Beta: the built-in iSight camera found on the iMac and MacBook Pro models, the MacBook Pro's ambient light sensor and hard drive sudden motion sensor, the Apple Remote Control, Apple's optional USB Modem, and Apple's wireless keyboard and mouse add-ons.
The biggest weakness of Apple's hardware support for Windows XP, however, may be the lack of an Apple driver for the MacBook Pro's built-in Trackpad. As a result, Windows falls back to a generic Microsoft touchpad driver. The two-finger vertical and horizontal scrolling feature doesn't work, you can't optionally tap the Trackpad to select or open, and you can't Ctrl-Click to get a "right-click" action. (The best workaround for right-click is to hold down the Option (Alt) key and double-click.) Finally, I was unable to find a combination of the generic Windows mouse-pointer acceleration settings that made the Trackpad usable in XP. I hope Apple will add a custom Windows driver for the MacBook Pro's Trackpad to future versions of Boot Camp.
There's also a small issue concerning the system clock. Each time I boot into Windows XP it shows the right minutes, but it's four hours ahead of the correct time. The problem is caused by the fact that Windows and Mac PCs handle system time a bit differently. Theoretically, Windows should be able to correct the problem automatically by connecting to a time server to get the correct local time. But because Windows XP does this on a once-a-week basis, with no user-controlled option for changing it to, say, each time the system boots, the only apparent option Boot Camp users have is to open Windows' Date and Time Control Panel, click the Internet Time tab, and click the Update Now button. Or just update the time manually. There is a way via a Registry hack to force Windows XP to check an Internet time source more frequently than once a week. Microsoft offers an article in its Knowledgebase that explains how to make the change.
Despite my detailed itemization of Boot Camp Beta's few blemishes, its overall functionality is excellent, as is the user experience. Once you understand the decisions Apple made, Boot Camp is very easy to install. Windows XP runs very fast with this solution, and I expect Boot Camp to drive sales of Intel-based Macintoshes. If you try Boot Camp, and you have suggestions for Apple on how to make it better, send the company feedback via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In my column in the June issue of PC Today headlined Watching The Microsoft Vista Show, I hazarded three possible guesses about the reasons behind Microsoft's delay of the Windows Vista debut to January 2007, at least 10 weeks later than previously expected. Only one of those theories has anything to do with Microsoft's often-repeated claim that it won't ship Windows before it's ready.
The strange paradox is that the February CTP beta is supposed to be feature complete and it's very stable. It's easily the equal of Beta 2 releases from previous Windows development efforts in terms of functional operation and reliability. So why does Microsoft believe it can't freeze the code in late August or early September, well in time for the holiday season? And perhaps more importantly, why is Microsoft willing to miss the opportunity to distribute a new version of its operating system at the most critical time of year for consumer adoption?
I don't have the answers, but I keep coming back to the point that there's no killer feature in Windows Vista. I wonder if Microsoft isn't taking some extra time to add one. I also wonder whether the software giant just doesn't much care any longer about customers other than large enterprises. If so, consumers, small businesses, and even some mid-tier companies could begin to feel the cold.
I believe that Microsoft watchers (including yours truly) have a tendency to read more into Microsoft's gaffes than is often there. A lot of the mistakes the company makes have to do with conflicting priorities and one hand not knowing what the other is doing. Microsoft is a very large technology corporation. It shares far more in common with IBM these days than it does with the upstart company that bought DOS and resold it to IBM for the original IBM PC. It's clear that OEM PC makers don't have as much juice with Microsoft as do large corporate software buyers. Consumer sales of Windows are reportedly something on the order of 20% of the overall sales of Windows. The bottom line is that consumer and small-business Windows buyers are not a big factor on Microsoft's bottom line.
I sense a complacency from Microsoft with regard to advanced users. Its primary concern with the last several releases of Windows has been to dumb down the Windows interface in an attempt to reduce training costs for new users. The trade off is a loss of productivity and proficiency of experienced Windows users a business advantage that's exceedingly difficult to measure. I don't believe that giving power users flexibility and making the UI easy for novices are mutually exclusive. For almost a decade, though, that's been the thinking routinely expressed to me by Microsoft product managers and developers.
I don't know what's really going on with Windows Vista. I've lost my capacity to be taken aback by the many twists and turns of development path Microsoft has pursued for Windows Vista. I hope to have solid information about the next beta release or at least, when it might arrive in time for the next issue of the newsletter. Right now, everything is a bit hazy. But my crystal ball has the next CTP arriving in June. Expect another release after that too.
Many business people also manage their 401Ks, submit expenses, enter a new-hire request, schedule a conference call, set up business travel, and a host of other activities all via a Web-based interface, without ever talking to anyone unless they need to. The truth is that the efficiency of these types of interactions is much higher than the old way, which often relied on some ad-hoc internal expert whose time might be limited. Employees in many companies are now empowered to both handle things on their own and to do so with Web-based systems that ensure they're complying with company policies.
Of course, the ubiquity of web-based interaction isn't confined to business use. Online banking and bill paying, online prescription drug management, online purchasing, online travel and lodging, online government services (like renewing your auto registration), and online grocery shopping and delivery are just a few of the many Web-based services aimed at saving time and money for consumers.
Naturally, I'm a big fan of these services. People's lives have gotten significantly busier over the last 30 years, and while computers are one of the many things that have added complexity to our lives, they, along with the Internet that connects them, also have enormous potential to save time, empower people to organize things in their lives they way they want them to be, save money, cut down on the use of gasoline, and eventually, help cut back on the harmful internal combustion emissions. For example, I haven't been to the local Motor Vehicle Department in five years. Twenty years ago making a trip and standing in line to talk to the lord-it-over-you bureaucrats seemed to be at least a once every 24-month occurrence.
Trouble in Web-Based Nirvana
But everything is not peace, love, and apple sauce with Web-based services. Because not only have business people and consumers come to rely on them, but so have the companies that have instituted them. And in some cases, these services aren't all there yet. Because, after all, these Web-based services are only as good as the efforts of the programmers and systems architects who built them. In other words, they're imperfect.
It's time to expose a few of the clunkier examples of this motif. I'd like Scot's Newsletter readers' help with this. But to prime the pumps, I'll give you a solid example. In my neck of the woods, the bank I've been using for over 20 years has been gobbled up by a larger banking company twice relatively recently. The current incarnation is Bank of America, a company whose overall approach to consumer banking seems sound overall. But for the last three months I've plagued by an online banking predicament that is more or less laughable to me, but could have serious repercussions for other customers.
In a nutshell: I don't have any way to access, edit, or delete recurring transfers between my multiple Bank of America accounts. I have several savings accounts for my kids and my wife and I, and each has an automatic transfer set up for it. All told, I have seven or eight automatic transfers configured. And those transfers have all been going on successfully for many months, or in some cases, many years. All but one was initiated via the online banking tools. So far, so good.
But in January I realized that I had no way to access those transactions. Each time I clicked the "Review Transfers" tab in Bank of America's proprietary web-based online banking interface, I got the error message "Transmission error occurred, please try again later." From January through February, I attempted to get this problem resolved via Bank of America's email-based tech support. Those attempts were all met with boilerplate messages telling me that the reason that I was not able to access my recurring transfers was because I didn't have any recurring transfers configured. They patiently and somewhat pedantically explained how to configure new transfers. My replies asked them to review my actual checking account to savings account transactions, which plainly show recurring transfers. The response was more boilerplate that amounted to "you're nuts."
In early March I finally broke down and called Bank of America's support department. I quickly learned that the main banking support department and the Web support department are separated, and each knows things the other doesn't know, and the two don't communicate well. Bank of America: There's your first opportunity. Online banking should not be a separate afterthought in your support process. Those two areas should be integrated.
After bouncing around a little bit, I finally got a tech support rep who was smart, determined, and very nice. She worked very hard to solve the problem, but she was working at a disadvantage: She wasn't aware that there is, in fact, a known bug in the Bank of America online banking system that was causing this problem. My support rep traced my account activity and quickly determined that I was right, I clearly did have recurring transfers. But she was completely unable with her tools to see or access the transfer. She was convinced that if she could see a new transfer created, she would be able to both access it and later delete it if I couldn't access. So she asked me to set up a new, weekly, recurring transfer for a small amount of money. I did that, but there was a problem. She couldn't see it or access it, and couldn't delete it. And, of course, neither could I.
At that point, she escalated the problem, and I was switched to a high level support person who may have been a developer or business analyst. He quickly suspected I was one of a known small pool of customers who had experienced the problem. He was quite honest in telling me that Bank of America didn't have a solution for the problem, that they'd been working on it for some time, and he didn't know when it would be fixed. But he gave me a phone number and a way to check back on the issue. And, this was the truly odd part to me, he also said that there was nothing he could do about deleting the test transfer the previous support rep had request. For security reasons, no Bank of America employee can do that, he said. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. My bank had just asked me to set up a test transfer, promised me it would be able to delete the transfer if I couldn't, and then said sorry, we can't delete it. To top that off, a couple of days later I realized that the test transfer had somehow been double entered. So I now had two test transfers going off on a weekly basis.
Fast forward six weeks to last week. The test transfers have been going off like clockwork, as have my other half dozen or so transfers. And I'm still getting the "transmission error" message when I attempt to access the page designed to manage them. I called the number that the high-level tech had given me, and he was good to his word. I was able to get through to another high-level tech. She knew what I was talking about right away, but confirmed that the problem wasn't resolved yet. She said they're quite close, now, to solving the problem (within a week or so, she hoped). She took my contact info and promised to call me when the problem is resolved.
All in all, this was a pretty appalling Web-based service problem. And yet, I really like Bank of America's online banking site, which is one of the main reasons I've stayed with them. I do believe they will eventually fix the problem, and when I've gotten through to knowledgeable people they've been polite, friendly, apologetic, and perfectly honest. I'd a whole lot rather they tell me we don't know when it will be fixed but we're working on it than the problem is my fault, or it will be fixed by tomorrow or whatever. So even though this is an example of what I consider to be a pretty bad problem, I don't think Bank of America should be vilified for it. In fact, I'd bet this sort of problem occurs a lot more frequently than most people realize.
That's why I'd like to hear your Web-based service horror story. Send me along a detailed description, and I may print it in a future issue of the newsletter. I don't print anonymous messages people send. I require your first and last name, and print them along with anything I decide to publish. I do make one exception to that rule. If you work for a company that you write to me about, I will withhold your name on request. I never print email addresses or geographical location. Just first and last name. So, anyway, send me an email describing experiences you've had like my Bank of America woes.
Just as this issue of the newsletter was "going to press," I gave Bank of America's online banking site one last check to see whether the problem had been fixed. It has!
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