Thursday, September 6, 2007

New and Improved

Preview article for Systems Contractor News
by John Mayberry

I was sitting at my desk last night staring at all the stuff just lying about. It’s getting mighty hard to figure out what’s important and what’s not some days in our system integration world. Perhaps even more perplexing, how do you make something of limited value useful? Occasionally it’s not always so obvious.

It was blazing hot (110° in the evening!) here this last week, just like it is every year at this time. The local mall was jammed with folks trying to avoid paying the $10 an hour it costs to run their home air conditioner. Yet the outdoor digital signage system effectively identified which parking lots were full upon our arrival, which saved me a good half hour of frustration. Very useful application of digital signage; it’s always good to have a little content to accompany the ads.

An unanticipated example of usefulness cropped up a dozen years ago on a signage system we designed for the Chicago Transit Authority. Installed in the Merchandise Mart station, the system accepted remote triggers that displayed the wait until the next train arrived. The proprietor of the coffee shop next to the station was ecstatic; telling us it doubled his business as passengers would wait until the last possible moment to avoid the freezing February temperatures outside. Mind you when we initially architected the system there was no thought of doing this; it was the CTA staff that asked for the feature.

Conversely, we designed all sorts of cools things (or so we thought) into a similar system installed in the Los Angeles Metrolink signage system. The train conductor could use his telephone DTMF tones and trigger all sorts of messages to the signs on the platform, like, “Walk to the end of the platform- only the rear car has empty seats” when he was on approach to the station. Trouble was there was a union jurisdictional issue between train and platform that did not allow the conductors to communicate to riders until they were actually inside the train. Who knew?

I just made the transition from one computer operating system to another, and have yet to figure out why the new one is better. Certainly some things are different like a wireless keyboard and mouse. Yet it won’t allow me to type as fast as I could on an old DOS based system back in the 1980’s. Takes twice as long to play FreeCell now too. Kept the old system right next to the new one just in case.

My new cell phone includes lots more features, but doesn’t sound nearly as good as the one I had five years ago and seems to drop calls more frequently. I really wish coverage extended to my office desk, but I think that’s asking a bit much. Nice camera though- I’ve already taken three pictures. Colleagues and competitors have a different model phone of which I’m envious now; I think I made a mistake buying this one.

I do like the new UPS on my office computers. You can actually read the line voltage with it, and the annunciator is not nearly as annoying as when the old UPS fired off. It features a gentle beep instead of an annoying klaxon every time the voltage sags, which represents a substantial improvement in the quality of my life.

I still haven’t really got a handle on our VOIP telephone system. Sometimes it works great, sometimes it doesn’t work at all, and sometimes I can’t hear people on the other end of the line but they can hear me.

We’ve tried all of the obvious tricks, like fiddling with bandwidth and rebooting routers and such. Nothing like the frustration of getting disconnected in the middle of an hour long call with tech support to reboot the office computer system and losing your voice connection. I can’t really say after two years this is an overwhelmingly reliable technology. We still have analog lines for backup, and I don’t think we’ll be getting rid of them anytime soon. VOIP is cheaper, but not always better. There’s a tinge of Third World cheapness about the whole concept.

Our paperless office continues to be deluged with paper. Go figure.

The convenience of listening to music on my computer is great. It doesn’t sound as good as our LP based system and inevitably bogs the computer down when most needed, but still it’s much easier to access songs than with the ancient stuff.

I continue to stare at our office fax machine in wonder, trying to remember exactly why it was so important to buy one. What does it do again?