I love computers. Really, I do. The Internet is a wonderful thing. E-mail keeps me in touch with people I would otherwise have lost track of long ago. I can’t imagine researching anything anymore, or even following the news, without access to Google.

And yet… sometimes one can’t help but wonder if these lovely life-enhancing benefits really need to come at the cost of so much annoyance and confusion.

For instance: I get my DSL service from an independent ISP. Although the ISP is ultimately just a reseller of service from a big telecom, still it’s an independent company with its own price structure, its own customer service, and its own e-mail servers. I liked that last part: it meant that I had a consistent provider I could rely on, “behind the scenes,” regardless of what other domains I might purchase or create addresses for. And the servers worked just fine with my preferred e-mail client (Eudora), sending and receiving, consolidating and sorting messages from a half-dozen different addresses at different domains.

Then that all changed. Last week, as the culmination of a process the ISP had been promoting for months, it outsourced its e-mail handling through a “partnership” with Google. All of a sudden, although my ISP’s domain name remained the same, all my e-mail was going through GMail servers… which meant I had to reconfigure my client program to access those servers.

And of course it didn’t work seamlessly. GMail’s servers require the username in a different form than the old ones, and require SSL authentication that wasn’t required before. And while both my ISP’s site and GMail’s site provided configuration instructions, neither was quite complete enough to resolve all the ambiguities, so in addition to visiting both of those I had to call live help before everything was working properly.

Or almost properly: it turns out that whatever address I thought I was sending from, the message arrived as if it came from my default address at my ISP (which I basically never use). This would obviously confuse not only my recipients, but the sorting filters in my e-mail program when people replied to that address. so I had to call tech support again… and wound up talking to two techs neither of whom had previously encountered such a problem, nor had any idea how to solve it. One at least tried to be helpful; the other was downright condescending. “The new servers are really intended for a webmail interface. Why don’t you switch to a webmail interface?” Because I don’t want to. I like my current program, thank you very much. “But the problem seems to be a glitch in your program.” Nonsense. It’s configured just as it should be, and it worked perfeclty with your old servers for years. The glitch is in the GMail servers.

Ultimately I was referred back to the GMail online knowledgebase to solve the problem for myself… where it turned out that to get GMail’s servers to use the correct “send” address (as the old mailservers did automatically), I had to manually set up every one of my addresses within the GMail server interface, then “verify” them with an e-mailed key. So now any time I want to add or change an address, I’ll have to set it up not only with my ISP or domain host, not only in my e-mail program, but also in a third place, on the outsourced mailservers.

(Oh, and I also discovered that all of my messages were being left on the server after I retrieved them — because apparently GMail’s default, for some ineffable reason, is to treat a POP mail setup as if it were IMAP. The ISP’s rep couldn’t explain this glitch to me either; I had to sort it out on my own.)

So here’s the thing. I’ve worked with computers for more than 20 years, sometimes professionally. I’ve set up and configured all kinds of systems and servers and networks and programs. I understand the terminology. I know the difference between POP and IMAP, I know what SSL authentication is, I know how to troubleshoot these things. And I still had to spend an afternoon banging my head against a wall, through no fault of my own, just to get things to work the same way they’d been working the week before. Just to solve a set of problems that (A) shouldn’t have arisen in the first place if the company had planned the transition properly, and (B) should have been solvable in two minutes if the tech support reps had known what they were doing. (And all this happened—of course!—during the same weekend I was doing my own WordPress install.)

What about users who aren’t as well-versed in this stuff as I am, who aren’t used to doing their own troubleshooting, who might not even know the right questions to ask? Do they just figure they’re hopelessly screwed? Do they switch programs, or even providers, and deal with all the hassles that entails? It’s absolutely ridiculous.

And a few months before that, it was something else—as the hosting company for my web site proactively changed everybody’s passwords to avoid a (potential!) security problem, on Friday of a holiday weekend! Then they notified users via an e-mail message… which didn’t reach everyone, and which was mistaken for a phishing scam by many who did get it. Then they provided an interface to log in and verify one’s identity which worked for some users and not others.

And this was a company I’d carefully chosen mainly because of its great reputation for customer service(!)—because a few months before that, my previous host (may frogs rain down upon them) had decided to “migrate” everybody to new servers and a new proprietary back-end over a months-long period… but couldn’t give any clear estimate as to when any given server would be migrated… and in the meantime introduced a new online interface that effectively shut out quite a few legacy customers (like me)… and through all this offered customer service either (A) via e-mail, offering answers within a day or two (if you were lucky) that mostly just quoted boilerplate from the knowledgebase, or (B) via phone support that took at least an hour of hold time, and on which the reps couldn’t be relied on to give consistent answers from one call to the next. (And I’ll spare you all the story of how much fun it was to get my domain and site transferred away from that situation and over to my new host. Did I mention that I was locked out of admin access to my own domain, despite being the registered owner of record on WHOIS?)

All this effort and aggravation, all precipitated by behind-the-scenes changes, just to keep things working the same way for the end user. There are many lovely things about being a technologically advanced society, but the tail is wagging the dog here. There has to be a better way.

Hey, isn’t everyone looking forward to the transition to digital TV broadcasting next February? 😉

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