new lies / old lies / whose lies
Wednesday, February 14, 1996
Kill Your Provider
In the never-ending war between ISP and user, one side has all the power. And it's probably not the one you think.
Online, the provider is God. A loving, nurturing God, maybe, mindful of the smallest sparrow. Or a vengeful God, loosing thunderbolts and smiting those who thwart Him. Either way, we users are intimately aware of our providers' whims.
But that's not all we're aware of. We know how easy (or how hard) it is to get a clean connection. We know how long we have to sit on hold when we call Customer Support, and how well - or how badly - we get treated when someone finally picks up.
It's not like a meat counter, where the end product arrives neatly wrapped in plastic. Internet providers make their sausage in public. If I'm getting dropped packets I can do a traceroute and ping hosts until I find out who's responsible. I don't have to just take my provider's word for it that "it's MCI's fault" (though, admittedly, it usually is).
Users tattle on their providers, too. If I have a bad experience with the phone company, I'm basically stuck. It's not like I'm going to sit down with a phone book and share the story with as many customers as possible. But if an Internet provider gets me sufficiently pissed off that's exactly what I'll do - and I'm not alone. "Flame first and ask questions later" is the rule rather than the exception among disgruntled users, and the result is a growing body of online literature that is as useful as it is entertaining.
One of the best places to find this kind of stuff, at least until recently, was The List, a product of the folks at iWorld (who in turn are a product of the would-be Microsoft of Internet publishing, Mecklermedia). The List offers a nice little interface for searching out contact information on ISPs. Even better, it used to let you annotate the listings with your own comments.
Not anymore. Someone made them pull the plug, and my money says it was Howard Jonas, the head of a New Jersey provider known alternately as Internet Online Services (IOS) or International Discount Telecommunications (IDT). Where most providers' entries in The List had no more than a dozen or so visitor comments, those for IOS and IDT each had hundreds, almost all of them intensely negative.
Jonas gives the impression of being someone who left the used-car business and founded an ISP because he found the ethical requirements of the former profession too restricting. The IOS/IDT comments on The List complained of misleading advertising, horrid performance, and abysmal technical support. The terms "scam" and "rip-off artists" appeared frequently.
Did Howard Jonas really pressure Mecklermedia into removing those comments? Probably. IOS/IDT is a potential Mecklermedia advertiser, and the Mecklerheads' explanation for their action not only sounds generally fishy, it also includes the intriguing statement that it was undertaken in response to "an overwhelming request" that they do so. (Note the singular construction.)
Whatever. It hasn't had any real effect, other than to make the people at Mecklermedia look like wimps. The clueless and careless will continue to fall prey to IOS/IDT, just as they always have. They'll get a quick, efficient education and will have a better idea of what kinds of questions to ask before they sign up with their next provider. Howard Jonas will continue to deliver his lowbrow pitch to anyone who will listen (like NPR, which recently ran a really shameless puff piece on IOS/IDT, with reporter John Kalish giving sympathetic treatment to Jonas' assertion that being an ISP was the hardest business in the world, because customers who are having trouble actually expect their provider to help them).
As for the negative comments from The List, you can still read most of them, because a public-spirited netizen named St. Chris saw fit to archive them before they disappeared. And for the real skinny you should check out the amazing tale told by Shayd, IOS/IDT's former Senior Technical Support rep.
Not all ISP stories are this ugly. Believe it or not, there are users out there who are genuinely happy with their providers - at least for a while. But with the net's uncanny ability to channel people with a need in the direction of gratification, the existence of an ISP that actually offers a Good Deal necessarily carries the seeds of its own destruction. It's actually true on the net: If you build it they will come - and in such numbers that they will surely trample whatever it was that brought them into a pulpy, useless mass.
Consider the case of Best Internet Services. It's a familiar story: A group of employees at a major ISP (Netcom, in this case, or, as it is often referred to by former customers, "Notcom") grow unhappy at their bosses' callous disregard for users. In a sequence of events reminiscent of a 40's musical the youthful upstarts quit their jobs, wire together a pile of used Pentiums and cheap modems, and before you can say "Holiday Inn" they're on top of the world, with customers by the thousand and Hollywood producers (or, in this version of the story, Silicon Valley venture capitalists) pushing wads of money in their faces. Music swells, fade to black, roll credits.
Except that this is reality, not celluloid, and one of the annoying things about reality is that we can't freeze time at our moment of triumph. The wheel keeps turning. Inevitably, the same forces that carried us up carry us back down again, hopelessly struggling, into the abyss. So with Best.
I joined up after reading a glowing description of Best on the web page of its first user, George Schaft ("Schaft" to his friends - can you dig it?). The price was unbeatable and the performance was great. For a $30 setup fee and $20 a month I received a custom domain and a telnet-only shell account with 25 megabytes of space. The web server had nice, snappy performance; I could set up my own cgis and cron jobs; and bandwidth and CPU utilization were unmetered. It was web heaven.
It was also too good to last.
Fueled by the efforts of enthusiastic users like Schaft, Best grew explosively. The result was a cycle that became depressingly familiar: For about 6 weeks, everything would work great. Then, under the onslaught of increased load, everything would break at once. For a period ranging from a few days to a few weeks there would be angst and confusion while the Best engineers worked around the clock to try to get things working again. They eventually would succeed, and everything would be beautiful again. Until next time.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
What kept people from leaving was the sense of family. From the beginning, Mike Schwarz, Best's founder and President, emphasized open communication with the users. "We will not be another Netcom," he said repeatedly. The goal was to provide the highest level of service at the lowest possible price, and through it all to make sure the users were kept fully informed about what was happening.
Early in January Best hit a particularly rocky stretch, with major problems in some POPs and load-related bugs in the company's bleeding-edge file system. The problems mushroomed, and with attention focused on putting out fires a previously announced web-server upgrade went on the back burner. With the constantly increasing traffic, the serving of web pages slowed to the point of embarrassment.
The problems had dragged on for weeks, and many users were in a particularly cranky state of mind, when the company announced the arrival of a new CEO, Alan Mutter, whose previous experience in the cable-TV industry was touted as being just the thing to help Best grow even faster via expansion into new markets. For users who had made the switch from Netcom precisely because they believed that company had neglected its existing users in order to concentrate on accelerated growth, the announcement had a chilling effect.
A corporate-sounding mass email from Mutter did little to assuage users' fears that the Best they knew was ending, and those fears were confirmed a few weeks later when Mike Schwarz announced that he was leaving the company to pursue other interests. Schaft, who had recently been put on the Best payroll as Director of Customer Satisfaction (an act that had generated rave reviews on the local newsgroups), was laid off the same day.
For the record, both Mike and Schaft have stated publicly that they have no regrets about the recent turn of events. Schaft still has an account at Best, and plans to continue helping users the way he always did. Mike maintains an ownership stake in the company, and probably will be cheering the loudest when, as seems inevitable in the current net-happy business climate, Mutter pilots the company to a spectacular IPO.
But I won't be there for it. For me, Best was like the person you fall madly in love with, then stay with after the relationship turns sour because you can't bear to give up the perfect vision you once believed in. When Best wasn't broken it was amazing, and Mike spoke over and over again of his plans for a technological base that would provide that amazing performance day in and day out. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Best will get better under Mr. Mutter's stewardship. It will be more of a business, less a bunch of wise-ass techies pulling all-nighters in pursuit of a crazy dream. You'll probably be able to get a live person, instead of a broken voice-mail system, when you call customer support, and the performance, while it won't be amazing, will get the job done. They probably will even be able to straighten out the billing system.
But for me the dream has died.
Maybe Mike Schwarz was just a slicker version of Howard Jonas, stringing his users along with promises of the Best when he really never intended to give them anything better than Good Enough. (Try a whois query on "goodenough.com", for example.)
For myself, I think Mike was sincere. Of course, a cynic would point out that all good liars believe what they say, at least while they're saying it. That's what makes them so convincing - and so dangerous.
These days I get my access from a tiny little provider run by a single individual who doesn't want to rule the world. What he does want is to provide a good service at a reasonable price. His machines stay up most of the time, and the system is small enough that when something goes wrong he can usually fix it himself in a few minutes.
No way am I going to tell you his name.
If you have half a clue you can figure it out for yourself, and if you can't you're the last person I want beating down his door; you and your 10 million newbie friends looking for a deal.
You really want to kill your provider? Just tell everyone how great he is. That's all it takes.
new lies / old lies / whose lies
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