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Last Updated: Monday, 26 November 2007, 12:36 GMT
Lessons for the hi-tech future
Man holding head in his hands, BBC/Image Source
Many people were left foxed when Sky started using GMail

The customer is not always right, especially when it comes to technology, says regular columnist Bill Thompson.

It's rare that I find myself on the side of large companies such as Google and Sky when it comes to the way they treat customers, but the current furore over the way Sky moved over a million UK customers from its own servers to Google's GMail service has resulted in what seems to be rather undeserved criticism.

Sky announced the move in August and have now made the technical changes needed. Instead of using a hosted mail service their users now get e-mail via a Sky-branded front-end to Google's webmail.

Lots of companies do the same, taking advantage of Google's infrastructure and technical expertise to relieve themselves of the burden of having to manage mail themselves. With Google Apps the e-mail still looks like it comes from your organisation, but GMail does all the work.

I use this approach for a small arts organisation I work with, and although it was fiddly to get it all set up from the administration end it now works smoothly and is a lot less hassle for me, and simple for my users.

Bill Thompson
The apparent inability of users to read or carry out the simple instructions needed to give them access to an improved or upgraded service is deeply depressing.
Bill Thompson
Most Sky broadband users get their e-mail through a web browser and have had an easy transition to the new service. However, some problems have been reported by users who preferred to use an e-mail client like Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird to read their e-mail.

In order to get their messages to and from the Google-hosted Sky service they have to change the configuration of their mail program to use the right servers for POP and SMTP, the internet protocols used to receive and send e-mail respectively.

They also need to enable the POP service on the Sky/Google account by going to the site and ticking the right box.

This is a remarkably trivial process, and Sky sent their customers an easy-to-follow guide to what to do, complete with pictures and screenshots.

Unfortunately it seems that some people have found this too complicated for them, and Sky is getting bad press from newspapers like the Mirror and on various support blogs.

The apparent inability of users to read or carry out the simple instructions needed to give them access to an improved or upgraded service is deeply depressing.

A few people may have had real technical problems with their account, and I have a lot of sympathy for them, and customers whose reading skills are poor may find the technical language off-putting - but they are more likely to have support in their lives and to be able to ask for help.

But I am starting to think that anyone who can't follow the step-by-step guide to updating their Outlook account settings really shouldn't be using e-mail at all - they clearly have so little understanding of the technology in their hands that it's like letting a small child play with an unlicensed nuclear reactor.

Screengrab of GMail homepage, Google
Many organisations use GMail as their mail systems
This is a problem that is going to get worse. The lack of understanding of the core technologies that underpin the information society will become a real problem as our reliance on them increases, and this is happening very quickly.

The most recent data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in September 2007 nearly nine out of ten (88.9%) internet connections were broadband.

We have reached the point in the UK where dialup internet connectivity is a minority occupation and only the laggards or those actually unable to get broadband use a modem.

But what happens when broadband is universal and providers want to make improvements?

If large consumer-facing companies fear that they will get into trouble for making improvements to their service that will require even the slightest level of technical competence from their customers perhaps they will just hold off.

One of the big problems that faced Microsoft when it started work on Windows Vista was the legacy code needed to support XP, Windows 2000, NT and every other operating system it ever released.

It needed to make sure that hardware would work, that drivers would run and that existing applications and code would still be usable.

School children using computer, BBC
Basic technological literacy is lacking, says Bill
Of course it failed, because the task is simply not possible.

It was unable to say to their users 'ok, we've learned a lot from the last thirty years, and now we know how to do it properly. So throw everything away and let's start from scratch. It will be much better'.

The same is true for the network services we all rely on. We aren't going to start from the beginning, so there will be changes to what is offered. Services will improve incrementally, adding features as they go.

But when a net service firm can't rely on its customers to follow a step-by-step guide to reconfiguring a single e-mail account we are in big trouble.

The conditions are ripe for a perfect storm, where the lack of technical understanding on the part of users combines with the fear of a PR disaster on the provider side to leave us stuck with old technologies that have to be supported far past their use-by date.

Perhaps Sky can use its political clout to put some pressure on the government to improve the quality of our technology education.

US President George Bush Sr. famously said that he wanted every US citizen to be able to operate their video recorder. Is it too much to ask that every child should leave school knowing how to configure their e-mail client?

UPDATE - BILL THOMPSON ADDS

Since my column was published I've received a few e-mails from Sky users, and been pointed at the active Sky Users Forum, and it's clear that I misjudged the situation with Sky's migration to Google-hosted mail and did a disservice to a lot of people who are having real problems.

I'm sorry to have done this, since not having e-mail is a painful experience, as I know myself from problems I've been having with my own e-mail provider. I'm sorry too because getting a story wrong is something every journalist fears, and I've clearly missed a big part of this one.

The column is about the lack of real technical understanding that many computer users have, and that is a real issue. But while some Sky users are simply not reading the manual, others are having serious problems migrating their accounts and deserve sympathy for having to wrestle with a technical support team that is clearly overwhelmed.

I feel rather like Boris Johnson turning up to face the people of Liverpool but there's no point being a journalist in the new media world unless you're willing to dive in and debate, and unless you're willing to admit where you've failed to make your point. Next time I'm looking for a good example of where we need better IT education I'll look elsewhere.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.



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