It's getting harder to figure out what's important and what's not in our world. Sometimes the stuff I buy to solve problems doesn't work at all, and other times my problems are properly solved in ways I never even considered.
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. When we initially designed the system there was no thought of doing this; it was the CTA staff that asked for the feature almost as an afterthought.
Conversely, we designed all sorts of cool 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. Unfortunately 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?
Fast-forward to the present, and I have 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 1980s. I learned today that retailers will continue to sell the operating system for another year now. Perhaps they are listening to their customers. Different does not always mean improved.
My cell phone includes lots more features than the old one, but doesn't sound nearly as good. I really wish coverage extended to my office desk like it used to. Nice camera though-I've already taken three pictures in my first six months of ownership. Colleagues and competitors have a different model phone of which I'm envious now; I think I made a mistake buying this one. Cost me hundreds last time I made the mistake to change phones.
I do like the new UPS on my office computer. 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. Unfortunately our power went out for a couple of hours one day last week and I can't get the thing to stop squawking, if ever so politely. Ended up just bypassing and plugging it straight into the wall.
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.
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. Played some old LPs for my son the other day and he was astonished at how good they sounded in comparison.
Our paperless office continues to be deluged with paper. Go figure.
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?