November 18, 2010

A True Story about iPods, Audio Books, Automatic Weapons, Swat Teams and … Design of Technology

by with 6 comments

My friend Harry told me a story the other day. It’s an incredible story, but
true. Harry is convinced that his story should be told to others as a
cautionary tale, but he’s too embarrassed to tell it himself. So with the names
and some details changed to protect the embarrassed, here it is.

Harry is a skilled technician who works for a leading company. He travels a
multi-state area installing and fixing specialized hardware for large-scale
production equipment. One day awhile back, Harry was tooling down the freeway
in his company’s large cargo van listening to an audio book. It was an exciting
thriller with an intricate mystery plot. He was just to the part where the
detectives were finally closing in and the perps were executing a desperate
plan to dispose of the evidence and escape.

But in one of those Twilight Zone moments, reality and literature converged!
A patrol car flew by him with lights flashing and sirens shrieking. It got off
at the next exit, dashed over the overpass, and came back down the freeway in
his direction. Then came another – and another – followed by vans and SUVs.
What the…?? All of a sudden, Harry’s car is surrounded by law enforcement
vehicles. Now everybody has their lights and sirens on. “Pull over! Pull over!”
screams the megaphone command. Well, this shouldn’t be dull.

Shouting officers surround his car, rip open his doors, drag him out, take
him to the ground, and handcuff him. Men with automatic weapons are focusing a
lot of attention on him. “You guys must think I’m a real badass or
something…” Harry’s always been rather tactless and combative.

“Where’s the body? Where’s the body?” they keep yelling at him. Other
officers have forced entry into his van and are searching everywhere. “I found
the gurney! Where’s the body?” Harry is nonplussed. Men search him and take his
wallet, his ID, and everything else from his pockets. Somebody calls his
employer. Has the company authorized this man to drive this vehicle? Where is
the vehicle scheduled to be traveling today? On and on and on. He’s just passed
a dam and some rivers. Other officers start heading to those locations.
Everyone is highly suspicious of Harry’s identify. Where’s the real Harry? Did
this imposter dispose of him? Who is this guy really?

Finding no additional physical evidence, the officers start an
interrogation. Harry learns that dispatch received an urgent 911 call from his
phone number. The caller described how they were about to dispose of a body.
Law enforcement had pinged his phone, triangulated his moving location, and
taken him down.

“Wait a minute. What you heard must have come from my audio book! My name
really is Harry, but one of the book characters is named Harry, too.”
Dumbfounded blank stares. They rewind his iPod and, after some rummaging
around, replay that book section. (Harry would later complain that they lost
his place.)

“Learn to use key-lock, asshole!” But Harry’s work-issued phone has a safety
feature. If you hold down the 9 key, the phone will dial 911, even with
key-lock enabled. The officers confirm this for themselves. “Maybe you should
get a new phone.”

Guess all’s well that ends well, but Harry’s story is why I fear Apple may
take over the world. Not because Apple TV is wonderful, but because Apple
understands that my parents shouldn’t have to use three different remotes just
to watch TV and phones shouldn’t make 911 calls when you explicitly tell
them not to. While it’s imperative to ensure that people can easily call 911 in
an emergency, a little more thought could have been put into the solution.
Most of us still have much to learn about the design of everyday

  1. If this is true (forgive me, but it does sound apocryphal) then it is one of the most fantastic things I have ever read.

  2. Well, to be honest – the story is entertaining, but it's a bit of a slap in the face if the developers are writing such stories, while there are lots of unanswered questions in the support forum as well as bugs and missing features that affect the usability of the software. We customers are not really paying you for writing stories. Could you please reconsider your priorities? Thanks

  3. @SM

    I'll have to disagree a bit on this one. I like this blog, and I find it to be an interesting way of presenting the companies values.

    And FYI I'm a paying customer too.

  4. @SM – Are you paying extra for 24/7 attention by every single person on the SpiderOak team? If not, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to consider your comments to be beyond ridiculous. The story could have been written during somebody's lunch break, for cryin' out loud. Everybody takes breaks, nobody works 24/7. We can't know (i.e., YOU can't know) whether this was written *instead of* an appropriate level of work being done on problems or *in addition to* that work. Time to climb down off your high horse…