Jeff Bier’s Impulse Response—We’re Sorry, You’ve Been Disconnected

Submitted by Jeff Bier on Wed, 11/19/2008 - 17:00

A few years back I flew to Boston for a conference. Since I have a well-founded fear of driving in Boston, I rented a car with GPS navigation. I drove out of the airport and checked the GPS system, which was functioning perfectly. A short time later, I headed into a tunnel. Suddenly, there were exits coming up fast (inside the tunnel!), and I wasn’t sure which one to take. I looked to my navigation system for guidance, but it was completely clueless. Having lost the GPS signal when I entered the tunnel, the system refused to give me any route information.

Now I ask you, how stupid was that? The thing had already mapped out the whole route when I started, so even if it couldn’t track my progress it could have at least displayed the route it had planned in the first place. Didn’t it occur to the design engineers that drivers might have to go through connection-killing tunnels? Come to think of it, the navigation system should have known about this particular tunnel, since it sent me in there!

More and more, I’m starting to think that a key differentiator for products that are based on various forms of connectivity is how they behave when they lose their connection. Do they just throw in the towel like that navigation system, or do they incorporate some logic and foresight and stay as useful as possible?

To be fair, newer GPS systems seem to do a better job of this – for example, the one I recently bought for my mother-in-law keeps displaying the next turn on the original route when it loses the GPS fix (while showing a warning note). But there are still plenty of other examples of irritating disconnection behavior.

Such as: I’m in the airport (no, not Boston this time) reading a riveting newspaper article online. I’m on page two when my flight is called, so I put the laptop in standby mode. Once I’m airborne, I flip it open, power it up, and – damn, I can’t read the rest of the article because I don’t have an Internet connection and the browser didn’t predict that I might want to read ALL THREE PAGES. I can see that speculatively downloading a thousand-page document might not be such a great idea, but three pages? Come on.

I realize that there are tradeoffs to be made here. There’s only so much bandwidth, and it can be hard to figure out what information to cache locally, and blah blah blah. I guess what I am saying is, I don’t like some of the tradeoffs being made right now, and I wish that products that rely on network connections did a better job of managing what happens when the connection is lost.

Jennifer Eyre White of BDTI contributed to this art

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