Today in "Poor Decisions in Software"

Within the last 12 hours, I've been confronted with three instances of unbelievably bad, perhaps unspeakably bad, decisions in the great world of software that I simply have to share. I think there are lessons here for all of us.

h2. Part the First

My wife had to apply to have her passport renewed, and we have an international trip coming up in two months. So she sent in her form for expedited service. Its been about two weeks, and we decided to go online and check on the status of the application, since the government went to all the trouble to expose that service and all. So, when we get to the final page where you type in your name, SSN and date of birth, it is, of course, protected by SSL. Exccept, however, for the dialog box that popped up to say that the certificate used to verify the connection is invalid and, more specifically, expired.

This is the Start Department website, mind you, where they are claiming to have slowed down the process of getting or renewing passports in the name of "security", and yet, their IT department can't even be bothered to update the certificate after it expires. Granted, it expired at 8pm Saturday night, but still.

h2. Part the Second

So, after deciding that I wasn't going to fret about possible hijacking of the State Department website, my wife filled in the form and submitted it. We got back, instantly I might add, a results page showing her passport number and name, when the application was received, and that it was "in process". And, also, that she had requested "Routine Service", which means we'd have to wait 10-12 weeks. Now, we know that we sent in the appropriate amount for expedited service, and that we filled the form in correctly. So, now, we're mad, because if they get it wrong, the only remedy is to go to DC and talk to somebody there.

So, we called the hotline. After waiting on hold for five minutes, the automated voice told us that the hotline was only servicing "customers" who have tickets for international travel within the next 14 days. Which just meant, probably, that we'd have to call back in 6 weeks, once we were inside that obnoxious window. Argh.

Finally, we hung up. Frustrated, and a little loopy (it was almost midnight), I did the only thing I could think of: I hit "back" on the browser, and re-submitted the form.

On the results page, nothing had changed, except for the word "Routine" now read "Expedite". Ignoring the lack of a "d" at the end of the word, we were still miraculously faced with the opposite result, less than 10 minutes after have requested the same information (at 11:45pm on a Monday). So, we printed the page, then submitted the form five more times just to see if it randomly flipped back and forth a few times. No dice; we were firmly in expedited territory.

Now, if you think about this for a second, probably less than 1% of all users of the State Department's website would ever bother to resubmit the form. 99% would see that their request was placed in the wrong bucket and immediately plan to travel to DC or call their congressman or something. The software, though, clearly has a bug: it misrepresented our status, in the worst possible way, on the first request only. If our case is not unique, then imagine the wasted time and energy on those hotlines by people calling in only to discover that everything was fine. Unfortunately, having now figured out the problem, blogging this is my only means of communicating the discovery to the fine people at, since their online email form doesn't actually let you type in a message.

h2. Part the Third

Get to the office this morning, and our office manager is having trouble connecting to the networked printer from the Windows side of her Mac/Windows hybrid machine. The printer is brand new, and set up to be available at a static internal IP address. On the Mac side, setup was three clicks and type in the IP address. No sweat. She couldn't get it hooked up in XP, though.

So, I verified that the network was passing through to the Windows image, and then verified that I could ping the IP address of the printer. Next, I tried adding it as a network printer. No luck. I tried sharing it from the Mac partition and connecting to that. No luck.

Frustrated and angry, I finally went to the great source of all knowledge in the universe and searched for "ip printer windows xp". The top hit was from Wellesly college's IT department, giving a detailed walkthrough of setting up an IP printer on their network (with screenshots and everything). The key to setting up an IP printer over the network in Windows XP, it turns out, is to set it up as a LOCAL PRINTER. (See, you choose, not the LPT1 port, but the TCP/IP port, and then, eight clicks later, you have a printer set up.)

So, what are the three lessons we learned today?

  • If you are going to claim that your awesome security features are what is causing your poor customer service, please don't forget to do obvious things like keep your certificates from blasting all your users with giant security warnings. Makes you look either disingenuous, incompetent, or severely understaffed.
  • You never get a second chance at a first impression. Make sure your results are right the first time.
  • Name things for humans, not for computers. My computer might very well think of that IP printer as a Local printer, but that is the absolute last place a human being would go to set up a printer over a network, when the other option they have is "Network Printer".
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