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Supporting high-tech toys: Just say NO

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NET KNOW-HOW WITH DAVE KEARNS

By Dave Kearns

Supporting high-tech toys: Just say NO

It's December, again -- the holiday season, a time for gift giving by people of most ethnic and religious persuasions. So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Eid Mubarak, Happy New Year, Solstice Greetings, Joyous Kwanzaa and -- for my fellow Lone Star state residents -- Happy Texas Day!

That's the good news. The bad news will come in January (or, perhaps, February or March). No, it's not the credit card bills I'm talking about. It's that fast rising junior executive (RJE) in your company. You know the one I mean, the one who forgets from one day to the next how to turn on his desktop PC, who calls the helpdesk every time he has to reply to an email and keeps printed instructions on how to shut down Windows 2000 taped to the inside of his desk drawer so he can "properly" close down each night (well, each afternoon -- he does leave at 3:30 most days).

See, sometime in the dark, dreary days before spring comes you'll look up and see him standing next to your desk. He would have called, but he wants to ask a favor. You see his adoring wife gave him a new computer for Christmas, and he's heard you can connect to the office network from a home computer, so he'd like to be able to do that. Hoping to spot an out, you ask, "What kind of computer is it?" to which he replies, "It's a Microsoft computer!"

Did you miss a press release? Sleep through the last few issues of the trade press? Is Microsoft really making computers? Well, yes and no. Most likely Mrs. RJE gave Mr. RJE an Xbox game machine. It says "Microsoft" on it, doesn't it? It is a computer, isn't it? You are the network guru, aren't you? You'd best get your story ready now.

Think it can't happen? Fifteen years ago, when I was a newly crowned "Director of Networking" for a retail chain, I had an RJE (he'd just made VP!) come to my office. He told me his wife gave him a new computer for Christmas, and he'd like to be able to bring it into the office and connect to the network. Without thinking about it very hard (conversations with this guy often caused much pain since I had to bite my tongue so frequently), I said, "Bring it in, and we'll see."

The next day, while I was at lunch, a box was placed on my desk. When I got back, I was faced with the task of networking a Commodore Vic-20! (For you youngsters, this was a glorified game machine with 3K bytes of RAM running on a 6504 CPU (clockspeed: 1 mHz), the same CPU as the Apple II and the Atari. He had an external floppy drive (single-sided, single-density -- a whopping 160 K storage) and a 10-inch color monitor (that was an improvement over the "green screen" IBM monitors we used in the office, I think). There was an expansion slot, but it was a proprietary design that only accepted Commodore's (or approved third party's) cartridges. There were no network cards, needless to say.

Now, you can't tell the new VP that he's as dumb as a post (even if he did go to North Texas State on a football scholarship). So I had to hide out the rest of the afternoon coming up with a good story. Eventually, I told him that to network the machine I'd need to modify it and as a consequence it would no longer accept game cartridges, nor would the color display work. He accepted that, boxed it up and took it home and I never heard any more about it.

My instincts, of course, were to tell him what I thought of someone who equated a game machine with a business computer. That would have been wrong (although satisfying). So when Mr. RJE shows up at your desk, fake a fit of sneezing (to cover up the laughter) then come up with a good (and plausible -- at least to him) story as to why you'd love to help but it might not be possible. Feel free to steal my line about disabling the game functions; that should be enough to stop him. Whatever you do, don't come up with a brilliant way to make it work. That just guarantees you'll be spending Saturdays at his house showing him (once again) where the "any" key is.

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This was first published in December 2001

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