Consumer-friendly products suck and post-PC is a fantasy

While consumers are ready for post-PC, and while vendors are kinda-sorta offering solutions they say are suitable for average consumers, the system is still very flawed.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

I've talked to you before about my elderly former neighbor, the force of nature who managed to download half the malware on the Internet to his PC last year.

Since that incident, he and his wife moved about three hours south of where I live, and I don't see them very often. Talking them through the steps over the phone, we got him off the PC and put him on an iPad, thinking that ought to keep him a little safer. He's not thrilled, but he was also pretty scared when all the threatening messages started popping up on his PC. No octegenarian needs that crap!

Anyway, time has passed. We've brought his Word documents and Excel spreadsheets onto the iPad through Dropbox and an app. But he wants to print. Simple request, right?

I sent Mr. and Mrs. Force of Nature to the local Apple store, where they picked up an AirPrint-enabled HP printer. They brought it home, and couldn't set it up. When they called HP, they were informed they needed to run the setup disk. Since they only had the iPad, that didn't work for them.

Finally, they brought the printer back to the Apple store -- and here's where the consumer electronics really break down -- the Genius told them they'd need a PC or Mac to set it up. I know the Genius probably meant well, but I was shocked when I heard he'd recommended they go buy a cheap PC just to be able to configure their printer to work with their iPad.

To replace the printer that wouldn't work without a PC, they wound up buying an Epson I recommended. They brought that home. Although, unlike the HP, it had a console where they could toggle in wireless network settings, they still couldn't get it to work.

I talked to my ex-neighbor's wife, who finally decided to purchase a cheap laptop at Radio Shack. She liked using Windows better, anyway, and she was a much, much more careful online user than her husband.

She picked a login password he wouldn't know so he couldn't reinfect the household with every PC virus on Earth again. She, at least, managed to print using Windows 7 and a USB cable to the printer. But still no printing was available from his iPad or her iPod touch.

I tried to remotely connect into the router via her laptop and GoToAssist, but, apparently, in one of the cable company's service calls, they'd changed the router's password and we were all locked out. So I couldn't get into the router to see if I needed to do anything special to allow the printer to talk to it wirelessly.

So much for post-PC.

They still wanted to print from their iOS devices. After a while, the begging for help (and the offers of fresh pastrami) got to me, and I decided to take the three hour trip down to their home. I got up Saturday at 6am, took a few hours to wake up, shower, have some coffee and breakfast, and gather all my troubleshooting gear together. I got there before noon.

The week before I drove down, I bought a month of LTE for my iPad (just in case), and then spent $139 on a Linksys EA3500 router.

The defining feature of this router is a new gimick called Cloud Connect. It allows many of the router's settings to be adjusted from the cloud, rather than via a dangerous external connection from an open Internet port. Since I clearly can't take the road trip down south to visit my old friends every week, I thought this would be a good way to administer their network remotely.

Have I mentioned I hate supposedly consumer-friendly products?

Keep reading. There's more to this story.

Anyway, I got down there, ripped out their old router, dug through the insane amount of cables, cleaned the area out, dust-bustered it (removing an amazing amount of dust-- including dust bunnies so large they had their own zip code), and installed the new router.

There was a gotcha, though. The router was across the house from the laptop. There was no wired connection. So didn't work from my iPad. While I could have moved the laptop to the router, Mrs. Force of Nature liked it right where it was, and was unhappy about the idea of moving it.

No problem. There are easy enough ways to initiate a wireless connection.

I knew the default Linksys passwords, so I looked for an open WiFi and finally got into the router. The normal Linksys Web interface was presented -- after a message informing me that if I used the interface, I could break everything.


Okay, fine. Since I wasn't sure what special tweaks the Cloud Connect feature would require, I decided not to dive into the Web interface just yet.

The router came with a CD, so I climbed up off the floor, went back across the house to the laptop, loaded the CD into the drive, and let it find the new router. Turns out there were two in the neighborhood. So I went back across the house, crawled back under the desk, found the serial number of this one, got back up, went back across the house, and selected it.

Eventually, the config software decided to talk to the router. But there was nothing of Cloud Connect. I pointed my browser at CiscoCloudConnect.com, where it asked for an account and password. I didn't have one. So I created a Cisco support account, thinking that would do it. Nope, no joy.

I bought this thing, in part, because it had an iPhone management app and no matter where I was, if I got a panicked call from my old friends, I could check and see what was up. So I installed the app. That, too, wanted an account and password.

Nowhere on the Cisco site did it say where to get this.

I've used about a thousand Linksys routers. I'll just log in and poke around. I did. I bypassed the doom and gloom warning message and went to the firmware update section of the router's Web interface and asked it to check if it was running the latest firmware. It reported that the firmware was up to date.

It took another hour for me to find out it was lying.

You might as well keep reading. You know you want to know how this story ends.

I looked all over the interface, but there was nothing about setting up a Cloud Connect account. Nothing.

Back to the Cisco site. This time I went into the support pages, looked for firmware, and found out that there was, in fact, a later firmware upgrade. So although this nice, consumer-friendly router said it was up to date, it wasn't.

I downloaded the firmware, made sure Mr. Force of Nature was nowhere near the router and couldn't fiddle with it while the firmware was loaded, and performed a firmware upgrade.

After it was done, I tried connecting in again. Still no account setup for Cisco Cloud Connect.

So I re-ran the Cisco setup software on the laptop. There was nothing obvious about updating the software, the config software announced it was talking to the router, and everything was fine.

Just no Cloud Connect.

Back to the Cisco site. Yep, turns out there's an update to the client setup software. Downloaded that. It couldn't find the router. As far as it was concerned, the router didn't exist.

I went back across the house, crawled back under the desk, found the the reset button, held it down for five seconds, got back up, went back across the house, and tried again. This time the setup software not only found the router, it decided it wanted me to create an account.


By this time, it was almost five o'clock. It had taken almost four hours to get the router to work. After that, setting up the printer was a breeze. I just toggled in the network settings, then went from iOS device to iOS device and made sure they were on the network. Printing worked.

But, as far as I'm concerned, consumer-friendly and post-PC failed completely. Here's the list:

  • The first AirPrint printer couldn't be set up without a PC. Period. The Apple store people actually recommended my elderly friends go out and buy a $300 cheap PC just to set up printing on the iPad.
  • The second AirPrint printer, though it did have a setup panel, was too complex for my friend to use, and was stymied by a service-person-modified router.
  • The Cloud Connect router feature advertised for the router I bought wasn't available on the brand-new device.
  • The "am I up to date?" feature inside the router wasn't able to tell if it was, in fact, up-to-date. Worse, it lied, saying it was.
  • There was no obvious messaging telling consumers who visited the Cisco web site that they might have a router needing updating.
  • In order to perform the firmware update, you first had to bypass a doom-and-gloom warning that implied you'd possibly brick the thing
  • When the firmware was finally located and downloaded, there was no indication that the client setup software also needed modification -- and you still needed the client setup software to make it work.

My friends had to wait a few months until I was able to free up enough time to take a six-hour round-trip drive to do a service call. Although all these products had been advertised as consumer-friendly and ready to run, they were not up-to-date, had conflicting messaging, and didn't work properly with each other. Even the Apple store failed miserably.

I've long used and enjoyed Linksys and Cisco products (and some of my best friends work for the company). But a FAQ item a few pages deep into the Web site, with a link in a corner that says How to manually upgrade the firmware of the Linksys EA-series router to Cisco Connect Cloud is not the same as a big friendly box in the middle of the main page, telling consumers that they will almost definitely need to upgrade their brand new device before it will work.

Plus, to do a manual upgrade, you have to click past a warning page that says that if you do, you could disable your network. Sorry guys, I know you can do better.

We may be at the point where consumers are ready for post-PC. My friends would have liked to just be able to bring this stuff home, plug it in, and use it.

But while consumers are ready for post-PC, and while vendors are kinda-sorta offering solutions they say are suitable for average consumers, the system is still very flawed. All the so-called consumer-friendly add-ons actually make these systems far more difficult for technicians to troubleshoot and maintain.

PCs are still necessary to make things work, and vendors are still not diligent enough in their product management and support to make the process seamless.

Eh, at least I got some some very yummy pastrami out of the deal!

P.S. Yes, I know there are ways of printing from an iPad to a non-AirPrint printer. But you shouldn't have to do that if consumer friendly and post-PC are really real.

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