Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Verizon In-Home Agent

I'm still a little ambivalent about Verizon's FIOS service, to be honest. I was really used to Time-Warner Cable and felt like I knew and understood the ways in which I was being served and screwed by them. With FIOS, I feel like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.

We decided to go with phone, internet and television as a bundle because that made the savings add up enough to justify making a switch. I will say that initial installation was excellent, with a tech coming and giving white-glove service to ensure everything was set up just the way I wanted it. On the other hand, the sales guy and a customer service rep I had to speak with on the phone both made a mess of things. The sales guy gave away all kinds of stuff he apparently wasn't supposed to. It ended up benefiting me in the end, but it literally took me 8-10 hours on the phone over several days to straighten out my bill. The sales guy might have promised me the moon, but Verizon's systems weren't even capable of giving me some of what he'd put on the contract. Likewise, the service rep I'd spoken with had offered me several discounts and free services that were supposed to be either/or choices, so I'd ended up getting billed for stuff I hadn't really wanted and had believed I was getting for free. That was a year ago.

Since then, well, it still sort of feels like my bill's higher than it should be, but it's low enough that I'm better off than if I'd stayed with cable and a traditional landline. With my parents down south for the winter, the long-distance charges alone were killing us under the old AT&T-based phone service, so FIOS's free long-distance makes a big difference.

There's one thing about FIOS that I can say I unwaveringly adore, however. The FIOS In-Home Agent. It's a piece of software that you install on your home PC and it ties into your account to let you survey, diagnose and troubleshoot your system. It's a terrific piece of software, and several times when I've used it, I've been left thinking that everything ought to be this easy.

I'll give you a terrific example. When I recently had to rebuild my PC from a bare hard-disk, it meant re-loading Microsoft Outlook. For some reason, Outlook doesn't save any of your account information in your mailfile. I could probably back up the settings info somewhere, but it's never occurred to me to figure out where. It shouldn't be a big deal - I know most of the setting info by heart. But FIOS has some unique settings and somehow used Yahoo to handle their email. Worse, when I looked up the settings on their site and plugged them into Outlook, they flat out failed to work. I triple- and quadruple-checked the settings, but I'd entered everything precisely according to what was on their page.

So I fired up the In-Home Agent, just to see if somehow it could help. And, lo and behold, it had a button that basically said "fix outlook." So I clicked it. And it did. It was literally that easy. I'd farted around with Outlook for an hour or so and the Agent fixed it in no time. When I went back to see what it had done, it turns out the FIOS website I'd been using was full of crap - because of the Yahoo email involvement, the server settings needed to be totally different from the ones that site had told me to use. It probably wasn't even a huge code-writing project to make the software do what it did - figure out who I was, determine how I got my email, determine the version of Outlook I was using, find the place where the server info was stored (presumably either in a file somewhere on my PC or in the Windows Registry) and then edit that file to input the correct settings. But all too often, what should be easy just doesn't work or isn't done. Software should always be this easy, particularly after we've had the last 30+ years to get good at it. All too often, it just isn't.

It reminded me, though, of the MONY Desktop Commander. THAT was a brilliant piece of software, if I say so myself. It's certainly the pinnacle of any software I've ever written, even if my cohort Scott Scheuerman did most of the heavy lifting in the programming department. We were working in MONY's "Integration Test Lab," and one of our major projects ended up being to help the desktop group come up with a way to get 15-20 pieces of software and software updates installed more easily on the 5,000 insurance agents' computers. They were, by and large, pretty computer-inept, but to do their jobs they needed over a gig of programs installed a couple of times a year. We'd spent many months developing massive documents about how to install the programs - step-by-step-by-step, with screenshots and captions and whatever else we could think of to idiot-proof the process, but it was a nightmare. They routinely botched the process and the result was lost productivity for the agents and lots of calls into the MONY computer helpdesk.

So we automated it. We created a whole series of batch files and subroutines to install the various programs with little or no user intervention, and even gave them a menu so they could pic and choose which programs to install. It was absolutely beautiful. It worked wonderfully once we got the bugs ironed out, and it ended up making a lot of peoples' lives easier. That was over ten years ago, and I almost feel as if the Verizon In-Home Agent is the first utility program I've found since that really went the extra mile to work as effectively and as seamlessly as it possibly could. Kudos to Verizon, too. Scott and I had to fight and claw and cajole our co-workers into supporting the software we'd developed, at least until they saw it in action. Some guys at Verizon probably had to do the same to convince the powers-that-be that they could write a utility that would really do the job for their customers. But they did, and I'm suitably impressed.

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