WQTS 11

Would you believe there’s a WQTS (Who QAed This Shit) story with a happy ending?

I’ll get there. But first, a tale that’s not so much WQTS as WTTWAGI (Who Thought This Was a Good Idea).

I’m calling out the Holiday Inn Express in Sedalia for gross violations of common sense in their handling of technology. And, just to be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about HIE hotels in general. As far as I know, these problems are unique to that particular location.

Let’s start with the hotel Wi-Fi. Finding good Wi-Fi in a hotel is a rare event, one that should be celebrated with parades and (hopefully brief) speeches by elected dignitaries. The Sedalia Holiday Inn Express’ Wi-Fi is not that sort. To be fair, once you get connected, it’s no worse than many other hotels’. It’s just that getting to that point is by far the worst experience I’ve had with, not just hotel wireless, but any public wireless.

Like most such, the SHIE uses a “captive portal” setup: once you connect, a web page launches, allowing you to enter whatever login credentials are needed. Many hotels either ask for your name and room number or a global password which changes periodically. The page is generally simple so it can display cleanly on anything from an old phone to a modern laptop.

SHIE has a huge page filled with text. That’s necessary because it offers three different ways to log in. Three.

There’s the traditional “last name and room number”.

There’s a numeric code. The web page calls it a PIN, but the envelope your room key comes in calls it an “Internet Access Code”. Calling the same thing by different names is just asking for trouble.

And there’s the third method, which requires half-again as much screen space as the other two combined. That’s because it’s only available to Holiday Inn Express Club members, and the portal login page has to explain all of the benefits of club membership, only one of which the ability connect to the Wi-Fi in any HIE hotel with your email address*.

* No password, at least not on the login page–I’m not a HIE Club Member, so I didn’t try to go any further–but the text strongly implied that all you need is your email address. Which means that if you know an HIE Club member’s email address, you can get all the free Wi-Fi you want in Sedalia. Assuming you want hotel-quality Wi-Fi. I wouldn’t want to download illegal images on something that slow, but if I wanted to launch a virus, how better than to do it through a hotel using someone else’s email address?

The login methods, all crammed onto the one login page. Any half-way competent user interface developer or QA engineer will tell you that having multiple methods of doing the same thing risks confusing your users. And indeed, while I was checking in, there was a couple at the front desk asking for help connecting their laptop to the wireless*.

* They were looking for where to enter that Internet Access Code. Remember, the page calls it a PIN. At least on a laptop they could see the whole page. Imagine how much zooming and scrolling they would have had to do on a phone before they even arrived at that level of confusion.

For the record, the desk clerk couldn’t help them. She had to call the “technical expert”. I left before I got to overhear that conversation. Must have been a doozy.

And don’t forget, by the way, that the portal was set up so you had to re-enter your login information every time you reconnected to the Wi-Fi. Go to dinner? Re-enter. Lose signal? Re-enter.

But enough about the wireless. Let’s move on to the computers in the so-called “Business Center” in the lobby. The hotel is very proud to have Microsoft Office on the computers. So proud, they put up a sign advertising it. And, to be fair, it’s a big step up from last year, when the only software on those machines was Windows itself. But let’s face it: Office is the least you can expect to find on the computers in anything that calls itself a Business Center.

I was impressed to see that the computers were running Windows 10. I was rather less impressed to see that they needed a password to use. Why bother? It’s not like the hotel was exercising any control over who uses the machines. I asked for the password at the desk–and note, by the way, that there were no signs telling would-be users how to get the password. Amazingly, the clerk knew it. It’s all lower-case, with no digits or punctuation, and it’s one of the first three words anyone of even moderate intelligence would try–and it’s not “password” or “guest”. I don’t know if they’re supposed to confirm that users are staying in the hotel, but if so, she didn’t.

So if you’re not limiting usage, why put passwords on them? If you want to exercise enough control to keep kids from tying the up all day playing games, just have the clerks glance in that direction occasionally. The computers sit in the lobby, no more than ten feet away from the front desk.

And it’s not like the password prevents people from mistreating the machines. I couldn’t use the first one I tried because some prankster had changed the password and locked everyone out of the machine. On the other machine, someone had created his own account, presumably so he wouldn’t have to remember the hotel’s password.

On many public computers, the USB ports are disabled to keep people from installing malware. Well-designed Business Centers have heavy-duty virus protection, but allow you to use the USB ports to transfer your work from your laptop to the computer. SHIE found a different security method: they put the computers under the desk, forcing users to crawl around on the floor to plug in a thumb drive. OK, so it’s not totally effective security, but it’s better than nothing.

The final blow? There’s no printer in the Business Center. Instead, there’s a networked printer hidden somewhere behind the front desk. Can you imagine what your corporate information security team is going to say about you using that printer to run off last-second changes to your presentation about buying the Holiday Inn chain?

sigh

OK, ready for that happy ending? This one really is a WQTS story.

This time last year, I wrote about Project Fi and how pleased I was with it.

I’m still happy with Project Fi, and when I heard about the Project Fi Travel Trolley shortly before my Sedalia trip I was totally charmed.

The Trolley, in case you haven’t already heard about it, is a glorified vending machine set up in several major airports around the US. It’s stocked with small items that might be of use to travelers: USB cables, luggage tags, sleep kits, playing cards, and–the real prize–fuzzy travel socks. Project Fi customers can get a free goody just by tapping their phone against the kiosk. The kiosk and your phone use NFC to validate your Fi account and generate a QR code. The kiosk then scans the code and dispenses the prize you wanted.

That’s the theory. In practice, somebody missed a bug.

Either there’s a hidden problem in the kiosk’s NFC reader, or nobody thought to test the scenario where a customer has more than one account on their phone.

Maggie and I both have two accounts on our phones. When we tried to use the Trolley, instead of getting QR codes, we got an endless series of browser windows opening, each of which informed us that we were logged into the wrong account. Logging into Google with the correct account did no good. Neither did any of several other methods we tried to convince the system we were Project Fi customers.

No fuzzy travel socks for us.

Our trip wasn’t ruined. Somehow we soldiered onward, cold toes notwithstanding. (For the record, temperatures in Sedalia were in the high eighties. Frostbite was not a significant concern.)

The happy ending?

I reported the problem to Project Fi support, who referred me to Swyft, the company that manufacturers and supports the Travel Trolley kiosks. Within minutes, I received an apology for the “bad experience,” an assurance that the issue will be investigated, and a promise to send us socks.

Now, it might just have been a bedbug letter. We’ll find out next time I fly through an airport with a Travel Trolley–I fully intend to see if they’ve come up with a fix. One can never have too many sleep masks and earplugs, after all.

But I’ll take a Happy Ending For Now–as long as I really do get my socks.

Low-Fi

Have you noticed how much better the Friday cat pictures have looked in the past couple of months? No, I haven’t magically improved my photographic skills.

It’s been said that a bad workman blames his tools. Does that mean that a good workman gives the credit to his? Well, regardless of whether it makes me a good workman or not, I give my tools full credit for the improvement.

In mid-April, I got a new cell phone. The logic went something like this: “I’m paying for a metric buttload of data that I never use. I’m out of contract. Can I move to a new plan?”

To make a long story short, not really.

I was paying Sprint $90 a month for unlimited data, but both their tools and my phone showed I was using less than half a gigabyte. They do offer a one-gig package for $20/month, but that’s on top of a $45/month “access charge” (i.e. basic connectivity, voice service, and anything else that isn’t “data”.) The website wasn’t totally clear, but I was pretty sure I’d have to get a new phone as well in installments. Add another $15-20. Gosh, I might save a whole ten bucks a month. Whoopie.

Other carriers were similar. I was about to trash the idea when I heard that Project Fi was offering a one-gig plan for $30/month–including access, voice, and everything else. Not bad at all. But who the heck is Project Fi?

Project Fi is Google.

No, Google isn’t stringing lines and building cell towers. Instead, they lease service from multiple carriers–as of this writing, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. The phone automatically switches from one carrier to another, using whichever one has the strongest signal. And, to keep their costs down, the phones will aggressively switch to Wi-Fi. Yes, including doing voice over Wi-Fi.

Even better: if you don’t use your full gigabyte, the unused bandwidth is credited against your next month’s bill. (Data is $10/gig, so if you only use half a gig, you get a five dollar credit; if you use 1.5 gigs, you pay $40–but get that same five bucks back the next month.)

I had to buy a new phone–which brings us back to where this post started; more on that in a moment–but Google is keeping the price of their Nexus phones down. That’s the potential catch: the only phones you can use with Project Fi are the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. If you’ve got to have a keyboard, iOS, or Samsung’s stylus optimizations, you’re out of luck. On the other hand, since Google is the carrier, there’s no nonsense about getting carrier approval for OS upgrades, including the monthly security updates. That’s not to be sneered at.

I went with the 5X, and since I knew I would be taking lots of cat pictures, I went with the 32GB model. Total price including tax, shipping, and all, $270.16. (You can buy the phone over 24 months, if you prefer time payments. That would have been a bit under $11/month.)

Financially, the move is working out well. I’ve paid for three months of service so far at a total cost of $87.09–less than one month’s payment to Sprint. That means I’ve saved enough to cover two-thirds of the cost of the phone. Even with the trip to Sedalia, which kept me away from my home Wi-Fi, I still used less than half a gigabyte–between the hotel’s wireless and the occasional public network, the phone was able to keep most of its activity off cellular.

Clearly, if I was a heavy data user, streaming music and video around the clock, Project Fi wouldn’t be as good a deal–but at $10/gigabyte, the break-even point may not be as high as one might think.

As for the phone, I’m very happy with it. As I implied, the pictures are much better than what my old Nexus 5 could do. Not so much because the resolution is higher, but because the low-light performance is significantly better. The white balance is greatly improved–I’m not seeing the orange tint that mars many of the pre-April cat pictures.

And yes, it’s better in its non-camera functionality too. The screen is brighter and seems sharper–though it is the same resolution and roughly the same size as the old one, so that may be a function of the difference in the screens’ ages. Calls are clearer–the speakerphone is about the same, but voices are less muddy when not on speaker.

The big difference, though, is the fingerprint reader. It’s…interesting. When it works, it’s great. I pick up the phone, my finger falls naturally on the sensor, and the phone unlocks before my other hand gets into screen-tapping range. However. Around a quarter of the time, the phone insists that I unlock it with my PIN, “For extra security.” It’s not just me–there’s speculation online that it happens after too many failed attempts to read a fingerprint; attempts that are triggered by the back of the phone bumping against the inside of a pocket or holster. I’m inclined to believe the speculation: I’ve had fewer “extra security” requests since I put the phone in a case. That keeps the fingerprint reader a little further away from the wall of the case. Perhaps Android N will make the reader a bit less sensitive. That would be a change I could support.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my phone and I need to go hunting. We need some pictures for tomorrow’s post.