Posted 1999-January-21
Updated 2001-March-26

"...it would be like an automobile company designing a car that's two lanes wide and claiming that they don't design the roads, so you shouldn't complain when you have problems with oncoming traffic."
"Hello... Is anybody home?"
-- Article by Erik Wegweiser --

I frequently fantasize about throttling the engineer responsible for things like water-saving faucets that stay on long after they're needed. It's probably the same person who designed faucets so short you end up bruising your knuckles against the sink. No, I don't take drastic measures, but I am occasionally motivated to give them a piece of my mind, usually in writing.

Allow me to relate one particularly involved recent experience that got under my skin because I see how it creates problems for telephone customers. I hope that any landlords out there reading this yarn will take it into consideration.

I live on the fourth floor of our walkup in Boston, and in December of 1998, our building's management company replaced the old lobby entry intercom system. In my opinion, the old "buzzer" system was ideal: The guest at the front door presses the illuminated button showing the name of the tenant they wish to visit. The host is alerted with a buzz from the intercom in their apartment, picks up the handset to speak with the guest, then quickly admits them by pressing the one big button on the intercom. Could not be simpler!

Instead of a similar model, the entire intercom system was replaced with an "autodialer" unit sporting an electronic directory. This new system operates by automatically calling the tenant's apartment, using the telephone rather than a wall intercom. We've come a long way since talking into tubes. But is it for the better?

simulated display
I had never heard of this method before, and the concept struck me merely as odd at first. However, I soon realized many reasons to protest. I contacted the manufacturer, Mircom Technologies, Inc., and gave them a partial litany of the reasons why this configuration was a poor choice not only for our building , but possibly for the majority of residential telephone customers in the same situation. Most of these problem issues are due to the device interacting or even interfering with the phone:
• The old system was much simpler to use, and may very well prove to have been more reliable than the more complicated new electronic device.

• With the new system, a guest has to wait for the telephone to be dialed, instead of the buzzer instantly ringing in the tenant's unit. The guest then has to wait for the telephone to be answered by the tenant. What if it's raining (and there's no shelter)?

• It probably costs $20-$30 per month in telephone charges to operate. However, I surmise the probability that it is sharing a telephone line with the building's existing alarm system. I hope there's no emergency when someone's at the front door...

• Residents will never be alerted to a guest trying to get into the building if they are already talking on the telephone and do not have (or have disabled) "call waiting" service, or are using the line for computer telephony.

• Most people have a telephone answering machine, not a door answering machine. If someone is at the front door when I'm not home (or when I'm screening calls), they get the regular telephone answering machine. The standard recorded greeting, "You have reached 555-1234, but Mac and Lisa are not home; please leave a message" doesn't apply here (It is common practice for recorded greetings to mention the number and not the surname, for security reasons). However, also in the interest of security and privacy, I don't necessarily want strangers who now know where I live to also learn my telephone number and first name, simply by playing with the equipment downstairs. It's bad enough that a visitor gets the telephone answering machine greeting. I don't want telephone callers to be greeted with instructions for visitors at the door as well.

(If only the electronic entry system made a short announcement or played a pleasant chime on the phone to indicate that the caller is at the front door, it might solve some problems).

• Unless the resident is paying extra to receive "caller-ID" service (and I don't), there is no way to tell before answering the telephone that the call is really someone at the door. Even if I did have "caller-ID," what information would be displayed? I wouldn't recognize the number for the front door.

• I am planning to add "call forwarding" service, so I can have calls to home forwarded to the office, etc. I think you can surmise the problem here if someone tries to "call" me from the front door. (The only benefit I foresee with this capability is that I would then instantly know that I missed a package while I was away.... useful?).

One big reason why I am writing this, is that I missed a package delivery recently, even though I was home. When the FedEx driver used the Mircom device, they reached my telephone answering machine, but did not announce themselves or leave a message, as instructed in the greeting. Therefore, I took this as just another hang-up or aborted telephone solicitation. AAAARGH!!!

My mail conversations with the manufacturer were interesting, if not fruitless. The Senior Design Engineer I contacted at Mircom Technologies said their devices are "at the mercy of the telephone company as to features such as call-waiting. We don't design the public telephone networks, we only provide what features we can within its limitations."

To which my response was "it would be like an automobile company designing a car that's two lanes wide and claiming that they don't design the roads, so you shouldn't complain when you have problems with oncoming traffic." I think that's a fair analogy. I'm not talking about the telephone company, but the way humans use the phone, both when making and receiving a call. This device interferes with that, not the other way around.

Hey, engineers... Hello? Is anybody home?


© 1998-2004 Erik S. Wegweiser


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