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Networking Notes: So Long and Thanks for Nothing

The only reason anyone could possibly have to ask a question of the sales team at a big-box retailer is simple politeness — the guy asks if he can help, so you humor him.

Networking Notes

When the site editor and I were first sitting around talking about the sorts of things I ought to think about covering, I had this idea:

"How about I go around to the computer big-boxes and solicit advice from the sales staff then do a monthly thing on the worst advice I get? It'll be a hoot!"

Lately I don't know about "hoot."

One big-box, CompUSA is struggling, slated to shut down more than half its retail operations by the end of this month. Others, according to Internetnews reports, suffered alarming drops in earnings last year. Analysts don't agree on what it means. Hanging out at a doomed chain and luring its sales staff into clumsy attempts at inappropriate upsells seems sort of cruel. A few years ago, though? Maybe a few more people wandering the aisles and documenting the sorts of things you hear when you ask a simple question would have done some good in the form of constructive criticism.

So the idea was set aside, and I didn't think about it much until I found myself in a neighborhood CompUSA in the process of shutting down. It was shutting down in that thorough, definitive way retail outlets go out: A big banner announcing that even the store fixtures are for sale, guys with placards standing next to the street trying to incite an accident with their jumping and waving, day-glo fliers warning "If you pass on it today, it might not be here tomorrow!" There were even copies of Vista on sale for ... well ... the same price you could probably find it selling for online!

Lured in by the promise of fire sale prices on networking hardware, I felt like I imagine actors filming the last episode of a long-running sitcom must feel — all that nostalgia and maybe the temptation to stuff a cherished prop under their sweaters and break for the door before studio security can stop them.

Look, over in that corner! That's where they kept the Macs. I remember asking about Tiger and being told to give up on Macs and wait for Vista. And over there! The networked storage stuff! I remember that aisle! Good times. Good times.

I was feeling nostalgic, because it was in the mean aisles of places like CompUSA that I learned the only reason anyone could possibly have to ask a question of the sales team was simple politeness. I mean, the guy asks if he can help, and it's sort of rare that anyone asks, so you humor him.

"This Netgear NAS box ... does it do SMB? Or is it really Windows only? Hard to tell from the box. Says 'standard TCP/IP ...'"

"Oh ... yeah ... SMB. Definitely."

"So I could use it for networked backup for a Mac?"

"Uh huh. Definitely. I'd get that."

Before places like CompUSA taught me hard lessons, I would have taken his word for it. I would have marched out of the store and into the jaws of a frustrating and bitter struggle with equipment that, it turns out, connected to a standard network switch, but wouldn't talk to anything but a Windows box with special drivers. Then I'd lose the time it took to bundle it all back up and drag it back to the store, plus the time I should have spent in the first place, researching before buying anything on the good word of a guy who simply didn't care how things worked out for me.

But I learned those lessons and developed an instinct, so I muttered a polite "Probably need to read up a bit more. I'm not sure this is the model ..." and left. I don't even know why I bothered confirming my hunch, but I did and sure enough found blog entries and pages from people documenting bad experiences on that particular equipment with anything but a Windows machine.

It all dovetailed with a more general rule I concocted for hardware purchases, especially useful with the advent of 802.11n confusion:

When asked "Can I help you with something," answer only if you can't read or are color blind and so can't tell if that pair of boxes for any two pieces of network equipment match."

Otherwise, no, they can't help you, because "the boxes match" and "it has this logo" are pretty much all you're going to learn. If I were a paranoid and suspicious type, I'd assert that hardware manufacturers pay the big-box stores a certain amount of money to avoid staff training, just to make sure customers would eventually throw up their hands and buy completely new gear, all from the same manufacturer, every two years, because that seemed safest.

When the Blackberry arrived in my life along with its unlimited data plan and serviceable browser, I thought that was a great leap forward. I could check reviews and impressions on stuff before I even had to ask the clerk anything. I could even avoid talking to clerks. It was a revolution in shopping technology.

Because I'm sort of slow that way, it took a few trips out to the big boxes to realize I was driving out to the asphalt-coated part of town for the privilege of second-guessing sales staff. And me with an Amazon Prime membership! If I cut out the drive, did my ordering before noon, and could forego the simple pleasure of standing in the aisles of giant retailers squinting at a Blackberry screen, I could just do my research, probably find a better price, and have it delivered to my doorstep by noon the next day. And no disinformation campaign from apathetic retail staff!

And because I'm sort of slow that way, I can only assume most of you beat me to that realization years ago. That might explain all the fire sale prices.

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