Life in the slow lane

The very slow lane. I returned from Austin a little over a week ago. Once here, I had to face the reality: I needed to use a dial-up connection to get online from home. Something I haven’t needed to do (at home) for almost five years since DSL was installed. Our office has high-speed wifi, as do the cafes I frequent. Even when traveling, many airports and hotels are now set up with a high-speed wireless network. So I seldom experience dial-up speeds.

A week before I left for SxSW, I asked SBC to upgrade my DSL connection to a faster speed. Since I had DSL installed soon after it was introduced, my account existed in some ancient database, disassociated with all the “modern” accounts created in the last few years, and was not changeable. I was told they’d need to disconnect my current service, terminate the account, then create a new account in the new system. And that all this would result in a 2-week disruption in service.

So I had them start the process while I was in Austin. This meant, upon return, that I’d only have about a week on dial-up at home. I looked at the situation as a temporary minor inconvenience which would remind me what the online experience is like for millions of home users.

Throughout the period of crawling connection speeds, I noticed a few acute differences between broadband and dial-up. My experience, expectations, and the tasks I attempted varied immensely. The differences I noticed when going back to dial-up for a week:

  • Group tasks together. Broadband connections are always on, so there’s no hesitation in using the internet for small, quick tasks that can be accomplished immediately. With dial-up, I hesitate, and wonder if I really need to do the task now, or if it can wait and be grouped with other tasks when I connect later.
  • Avoid links. With a broadband connection, I don’t think twice about following a link that appears slightly interesting. Clicking around on a site to find what I’m looking for is usually just a minor inconvenience. With dial-up, I avoid clicking as much as I can, and am always trying to think of the shortest possible path.
  • Revive the Yellow Pages. With a fast connection, the Web is effectively a replacement for Yellow Pages. Need an address for a store or restaurant? Pull it up online. I’ll have hours, a map, and directions faster than I’d be able to make a phone call and write down the information. With dial-up, I’d never think about going through the trouble of connecting just to get a phone number or an address of a business.
  • Comparison shop less. On dial-up, comparison shopping takes tedious amounts of time. I hit fewer sites, click through fewer reviews, and am less likely to start a process I know I’m not likely to finish. With faster connections, I’ll often have multiple windows or tabs open at once, each with different products or competing sites displaying relative information.
  • Sing praises of RSS/Atom. News readers are invaluable for saving time on dial-up connections. There’s no way I’d hit all the sites I like to frequent without a fast connection. Getting updates via XML means I can get a quick survey of all the day’s (or hour’s) content without hitting each one individually. Again, I carefully choose which links I follow. With broadband, if I only see a summary, I’ll often follow the link to the site.
  • Yell at error pages. Server errors or missing pages annoy the heck out of me when I’m on a dial-up connection. If I’ve invested significant time in getting to where I’ve finally gotten, errors on the site I’m visiting are much more costly. On broadband, I brush it off, and move on.
  • Avoid email attachments. Unless it’s a small text file, I’m much less likely to tell anyone I’ll send it to them via email. Last week, I was sending files back and forth with a client. When a simple attachment takes 10 minutes to send, and the client IM’s you with another change while the first file is still sending, you think twice about using email attachments. And you curse your friend’s uncle, who insists on sending the body of every one of his joke-of-the-week email messages in an attached Word file.
  • Suffer through online banking. Online banking is a much more pleasant experience when you can get tasks accomplished in under a minute. Get in, get it done, get out. Dial-up online banking makes me want to go back to paper and pencil record keeping.
  • Forget music downloads. After five years on DSL, there’s not a chance in hell that I’m going to wait 30 minutes for a 4MB file. Friends’ bands sites with new clips available? Exploring indie music sounds? Related bands? iTunes Music Store? Forget all of them on dial-up. Same goes for video news clips. They’re not worth the wait.
  • Surf fewer images. Upon returning from SxSW, everyone started posting photos from Austin. Browsing through image galleries is not as instantly rewarding on dial-up, so I tend to look through less photos, and have less patience for wading through pages of thumbnails to find the interesting shots.
  • Admit that tabbed browsing is it. Even more true than when surfing with high-speed connections, when on dial-up, tabs enable me to pop open a bunch of links in other tabs, and let them load in the background while I’m reading/using the current page. Tabbed-browsing is a welcome addition to browser feature sets, whether on dial-up or broadband, even if the tabs are used for different purposes in each environment.

I’ve taken for granted these differences. Only when I’m forced to do something a new way do I recognize the variances in habits, routines, and expectations when it comes to living and working online. It’s sort of like being thrown back in time, taking with me the invisible knowledge of what’s possible today. High-speed access — and now, prevalent wireless high-speed access — is changing our use of the Web and our lives in ways that aren’t always immediately obvious.

Note: This original entry was accidently deleted from the database, due to a Safari/MT evil caching problem. I was able to grab the text of the entry and all the comments before republishing. But comments 1-19 had to be re-entered manually, so their post dates/times are no longer accurate.