In the first Bang & Olufsen multi-line cordless phone system—the 6000 series—the designers and developers clearly had a problem. Basically, when you picked up the phone, it took a while to actually “connect”, something on the order of .5 seconds or so. Long enough for the user to get out a “Hello? Hello?” and to feel pretty stupid about talking to empty air.

I wasn’t there, and don’t know, but I’m certain that when this went to testing, users screamed bloody murder. Phones are devices with very set behavior, and when things don’t work properly, it’s instantly noticeable.

I can imagine the engineers’ reaction when this came back to them: but there’s just no way to make it go any faster, given the hardware we’re using! It just can’t!

Back in the 80s, when my company UnderWare was doing BRIEF (a programmer’s editor of some renown back then, and my first commercial endeavor), we were in a similar situation. We had a certain percentage of people who were complaining that writing files was just too slow.

Mike and I went over the file writing code over and over, and—without resorting to going direct to the hardware, something we just weren’t going to do—there was just no way to speed it up any more. This stuff was working as fast as the system would let it work.

So, we thought about it. And thought about it. And, finally, came up with a solution.

Since we couldn’t speed it up, we did the next best thing. We cheated.

BRIEF had a “status line”—a quaint bit of information at the bottom of the window that was all the rage back in the Olden Days—and, before cheating, it would put up “Writing file...” and then, when completed, it would say “File written.”

So, I changed it to write out the percentage it was through the process. Which, if you think about it, actually made the whole thing slower.

And we never had another complaint about write speed.

And what did B&O do? They added a “beep” when it was time to talk. Just a little thing, but after the first time, users started waiting for it (and, no doubt, blaming themselves for not waiting, rather than blaming the phone for being slow to beep).

Bingo. Problem solved.

Sometimes the solution to a problem isn’t really a fix. Sometimes, it’s whatever works.