It was 3:00am. The streets were deserted. The fog was as thick and impenetrable as a tech support phone mail system. Somewhere in the distance, an iPod was playing a weary, bluesy tune, and I wondered what it sounded like to the misguided soul wearing those earbuds–assuming that misguided soul had any hearing left.
I was heading back to my office after a tough case. Some college kid spilled three pints of beer into his laptop. The hard drive hadn’t been backed up, of course. Luckily, the dope was smart enough to call me. I was able to recover 89 percent of the data, and 63 percent of the beer.
The name is Rowe. Mack Rowe. Private consultant.
I turned the corner and walked into a reddish, sandstone building. Holding my throbbing nose, I found the door and walked up to my office on the fifth floor.
She was waiting for me in the hallway. “Mr. Rowe,” she asked.
I noticed her immediately–and not only because she was calling me by name. She looked as sleek as a MacBook Air, and twice as expensive, with legs as long as a white paper on Recommended Security Precautions For Financial Institutions Hoping To Increase Their Presence on the Worldwide Web.
I let her into my office and sat down at my desk. “What can I do for you, sweetheart?” I asked as I poured myself a scotch with one hand and rolled a cigarette with the other.
“My name is Lulu Lacross, and I need to know the whereabouts of my data.”
I looked up at her as I put down my soaked cigarette paper and shot-glass of tobacco. “Hard drive flew south for the winter?”
“My hard drive is fine,” she told me. “It’s just that my data isn’t on it. Hasn’t been in awhile. I’ve been using online applications.”
I shuddered. Poor thing.
“When did you notice that you couldn’t access your data?” I asked.
“Oh, I can access it just fine,” she told me. “But I worry. Back when I used local applications, I knew that my documents were in My Documents. Every five minutes, HackupBackup for Paranoids copied it to another location on my hard drive. As an extra precaution, at the end of every day, I’d plug in an external hard drive and run Blackhole Backup. I’d follow that with burning everything to DVD.
“But last month I switched to online tools. I don’t know where my files are physically stored, if they’re getting backed up, or even whether they’re lonely. I don’t even know whether they belong to me, legally speaking.”
“Google apps?” I asked. She shook her head. “Office Live?” Negative, again. “Joe’s Bar, Grill, and Internet Application?” Not that one, ether. “Okay, sis, who’s online apps are you using?”
“Softpopsoftwaredotcom.com,” she told me.
I sighed. This was going to be a tough one.
The next day I paid a visit to Softpop’s worldwide headquarters–a suburban house just outside of town. I rang the bell and a middle-aged man with a bewildered expression answered the door.
“Softpopsoftwaredotcom.com?” I asked. He nodded. “My name is Rowe. Mack Rowe. Private consultant.”
He smiled broadly, grabbed my arm, and pulled me inside. “Mack! How nice of you to come by.” He was dragging me down the hall to his office. “Call me Norman. I’ve just got to show you my new iPhone program for viewing widescreen movies. Much better than turning the phone sideways! I use three iPhones standing side-by-side. I’m calling it Softpop CineiPhoneRama!”
I shook my arm lose and confronted him. “Forget the iPhone, Norman. I want to know what you’ve done with Lulu Lacross’ data.”
He looked at me, confused, then he smiled. “Of course, Lulu Lacross. She’s using my suite of Internet apps.”
“You know all your customers by name?”
“Well, you can’t expect us to have a one-to-one relationship with every customers. For instance, if she called Tech Support, she’d get our slave laborer in Bombay. But I try to know all three of our customers by name.”
By now we were in his office and he sat down behind the desk as he continued talking. “Her data is perfectly safe. It resides on that XT clone in the corner. That 20MB hard drive hasn’t failed me in more than 20 years.”
“And she can access it any time she wants?”
“Of course. Until we change our policies. It’s all spelled out in our End User Licensing Agreement.” He handed me a stack of papers as thick as a phone book. It was filled with impenetrable legalize printed in very small type.
He handed me a ballpoint pen as I studied the text. “Here. It will help if you underline key phrases.”
I absentmindedly clicked the top of the pen and began to underline a sentence about first-born children.
“You did it!” he cried triumphantly! “You just clicked the EULA. That means I own your data. I own your surfing habits. I own you.”
Something here made me suspicious.
He handed me a box of Oreos. “Here, have a cookie. Have lots of cookies. That way I can track you. Goodbye.”
I left his house, somewhat dazed and confused. Somewhere in the distance, Windows was booting up.
My first Gigglebytes column appeared in 1986 in the San Francisco Bay Area Computer Currents. Like the vast majority of periodicals that have carried the column over the last 22 years, that one no longer exists. I have decided to discontinue this column to save the Sunday Business Post from a similar fate.
Seriously, I’m giving up this column for personal and professional reasons. Thank you for reading it and (I hope) find it amusing.