Banks are well known to be somewhat stuck in the 70s with their computer systems, in good company with the airlines. We are quite used to getting cryptic four letter acronyms on our bank statements and airline tickets, and for our names to be transcribed into some kind of semi-secret, truncated caps-lock based language without space or even a hint of support for international characters. For instance, I’ve received airline tickets in the name of
SA,ILAND/STIAMR, and on my bank statements
POS does not mean position, but “Point of sale”, meaning that I’ve purchased something in a shop. Probably “Shop” is too long to fit in the column-based data files on the AS/400 mainframes.
Last month, I went with a colleague to the travel agency the university is using for its bookings, to get a last minute multi-leg flight Manchester–Boston–Chicago–Manchester, preferably without any transfers. This well-dressed gentlemen (we had been shown upstairs to the “business travel section” to avoid the students trying to find cheap around-the-world tickets) started hammering the keyboard with assertive keystrokes, and he kept typing for 15 minutes, until he looked up very pleased. He had managed to arrange the trip, cheaper than what I had looked up earlier with Expedia or Kayak, and he said he just needed to move to a different computer to make a printout of our reservation.
I continue to be amazed by the use of text-based console systems, it is almost as I remember the magic of travel agencies as a kid. Of course in those days they used to have real monochrome amber terminals with tobacco-yellow keyboards (and circular keys!), and all the terminals of the office would be linked up to some kind of advanced multiplexed 1200 baud fixed link to the mainframe server abroad somewhere. These days they are still using the same kind of mainframes, it seems, but the terminals have been replaced by normal Windows PCs, running terminal emulator software in Java inside a standard browser window.
The travel agent told us that it was much easier these days, as he could easily search in many different systems from the same computer. He showed me how he flipped between 5 different terminal sessions with Alt-Tab — he had been searching for our flights in each of these systems.
You might think that consoles and green letters on black background would have been replaced with true web-based systems, .NET and the whole shebang, but this guy said the thing is that all the airlines are using these kind of systems, every day, so you couldn’t just change it overnight. He was operating the booking systems like a king, similar to how a clever Linux system administrator would dive into a black terminal window, type frantically and hard, and be able to trace down which of the 20,000 home pages on the web server had been infected and sent out all those Mystery shopper emails. The travel agent said that the backend systems had not changed much over the last 25 years he had worked there, but he did admit that now and then a new command, along the lines of PQX, would appear.
I believe a web-based system, no matter how web 2.0, dynamic and RESTful, would simply not do for these experts — I watched in pain once with an insurance broker as he slowly tried to navigate a badly designed internal web-solution for getting insurance quotes. In the end, as he found some Swiss company giving me the best quote, he took down my details in a classic terminal-like application, which went like a charm in comparison to the first challenge.
So back to the travel agent, I then noticed something peculiar, a secret of the trade perhaps. Do you know all those CAPSLOCK-DISCLAIMER-things in the bottom of the ticket? All those weird codes? Here’s what we got (I’ve replaced the travel agent’s name with “xx” to be kind):
FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE PLEASE SEE THE UNIVERSITY WEBSITE CAMPUS.MANCHESTER.AC.UK/PURCHASE/INSURANCE/TRAVEL.HTM FARE GBP 215.00 TAX GBP 237.10 SECTOR FEE GBP 3.00 BKG FEE GBP 35.00 NON REFUNDABLE/RESTRICTED CHANGES AT A FEE AND ANY FARE / TAX DIFFERENCE. INTERNATIONAL TRAVELLERS SEEKING TO TRAVEL TO THE US UNDER THE VISA WAIVER PROGRAMME ARE NOW SUBJECT TO ENHANCED SECURITY REQUIREMENTS ALL ELIGIBLE TRAVELLERS WHO WISH TO TRAVEL UNDER THE VISA WAIVER PROGRAM MUST APPLY FOR AUTHORISATION USING THE ELECTRONIC SYSTEM FOR TRAVEL AUTHORISATION - ESTA PLEASE REFER TO WWW.XXTRAVEL.CO.UK/LINKS.HTML TRAVELLERS HOLDING PASSPORTS NOT ELIGIBLE FOR THE VISA WAIVER PROGRAM STAYS OF LONGER THAN 90DAYS OR PERSONS INTENDING TO UNDERTAKE PAID WORK IN THE USA WILL NEED TO APPLY FOR AN ENTRY VISA-PLEASE VISIT WWW.USEMBASSY.ORG.UK XX TRAVEL WILL BE PLEASED TO OFFER FURTHER ADVICE IF REQUIRED. PLEASE NOTE THE FOLLOWING CHECK IN TIMES LONGHAUL INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS MUST BE RECONFIRMED 72 HOURS PRIOR TO DEPARTURE. FAILURE TO DO SO MAY RESULT IN YOUR FLIGHT BEING CANCELLED. THANK YOU FOR BOOKING WITH XX TRAVEL.
I guess we are all quite used to seeing this long telegram-style sequence of continuous letters on our tickets, and we generally don’t read them, as they are all in caps, smell of licence agreements and lawyer talk, and then there’s those cryptic airline codes that probably are there to tell the check-in staff that you should be seated next to the toilet furthest in the back of the aircraft.
Here’s the big surprise.. the guy was typing in all of this — by hand! He was not issuing advanced commands to a mainframe over the Atlantic, he was simply trying to write me “Thank you” — a bit peculiar as I was sitting right in front of him!
This really got me wondering.. are there always a guy like that typing in those statements? Why don’t we read them? Imagine a guy trapped in a little cave on an island somewhere in the Pacific, with only a 70s terminal available (Lost-style), and no matter how hard he tries, his caps lock is soldered and stuck in always-on, and he tries to sneak in a scream for help on the bottom of your airline ticket, but you would never notice..
PX1 441 TXF MAN OSL 21 NO TRANSFER TAX 33.00 GBP PLEASE HELP ME FR14 MAX BAGGAGE ALLOWANCE 23 KGS I AM TRAPPED FRS SVG KL221 DO NOT FLY KM5 EUROBONUS.NO/DOESNOTWORK.HTM HAVE A NICE TRIP
Anyway, I was quite pleased when I heard our reservation being printed out. You see, it came out on a classic 24-dot matrix printer, on tractor-fed paper with holes on the sides. Some things are better left unchanged!
Now what happens these days, when banks and airlines are moving into the digital age, is that they want to be present on the Internet, modern and up to date with HTML 3.2. Consultants are hired, and the customers of the bank get a nice, clean web-based system that kind of does the job. After a bit of trial and error you can even claim it’s somewhat secure. In my bank, even the clerics and sales people are using a web-system that looks suspiciously similar to what I see at home. But under the hood it’s still one of those massive mainframes turning the wheels — and in a way that’s good, right? You probably would not want some MySQL-Ruby-on-Rails-thingie hacked together in 2 months to keep track of your bank account?
But then you get these young people appearing in management, with revolutionary ideas such as bank statements per email and using the online banking system to give customers notices of “important changes”. Of course it takes a few rounds to figure out why
HTTP://WWW.MYBANK.CO.UK/PRIVATE/INDEX.CFM?ARTICLE_ID=12 does not work, when
http://www.mybank.co.uk/private/index.cfm?article_id=12 does — but then there’s another problem, those ancient IBM machines from the 70s have difficulties with typographical stuff like headers and bold fonts — after all the most advanced thing the amber screens could do was reverse video.
So the bank clearly ended up with some kind of hybrid, a web solution where the staff edit the messages in a classic console, and I end up getting messages like:
**ONLINE BANKING IS BEING IMPROVED**
We will shortly be making improvements to your online banking service. Along with a brand new look, we’re also making some changes to the page layout and navigation.
**MAKING IT EASIER TO GO PAPERLESS**
With online statements, you can search, download and save up to 7 years statement history.
If you haven’t switched to online statements already, you will soon be given the opportunity to do so when you log in to online banking.
Plus, we’ll also be giving you a further incentive to go paperless – go to mybank.com/paperlesswin for details.
**EXISTING MYBANK BILL MANAGEMENT CUSTOMERS**
Please note that links to the Bill Management Service will shortly be moving to the ‘Payments’ section of online banking.
So I’m looking very much forward to this improved online banking experience, after all, they’ve already almost cracked the capslock problem. Hyperlinks, headers and bold font are still in waiting — but do you really need that just to deal with some accounts and credit cards?
I am hoping that the future online banking experience will be more like that terminal solution I spotted at the travel agent — after all then I can write THANK YOU FOR LOOKING AFTER MY MONEY in the telex requesting a transfer of £100 to my savings account.