AT&T’s Rube Goldbergian Web Form

I recently bought AT&T DSL and documented their frustratingly over-engineered registration process. In short: a simple web-form system shouldn’t end up installing Internet Explorer 8 for you. I think it’s interesting particularly because no lean startup would ever ever do this in a million years, yet we aren’t particularly surprised when a big company is flushing dollars down the toilet in this way.

When AT&T activated my service and I received the DSL modem and a manual in the mail, I assumed it would be a quick five-minute process. Configuring the modem itself was straightforward and went smoothly. When the modem is configured, you pull up a browser, which will automatically redirect to an AT&T registration page.

The landing page was a little too flashy, it automatically plays some audio instructions in the background, basically telling you to hit the “next” button. They inform you that you need to supply some information to AT&T and in return they will give you a username and password to add to the modem’s configuration, which will allow you to get to the internet. The obvious approach is a simple HTML web form.

Instead, when I hit next, there is a five minute pause as AT&T’s website “checks my system.” Why this takes five minutes is beyond me. It then complains that my browser is not supported — well, I use chrome on ubuntu, which is an obscure setup, so fair enough, I’ll switch to Firefox. Wrong. It requires an ActiveX control (a way to run native code on my machine, also, who still uses ActiveX? Its 2011, does AT&T also send smoke signals from one department to another to announce the results of their fancy abacus calculations?). This means I must find a windows box and use Internet Explorer. Why? For a web form? Ridiculous, but okay, another hoop to jump through.

So, I boot into an old computer that is running Windows XP. I launch whatever version of IE is on it which has never been used, endure the flashy landing page again, wait another five minutes for the website to “Check My System,” and then wait another five minutes for it to download and run some sort of ActiveX control. I’m getting frustrated by this point, because what should be just a simple platform/browser independent webform has turned into some kind of ridiculous circus. Now, the ActiveX controller informs me that my version of IE isn’t good enough!

I’m livid. But luckily the ActiveX controller will download a new version of IE for me! Well, that is a nice touch I guess, although ridiculous in its own way; a simple web form now necessitates complicated contingency considerations.

Not inspiring confidence in the speed or consistency of my newly acquired broadband connection, it takes forever to download the new browser version and freezes once or twice. When it freezes, I have to restart the browser and re-endure the five-minute checking process before the ActiveX controller chides me for my ancient version of IE.


Finally it’s done. It warns me before it installs IE 8 that ATT may also include some bundled crapware (I didn’t notice any though). Then it installs. And reboots my computer. And then I go to the flashy landing page, wait five minutes for it to analyze my system, five minutes for the activeX control to load.


Oh. It’s a web form. Cool.

Now: Would DropBox do something this silly? 37 signals? Even large tech companies like Amazon and Google wouldn’t. But somehow at AT&T some bloated process or disconnect between management and engineers resulted in an wasteful, irrational implementation.

Update: Wow, didn’t think this would hit #1 on, and want to exploit this incoming traffic, so go look at, a colleague Jeff Clune has launched this cool research-related site where you evolve 3d objects interactively and they can be printed out on a 3D printer.

Also, an anonymous commenter from the hackernews thread illuminates the true reason for the IE/ActiveX dependence:

What is called AT&T now is actually SBC, a Baby Bell with a penchant for out-sourcing. SBC bought Cingular, AT&T, Pacific Bell, lots of other companies. Their AT&T purchase was motivated in part by the name: everyione has heard of AT&T.

SBC brought with them metric tons of bureaucracy, all running in IE. Disgusting. It’s not just the external web interfaces. We have to deal with this BS internally, too. 1990s web interfaces that only work in IE (sometimes requiring 7, sometimes requiring 6) for every interaction with corporate. Taxes, mandatory training, time reporting, everything.

We have to grab a spare Windows machine or run a VM with XP in it. Most of the tech side of company knows and hates the whole thing. The impenatrable bureaucracy makes it impossible to find out who to complain to. There is no escape. The article is dead-on about what’s wrong, and I know first-hand, because we have to eat that dog food weekly.

The true cause of the crufty web-form is more insidious and historical than an outsider might intuitively guess. It is incredible how in less than three hours a single article can actually ferret out a strange nugget of truth.

32 thoughts on “AT&T’s Rube Goldbergian Web Form

  1. Bless you for your patience! My sentiments, as well. I do on-site IT services and have had to go through this process a hundred times. I discovered that if you call in to AT&T and bitch about it, or ask for a manager, they will eventually let you use the back door, which is basically a manual configuration through the modem’s GUI.

    There is (or was) a similar system profiler program that installs itself from Windstream’s DSL service, and will not allow itself to be removed from a PC by any means I am aware of. Totally unacceptable on my machines that I purposefully kept perfectly clean!

    Some techs have even told me on the phone that their DSL service does not support Linux machines!

    • Thanks for the info! Next time I will call to circumvent the ridiculousness. If a company wants to include some kind of system profilers, they at least shouldn’t be mandatory, especially if that is that is the only thing keeping alternative platforms from being supported.

  2. Yup, I used to have ATT DSL. Make sure to keep that XP system up and running because you will have to hard reset your modem soon and, guess what? You’ll have to go through this alllllll over again. And oh yeah, ATT DSL is slow as a dog. Have fun! My prayers are with you sir.

    • Gross. I didn’t even think about that, thanks for the advice. It beats tethered 3g (barely), which was my previous internet connection when at home.

      • I got into a couple of, erm… “heated” discussions with their support reps because of this. As a software developer bad software just pisses me off, and this is up there with the worst of it. And yeah, I couldn’t set it up from my Mac either. Apparently the only people who need an internet connection are running Windows, and preferably XP because, at the time (about two years ago) their setup software didn’t support Vista. Yeesh.

  3. Just make a virtual machine, install windows and the appropriate IE on it, and keep it around for filling out the ATT web form.

  4. Well…look at the bright side. There was probably someone out there using IE6, and this arduous process forced them to upgrade.

    But yeah, simple browser detection (if IE6…show middle finger to end user!) would have avoided all this.

    I hope cable modems come to your location soon!


    • I installed Dropbox and it prompted me whether or not to install Growl. Your experience may have been different, of course.

  5. I wonder what happens if you don’t own a Windows box? I have a MacBook with an SSD and not enough disk to install a VM even if I was willing to do that to activate a DSL modem.

    • We only have Macs, no Windows in the house. When I got AT&T DLS we just did the registration with Safari – no issues (or download required).

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t try it, but it appears to only support up to IE6 at the moment. I am not very familiar with WINE and tend to stay away from it based on difficulties I’ve had in the past, although perhaps it warrants another look.

  6. I nearly went through the same thing when my mom switched to AT&T DSL and asked me to set it up for her. At the time she was running Windows ME and their install tool required XP or above.

    I called tech support and I asked how to get things going without having XP or higher. Maybe I just got lucky, but she was real helpful and simply walked me through manually configuring the modem.

    I decided that if I ever had to install AT&T DSL at my place, I’m going to call support and do the same thing, even if I do have a recent Windows machine on the network. Why should I have to install some crapware just to connect to the network?

  7. Just a friendly suggestion. Your blog’s font is way, way too small. I have 20/20 vision and a laptop running 1440×900 on a 12″ display. The text on 99% of the sites I visit is more than large enough, to the point that I don’t even think about it, but occasionally I run across a site like this.

    Have you considered making it bigger?

    • I appreciate the constructive criticism. Readability was one of the things that led me to a minimalist theme for the blog, so anything to improve readability is a plus. I’m going to crawl through the css and bump up the font size. Thanks again.

  8. So let me get this straight. You are a un*x guy who expects the world to support your random OS variant on an operating system that is *cough* in the single digits share wise. Then your fall back is a Window$ OS that was released in 2001. Sorry to troll but you need to perhaps ponder the era we all live in and manage your own expectations.

    • I agree that my setup (ubuntu+chrome) is not reflective of the vast majority of AT&T’s market.

      The underlying absurdity is that something inherently platform independent (a webform) was perverted into something entirely specific to not only a particular OS, but a particular browser.

      It’s just a bad design choice. The point is that there is no reason why my OS/browser choice should matter when dealing with a web form. I have no problems browsing nearly any modern web site even though my setup is a bit exotic when compared to an average user.

  9. ATT is so bloated and out of touch, it’s beyond comprehension. Verizon is about the same. I fired ATT during my last relocation. Went to cable as my primary connection and Megapath is my secondary connection. No regrets.

  10. Heh. I worked at SBC (now AT&T) for a year after I got out of school.

    That place is a nightmare, tech implementation-wise.

    I feel your pain.

  11. I had the misfortune of attempting to set it up for my parents while I was home last Thanksgiving. My laptop was in the shop for repairs, and my iPod touch and iPad had been recently stolen, so we were out my most recent computers. We installed iCab on an iMac running Panther. Now, iCab is supposed to be fully compatible with sites that require Safari 3, so I figured it would work. It didn’t. We ended up calling them, they manually set it up for us.

  12. You whine but it sounds to me like you are being lazy.

    Look at it from the point of view of the CEO. He has an assistant do all that kind of stuff for him. It doesn’t bothe him at all.

    When I call you lazy I mean… too lazy to go out and get an MBA work for years to go up the management chain, and become an overpaid CEO with an assistant that takes care of technical things for him.

    If he could do it so could you.

    (if you weren’t sure… Just j/k)

  13. I just went through this installation process a couple of days ago. It went like a breeze using Firefox.

    I’ve had horrible experiences with AT&T in the past. But this one was very pleasant. The customer service people were awesome. It was great. I was shocked.

  14. This sounds a lot like it falls under the 80/20 rule.
    80% of AT&T customers *need* that kind of handholding. The other 20% are smart enough to figure out how to work around it anyway. Good luck trying to push through the budget for a project to fix that.
    The big silver lining is that it forces that many more people to finally upgrade from IE6.

  15. I also went through this with my Dad who had purchased ATT ADSL in anticipation of my visit to the US. (I live in Thailand.) He’s got an ancient iMac running a very old version of Safari. I upgraded that to the most recent his version of OS/X would support. Not good enough for ATT. I finally ended up doing the registration and setup of the modem with Safari on my iPad.

  16. Thankfully (I guess), I had DSL several years ago, and the set-up was cake back then (insert a CD-ROM in the drive, click “Setup.exe”, create a username and password, and browse the internet. Of course, maintaining a connection long term required learning about the modem, which I did eagerly.

    When I last set up DSL (about 10 months ago), I simply logged directly into the router ( and had it running in under 10 minutes.

    Of course, I then realized that AT&T could barely hold any speed above a dial-up connection at my house. I think it lasted about 90 days before I found an internet provider over WiMax, which is now working flawlessly.

  17. I feel your pain. I had to help my friend have AT&T DSL installed in her apartment and it turned into the nightmare from hell.

    Every time we called their customer service, we would get a different answer. Once, the rep told us we should switch to AT&T U-Verse and sent us the U-Verse package, then told us that we didn’t live in an area that had that service. What!?

    Another time, we were told that AT&T DSL was not even available in the area. When told that all the other apartments had it, she said she would call me back after researching it, and never did.

    It wasn’t until we finally got somebody higher up that we finally got them to install it correctly and a guy came out to do some wiring in the apartment complex.

    All in all, it took about a month to get it installed properly. This is how a monopoly works. If there was ANY other way to get broadband Internet there, I would have gone to them, even if it cost more, just for spite.

  18. Thanks for posting this – I stumbled on it a year later when the software bombed out on me. Luckily, I was past the username/pwd part, so I just popped the credentials into my router and was good to go.

    I’m not sure what the activex stuff would have done, but it sure as hell isn’t necessary to connect me to the internet. I really wish there was a “I know what I’m doing” opt out button in the form. Would make the whole process a hell of a lot easier.

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