AT&T, the company that created Unix and C, could be said to no longer exist, or more correctly could be said to be a different company than the one now called by that name.
A little (abridged, simplified) history: AT&T, you may remember, sold its cell business to Cingular long ago. Bell Labs went to Lucent before that. Eventually, it even sold its residential phone business off. They backed out of a lot of markets and dropped the best R&D lab they could have had.
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.
That said, it's a very cool place to work overall. For us, the consultant-generated tech is a dent in the Porsche. But for a customer trying to give you money? Even my mom doesn't use IE and she wouldn't understand the problem with ActiveX controls.
FWIW, every company I've worked with (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, others) has a method of activating everything that does not require installing any software. If you have a technician on site installing something they can do it for you; if not you may have to call them to do it.
In my latest round with Verizon FIOS (4 months ago), the technician let me know that they have the option "in case you just moved in and your computer is packed away." Use that as an excuse, or say you haven't purchased your computer yet but your family is over visiting and need to use the WiFi.
Cable seems to be activated just by using their modem the last few times and qwest dsl can be activated by a simple login on a browser and waiting for them to verify.
Although, think of it like this: AT&T is doing what every web developer in the world wishes they were able/allowed to do. It's getting people off IE6.
Granted, the process should be "If IE, then update, else, just show form"
I would hardly be surprised if doing it this way saves ATT millions of dollars. The default browser for Windows XP is IE6 and a large percentage of new ATT internet customers are highly likely to use whatever browser is on their system, and even a small fraction of ATT's customers is millions of people.
Also keep in mind that this default behavior was almost certainly implemented several years ago when the use of IE6 was even greater than it is today in order to avoid lengthy technical support phone conversations with people like your grandparents when they purchased their first computer.
I'll add that it costs ATT very little to only directly support IE - sure a few calls from Firefox users escalate but that is probably offset by the fact that as a market segment those users are more likely to be technically savvy.
ATT knows its market segment in a way that most startups would do well to emulate - and recognizing how their setup procedure goes to their bottom line is a valuable lesson about focusing on MVP rather than perfect code.
Since you don't need 40 people and a couple of $700/hr partners to build a web form, they broadened the scope of the process to pick low hanging fruit or synergize paradigms.
That may make no sense to you, but I'm sure it sounded good at the 16th hole (and 4th cocktail) at the country club when the $700/hr partner was pitching it.
To (hopefully) install a shim that lets them install software that lets their help desk help their customer more effectively. If I were trying to support millions of 'ordinary users' and had them calling me every time anything didn't work the way they expected, I'd want something on their desktop that let me help them (a gotomypc type of agent, for example).
I'm not sure if anyone can justify the need for ActiveX in this case.
ATT's homepage for DSL customers is Yahoo, and it is heavily Flash dependent. The same logic that serves as part of the justification for Apple's iOS strategy underlies ATT's decision making - reducing options to reduce support costs and enhance user experience. It is better if Grandpa's introduction to the internet has everything working when he lands on your homepage for the first time.
Again, ATT knows their market segment.
I think that's overly generous. Aaron Patterson spoke at RailsConf. He said he works for AT&T, and to submit an expense report, he scans paper receipts to a PDF, emails that somewhere, which converts the PDF to a fax, which faxes it somewhere else to be converted back into a PDF.
That is clearly a stupid process. It's not there because AT&T has analyzed the business logic; it's there because a large, old business can accumulate layers of bureaucratic process more easily than a small, young one. There are more committees and more inertia. And maybe if you make billions, wasting thousands of dollars worth of employees' time doesn't make you sit up and take notice.
I'd guess this web form is a similar problem. If you have a 5-person company, everyone in the company hears customer feedback and maybe talks to customers personally. I doubt the CEO of AT&T even knows this form exists.
The fact that they are leveraging legacy business processes rather than reengineering them for the sake of aesthetics (keep in mind thtat even with reengineering Aaron would still be scanning his receipt and the person in accounting would still be dealing with a PDF and it doesn't cost them anything to use idle bandwidth because they own the pipe).
Don't misunderstand me, ATT doesn't get any of my money because of my past dissatisfaction with them. My point is that it is a mistake to misinterpret their webpage in the way the article does.
 In fact the process of converting PDF's into faxes and back into PDF's makes a lot of sense from a document management standing because it will convert Aarons 2400 dpi 32bit scan of a Chili's receipt to the 100 dpi 1 bit image which is sufficient to do the job. Thereby reducing long term storage costs, standardizing the stored format, and almost certainly integrating with the initial portions of the office automation system which no doubt were designed to convert faxes from the field into digital documents for use by accounting staff.
Well, that's one way of interpreting it. Another way is to say that AT&T is a monopoly provider and therefore has no incentive to cut costs. The fact that the setup process is baroque doesn't cost AT&T anything - its not like customers have a plethora of alternatives for their broadband access. So, what AT&T optimizes for is cost of development, and I can assure you it was cheaper to develop this "solution" using half-trained consultants than it would have been to develop a well-designed setup page using experienced software engineers.
Yeah. DropBox installs Growl without the user's permission. http://growl.info/thirdpartyinstallations.php
If you say anything else you'll derail your support. Your goal is to get through the level 1 did-you-plug-everything-in-lets-restart-your-machine gauntlet.
That, or go to the forums at dslreports.com and hope you can contact a sympathetic AT&T engineer.
The last time I mentioned using a Mac the support person ignored that I had already tried pinging certain gateways to check connectivity, and proceeded to condescendingly walk me through going to Applications->Utilities->Network Utility so that I could run ping from a tab there.
Of course I quit after 15 min of this, tried to access again in a couple hours, and it was just a network failure in my area, anyway. Geez.
"I've run some traceroutes and packets are getting lost at your router in Elmhurst. When I do get through, ping times are over 700 millseconds"
"Okay, sir, what I'm going to need you do to is close your browser and restart it"
If only "shibboleet" worked in real life...
We call, after two hours on the phone they agree to send a tech out. Tech takes one look at the pole and says "you're too far from the office. They never should have let you sign up"
Quite surprising, and she was quite knowledgeable and helpful too.
Comcast also has some complex IE only registration, but if you call them and say you use linux they'll say no problem ask for the MAC of the modem and activate you on the phone.
So it is probably not as expensive as one might think at first blush.
AT&T does something similar and it's met with frustration?
Requiring IE* should be frowned upon. But anything that says "upgrade from IE6", in end-user land, is probably a good thing.
So I agree with your point about upgrading being a good thing, but 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.
My ire with IE being updated was that I was never going to use IE ever again (by choice), whether it was 6 or 8; and so whether it was upgraded or not would not affect my browsing experience on sites other than this particular instance. So for me, it was just one additional hoop that I had to grudgingly jump through.
I spent ages fighting the login and ID recovery system before I found out my DSL connection came under "U-verse" and not "Internet". Their login page even has a helpful picture of a TV to illustrate the U-verse link: http://www.att.com/accounts/?source=IC4425j4900s2000
I still have no idea what "U-verse" is and what differentiates it. I just assume that some crappy marketing manager thought the name was cute.
Edit: or in support calls, they sometimes accidentally say "sir" to a woman etc., this might help with that.
(Yes, I know this sounds like an urban myth, but I can dig up where I heard it straight from the guy, he has a podcast).
It's not entirely crazy either, when you consider how mainstream media and consumers perceive security incidents. The problem, though, is when enterprises tend to be overly conservative, not acknowledging "reasonable risk". And being out of touch with browser trends, ie assuming that only a particular version of IE is safe. (In this case, IE is probably required because the developers didn't know any better, but in other cases, an out-of-date understanding of browsers is the rationale for supporting only IE.)
Comcast installation was/is similar -- done in my case during the course of the Comcast technician's visit. I got rid of their crap when I reimaged the machine. Didn't affect service in any perceptible manner. (It did get rid of their branding from the IE window title, though -- another useless annoyance.)
If I have to go through similar, again, I'm going to do it in a disposable virtual machine image (reverting back to the last snapshot).
You can change the 'Microsoft Internet Explorer provided by Yoyodyne' string to whatever you want.
People are reminded of you every month when they pay their bill, Comcast. Don't push it. /rhetoric
Other commenters mentioned you can call them to activate your account. What info do you have to give them that's not collectible via a web form?
 I'm assuming the whole ActiveX thing is to push a download of IE8 because the code whatever tool they used to build the signup form only works in IE8. But it just boggles.
Wow, this is one patient guy. I would have gotten frustrated by the second point already and would have thrown something against the wall by then!
It would be even better if AT&T could somehow be convinced to run the same code that runs in normal browsers anytime the user agent isn't IE. Even better if they could somehow be convinced not to even run ActiveX in IE.
Though you're probably right, probably would have failed.
What if Microsoft pays AT&T on the side to force a large number of people to use their platform? Even if most people already do, it instills in people the believe that that Line-ux thing doesn't work with the Internet.