Monday, September 19, 2016

iPhone 7: To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade, That is the Question

Apple has officially announced the iPhone 7 and now we're left with the next round to grand decisions -- to upgrade or not to upgrade. Last year, I enrolled in Apple's Annual Upgrade program, so from a finance / carrier perspective, upgrading to the newest model is an easy consideration for me. And yet, as with so many Apple updates these days (hardware and software), the upgrade decision is not so straightforward.

The main reasons why I have to upgrade:

The Phone is Too Damned Big! After holding out on upgrading my iPhone 5 for an extra-long time, wooed by the idea of a much better camera, extra battery life, and a display I could actually read, last year I opted for the iPhone 6s Plus. My year with the iPhone 6s Plus has been a mixed bag. The battery life on the big phone has been great -- I've never once managed to run the battery down to empty, even on very busy days of talking, browsing, and using location services. The display size hasn't really delivered as much of a benefit though, as Apple's iOS user interface doesn't really scale in any proportional way (You can increase the font size and make some adjustments, but it doesn't scale like the display interface on your computer). As for the camera, it's probably nicer, but frankly, even if it was crappier, it's still the integrated camera, so you'd use it just the same as you did with the camera on the phone for how many generations back. But the worst thing about the iPhone 6s Plus is that it's just too damned big. I can't count the number of times that I've dropped the phone -- or watched others drop the phone -- simply because it's so big, it's awkward. I could give lots of examples, but the long and short is that the iPhone Plus model is just too damned big. When I upgrade, I'm going to get a long-overdue smaller phone.

I think I have other reasons, but I they aren't coming to mind -- other than the phone is too damned big.

Why I would refuse to upgrade if I could:

Following Apple down their upgrade path is a validation of a host of design decisions that I don't agree with. Increasingly, it seems like the company is hell bent on designing to "change for change sake" because "we're Apple, and we have the 'courage' to do things". Even if they're wrong. After all, if they had the courage to make a real improvement, why not make the phone a bit thicker and slightly heavier for longer battery life? Why not "smooth" out the back side so that the stupid camera lens doesn't stick out as a prominent bump? Why not move the power button back to the top instead of keeping in opposed to the volume controls? If Apple had the courage to do these things instead of chasing Samsung and trying to out-Android the various Android phones, that would be a phone that I would want to buy. Imagine a phone that was 50% thicker, but with something like double the battery life.

But back to the upgrade. Let's talk about the stupidest of stupid, the reason why, if it weren't for my current phone being too damned big, I would probably not upgrade.

Removing the analog audio port
During the keynote, Apple describes this as a courageous decision. Instead of the "look how old this analog audio port is" spin, let's distill this down to what it really is -- any wired headphone that plugs into the phone now must use Apple's proprietary Lightning Connector. Or you can use a dongle -- because we all love carrying those! But as you'll note in the dongle post that I've linked to, now you can't listen and charge unless you use a special dongle or you get one of their new docks.

In his review of the iPhone 7, on charging and listening Walt Mossberg says Apple's explanation for the removal is, "Apple says very few people do charge and listen at the same time. I respectfully disagree." I don't just disagree, I think that that explanation is complete horseshit. I think the removal of the analog port is one of those moments when the arrogance of the modern Apple company shines through. It's the rationalization that says "very few people charge and listen at the same time" and "you can still use your existing products, your noise canceling headphones, all your old Beats Audio stuff that we've sold you, everything... you just have to use this dongle," and tries to pass that off as a bold design.

Here's what Apple's not saying. Where once you only needed to carry one set of headphones to use on your iPhone, your iPad and your Macbook (or your PC), now you have to carry two because there isn't a Macbook with a Lightning port. But hey, Airpods (coming soon). Wireless audio is cool and a nice idea for the future, but you know who doesn't like Bluetooth Audio? Airlines. Not to mention that, if you happen to be lucky enough to be on one of those airplanes with power, you're probably going to be one of those few people listening and charging.

In short, I hate the removal of the analog audio port. As the rumors of removing it were flying around, I hoped that launch day would prove them wrong. I hoped that maybe there would be an innovative solution that made the removal not so terrible. Instead, we get dongle. And an incomplete dongle at that.

My Upgrade Path
With my auto-upgrade program, I was able to reserve an iPhone 7 for pick-up on Friday, the first day of availability. And yet, the more I thought about the things that I wanted in a phone -- and the things that I didn't want -- I realized that I just didn't want the iPhone 7. For me, the greatest frustration was that the iPhone 5se was released after I had already upgraded from my iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6s Plus. Had I waited just a bit longer, I would have opted for the SE.

At the same time, my wife needs a new phone. While she has the iPhone 6, she uses her phone much more frequently than I do, and she plays a lot of games on her phone. While she continues to push the performance limits of what her phone is capable of, I've found that the phone has become increasingly less useful for me. And that's where I crafted this a different solution path. Since I already had my iPhone 7 upgrade reservation and since she was interested in the iPhone 7, I gave my reservation to her. And me, I'm switching to an iPhone 5se. Would it be nice to have the newest processor and the newest camera? Sure, but the more that I weighed the impact of the loss of the audio port, the more I felt like the impact on me would be far worse.

So how bad is the removal of the audio port? Answer, for me, no audio port equals no phone upgrade. But after over 25 years of using Apple products, I find that they are increasingly not being designed for my needs.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sling TV: Cord Cutting has it's Issues

After many years of sharing an apartment with roommates and a requirement to have enough cable TV to be able to watch all of the local sports teams, a little over two and a half years ago I moved into my own apartment for a planned limited stay. Since it was just me, I decided to forgo television service, something I'd done in my own room of the apartment years before. What I had found was that, if there was a TV that could be turned on, it often was -- and only the tiniest fraction of content on it was actually worth watching.

While I've missed lots of things on broadcast TV over the past two and a half years, live sporting events, the last Jon Stewart Daily Show, Letterman's retirement, I've never really felt like it was a great loss, particularly given what I've seen when I have tuned in. Meanwhile, I've had Netflix, Amazon Prime video and HBO Now, all of which provide service that makes up for crappy TV and way too many commercials. But I've always wished for just a little bit more.

Which brings me to Dish's SlingTV. Last week I came across an article about how they were expanding the promotion on this service -- essentially a way that you can get a limited number of channels delivered OTT (Over The Top, i.e. through your Internet Connection). Paying for a limited number of HD channels seemed like an interesting prospect. Not giving Comcast stupid money for crappy TV also seemed like a win. Best of all, the site offered a free 7-day trial of the service.

Sling TV offers one bundle of channels for about $20 per month, one for $25, and then a whole block of what they have available for $45 per month. Their options include ESPN if you're so inclined, plus a bunch of Food channels and others. You can also add Cinemax for $10 per month, something I wish they would do like the HBO Now app, but anyway -- that being said, I decided to sign up.

The Results
I really wanted to like SlingTV. I really did. But my experience with the service has been colossally frustrating. Of course, sign up was a breeze. A quick plug in of my information and a credit card and I was on my way. But that's where the joy of the experience ended.

First, the bad: SlingTV offers apps for the iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV. Oh, but not the old AppleTV, only the new one. Want to watch on your older AppleTV, you need to use the iPad app and mirror it through Airplay. That took a bit to work out. They also offer an App for the Xbox One -- which we tried, but the performance was worse than the iPad through Mirrored Airplay. Specifically, the movie that we started to watch appeared to only run in stereo, not surround, and it had more frame drops than an oversubscribed online game. Even the iPad App has suffered through frequent lock-ups and buffering issues. Contrast this with Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBO Now, and you'll quickly realize that you don't want to pay for this service.

But it get's worse. The app is so poorly designed that, every time we've tried to use it, we've been frustrated. Take the Cinemax channel as an example. We were trying to binge-watch our way through an on-demand series and every time you launch the app, it jumps to the live broadcast. You then have to work your way through the interface to get to the show you were watching and relaunch it. Pop out of the app for just a second, like to check your email, and when you return, you're dumped back into the live TV feed.

But wait, there's more. The entire interface is set up on a layered set of scroll wheels. At the top is the channel selector, below that, the programs that appear, first live, then on demand below that. When you want to choose a channel, you need to move the slider from left-to-right or right-to-left, and whatever it lands on in the center, it will pause a few seconds for in order to attempt to buffer in the info on what's live. If you're trying to scroll through the channel list, this can take a while. And with all of these delays and buffering, you can probably imagine that the app hangs. A lot.

Perhaps the worst was, on one of the iPads we were watching SlingTV on, the app just crashed at one point and would no longer function. We tried rebooting the app, rebooting the iPad, nothing. We restarted it on a different iPad and everything worked again, but if it you didn't have a second iPad, I suspect you would have had to delete the app and reload it... maybe.

Over the seven day trial, we barely managed to get through binge-watching one series. And it goes without saying, not once were we wowed by the app -- unless it was being wowed by how bad the software was.

Also funny was, in the process of canceling the service, they offered to give me a Roku2 if I signed up to a 3-month commitment. Unfortunately, my blood pressure couldn't handle 3 months of the service, so I had to opt out -- but your mileage may vary.

Monday, August 1, 2016 Functionality Erosion and Find Nearby Accounts

If you've used for any length of time, then I guarantee that this has happened to you. You find some nice little piece of code that mashes together some integrated functionality, like the Find Nearby Accounts app, you deploy it and your sales team gets excited about it. And then, the next thing you know, that free functionality is gone. And now, replacing that cool little functionality that made you feel happy that you were using the Salesforce platform, you learn that the climate has changed, the winds are blowing a different way, and the only way for you to get that functionality back is to buy some third party AppExchange add-on solution for the low low price of $$ per user per month. Or maybe the pricing is easier -- just one big flat annual payment.

Yup. It's the Salesforce functionality erosion game, and over the years I've seen it played out numerous times across different core functionality pieces. First there was Salesforce for Adwords. Wanna know where that Web-to-Lead inquiry came from? Now it will cost you $1000-$5000 a year. Or more. But hey, these new tools do way more than than the free thing you used to use. And besides, we can't support that anymore because Google won't let us.

And then there's Salesforce's Outlook integration. Yeah, that was free. But then they moved to Salesforce for Outlook; still free, but not as good (for a couple of years). And then, after supporting IMAP syncing, it suddenly didn't. But it works if you have an Office365 account and give Microsoft $15 per user per month.

And so they offer everyone else "SalesforceIQ" as the replacement email integration -- email sync with a brain. Except that the brain is rather unintelligent, possibly more annoying than helpful, but even better than that, they changed that to "Let's charge for that". If I only had a nickel for everytime another SalesforceIQ sales guy contacted me trying to get me to pay $10-15 per user per month, I might be the one with my name on a hospital.

And then there's Find Nearby Accounts. It was a great tool years ago. Initially, it was a free tool from Salesforce Labs, just something that they cooked up. Essentially, it was an example for how to do things in the Developer Cookbook. And then, they went through and improved it, made it more graphical, and turned it into a managed package. And for a while, it was even better. Then Google announced that they were changing the terms of their Google Maps API. Now, you could only use Find Nearby Accounts if you had a Google For Business license (the Google Maps API was used to locate the addresses and in plotting the map). And suddenly support for the App was gone. What about people with the Google business license? Bummer for you. Of course, you could always use a third party mapping app for $10-25 per user per month.

Invariably, it always plays out the same way. I'm not saying that it's a conspiracy, but clearly for any of the partnerships that they want to offer or the cross-functionality that they want to negotiate for, there is one inevitable truth. If the functionality is important to you, you'll pay somebody for it. Besides, software-wise, where else are you going to go?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Comcast XFinity Provides Internet at Hotel California

So I'm getting ready to move and one of the things that I need to do is schedule to disconnect my Comcast Internet service. I've been putting this off because I already know from stories that I've read online that it's going to be a pain. But I figure, maybe if I don't have to talk to anyone, it will be less of a hassle.

So I go online and start looking through the web site. There are a lot of options on the Comcast web site, but canceling your service isn't a very easy one to find. Eventually, I switch to search. I found a page that says that there are three ways that you can disconnect your service:
  1. Send them an email
  2. Visit a Comcast store
  3. Send them a letter in the mail
So I follow the "Send Comcast an Email" link and it takes me to a form. You need to enter your account information and there's a required checkbox for when you prefer to receive a call. The reason for this is listed at the top of the form. "Comcast will call you in within two business days to confirm that you want to confirm your request." The other two areas of the form that need to be filled out are this pull down list with the reason for "why do you want to cancel your service". The available answers are:
  • No XFINITY where I'm moving
  • Current service doesn't meet my needs
  • I no longer want my XFINITY service
  • I am an active duty service member
Those are your choices. Oh, and if you're moving, the form doesn't actually have a date field that you can use to specify a scheduled shut-off date. Instead, there's just a comment field below your "why" list.

Needless to say, when I first looked at this list -- and the lack of date -- I didn't see a form that matched my needs. So I got on Comcast Chat. In the past when I've been setting things up, they've always been quite helpful. And so, working with the customer service rep using their online chat, I tried to schedule my end of service date. However, she gave me three options. First, she informed me that she could lower my bill. I informed her that since I was moving, unless she was going to lower it to $0, that wouldn't be very helpful. My other two options were to use a web link or to speak with a Comcast rep over the phone. I chose the web link -- which returned me to the very same form. She also told me to put my date of disconnect in the comments section.

So I filled out the form. I chose "No XFINITY where I'm moving", and I expect a call in the next two business days. I also fully expect that the rep on the phone will want to know where I'm moving and try to validate that there's no service that he can't sell me at my new location because "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

So I s

Friday, July 22, 2016

Semicon Booths and the Diminishing Resource Customer Service Problem

If you've seen my Twitter feed, you probably saw my most recent round of disgruntled ranting about Semicon and the booth rebook process this year. While it's worth briefly talking about my issue with Semi and the way that they organized rebook this year, what I want to focus on is the inherent customer service problem -- what do you do to make your customer happy in an environment where you're dealing with diminishing resources?

First, lets revisit my Semicon rebook problem for some background. The first thing that you have to know is that Semicon West typically takes place annually in July at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Historically, it has been the premier event for semiconductor equipment manufacturers and their suppliers to exhibit. Since about 2008 or 2009, the show has partnered with the Intersolar show to occupy Moscone South, North and West halls during the event. However, because there is a large construction project to upgrade the Moscone Convention Center, the South hall will be closed during next year's Semicon West. This means that, for a show that has often had many companies booking their space in the same basic location year after year, the playing field was being upended.

For 2017, the Semicon West show will be located in the Moscone North hall and in the first floor of West, while Intersolar will occupy the second and third floor of West. Now, here are a couple of caveats that may shape your perception of the problem. First, you must realize some things about the layout of the exhibit halls. There are three entrances into Moscone South; however, there is really one entrance for the North hall and call it 1.5 entrances to the West hall, so if you've been located near an entrance, the available options have declined significantly. What's more, depending on the location you were considering, many of the larger booths near the entrance in the North hall actually faced away from the entrance -- unlike many shows, the minimum size for an island booth at Semicon West is 20'x40'. Anything below that, and you're in a peninsula, so the direction you face is a consideration.

But there are some additional considerations as well. The Semi people informed us that registration would only be located in the West hall, so theoretically everyone who picked up a badge would go through West. Another factor that is often worth considering, traditionally Semi has segmented the show floor into "Wafer Processing" and "Test and Assembly". For 2017, they decided to scrap that -- they still collect the information from your company, but there is no segmentation on the show floor. So, if you're hoping to locate near similar businesses, there is no longer any guidance to direct you where to go. It's like offering customers products with no differentiation or segmentation.

As someone with an early selection, I watched as some of the most ideal North hall spaces were taken. Then when it came to my time to pick, I had a choice between some less than ideal North hall spaces or what could potentially be a much better spot in West. I opted for West, only to watch as more and more of the companies that we wanted to be around selected spots in the North hall. Increasingly, what it looked like was that I had selected a premium spot in a location that with much fewer related businesses. I could consider changing my selection, but that would have resulted in a worse selection that I would have had initially. So after complaining about it on Twitter for a while, I decided to go in and complain to the staff at rebook. And this brings us back to the diminishing resource customer service problem -- while the guy that I spoke to could talk to me for a while and try to sooth me and tell me that he expected that it would all work out, realistically, he had limited options to provide relief.

Like the Stubhub problem, if they cancel your transaction or for some other reason it doesn't go through, there is no guarantee that there is a comparable replacement for that. So what do you do?

In the case of Stubhub, they fixed the account problem and waived their fees on a replacement transaction. While that might not have worked for an event that was in high demand, it worked for mine. Airline overbooking is another example of this customer service issue. The airlines usually resolve it by things like offering vouchers as an incentive to people who want to volunteer to get off the flight. In the case of Semicon West, well, there is still a significant amount of time between now and next year's event, so things may change.

Do you wrestle with customer service and diminishing resources? How do you address this kind of issue?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

LinkedIn: Goodbye and Good Riddance

Oh how I have grown to loath LinkedIn. What once was the most useful social network has devolved and deteriorated. What was once a site that I visited once per day has become a site that I may visit once a month. And it's not just that I don't like what I find -- or fail to find for that matter -- on the site. It's that when I go there looking for specific content that used to be available, it isn't there. Or it's nearly impossible to get to -- certainly not intuitive.

Remember when the contacts you linked to was almost like an address book in the cloud? This feature has gone through waves and waves of changes, sometimes making it next to impossible to contact people.

Meanwhile, these days, the main feed runs more like Facebook, with people posting "brain teaser" puzzles, "inspirational" posts. Oh, and ads. A rough estimate is that your feed has become 90-95% crap. Remember how the feed used to contain status updates for your connections? That's moved to an annoying click-through widget at the top of the screen that tries to force you to engage with it to see all of the actual "updates" on your contacts.

Most recently, I found myself on the Jobs page. Years ago I created several saved searches. It used to be a great way to lock down parameters. Now, what do you have?
  1. A new search bar, so you can start all over again
  2. Links to your saved searches that crash, telling you your search has expired and delivering no results
  3. A "browse these jobs" picture interface similar to "people you may know" -- because, hey, that's a great way to look for jobs.
  4. An ad for their premium tier.
  5. And finally, more "companies you might recognize that are in your network" picture listings. Apparently, you can shape this list by setting up some preference parameters.
The bottom line? The only thing that LinkedIn was theoretically even remotely useful for -- job searches -- it's just killed that functionality.

It's mind-blowing!

And it's little wonder why they needed to sell the company -- that ship seems to have a laser-like focus on hitting every iceberg it can. But it's not like I expect Microsoft to return the utility to the software. As surprised as I am to say this, especially considering what it was even 5 or 6 years ago, I think LinkedIn is toast.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Brexit: Micro Decisions in a Macro Economy

With the Brexit vote and the surprise decision of the UK to leave the EU, for most of us here in the states, the biggest immediate impact is probably the market trouble and the financial uncertainty. And yet, as you watch your 401k value drop, like many macro economic shifts, there's not much you can really do. But over the past couple of days as I've had time to reflect on Brexit, I've discovered a really significant business impact for myself and, depending upon the size of the business that you work with, you may find yourself in a similar circumstance.

We run multiple web sites on Rackspace Cloud. We have also discussed building a globally centralized web site architecture, something that would enable us to centrally manage a number of localized regional sites. At the same time, running sites for different global regions can present some legal challenges, specifically in the areas of privacy and data retention -- the difference between European and US laws. One approach to help address the European legal restrictions is to operate the European web site in Europe.

For us, this was an advantage with Rackspace Cloud. Rackspace has multiple data centers here in the US, and they also maintain a data center in the UK. Initially, when we looked at this international architecture, our strategy was to simply replicate the core framework of the site across to the UK data center and, in a matter of minutes, have a European compliant site up and running.

Brexit calls that whole plan into question.

Sure, the UK is part of the EU right now. Sure it may take a couple of years for the change to take place. It's even possible that the UK may negotiate the to maintain a similar level of legal equity on privacy issues. However, and this is the big one, with the Brexit vote they've created an environment of uncertainty. Uncertainty makes a poor foundation for architecture.