Friday, December 9, 2016

Apple Earpods Still Delayed: Wireless Audio - Genius!

I came across this article on Macrumors today noting the continued delay in bringing Apple's Earpod's to market. It seems the technology is still struggling. Here's a quote from the article:
While the exact reason for the delay remains unclear, a person familiar with the development of AirPods told The Wall Street Journal that Apple's troubles appear to be related to its "efforts to chart a new path for wireless headphones," in addition to resolving what happens when users lose one of the earpieces or the battery dies.
All of this is more evidence of the secret behind the decision to remove the "worked for decades" audio port -- Genius. Not the brilliant kind, but the Wile E. Coyote kind.

Or perhaps Super Genius -- as it's pretty obvious seeing the Audio Port train coming...

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Google New Wifi Router vs Apple Abandoning the Airport

A couple of weeks ago I came across news of Apple abandoning development on their Airport Express and Extreme wireless routers. As I noted at the time, it is another troubling hint at the direction that Apple is taking their product line -- and how they are abandoning long time pro Mac users and the great technology that they've supported us with in the past.

Today I came across this review of new mesh router products including one from Google. Oh the irony. As I read through the features and capabilities, the devices reminded me a lot of Apple's existing wireless products. It's disappointing to think that we may be faced with a lesser interface, courtesy of Google, simply because Apple lost it's vision.

Ah, but I suppose it's better for Apple to focus time and resources on something important, like what color watch bands to offer on their next update breakthrough announcement.

Monday, December 5, 2016

REI and Online Customer Experience WTF in 3D

For many years, REI has been a business that held a special relationship for me. There were no Recreational Equipment Inc. stores in the south when I moved back out here from Tennessee way back in 1991. REI was a welcome friend to so many awesome aspects of the California experience -- hiking and camping gear, rain and snow gear, rock climbing shoes, and pretty much anything in between. It quickly became my go-to resource for all of my activities here, enabling me to go where the climate suits my clothes.

Among friends over the years, we've often found ourselves in discussions and debates about whether the REI of today is as good as the REI of yesteryear. From discussions with touring cyclists as to whether the REI rain gear was as good as the older Goretex gear from the previous generation of REI rain gear, to musings about the changing nature of the store as fashion seemed to be an increasing emphasis rather than gear.

Myself, I've been a member of REI since 1992 and over the years, I've bought a fair amount of stuff from them. REI has held such a significant role in my life that, often, if there was something that REI carried, I would buy it from them, even if it was slightly cheaper somewhere else. A lot of things figured into this calculation, such as the annual dividend as a discount, and REI's strong return policy. In the old days, there are stories of people returning gear after months and years. In looking at the specifics of their return policy now, that rock-solid guarantee has been reduced to something like a one year warranty. Problems with your REI gear? Good luck with that... Of course, I've never had to return anything I've bought from REI, but the belief that they have a strong return policy is probably a widespread belief. They even referenced REI returns in that Reese Witherspoon movie, Wild.

REI Delivers a Series of Failures
Recently, we'd been in the market for a jogging stroller. We just missed an opportunity to one of the top-rated ones from Target as they were closing out a previous model year. We actually could have probably gotten one, but we decided to visit our local REI store and check them out before we purchased. Suitably impressed, we ran around to various Target locations, but all of the discounted strollers were gone. After more research and study, we decided we would probably just go ahead and purchase the stroller from REI as soon as one of their periodic 20% off one full priced item sales took place. Sure enough, in the weeks before Thanksgiving, REI offered the 20% discount, so after waiting several weeks, we decided to move forward with our purchase.

The first surprise was that while REI used to carry the BOB Flex, they had stopped carrying that model and now only carried the Pro model, about $70 more expensive than the Flex. The Pro model includes a hand-brake, something many online reviews say is somewhat unnecessary. It also ways about 5 pounds more, something we really felt like we didn't need. After discovering this, we took a step back and reviewed all of the different options for jogging strollers. Ultimately, what we decided was that we would go with REI because of our long relationship with the brand, their strong return policy, and because my unused dividend benefit would provide some additional discount on the purchase.

On November 17th, I finally placed the order. We were anxious to pick up the stroller and would have loved to pick it up at one of REI's retail locations, but despite having four REIs in the area, the stroller was unavailable in all of them. They were gone from the Saratoga store where we'd previously looked at them. Our only choice was to order for in-store pick-up. But forget about Amazone Prime or other fast delivery services that you might expect, REI's initial estimate was that the unit would be available for pick-up on Sunday, November 27th.

My gut told me that this date was suspect. One week later -- typical ground shipping would have been Thanksgiviving Thursday, the 24th. Why they couldn't ship product to one of their locations in less than a week was a bit puzzling, but assuming that the timeline was tight -- REI had already published that they would be closed on Black Friday, so assuming a Saturday delivery, Sunday seemed possible, but unlikely.

So as the week or so of waiting went on, I decided to check with REI customer service, since I hadn't received any specific confirmation about pick-up times. Unfortunately, what I discovered during my chat with customer service was that REI had screwed up the order. They reprocessed it, and now my expected delivery date was scheduled for December 4th. As a courtesy, they sent me a $20 REI gift card.

Of course, while they were busy screwing up my order and being closed, Amazon featured the BOB strollers on a black Friday deal for less than we were paying REI (since they offered the Flex that we actually wanted and the Pro for the same discounted price that we got through REI). Instead, thanks to REI, we got to wait an extra week.

Still feeling frustrated with REI, I decided to contact their online chat Customer Support a second time on Friday, Dec. 2. After chatting with the customer service rep and relaying my frustration, his only response was,
REI Customer Service Rep: Occasionally an order may be delayed in our system, entirely our fault. But we would certainly hope our members and customers can understand that we are doing the best we can. When possible we do try to upgrade shipping or make things right.
REI Customer Service Rep: Occasionally these types of errors cannot be helped. Is there something particular regarding your order that I can help you with now?
In short, "bummer for you".

So Sunday, December 4th came, and we decided to head over to the REI store to pick up the stroller. My expectation was that there would be no stroller there since REI's order confirmation says something about expecting an email when the stroller finally arrives, but I thought it was worth a try since they'd given me that date.

What I learned in the store was that, no, the stroller wasn't there and that there was no way the stroller could have been there on the date promised since the store only received shipments on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In short, REI's own system was making promises and writing checks that it's ass couldn't cash.

This isn't my first frustration with REI this year. Earlier, I went there trying to replace my Teva sandals, something that I'd been resisting doing for a long time. Imagine my surprise when my go-to gear store suddenly didn't have ANY Teva sandals. I wound up replacing my Teva's at Sports Basement.

REI has destroyed their brand loyalty with me
While I'm sure that I will continue to purchase things from REI -- it is one of the only places where some of this gear is available -- the business is no longer my preferred supplier. In a couple of moves, they have eroded all credibility with me. I wish that I could point to a specific reason or mark it as a trend, but I don't have anything like that. This is just one anecdote, but based on my recent experiences, I would advise Caveat Emptor.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Apple Ending Development on Airport Wireless Router Products

There are more indications of the direction where Apple is headed. Yesterday I found a couple of posts noting that Apple was ending development on their Airport wireless router products, including their Time Machine product. From MacRumors:
The news comes from a report by Bloomberg, who said Apple has been slowly shutting down the division over the past year and made the decision "to try to sharpen the company’s focus on consumer products that generate the bulk of its revenue."
For my money, Apple's wireless router line offers some of the best products available. While some may suggest that there are plenty of equally good wireless routers out there, they may not remember the days when many of the routers on the market didn't work well with Apple products. Why? No reason, they just didn't.

Then there are those features like AirPlay that some of us built portions of our audio system around.

And it goes without saying, that I don't travel internationally without bringing along my Airport Express.

But lately, we don't use AirPlay much anymore. Something in the network or the Apple TV (maybe because I don't have one of the new ones) started causing terrible lag and frame drops watching videos. It sure would be nice to get some development on that issue.

While this is sort of an abandoning pro users thing, it's also a computer versus watch and phone issue. And frankly, between the unnecessary Apple Watch and the iPhone without an audio port, I think the Apple internal team could learn a thing or two by revisiting the wireless router products and remembering some aspects of what actually made Apple products great.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Facebook Fake News, Scamville goes Election Influence and More

So I came across this article earlier today, Just how partisan is Facebook's fake news? We tested it, from the folks at PC World. The long and short of it is, if you like some Republican elements like Donald Trump, your feed will include fake and misleading news. Oh, and the amount of this is significantly higher than a similar Democrat feed.

The post is worth a read. But this, and much of the other stories about fake news on Facebook, reminded me of this from back in 2009, Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell. For me, the point that came to mind was something that I started writing about this back in 2009, but it looks like I didn't publish. Here's a snippet from that:


What I see is not necessarily what you get...
It's no secret that the core technology of the Internet enables one party to personalize a message for another. From the moment that you're client computer sends a request for content to a web server, that server is able to shape the content that it sends back to you based on who you are, what you were requesting, and where you came from. With modern internet marketing, we use this capability all the time, and futurists suggest that everything we experience will only become more personalized.

The problem is that, even for those of us that get it, it can be difficult to fully grasp the scope of "what I'm seeing may not be what you are seeing" means. This issue is magnified when organizations deliberately use these capabilities to essentially hide their worst practices:

From the Video Professor post
What you see when you first hit the site depends on how you got there -- directly or via an advertising partner. The least scammy version is what you see if you go to directly. On the home page in very small font is a statement that you are going to be charged $290 if you engage in a transaction with them. But that’s the only on-screen disclosure you’ll see.
From the How To Spam Facebook Like A Pro post
Cloaking: This is when you show a different page based on IP address. We and most other ad networks would geo-block northern California -- showing different ads to Facebook employees than to other users around the world. One of the largest Facebook advertisers (I’m not going to out you, but you know who you are) employs this technique to this day, using a white-listed account. Our supposition is that it makes too much money for Facebook to stop him. Believe me, we have brought this to Facebook’s attention on several occasions. Here’s what this fellow does -- he submits tame ads for approval, and once approved, redirects the url to the spammy page. To be fair, players like Google AdWords have had years more experience in this game to close such loopholes.
The thing is, compliance and auditing is all about third party perspective -- that the reviewer sees what you or I see. What happens when the regulator doesn't seeing the same thing that the customer sees? From restaurant reviews to personalized customer experiences, on some levels, people expect that the average customer experience will not be equal to the 'reviewer' experience. VIPs often get special treatment. But, if that VIP experience is built around circumventing rules or laws, what kind of label do you put on it?

The same can be said of shaped experiences in order to increase the likelihood of a transaction. Remember the movie, The Sting? The scam is all about creating an illusory experience for the mark, shaping reality into an environment that's favorable for a transaction. So where does optimization end and scam begin? To quote from Arrington's post:
Here’s an easy way to determine if something is a scam – would users pay for it if they knew exactly what they were buying? In Video Professor’s case, the answer is no, and the company has to resort to tricking the user into paying nearly $300 for a bunch of CDs.
As we move down the path of personalized experiences, the capability to use technology to manipulate consumers through shaped reality is getting easier. Even with today's technology, it's possible for two computer users sitting right next to each other to be visit a site (or series of sites), and receive a completely different content experience. In The Sting, the mark is convinced of the manipulated reality through the introduction of a host of actors that help endorse the experience, but on the computer there it's easy to get sucked into the idea that what you are seeing is the same thing as everyone else sees.

What's more, most of our defenses against this revolve around the idea that for our reality to be manipulated, we need to be in a 'closed' environment that prevents third party validation. You might think, "If I Google the Video Professor guy, perhaps I can find out if it's legitimate." Or, perhaps you take it one step further and Google "Video Professor Scam", you might expect to find a series of top ranked pages detailing customer complaints or other news. Instead, the top result from my most recent search returns a link to a press release archive site that includes a link to a 50% off discount off of the Video Professor product.


So back to the election and fake news -- later this morning, I came across this post on Recode, Let’s get real. Facebook is not to blame for Trump, by Joshua R. Williams. Okay, so here's the emphasis in this one:
Much of the coverage and outrage has been directed toward social media, its echo chambers, and specifically those of the Facebook platform. While, to be sure, much of the fake or inaccurate news is found and circulated on Facebook, Facebook is not a news outlet; it is a communication medium to be utilized as its users so choose. It is not the job of Facebook’s employees, or its algorithms, to edit or censor the content that is shared; in fact it would be more detrimental to do so. This is for two very good reasons:
One, either human editors, or artificial intelligence editors, by removing one item or another will appear to introduce bias into the system. The group who’s content is being removed or edited will feel targeted by the platform and claim, rightly or wrongly, it is biased against their cause. Even if the content is vetted and found to be true or false.
Two, censorship in any form is bad for the national discourse.
So rather than blaming Facebook or other platforms for the trouble in which we find ourselves, let’s give credit where credit is due: The American people.
The emphasis has been added by me, because this point is fundamentally wrong. Facebook is a marketing platform that makes the majority of it's revenue connecting businesses that have promotional goals to the "users" on the platform. To quote from this post, Why You Should Sponsor Your Social Media Posts, (emphasis added by me)...
Because of all this, Facebook is usually the first place business marketers turn to for the distribution, promotion, and amplification of their ad content and campaigns, which makes it hard for businesses, especially new or small businesses, to find a place among all the clamor and competition for their posts to find an audience. Keep in mind, Facebook is no longer a good source for organic marketing outreach. It is now a pay-to-play network, or a network that gives special preference and advertising priority to businesses that can pay the most to be the first result viewers see on their social media pages, which can be bad for small or new businesses trying to find sponsorship for their own social media posts.
Well, it's pay-to-play unless you can work your way organically into the feed. In broader terms, you might consider that, "native advertising." To quote from wikipedia,
Native advertising is a type of disguised advertising, usually online, that matches the form and function of the platform upon which it appears. In many cases, it manifests as either an article or video, produced by an advertiser with the specific intent to promote a product, while matching the form and style which would otherwise be seen in the work of the platform's editorial staff. The word "native" refers to this coherence of the content with the other media that appears on the platform. 
The thing is, Facebook has already built marketing personas for these demographics. This happens through the content that's delivered in the feed. And similar to the Scamville era issue, if you can target the gullible, the likely to be scammed, and significantly increase your ROI.

The reality is that there are some broader fundamental problems with Facebook and the manipulation of it's "user" base. Much like the happy-feeds-make-people-post-more-happy-stuff, sad-feeds-make-them-post-more-sad-stuff tests, the reality of the impact of the "feed" is probably far more frightening that most would choose to admit. At some level, review and regulation should probably be considered -- but that probably won't happen as a result of the election that was probably manipulated in some part by the platform.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Of Apple Dongles and Airline Baggage Fees

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

- Lewis Carroll

The dongle for Apple products. Like airline baggage fees, its something that didn't really exist in the past unless you had some unusual requirement -- like specialized software that used it as a copy protection key.

In the same way, airlines used to just let you check bags, and the only things people carried on were things that they might need during the flight. Unless you were traveling on business, most people checked their bags. Now, the airline industry makes millions on additional charges to people for doing what they normally do, bringing stuff they need with them when the travel.

With all of their recent dongle designs, Apple has imposed a surcharge to do things that are essentially normal, typical activities with a computing platform. And while Apple recently reduced the price of the dongles required to use the new Macbook Pro units, there is still a cost.

Even if Apple decided to give away the dongles for their systems, there would still be costs associated with it -- like needing a dongle to connect to Ethernet (maybe not a requirement for home users, but an essential for business and pro users). As a result, you must carry that dongle. Or, with the new USB-C connector, if you need to sync and charge your iPhone? You must carry a dongle for that as well. And using traditional audio connections with your iPhone -- you're carrying another dongle.

It's funny how the little fees add up...