Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Another Day, yaArticle on Eroding Apple Product Vision

I came across this one on MacRumors today, ostensibly talking about the upgrades that didn't happen to the MacBook and MacBook Pro. However, there's more here again about the internal erosion at Apple and the lack of vision.

The source of this MacRumors piece is this Bloomberg article that's probably also the driver for the Business Insider post I wrote about most recently. You may want to check out the Bloomberg article, but be warned -- like reading about politics these days, it's likely to just piss you off and raise your blood pressure. It's really too bad that Steve Jobs can't return and take over the company again.

Seriously though. All of this was probably predictable. If you take the formula of a cash cow product like the iPhone and throw that into the mix, at some point the people who are running all of the programs are going to be the managers, not the innovators. For them, it's going to be all about protecting that real estate that they think that they've won. They're not developing innovative computing products because they're not a hungry computer company any longer. Now, they're a fat cat phone company focused on trying to keep all of that phone money coming in. They are Sony, sitting on the laurels of their Walkman brand.

Hey, there's an innovative idea, maybe the next MacBook Pro can come in a bright yellow plastic case. Well, just so long as we make it thinner and eliminate some useful ports...

Dear Apple: MacBook Pro Should Mean Useful Ports

I've written a number of posts about how the current MacBook Pro -- and I use that term only to indicate brand name, not to describe it's feature set -- is an underwhelming piece of hardware that's strayed from the vision of the platform. But at some point, it occurred to me that it may just seem like a bunch of wishful grandstanding. Lots of people want lots of ports, but how many people use them?

And so, I thought it might be a worthwhile exercise to share a picture of my MacBook Pro in it's daily plugged-up state. Here's what a pro machine looks like...


When I use my MacBook Pro at the office, I have my MagSafe power connected, I have one Thunderbolt port connected to an Ethernet dongle for network access, another Thunderbolt port connected for my external display, one USB port connecting my external keyboard and mouse, and often enough, I have my headphones connected for conference calls.

What's left over on the other side of the MacBook Pro is a USB port (traditional, not USB-C) that is often used for pulling data off of thumb drives, an HDMI port that gets used for special video occassions, and an SD port that gets some use also.

Meanwhile, my Macbook Air is often similarly adorned, but sadly lacks a second Thunderbolt port to enable Ethernet and video at the same time. If I had one wish for my MacBook Air, it would be a second Thunderbolt port (and perhaps a Retina display).

Oh, and just in case we were counting, to date, I still have ZERO USB-C devices in my possession.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

More Indications Apple Abandoning Mac Core

Here's another post with some interesting behind-the-scenes information about the structure of things at Apple. It comes on the heels of the news out yesterday that Tim Cook basically said, "desktop is important to us." However, this Business Insider piece has a lot more info about how things are changing around the Mac OS internally. More specifically, the people who have been working on Mac OS are being rolled into the iOS software team. Here's the quote, originally from a Bloomberg report:
Gurman says that Apple has reorganized its software engineering so that there is no more dedicated Mac operating system team. Instead, engineers work on both iOS and macOS, as the Mac has been generally deprioritized in the company, according to the report. 
For those of us that have been using the platform in recent years, some of this comes as little surprise. Increasingly, the team at Apple seems to be focused on incorporating features into the MacOS that nobody really needs or wants on a desktop or laptop system. Things like the "Notifications" menu bar drop down, or my recent favorite -- Siri. To date, the number of times that I've used Siri on my laptop? Zero.

When it comes to product roadmap and buyer's guides, it's becoming increasingly clear that you probably shouldn't hold out for future Apple Mac products, because if you do, you'll probably find you're getting an iPhone with a large screen and keyboard attached. That is all.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Apple Removes "Time Remaining" in New OS Update

Perhaps you might have heard stories about some of the people who'd bought the new MacBook "Pro" models with the Touchbar and nothing but USB-C ports having power problems. Specifically, many people were apparently having extremely short operational life with their new units, like 3-4 hours instead of the "up to 10 hours" number that Apple advertises.

Perhaps that Touchbar is a huge, always on battery suck?

Anyway, Apple released an OS update to address some bugs that are supposed to help with the battery life issue. One of the things that they fixed -- and I saw this on Macrumors before I actually installed the update and saw it in real life -- they removed the "Time Remaining" calculation from the battery utility in the menu bar.

Why? According to MacRumors,
Apple said the percentage is accurate, but because of the dynamic ways we use the computer, the time remaining indicator couldn't accurately keep up with what users were doing. Everything we do on the MacBook affects battery life in different ways and not having an accurate indicator is confusing.
Admittedly, it's true. The time remaining is and always has been inaccurate. It's a guess, sort of like that Mileage calculation that your car makes based on how your driving at the moment. It's performance is pretty crappy when you accelerate -- or launch an app say. Still, to remove it?

It reminds me of a worse version of their solution for the AntennaGate issue, where they just changed the software to not be as dynamic in reflecting your cell signal. Oh, that fixed it...

Seriously, most of us Pro users benefit from having the time remaining -- it's a helpful estimation if your somewhere like, on a long flight with no power. It can give you guidance to turn the brightness down on your display. Or save that presentation rather than starting another slide. It's a much easier to read battery speedometer than percentage.

I put this one in the FAIL category.

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 videoprofessor.com 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...

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I Guess I'm Not Apple's Target Market Anymore

Day after day
When love turns gray
Like the skin on a dying man
And night after night
We pretend it's alright
But I have grown older 
And you have grown colder 
And nothing is very much fun 
Anymore
- Pink Floyd, One of my Turns

Perhaps you glanced at my previous post, Is Apple "Designing" Themselves Out of Customers?  Hopefully you followed the linked article and saw the compilation of complaints regarding Apple's seeming abandonment of the creative class. While I would have loved to compile my list of complaints, that grand roll-up not only reminded me of the issues with the new MacBook Pros, it also reminded me that I am not alone. You are not alone. There are quite a few of us who feel abandoned by Apple. And what's worse, most of us have been loyal Apple customers and dedicated users for many, many years.

And that's what pissed me off about this post I came across on recode.net. The title of the post is, The backlash against Apple’s new MacBook Pro from its core user base is unprecedented. From the title, it sounds like it's going to be another roll-up of complaints and a story about the story. Instead, it turns into a piece that tries to ballpark the size of Apple's market segment that's complaining the most, "two particular sets of people: Those who use heavy-duty creative applications such as Photoshop, and those who develop for Apple platforms." Here's the basic numbers.
At the absolute outside, though, it gives, at most, around 25 million total users in the two buckets that have been most vocal about the MacBook Pro changes, out of a total base of around 90 million, or around 28 percent. Realistically, that number is probably quite a bit smaller, perhaps around 15 percent to 20 percent of the total. Of these, not all will share the concerns of those who have been so outspoken in the past week. To look at it another way, Apple sold 18.5 million Macs in the past year, which might end up being roughly the same as the combined number of creative professionals and developers in the base.
It then goes on to suggest that Apple seems to be doing well enough with the new designs because, sales. Yet, what really gets overlooked here though, is the role of the creative professional and developer segment as recommenders, evangelists and promoters (to use the net promoter terminology).

As a creative professional who's been using Apple products for over 25 years, I've been through the years of doubt and skepticism about the Apple platform. I've seen the IT departments that are forced to accept Apple devices into their ecosystems. Sure, there is a broader audience using the Mac these days, but a percentage of them don't know why. These are users that can comfortably switch back and forth between Windows systems and Mac systems because they don't really depend upon key features that creatives and developers do. For these users, a non-pro MacBook or a basic iMac are probably more than adequate.

Which brings me to this article that I came across. Apple is now officially a dongle company that happens to make smartphones and computers (Updated). The emphasis in this piece, as you might imagine, is how Apple has embraced the dongle with their latest devices. The dongle, the article says, is Apple's fastest growing product category.
The absurdity of the situation is neatly captured by the following fact: None of Apple’s newest laptops can connect to its own flagship smartphones without using a dongle or purchasing a separate cable that doesn’t otherwise ship with any of Apple’s hardware.
The article contrasts the history of Apple products with the more recent trend to use dongles. The author takes the position that this is Tim Cook's Apple and that Steve Jobs wouldn't have followed that path. You can read the article for yourself, but I do agree that dongles are antithetical to what has been, historically, the Apple way.

What's more, I think the necessity for a dongle is in most cases, a statement that the design of the core product sucks. It's like watching those cooking shows where somebody must pair odd ingredients with a main dish and they just throw something on the side. The bottom line is that you chose a path for the requirements that isn't integrated. If it isn't integrated but it's function is integral, that's a poor design.

I Would Not Recommend The Existing Suite of Apple Products
As noted, with a long history of Apple product usage and evangelism, the other user segments often ask me for guidance on Apple products. At this point, I can't see myself recommending any product with a USB-C port on it unless that port is an addition to the existing set of ports. Consider, recently I was on a site looking at promotional USB drives -- they don't offer a single USB-C drive. Not one.

Frankly while they have labeled the new products as MacBook Pros, I think they are less Pro and more Meh. But maybe you're somebody who needs the touchbar so that you can quickly message your friends with emojis. But, to quote the dongle article,
So far, no consumer product Apple has launched in 2016 has been anything like an equivalent trendsetter. If the future of PCs is a tiny machine and a lap full of accessories, I’ll stick with the status quo. Yes, in the very long run, we may see a world in which USB-C is used for almost everything -- but HDMI, USB Type A, DisplayPort, Lightning, and SD cards aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Is Apple "Designing" Their Way Out of Customers?

With the introduction of the new Macbook Pro design, the first thing that struck me -- and I anticipated it coming based on the Macbook design -- was the removal of the MagSafe power connector. The MagSafe connector is one of those little features that's like the envy of everyone in the PC world. It's a brilliant design and a wonderful feature, particularly noteworthy if, like me, you've had at one or two pre-MagSafe Apple laptops (like my old WallStreet) that suffered from broken power jacks. In contrast, I can't count the number of times that the MagSafe has saved my computer, the power jack and whatever my computer was resting on.

So I was going to write this blog post -- sort of a eulogy to the end of an era of design brilliance -- that talked about Apple and lamented these new Macbook Pros. But I thought I was probably the only one, and then I came across this link on MacRumors. The post highlights complaints about the new systems and Apple following the new Macbook Pro announcements. But what really struck me was this linked post, New MacBook Pros and the State of the Mac, a grand list of complaints about the new systems and Apple.
  • Carried across all of those extracted snippets are echos of my response to the new designs. Some highlights:
  • USB-C sucks. It sucks because it doesn't directly work with any existing peripherals without an adapter. It sucks because it's not MagSafe. And, from this post I learned that it sucks because apparently you can't just use one cable to connect things for all of the different supported interconnects (Thunderbolt, USB, Power) and if you do, it will fry your stuff.
  • MacBook Pro 2016 performance specs are only slightly better than MacBook Pro 2012. 
  • AppleTouch Bar. Meh.
  • Consider, my 15" MBP that is my work system -- 2 USB, 2 Thunderbolt, 1 HDMI, 1 Memory Card Reader and MagSafe connector -- it's like the MacBook Pro has always been, the Swiss Army Knife of computers (despite the required Ethernet and display dongles).
  • A Headphone port because, "These are pro machines." I'm so glad all of those work calls I might make on my iPhone are just "consumer" calls. Then again, that's why I upgraded to an iPhone 5SE. 
  • The general consensus is that pro is a misnomer and that Apple has abandoned the creative pro and the developer user market. 
Are we all destined to hunt for Apple's older product designs?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Salesforce.com Support: Is Quickly Not Helping Really Helpful?

So a funny thing happened on my way through a normal workday. Wearing my Salesforce.com Admin hat, I was contacted about a problem by one of our users. After guessing at the first answer -- what would be most logical -- then diving into it myself, I found myself mired in another one of those "this is something that people have been requesting from Salesforce for years and they haven't done anything" problems. That by itself would probably merit an annoyed blog post, but it's what happened after that that sent me straight to Blogger.

Let's start with a bit of background. Imagine you're in Salesforce and you're on a custom object page (I think this actually applies to standard objects, but I don't really want to explore the nuances of things that don't work). Let's say the object is a "Quote". Now you've just created this quote and you want to use Salesforce's email tool to send the Quote to your customer. But you don't want to send it just to Bob, your primary contact. You also need to send the quote to Sue in purchasing and maybe Alex in administration. Here's the screen that you'd see:
From here, you'd enter Bob's contact information in the To: and Salesforce would link the email to his contact info (including using the email address from his record). But for Sue and Alex, you'd expect to use the Additional To or the CC fields. However, if you click on the Additional to link, what you'll be brought to is a window with this at the top:
Now, what several online items suggest -- and you might expect to happen from "All Co-workers in Company" is any contacts on the Account linked to the Contact. However, what the list actually holds is all of the Users from your company. This happens from any of the search window buttons as well. Oh, and you might expect that the "Show" would let you choose from another list option. It doesn't.

If you want to add Sue or Alex, you have to type their email addresses into the Additional to or CC email windows. And if this is part of a process that you repeat frequently, you can expect to do a lot of typing.

But Wait, There's More...
This has been a problem in Salesforce for a long time. When I went looking for solutions on Google "Salesforce email additional to", I came across these outstanding ideas:

First, here are three Ideas covering the exact same issue, going all the way back six years ago.
https://success.salesforce.com/ideaView?id=08730000000Z2vmAAC
https://success.salesforce.com/ideaview?id=08730000000HARDAA4
https://success.salesforce.com/ideaView?id=08730000000jJn3AAE

Next, here is some misinformation in their help knowledgebase that incorrectly informs people of how the functionality is supposed to work:
https://help.salesforce.com/HTViewSolution?id=000180786&language=en_US
https://success.salesforce.com/answers?id=90630000000gtrnAAA

Are you frustrated yet? Discovering this, I went on Twitter to share my frustration with @asksalesforce. Usually, they're pretty responsive, and the got back to me quickly. They also created a case. And this is where it gets even funnier.

The Quick Customer Service Response You Didn't Really Want
So this afternoon I received a call from Salesforce Customer Support. The call came from slightly soft-spoken Indian woman calling from a rather noisy call center room. I mention this because, between her accent and the background room noise, it made it a bit challenging to understand a lot of what she was saying. Without much of an intro, she requested that I go to GoToMeeting.com. I explained that I was in the middle of a project and she repeated her request that I go to GoToMeeting.com so that she could see the issue.

Now, the security guy in me would normally be pretty wary, but I have to admit that I was finding this so ludicrous that I decided to play along. So I fire up GoToMeeting and she gives me the meeting ID. And, of course, when I open the meeting, it immediately wants to share my screen and access my mouse and keyboard. No introductions, no gentle ask to access my screen.

Anyway, so I turn on the screen share and she asks me to demonstrate the issue. So I take her to a record and show her. Then we discuss it briefly. I also show her the Ideas. Then she proceeds to confirm that this is standard functionality. Rather than me explain, here's from the case file:
This is the standard functionality of salesforce and you also confirmed that you saw a couple ideas which were for the same issue. These ideas are under point threshold which means that they have been planned as a future roadmap and may be available in future releases. 
Needless to say, the call was a waste of both of our time. I told her she could close the case and I hung up.

In this case, Salesforce customer service was very quick in trying to help. Unfortunately, what they accomplished not only wasn't helpful, it actually annoyed me more than it did anything else. For example, they didn't even note that the ideas actually covered the same issue and, if combined, might reach their threshold for consideration. But beyond that, I could have told the Twitter team at @asksalesforce that this wasn't worth a case because I already knew they weren't going to do anything about it. I mean, the Idea Exchange shows that they've had six years to address it.

The whole thing reminds me that, several years ago I'd actually installed a component that would at least auto-complete email addresses in the Additional To field based on scanning the existing contact table. Unfortunately, like many free little add-ons over the years, I don't think that one works any longer.

So what's the take-away? While monitoring customer service channels like Twitter are great, it's probably not so great if you don't actually intend to fix the issue. For whatever reason, there are some functional issues -- like email sync that isn't using Microsoft Exchange -- that just don't rank highly (although they're supposedly close to fixing that for Gmail). Honestly, I'd be disappointed in Salesforce, but this is one of those where I really got what I expected -- I'm just no better off for having been there.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Food Brands: Kitchen Basics Stock Sucks Now. New owners. New recipe.

Once upon a time, when it seemed like there were more hours in the day, I used to write blog posts more frequently. We also used to post to our food blog more actively. In some respects, this post might be more appropriate on the food blog, but i decided to post it on the marketing blog because it definitely raises some interesting branding questions.

Now, to set the stage for you non-cooking people in the audience, chicken broth or stock is one of these essential ingredients to making better tasting foods -- it's not just something that you buy around Thanksgiving for poultry-cooking projects. We use stock all of the time, typically when you want to add liquid to a dish during the cooking process. Ideally, you make your own stock, but the process of making stock takes several hours, so its not unusual to use the packaged varieties you find in the store. Now, the downside of most store-bought stocks and broths is that they have a ton of salt in them and that gets even worse as it reduces down and the water cooks off -- a typical cooking process that could turn into a salty mess with the wrong product.

Enter Kitchen Basics Cooking Stock, a product that we found years ago and quickly became a cornerstone of our pantry. Back in 2009, we even published this post about Kitchen Basics Stock. Also, if you search the web for chicken broth comparisons, you'll find a number of older posts that rank the Kitchen Basics Stock higher than most other broths.

So imagine my surprise when I was at the store the other day and the familiar mustard yellow package of Kitchen Basics Chicken Stock had changed color. It was still yellow, but lighter yellow now, closer to a lemon yellow color than the mustard color. Initially, my assumption was that the packaging had just undergone some aging/bleaching, but I made my usual purchase (2 cartons) and headed home.

A day or two later, my wife informed me that there seemed to be something wrong with the Kitchen Basics Chicken Stock. When she started to add it to the soup she making, she noted that the stock was different. The color was lighter and the taste had changed. She then noted, as she compared the new one to an older package that we still had, that the list of ingredients on the back was different on the new, lighter colored package. Later, as we discussed it, we searched online for some explanation.

So it turns out that in 2011, Kitchen Basics was purchased by McCormick for $38 million in an effort to grow through acquisitions. You're probably familiar with McCormick from their line of spices. It appears that, some five years since the acquisition, Kitchen Basics Chicken Stock has been reformulated. Here's the original ingredient list (note, it's still listed this way on the Kitchen Basics web site and we had actually had an older package that with this ingredient list).
Ingredients
CHICKEN STOCK, VEGETABLE STOCK (CARROT, ONION, MUSHROOMS, AND CELERY), SEA SALT, NATURAL CHICKEN FLAVOR, HONEY, SALT, NATURAL FLAVOR, AND SPICE AND HERBS (BLACK PEPPER, BAY LEAF, AND THYME).
Now, here's what I have for the "new" version of the stock:

You'll note the removal of the vegetable stock as the second ingredient in the new version. This appears to be what's driving the flavor change.

Now it may be that this change is fairly subtle for most people, but for us, it was like somebody replaced the ultra-plush toilet paper in your home with one of those industrial toilet papers that always make you dread going to the bathroom in places that use them. It's one of those everyday products that you use and you probably don't think much about until something changes. But for us, and probably other people that use Kitchen Basics regularly, this change marks a complete re-evaluation of the products that we're using. We're now back to looking for an off the shelf chicken stock product that we can be happy with.

What makes this even more mind-boggling from a brand aspect is, this may seem like no big deal. But you also have to understand that Kitchen Basics isn't available in every grocery store and, in many cases, we've made decisions as to which retail store to choose based on whether they stocked Kitchen Basics. In software terms, this is a fundamental change to the core stack, something that affects an entire ecosystem above it. It's now entirely possible that, whatever we find as our new chicken stock of choice, that will dictate at least one of the stores that we shop in.

Thanks McCormick. It looks like we may be done with the Kitchen Basics brand.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

An Open Letter to Marc Benioff RE Dreamfest Logistics

Hi Marc,
First, let me say, thanks for replying to my tweet from the Dreamfest Event and thanks for requesting an email with details. While I know you requested an email, it seemed only fair to share aspects of it as a blog post since the whole thing started as a broadcast conversation.

First of all, let me start by saying that there are many aspects of Dreamforce that I think are great. I've been attending Dreamforce events since 2009, and I probably would have also gone to a couple of earlier ones, but I couldn't make it work. Not only have I always found the conference sessions to be helpful in gaining a much deeper understanding of the Salesforce platform, but it's also been a software/business/world eye-opening experience for the colleagues that I've brought to the event over the years. That being said, I've had my issues with Dreamforce over the years, like 2015, and my terrible Dreamforce 2013 that was so bad, I only came up for keynotes in 2014. As I've said in the past -- and once in a survey with your marketing people -- the biggest problem / challenge with Dreamforce is the crowds.

For all of the Dreamforce events that I've been to in the past, my gala concert count is far lower. Each year is different, but the biggest reason is logistics -- if you have to commute to the South Bay each night, staying late for a band after an exhausting day of running around for sessions is asking a lot. When I've stayed in the city, I've hung around for the band. At the same time, I remember seeing Stevie Wonder in the south hall of Moscone and thinking, firstly that the concrete walls and floors were the worst place that I've ever seen a band and, secondly, that it was only a matter of time before the size of the crowd overwhelmed the venue. Over the years, I've watched as the people and the venue grew, challenging the San Francisco landscape with a place large enough for the show. In that way, I think the Red Hot Chili Peppers was peak Dreamforce Gala. Closing off the Civic Center plaza was mind-blowingly awesome and, while it probably sucked for San Francisco that week, definitely ranked as one of the most amazing shows. Perhaps that contributed to making 2013 so disappointing. Last year, with the Foo Fighters, I actually considered going -- even though I was commuting -- until I saw where the event was located. While it was in San Francisco, it wasn't going to be an easy commute from the Moscone area nor back to the Caltrain for the ride home.

While I understand that this is a long opening, I want to provide a clear sense of history and, correspondingly, where my expectations and motivations were. This year, I registered on the first day of registration and secured a hotel room in the city. Despite having colleagues attending the conference, for various reasons, I found myself attending the Dreamfest event on my own. Prior to going, I was invited by our AE to use a special shuttle provided to SMB customers. After initially agreeing to that, when I discovered that the departure point for those shuttles was down in the Mission, I abandoned that plan. Instead, I walked down to Moscone West, figuring that there would be a number of shuttles there and that, traffic wise, it would be faster out of downtown than one of the hotel shuttles. I arrived at 7:00, thinking that I had left plenty of buffer before the 8:15 concert start. While the trip out of the city in traffic wasn't fast, overall we made good time, maybe 20 minutes or so, but by the time we got off 101 to make our way down to the Cow Palace, traffic was crawling. It felt like 15-20 minutes to travel a handful of blocks. I arrived at the event around 8:30, with U2 already having started their set.

While I've never seen U2 live before, I've seen a couple of their concerts on video in the past. When I saw the crowd and the way the event was set up, it was quickly clear that I would get no closer to the stage than the far back concession stands, and so I began, once again, watching a U2 concert on video using the large screen monitors near the back of the event. However, it quickly became clear that the actual audio was a second or two ahead of the video, and the irony of having had a better experience when I'd previously watched the video concerts struck me.

Leaving the Event
Around 9:30, I began wondering if I should just go ahead and leave, wondering whether there were early buses running back yet. By 9:40, I decided to head for the buses and was about out to the bus pick-up by 10:00. What I came across was a bit of a mess, to say the least. There were long, crowd control gates directing traffic through to the buses, but few people doing crowd control. You were supposed to follow these long crowd control gates (I was headed back to Moscone), but as you worked your way through them, you'd often see people climbing over them and jumping in front of you in line -- particularly since they weren't full and the "bus destination" on the street seemed so far away and, not even visible from the gates. As I started to get close to the street, more crowds, more people climbing over gates. In general, chaos.

I was standing behind the gates, on the sidewalk near the road, when the "first wave" of buses arrived (about the time the concert ended -- probably about 10:00). Rather than going through an orderly loading like was done back at Moscone West, suddenly people just started swarming toward the bus doors. It was forget about the crowd control gates, suddenly, people were three and four deep in the road trying to shove their way toward a bus door. Once the first buses were full and started to drive off, a handful of crowd-control people came through telling people that more buses would be coming and to wait where we were. Meanwhile more and more people kept streaming down the street. The crowd, from sidewalk towards the middle of the street, grew from 2-3 people deep to 6-8 to 8-10. Half the side of the roadway was filled with people standing around waiting to rush the buses doors when they opened.

There were some of us, sitting back, trying to behave with order, asking for guidance, but there were so few people. And the crowd was just getting more aggressive in trying to get buses whenever another row of buses would come through. At one point, the cops were there, attempting to help manage people getting into the bus door. Perhaps you've seen it all when you see a cop in SWAT gear trying to do people traffic control at a charter bus door. Meanwhile, with all of the crowd chaos, my thoughts kept going back to The Who concert in Cincinnati, hoping that somehow people would get this under control. Seriously. At times it felt like the crowd just might be that crazy.

The thing that really cracks you up though, that makes you think twice -- this crowd isn't soccer hooligans, it isn't "kids that don't know any better". The crowd is, theoretically, business people, professionals, grown-ups who've spent the day listening to stories of philanthropy and charity. And now, to watch them push and shove for buses. It's a reminder that crowds change people and that herds behave differently. Sadly, the whole thing also reminded me of the last Grateful Dead tour in 1995.

By 11:00, they started to try and control the people standing in the road, trying to push them back toward the sidewalk with yellow hazard ribbon, but it wasn't until about 11:10 when the cops started actually forcing people back that things started to move. Finally, I made it on the bus around 11:30 and back to the hotel. The finally funny part was that the bus driver dropped us off -- first stop -- at "The Hilton", but he was about a block away, across from Glide Memorial behind Parc55. Frankly, by that time, I was just glad to escape, but I was glad I wasn't one of the people from out of town trying to geo-locate using the map on the back of my Dreamforce badge.

Since the event, I've reflected on what was wrong and what should have been done differently. While I'm not someone who plans events on this scale, observation wise, I do have a couple of thoughts about what went wrong.
  • Too much unmanaged space between open areas and traffic controlled areas. By that I mean, there was a lot distance in crowd control gates with nobody there to manage the traffic and provide authoritative guidance. Like having one of those ribbon guides with nobody in line, people often believe that they can just jump ahead. 
  • Not clearly managed bus loading areas. At one point someone said they'll be loading at the cone. Then a bus pulled up 30 feet from the cone and a mass of people rushed the door from both directions.
  • The remote location. The Cow Palace is just too far away from San Francisco and from BART. When I checked with Google maps about walking to Balboa Park BART, it said 45 minutes walk. While finding an event location to handle the huge Dreamforce crowd is San Francisco is probably impossible, for myself, I wouldn't go to another event that isn't within walking distance.
While I waited for a bus to extract me from Daily City, I wondered if there was a band that I would be so interested in seeing that I would do another Dreamforce Gala again. At this point, I can't think of one.

Marc, I want to thank you for the conference and all of the effort that you and your team go through to make Dreamforce happen. And again, thanks for reply and the email request.

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

Salesforce.com Functionality Erosion and Find Nearby Accounts

If you've used Salesforce.com 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.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Enterprise Rent-A-Car: Mistakes and Credits

So, I've written a lot about Enterprise Car Rental lately. Part of the reason why I took this up again was that, after my contact with Miami regional manager Jose, I expected to receive some sort of communication, either explaining the issue, something confirming that they had credited my account -- something.

Just to check, I went back and looked at my credit card statement and there was a charge of $-54.87 on my card from Enterprise on June 2. Since this charge was in the same date range as some of the hotels that I had stayed at during my trip, I thought that this was the disputed charge.

This morning, after more attempts to get a response from Enterprise customer service, I finally decided to call my credit card company in order to dispute the charge. The customer service agent at the card company informed my that the June 2 number was a credit of $54.87, and that the prior charge was in May for $54.89. Essentially, they had credited me back the entire charge. Or rather, the entire charge, less two cents. I told the agent that I was okay with the two cent charge and we had a chuckle and left it at that.

In some respects, I owe Enterprise Customer Service an apology. They did actually credit my account and respond. At the same time, considering the back and forth that we had -- and the number of times that I tried to follow up with them -- I'm surprised that they didn't email me some notice that they'd credited my account. It would have saved me a month of albeit misplaced frustrations and it would have saved them from the stuff that I posted online.

At this point, I'm unsure as to whether I will rent from Enterprise again. Prior to our trip to Miami, I was raving to everyone about the great rate that we had received from Enterprise. We were excited. I was an evangelist. Now, I just don't know.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Enterprise Car Rental: Customer Lip Service

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I was finally contacted by Enterprise Car Rental. Back at the beginning of June, I spent some time on the phone with Jose, who claimed to be a regional manager for Enterprise in the Miami region. Jose listened, he was apologetic, and he told me that he would take care of everything for me. He also asked for my home address, the implication being that he was going to send me something as a symbolic apology. I also asked for a complete postmortem in an email.

And so, I left it there, waiting to see what Enterprise would do, what their response was. And, as things happen, I was very busy over the next couple of weeks. But I didn't forget. A week or so ago, I even called Jose on the cell number that he provided me, and left a voice mail requesting follow-up.

Since we first spoke, however, I have not heard anything nor received anything. Enterprise still has not credited my card for the incorrect charges. In short, they haven't done anything.

Earlier this week, I tweeted multiple follow-ups to @enterprisecares. They told me that they would follow up with Miami. To date, I still haven't received any response.

As I mentioned on Twitter, Enterprise Car Rental has inspired me to add a new tag to my blog, Customer Lip Service. This is one of those when they say that they'll take care of you in an attempt to make you feel better, but don't actually follow up with any real action. Remember when Iomega customers actually had to sue the company (and win) in order to get support for their ZIP Drives?

If you're considering renting a car, you should seriously consider this customer experience horror story as a cautionary tale.

Salesforce.com Data Importer - Customer Support Stories

As I've written about previously, I've had lots of issues with Salesforce.com's new Data Importer tool. Recently, while importing a number of leads, I came across an issue that I wrote about on Twitter -- namely, that when you import records with the new tool, if you set "Record Type" in the interface, the import doesn't actually respect that setting, instead assigning the records to the default record type. If you're importing a lot of records, this can be a real pain in the ass.

And so I fired out a series of tweets. Salesforce.com's Twitter customer support replied back suggesting that I create a case. Sure enough, when I did, Salesforce customer support contacted me back and informed me that it was a known issue -- and how to subscribe to updates for when it would be fixed.

The workaround, he informed me, was to use the legacy Data Import tool. I didn't think that was still available, but he directed me to a link at the top of the "Import Leads" page. It's subtle, and it would be nice if they included a more prominent button in the interface, but the good news is that the old tool is still there. Until early 2017.

Helpful Customer Service -- When They Talk To You
Overall, discussing the issue on the phone with the customer support rep worked out well. Much better than some of the responses that I've received online in the past. My favorite is when the Salesforce.com Twitter customer support sent me a link to "How to Configure Your .CSV file" in response to my complaints about the new Data Importer.

While talking with the rep on the phone, I also took the time to complain about how the new Data Import engine forced you to add a "Lead Status" field when you imported leads. His explanation is that the legacy tool didn't bother to verify whether required fields were populated or not and that, technically, the new tool works better. From an engineering perspective, I understand that this is a technically valid point. However, as I mentioned during my call, if you're importing LEADS, it's reasonable to assume that they are "OPEN". If not, you could easily add a Lead Status Field and import them with a different status. While it is technically operating closer to defined rules, it's not operating smarter.

We even spent a bit of time arguing about whether the Data Import Wizard would allow you to continue through your import if you left some fields unmapped. He adamantly swore that it would. My experience tells me that it doesn't. But your mileage may very.

Perhaps my biggest take-away from the experience is a reminder of just how much better it is to actually talk to a customer support person at Salesforce. It's a reminder that that aspect worked much better in the past, when they did more to support their customers before the days of expensive tiered customer support and the need to spend a ton of money just to access the human infrastructure.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Marketing Foods with Nutrition Science

Here's an interesting article about the industry for nutritional studies, How Candy Makers Shape Science. It's a deeper dive into how nutritional studies are funded by the food industry and a look at why you get studies like, "Children who eat candy weigh less than those who don't," paid for by candy manufacturers.

For me, one of the most significant quotes in the piece is, "The only thing that moves sales is health claims." It's worth a look.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Enterprise Car Rental Update: Contact.

So yesterday afternoon I received a call from a regional manager for Enterprise Car Rental in Miami. We discussed the issues that I had experienced and he apologized. He said that they would credit me back the incorrect charges. I asked for a more complete postmortem. I'll let you know when I have more. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Enterprise Car Rental Update: Still No Response. No Escalation?

So it's been over a week since I first raised this issue with Enterprise customer service through @Enterprise and @Enterprisecares on Twitter. On Monday night, I was informed by one customer service agent that they had created a case. On Friday morning, I was informed that my case was submitted a second time.

When you're setting up Salesforce.com, the default length of time for case escalation is 3 days. While I don't recall whether there was a default escalation schedule in Zendesk, there is no question that customer service CRM tools all recognize the importance of operating in a timely fashion.

For those that might not be familiar with it, case escalation essentially raises the importance of a case. When you first contact customer service at an organization using a customer service CRM, they typically create a case to track your issue. All of your communications with the company go there. There's also a status tracker that references what stage in the process of solving your problem the issue is in. Most cases are working toward a process stage of Closed - Solved. This is the customer service equivalent of a Sales Opportunity being Closed - Won.

This is why when you deal with some customer service organizations, they will specifically say something like, "Have I answered all of your questions" or "Is there anything else", followed by a "then can I mark this issue as closed" or something to that effect.

Escalation is the process where certain cases trigger automatic alerts, typically to managers who are supposed to have the oversight to step in and make sure certain kinds of issues don't get out of hand. Since many customer service contacts can be for fairly minor things, good customer service organizations use these tools to help prevent issues "falling through the cracks". The last thing you need is to contact Comcast for help setting up your cable, only to have them forget about you for a month. These are the kinds of things that alienate customers.

Customer service queuing is why customer service software is often used to send out status updates. It's a whole lot easier for you to feel like you're being taken care of when somebody informs you of their progress along the way. Imagine if you went to the customer service department in a store and the clerk listened to your story, said "I'll be back," and disappeared. How long would you wait before becoming frustrated? One hour? Less? Would you wait through the end of the day? Would you come back the next day?

So when you see things like my issue with Enterprise Car Rental, as you watch their customer service act and respond, you can't help but compare many of these actions to industry standard practices. These practices are not unknown. And when I asked their customer service about them over Twitter, they confirmed several aspects of them. This is not some 'Mom-n-Pop' organization. So where's the sense of progress? Where are my status updates? Where's my escalation?

And while it may seem crazy to be this dogged about something as minor as a $30 overcharge, it's important to remember -- this is the same customer service mechanism that you would deal with if something far worse had happened. For example, what if they were claiming damage to the vehicle or that, despite turning the vehicle in at an Enterprise Rental Car return, that they hadn't received the car and that it was missing? All of the gloss and friendliness at the front end of the rental counter doesn't mean anything if the customer service back-end sucks.