The telecom industry is accustomed to conflict. Recent battles have been fought over network platforms, apps, and the electromagnetic spectrum. And the next set of transformational battle lines are already drawn in areas such as home automation and connected cars.
As with past industry transformations, these are high stakes games, being driven by powerful industry forces. Here we’ll look at some current low-profile but potentially high-impact battles involving mobile payments, user interfaces and the personal communications experience. Read the entire article on Telecompetitor!
If you own an Apple device and are ‘environmentally conscious,’ an October 16 story in Wired entitled Greenwashing the Retina MacBook Pro may be of interest to you. Essentially, the article says that despite this computer’s certification as an EPEAT Gold device, the spirit of the certification is questionable. One reason for concern is that Apple markets itself as a ‘green’ company, and yet it no longer registers its devices with EPEAT.
Environmental concerns may be a bit abstract for most consumers, but this erosion of Apple’s ‘green’ ethos reflects some apparent changes in design philosophy within Apple that have an impact on all Apple users. It points to a philosophy of planned obsolescence and disposability, which Apple’s service and product life-cycle practices serve to reinforce.
Apple’s current generations of mobile phones and media players are sealed and not designed for disassembly or maintenance by their users. As the EPEAT situation shows, Apple has extended this design philosophy to the latest Retina MacBook Pros. As a result, most Apple hardware products are no longer ‘user upgradeable.’ This lowers the cost of manufacturing, and provides incentive (coercion?) for consumers to buy an AppleCare service agreement. So it’s all good for Apple.
But it’s not good for consumers. Let me give you an example of the impact on this philosophy on an Apple user: me.
I bought a fourth-generation iPod Touch – new – in 2011 and had it until a few months ago. After owning the device for about 14 months – just a couple of months beyond the basic product warranty period – it suddenly stopped working. The reason was that the battery had expanded, forcing the case open; and making the touch interface useless. Since I hadn’t bought an AppleCare extended warranty (Why? I don’t know), it would have cost so much to repair the device that repair made little sense. Apple applied its salvage value to my purchase of a new iPod. In effect, this cost me more than $300 – between the cost of the original device and the replacement.
AppleCare for laptop computers runs out at the end of Year 3. Users have three choices at the end of that period: 1) buy a third-party warranty, 2) take the risk and fly without a service agreement, or, 3) sell or trade in your machine for a newer model – revenue-assurance for Apple.
This hardware situation is bad enough, but also, each subsequent release of MacOS X won’t run on devices that are more than a few years old, or at best, renders software that’s more than a few releases old obsolete. The net effect is that Apple has quietly and incrementally created a new kind of “lock-in,” and worse, has become less pro-active in telling anyone about it. I’m concerned that my second-generation iPad will eventually follow this pattern as well.
It’s not that Apple hasn’t created lock-in situations before, but in the past, Apple has been much more open with its customers and partners than it is now. Some Apple history shows how.
In the early 1990s, Apple went from Motorola 68000-family microprocessor chips to Motorola/IBM PowerPC chips, which prompted developers and users to upgrade their software across the board or be left behind. I worked for an Apple software developer (Aldus, which was acquired by Adobe) in the 1990s and can attest that the changeover was well orchestrated. Apple did a good job selling this change as being a good thing.
In 2001, Apple released MacOS X (Mac OS Ten), a fundamental change to the Mac operating system. MacOS X was a consolidation of several technologies that were developed by Apple and NeXT (a Steve Jobs company that Mr. Jobs sold back to Apple) over the course of the 1990s. Again, Apple wisely built a bridge from old to new by maintaining a way for users to run earlier versions of MacOS for several years.
In 2006, Apple released its first Intel-based computers, replacing the Motorola/IBM PowerPC. Yet again, Apple bridged the old and the new; this time by providing PowerPC emulation on the Intel processor platform for several years, until 2010.
But sometime between then and now, it seems that something has changed within Apple, and it’s having a direct impact on users. I don’t like what I see, and I hope that the good ship Apple will make some course corrections.
Apple has become (on and off) the most valuable company in the world, and is hugely profitable. It has achieved this status in no small part through the loyalty of its customers, many of whom stuck with Apple through some painful times. I was an Apple dealer before some of the readers of this blog were alive – starting in 1981 – and I have owned Apple products since 1984.
I am of the opinion that Apple owes us something in return for this loyalty. By providing easy-to-use products that fit (and in some cases, have created) the modern digital lifestyle, Apple does go a long way to keep up its end of this bargain. But Apple has go the rest of the way – as it once did – by returning to its earlier and more consumer-friendly practices relating to software obsolescence, hardware accessibility, and environmentalism.
Apple can certainly afford to do so.
This is a continuation of a blog entry that I made in early February, concerning my experiences with a Samsung mobile smartphone and my carrier, T-Mobile.
About a week after sending my phone to Samsung for the software ‘re-flash,’ an email showed up saying that Samsung couldn’t do it because it had a hardware issue. The cost of repair was revised from zero (which I had received in writing), to $70. I called them to confirm – were they really changing the terms of their deal? – yes (although, the service rep was very polite about it). I knew this phone should under hardware warranty, since it was less than a year old, so I told Samsung that I’d be back with proof. They said they would do the repair if I could prove it.
So I went back to the T-Mobile retail store to request a printed record but they had no access to my repair history, although they politely offered to allow me to pay my bill… If I had any hopes that I would receive customer service in a T-Mobile retail store, these hopes were now officially dashed: these stores are only for sales and payments, not post-sale customer service.
Back home, and back on the phone to T-Mobile phone support, which confirmed that the unit I had was, in fact, less than a year old. But they could not warrantee it because the unit that it replaced was more than a year old. You’ve got to be kidding me. A silence, and then the T-Mobile rep said: “But wait, you have insurance on this phone! You can replace it under your insurance plan!” Why was I not informed of this three weeks and 8 hours of effort ago? Because the phone was being used under my phone number, and not the phone number for which it was originally activated (even though both numbers are on the same family plan).
As soon as I told them that the phone was originally activated under another number on my family plan, the insurance suddenly applied and I was allowed to choose one of four different phones. I asked Samsung to return the Vibrant to me, which they did. T-Mobile sent a replacement phone – a Samsung Exhibit II (Samsung model number SGH-T679) – which was similar but not identical to the Vibrant model. It works, and I’m getting used to it.
How does this story end? First, I was impressed by the complete lack of customer service that I received from T-Mobile – one of the worst customer experiences that I have ever had. This lack of concern for customer loyalty, and the incredible inefficiency of this process truly lowered the bar. And why does T-Mobile treat customers as potential criminals? Every time I call them, they ask me to enter my phone number and the last four digits of the primary account-holder’s social security number. Then again, verbally, once an agent answers. And why does T-Mobile disable the over-the-air update feature for smartphones and force the use of a USB cable, especially when the update software tells you that you can only update the phone over the air? I don’t get it.
Second, I’ll revise my grades to both Samsung and to T-Mobile. For T-Mobile’s utter ineptitude and lack of customer concern (and I won’t even get into the absence of retail staff training), I give them an F+. The ‘+’ comes only because they finally addressed the repair on my phone by replacing it. I give Samsung a D-. Good manners don’t count when companies retract promises made. This error was not a matter of $70 revenue for a service case. It was a matter of customer loyalty and retention. I also own two Samsung TV sets but my next one? Not so sure.
Truly, I hope that Samsung does a better job with their connected TVs than they do for their mobile phones, since the task of support for an app-enabled connected TV is probably more involved than it is for a phone, not to mention that is a lot more difficult to return a TV to the manufacturer for repair.
Third, it reaffirms my loyalty as an Apple customer. If this Samsung phone breaks, I will most definitely buy an unsubsidized iPhone. Even if the Samsung can be repaired under warranty or insurance, I will sell it on eBay as soon as it comes back from reapir. Say what you will about Apple and their spoiled-rotten ‘fanboy’ customers, but Apple is a market leader for a reason. I don’t have the time or the inclination for anything less than a superior customer experience. That’s right up there with usability, and Apple wins on both.
Today I had planned to go through some editing on some work I was doing for a client, but my “new” smartphone has sucked up most of my day.
My son has a nice Samsung Galaxy S “Vibrant” SGH-T959 that was replaced last year under warranty. The first replacement unit was lost, so T-Mobile sent a second one, which went to my son. Because the first one never turned up, I ended up paying $400 to T-Mobile for it – lost or not, they didn’t have it. Now I do.
Even though I am the ultimate late adopter – this is my first smartphone – I was excited to finally make the transition. Still brand new, but because it was a replacement, it was minus the back cover, charger and battery. So I went on eBay and got the missing accessories, got my old Nokia 5310 “dumb phone” deactivated, transferred my SIM and MicroSD cards, and activated this Samsung in its place; relegating the Nokia to briefcase accessory status, for when I travel internationally and want to use a phone with a local SIM card.
Now I’ve been living with the Samsung for a week and I like it (although – call me old-school – I do like to press a button to answer the phone, and not have to fumble with swiping my finger across the screen). So the other day, I found and paid $5 for an app that syncs this Android-based phone with iTunes on my Mac, which is appealing because it would eliminate the need for me to carry both my iPod Touch and the phone, which (superior iPhone usability aside) are functionally redundant except that one doesn’t contain a phone.
Because the ‘lost’ Samsung was about a year old, it had Android v2.1 installed. But the app I bought only ran on Android 2.2 (of course, I didn’t think to look at the small print: the system requirements listed by the developer in the Android Market). So for the past 2 days, I have been trying to update this phone to Android 2.2. T-Mobile has no in-store technical support (in reality, if there’s any, it’s informal – if the employees happen to be up to speed, they often do try), so I went home dejectedly and went through three tiers of T-Mobile phone support. Even T-Mobile’s Level Three technician couldn’t figure it out.
So I went directly to Samsung, and I found them to be extremely helpful and very polite. I also had the impression that they were very well organized and trained. As it turns out, T-Mobile required Samsung to disable the “over the air” software update function for this phone, and instead, requires that the update be done by downloading an installer called “Kies Mini,” and doing it via a USB cable.
First, I installed Kies Mini on my Mac, but it couldn’t see the phone. Then, the PC version, which also required drivers, driver updates and two Windows re-boots in order to function – and it couldn’t see the phone either (neither on the Windows 7 virtual machine running on my Mac, nor on my wife’s Windows 7 computer). In both cases, the phone saw the computer just fine.
I decided on my own that the problem was the cable, so I went back to the T-Mobile store on bended knees with outstretched palms, and they gave me a new cable. Still nothing. In desparation, I decided to turn off all other network connections on the phone, by invoking “airplane mode.” Eureka!!!
But not so fast: Kies Mini then put up an error message that said the phone didn’t have the right software version installed, and that the phone could not be updated via the cable, and needed to be updated “over the air” (Wait a minute – this was the entire and only purpose for this software in the first place, to do the update via the cable). Perfect!
So I called Samsung Tech Support back, gave them the case number that they gave me yesterday, and within 5 minutes, we had a solution. They gave me an RMA number, so I could return the phone for a full ‘re-flash’ of all of the phone’s software at no charge. Not only that, but it will be … not Android 2.1… not Android 2.2… but Android 2.3 !!! But I’ll have to be without my phone for a week, so I’ll reactivate my Nokia and stand by.
Then I’ll see if I can get that iTunes Android app I bought to work…
So, let me review. I’ve put at least 6 hours into this, between T-Mobile phone support, two trips to the T-Mobile store and two support calls to Samsung; not to mention the hour I just spent ventilating about this experience on my blog. I give T-Mobile a grade of D-, but not an F, only because they gave me a cable on my second visit. I give Samsung support an A for good intentions and effort, but a C for the information they made available to their support staff, which was incomplete. I give Samsung product development a C- (they make a nice phone, but the Kies Mini experience was very Alice-in-Wonderland).
If this was an iPhone, first of all, this would have worked because there is only one build for the OS at any given time; and not many, as is the case for Android). Second of all, it would have taken maybe 10 minutes from start to finish. If I’d known that I’d have this (hate to say it…) Windows-like experience with my new phone, I’d have put it on eBay and bought an iPhone (although I’d have to buy it unlocked direct from Apple, unsubsidized, because T-Mobile does not carry the iPhone in the U.S. and T-Mobile’s network accommodates it just fine.
Now I know what the analysts mean when they say that “the Android experience is very fragmented.” Everyone’s experience differs. Your mileage may vary.
[ Feb 6 - Note: I had also contacted the developer of the app that got me started on this Android update escapade in the first place. To their extreme credit, their product manager responded with concern. I hope that this all has a happy ending because app developers tend not to take the trouble to do this. ]