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  • Newsletter Issue #490

    April 19th, 2009

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    On this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented Special Correspondent David Biedny, who talked turkey about Microsoft’s downhill slide, some unheralded 3D software and the benign neglect shown to such applications as Adobe’s Director.

    On the first subject, I think David and I both agree that Microsoft's leadership, particularly CEO Steve Ballmer, has failed to demonstrate that they are aware of what they need to do to halt the steady erosion of their market share. Their foolish and utterly misleading ad campaigns convey a near-desperate attempt to recover lost ground. More to the point, David reminded our listeners about companies that once dominated their markets, but were now just footnotes in history. Remember Wang Laboratories?

    When it comes to the second point, David has long been on a campaign to talk about superb products that rarely -- sometimes never -- receive coverage in the tech media. The reasons why might be complicated, and depend on the individual product. But in large part it's because these apps are developed by small companies that do not have the budget to advertise and hire marketing people to handle major public relations campaigns.

    Author and publisher Adam Engst, of TidBITS, was on hand to detail the new or changed features Apple didn’t reveal in its release notes for the recent iPhoto 8.0.2 update. This sort of behavior continues to strike me as quite peculiar, since some of these features left unmentioned are often worth extended discussion. Unfortunately, when it comes to Apple, it's sometimes requires lengthy investigation to discover just how an application has changed, since information about a new release is exceedingly sparse.

    He also brought us up to date on techniques to protect your wireless network.

    This week on The Paracast, we present Paul Kimball and Holly Stevens, paranormal TV hosts and investigators, who are also known as Mully and Sculder. During this session, they’ll recount their ongoing ghost hunting investigations and strange encounters.

    Coming April 26: Paracast listener Daz Smith, who claims to be a trained remote viewer, discusses his background and ongoing experiences as a psychic.

    Coming May 3: Veteran UFO researcher Peter Robbins, co-author of “Left at East Gate,” discusses the classic Rendlesham Forest incident and its strange aftermath.

    Coming May 10: The “Super Ultimate UFO Roundtable” busts UFO myths and more. Featured guests include Paul KimballGreg Bishop and Nicholas Redfern.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We're taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: "Separating Signal From Noise." You can get them for $14.95, each, plus shipping, and you can select from most popular sizes.

    MAC SUPPORT = GOOD; PC SUPPORT = BAD

    Apple always remarks that they will not build junk when they are asked why there's no cheap Mac. PC makers, however, struggle to eke out sales in every conceivable product category, from netbooks to Web servers. They are also notorious for shaving costs wherever they can, and that often comes at the expense of their customers.

    I recall, for example, talking with a couple of techs from Dell a few years ago while helping set up a PC for Internet access at a client's home. Understand that Dell, in those days, was number one in the PC market, and had a reputation for actually delivering reasonably good tech support.

    However, my experience was far from encouraging. The first tech sounded as if he was reading direct from a "cheat sheet" when I asked several probing questions about a specific setup option. I interrupted, asking him to get to the point, and he'd simply return to the beginning and resume his droning delivery of useless information.

    In frustration, I asked him to stop and escalate the matter to a supervisor.

    While listening to the musical presentation while on hold, I continued to probe the command line of the PC, and was near a solution when the supervisor answered the call. He was not only patronizing, but actually delivered incorrect information about a Run command that would set things right.

    At this point, I had managed to resolve the problem by myself, so I just ended the call. I had to wonder, though, just how Dell's customers were faring with such treacherous support, and I could well understand that some home users were known to simply turn off their PCs for good as a result.

    Now it's also true that Windows is far more reliable these days, and the initial setup of a new PC is more often trouble-free than not. However, cutthroat pricing has forced the PC makers to pay less attention to basic support issues, so if you do encounter a problem, you're apt to be on your own.

    This is not just my claim. Surveys published by Consumer Reports have, for years, demonstrated that Apple provides a far superior customer support experience. A recent report from Forrester Research confirms that the Mac customer experience trumps that of the PC user by a huge margin.

    Now I'm not going to dwell to a large extent on another issue often raised in these discussions, the alleged Apple Tax, the supposedly higher price people pay to buy a Mac. I'm of the opinion, based on my own research, that the price differential between a Mac and a PC is far less than claimed, and is often nonexistent. Let's leave it there and look at what you get for your money, which is far more important when it comes to owning a personal computer.

    While Apple can screw up customer service near as badly as a typical PC maker from time to time, on most occasions their customer service people not only try to do the right thing, but are known to go way beyond the call of duty.

    Let me give you some examples: A local client, who runs a small design studio, paid an authorized Apple reseller to replace the defective power supply on his iMac G5. Three months later, the part failed again and this time he called Apple for guidance.

    To his surprise, he was informed that the model in question was covered by an extended repair program and he should have had the replacement done free of charge. The Apple tech told him that not only would they arrange to have the repair performed at a local Apple Store without cost, but would help my client get a refund from the third party dealer who ripped him off.

    Just the other day, a local photographer wrote me about a problem with her first-generation MacBook Pro, bought in 2006, where the battery wouldn't take a charge. I told her it was more likely the battery than the power adapter, and suggested that she take it to the Genius Bar at one of the Apple Stores in the area. I also prepared her for what I felt to be the certain prospect that she'd have to purchase a new battery.

    However, if you know much about Apple, you wouldn't be surprised at the end result of the visit to the Genius Bar: "I went over to Apple today because I just couldn't get the charge into the laptop. They ran a test on the battery which said it was bad. Considering that there was no recall on that battery nor did it have much use at all, I was surprised that it was dead. They gave me a new battery at no charge. The tech overwrote the info so I had it free. Good guy, for sure!"

    A few years ago, I had a 23-inch Apple display replaced even though the warranty had expired. In my case, I had to escalate the matter a few levels in the support hierarchy to get satisfaction, but in the end Apple once again took the steps necessary to satisfy a loyal customer.

    Understand that I do not for a moment believe that Apple has implemented support policies of this sort just to be nice to you. They simply realize that providing a superior customer experience is just good business. Such policies help retain customers, who will continue to buy more Apple products and thus ensure great revenues that will keep the company prosperous.

    With far too many businesses, providing excellent service is a afterthought. Support people are often regarded as expendable and are the first to be dismissed when profits narrow. That situation, as much as the known advantages of the Mac versus to the PC, will help Apple survive in both good times and bad.

    As to the rest of the PC universe, they could learn a few things from Apple, and not just observing a wide range of products they can imitate. But it doesn't seem that they're getting the message.

    I HOPE SATELLITE RADIO SURVIVES

    When plans for two satellite radio networks were approved by the FCC in the 1990s, the promise of these ventures was wide open. You'd be able to listen to the very same stations coast to coast, some of which would be commercial free. Certainly after struggling to listen to music radio, and having to endure 18 or 20 minutes per hour of spots, this was a refreshing change.

    But there were issues with the early implementation. For one thing, the systems weren't compatible with each other, which made it difficult, if not impossible, to switch from one to the other. Various auto makers signed up over the years, but most contracts were exclusive with Sirius or XM. So if you wanted the network they didn't offer, you'd have to seek a third-party add-on from your local auto sound store or just buy a different car.

    Now in the real world, probably 90% of the content was pretty much the same anyway. This didn't stop Sirius and XM from signing exclusive deals with artists and sporting leagues to differentiate themselves. Then again, for many of you it made no difference, since you were still dealing with incompatible networks.

    When it became clear that Sirius and XM spent too much money recruiting such talent as Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey, they realized that they'd probably have to pool their assets to stay alive. Besides, what good is a network of satellites that aren't transmitting anything?

    Months after a merged Sirius XM emerged from the two failing networks, they still had to seek money to keep them alive. After escaping a possible bankruptcy filing in early February, it appears they'll somehow manage to survive, at least in the near-term. But even though they are one, your Sirius radio doesn't receive the XM signal and vice versa. They do offer extra cost "Best of" packages that let you sample the other network's exclusive content, but the prices are unrealistic for what they offer. Otherwise, they seem to be busy merging other stations, so the differences are even less than they used to be.

    Some time in the future, there will be a radio that can receive either signal. Billing systems will be integrated and it will be possible to have both a Sirius and an XM account, as I do, and not be forced to pay full price for both, rather than the discount rate for a second radio. More to the point, I would hope that content is totally duplicated, without the need for shady extra-cost deals to add a few more stations.

    On the positive side of the ledger, it sure doesn't appear to me that service of the combined Sirius XM company has deteriorated any, at least so far. I still get my regular dose of left-wing and right-wing talk radio in my efforts to get a true balanced picture of the political scuttlebutt of our time. The musical stations still feature the same brand of former terrestrial radio disk jockeys, and I can usually find some music worth listening to, although not, unfortunately, from most of today's artists.

    This doesn't mean there aren't signs of trouble on the horizon. With poor auto sales, fewer people are signing up, and efforts to expand sales to homes still haven't succeeded so well, in part because of the difficult issues of antenna positioning to get decent reception. However, the executives at Sirius XM seem to be coping well with the new reality, at least so far.

    I would surely hate to see my satellite radios go silent, and I wish them the best of luck. They'll need it.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #490”

    1. Adam says:

      Former Mac Genius here,

      One of the reasons that you have the experiences you do with Apple support lies in the recruitment process. Every single Apple employed Tech I have ever met is a long time Apple user and actually cares that the customer has a good experience with the product. (I know that there are some that don't fit this mold, but it's a real minority). It is harder to get a job with Apple (statistically based on application/hire ratios) than to get accepted at Stanford. The vetting process is extensive and in the interviews it is quite clear that they are looking for people who give a darn about other Apple customers and making things right.

      Your approach also matters. If you came to my Genius Bar yelling and blaming and refusing to allow me to do my job, which most often involved you listening to an explanation, then I was less likely to go above and beyond. If on the other hand you came to me polite, but no doubt frustrated, and were willing to accept that I knew something about what I was doing, then I was much more likely to give you extra time while I multi-tasked with other customers, explore your particular problem in more depth, make sure you had a resolution before you left even if that meant a long time running. Even if you started out yelling and screaming and blaming, if you allowed yourself to be open to my help I would give you all that I could.

      As Apple's market share grows, I see a trend among those seeking support in that they are less friendly, more accusatory, and downright nasty to the support people. I attribute this to
      1) These are not always the dedicated Mac users who've been doggedly on the platform as often.
      and
      2) These are people with a lot of "baggage".

      Still most Genii and phone support are very empathetic and nothing makes you feel better at the end of a shift than knowing you did the right thing. So they do just that, as often as they possibly can.

      Cheers!

      Reply To This Comment

    2. Constable Odo says:

      You're probably one of the few people who's willing to pay for it. Most people aren't. $12 a month isn't a lot of money, though. Maybe because most people aren't driving from coast to coast. My personal music library is big enough to drive coast to coast a a couple of times and not run out of music. I say let both of those companies fall into bankruptcy and be done with satellite radio. It hasn't ever made a profit and probably never will. There's honestly just not enough demand or need to pay for that sort of thing.

      Reply To This Comment

    3. Scott says:

      I'm quite pleased with my XM radio service. It is not used in my car but simply at home, which has a clear southern exposure - few reception problems.

      XM's coverage of major league baseball is the primary reason for my use of the service. I can listen to each and every Pirates game (I know, I know). In the off season, I follow the Penquins. There is just something relaxing about listening to a ball game on the radio.

      As for the music, well, I'm not that much into it. I don't own an iPod and I don't use iTunes. On occasion, I'll tune in to one of the background oriented music channels.

      I simply don't understand the appeal of Howard Stern and his ilk.

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