Apple, AT&T and Google Follies

May 18th, 2016

It is the end of a long, annoying day, not made better by three large tech and telecom companies. As I write this column, I’m decompressing and wondering about the conventional wisdoms of some services.

So let’s start with Apple Maps and Google Maps. The conventional wisdom has it that the latter is much better than the former. We’ll see.

I planned a visit to a client in Peoria, AZ, a suburban community west of Phoenix. The trip would take from 50 minutes to an hour from my home, such as it is, in the East Valley. Now through force of habit, I called up Google Maps and entered my home address and the address of my client. As per my usual routine — and call me old fashioned — I printed out the route.

Most of the trip involved a path with which I was familiar, but the final leg of the journey continued along some small roads in a subdivision. Here’s where Google flaked out.

So I ended up at a cul-de-sac at least a mile from my actual destination. Evidently the street was interrupted in several places, and I should have gone a different way, but not according to Google.

Rather than give Google a second chance, I called up Apple Maps, and had Siri guide me to a location several miles away. Yes, I made doubly sure that the address was correct, but it didn’t help. I was still several miles from my destination, again at a cul-de-sac.

I was getting nowhere fast.

Well, I manually reentered the address, this time seeing a route displayed in Apple Maps that seemed to offer a chance for success, so I threw caution to the wind and hoped the third time would be a charm.

Ten minutes later I arrived at my client’s home. Having allowed for some extra driving time, I was only a few minutes late, and he didn’t notice.

Based on the correct destination, it’s clear that the actual route is quite straightforward. It involves exiting a state freeway, and making three turns. It’s less than three minutes from the freeway offramp, and doesn’t involve travel through new roads or construction signs. But why did Apple and Google miss it the very first time?

To its credit, Apple did figure it out on the second attempt, but I wasn’t interested in seeing how Google would manage the reroute. I had enough. Might as well blame myself for not asking the client to provide his own directions.

There’s not much to conclude from this episode other than the obvious fact that online mapping services are imperfect. Even though Google is supposedly much better than Apple at this sort of thing, they both screw up at an equal rate in my experience.

So much for Apple and Google.

AT&T’s faults are a tad more complicated, and one of the problems may have stemmed from an unsavory practice on the part of a company attempting to contact me.

It all started when I called up AT&T’s information number, the usual 411. In the past, if you couldn’t get a successful result from a voice menu, you could request a human operator to help. Not anymore. According to AT&T’s support people, the 411 service transitioned to an all-automated system in the past month, and I’m told other wireless carriers have made the same mistake.

What this means is that, if the voice assistant cannot find the address and phone number you want after several attempts, you’re stuck. At least AT&T informs you that you won’t be charged the $1.99 fee unless you actually get a phone number for the party you’re seeking.

Remind me never to use it again.

The other problem was far more confusing to all involved.

Now as an iPhone owner, I depend on visual voicemail to list the messages I’ve received. But I sometimes just dial the number when I’m connected to my iPhone from the car’s Bluetooth interface. It’s safer, but last December I was amazed to hear the voice assistant list nearly three dozen new messages, messages I had never before heard. The visual voicemail system listed none, but I was getting a prompt about the system being 92% full. Before I received the voice prompts about the new messages, I had placed a call to AT&T support, which failed to provide a solution even though the support person claimed that the deleted messages had been manually removed.

The call to the voicemail system happened only a few days later. So I manually went through all the new voicemails, manually deleting each one. Most were received before AT&T supposedly cleared the voicemail system. In passing, I noticed that the calls had all come from the same business.

AT&T was unable to figure out a solution, partly because they claimed I should not have deleted the messages after listening to them. Had I left them alone, they might have figured out a cause, and once a message is deleted this way, it cannot be recovered. Allegedly.

But on Monday, I confronted a similar situation, manually checking voicemail by dialing the number directly. This time there were 14 new messages. A fast check of visual voicemail — after I stopped the car at a convenience store for safety — indicated no messages were available. Again, I manually listened to all 14 unheard messages and, again, they all came from that same company.

This time, it took three support calls to AT&T before I learned, once again, that they had no knowledge of what had happened. Could someone have hacked into their voicemail system to insert all  these messages? It’s not that this was a robocall or some kind of sham promotion. This was a company with whom I’d done business; I was their customer. Still, I identified the company to AT&T and asked them to investigate the situation and block the number. That means they cannot call me again, ever.

Now most of you know that I also have a paranormal radio show, but I do not for a moment believe this problem is was the result of sort of X-Files or psychic phenomenon. Clearly the company is doing something that’s not kosher in pushing malformed voicemails to their customers, and they have now lost my business. If anyone has heard of this sort of thing, I’m all ears.

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