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  • Newsletter Issue #347

    July 24th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Just what makes one talk show different from another? This isn’t a question I think about very much, because I prefer just to do my thing, to the best of my ability, and hope that you listeners will find the results interesting enough to keep tuning in.

    When I first started The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I didn’t have an end game. I was simply attracted by the prospects of returning to broadcasting after a long absence, and giving it a go. At first, the muscles were stiff, a little unmanageable, but I think I got back into the swing of things before long. The next step was to consider how best to stake out a unique approach in a field that is already overcrowded.

    In the end, I simply fell into the approach I used years ago, by imagining that I am one of you, asking the questions you’d ask in my place. When it comes to the other show, The Paracast, my co-host and I aren’t just attempting to entertain listeners, but do a little research as well. We don’t believe in just asking softball questions and sucking up to the guest, pretending to be their long lost friend. Instead, we want answers, real answers, and that separates the show from most of the others.

    It’s also the reason why the message boards for The Paracast have become the “in” place to talk about the paranormal on the Internet. The going gets hot and heavy, and, unlike some other talking heads, we aren’t afraid to get involved and tell you where we stand.

    On this weeks show, David Biedny and I will spend an evening with Dr. Steven Greer, from The Disclosure Project, who is author of the new book, “Hidden Truth — Forbidden Knowledge.” Effective with this episode, The Paracast expands to a full two hours of cutting-edge conversation!

    On last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we examined the state of Apple Computer and Microsoft with noted industry analyst Joe Wilcox from JupiterResearch. Macworld Editor Jason Snell was on hand to discuss the future of Macintosh-oriented magazines, some suggestions for the next Mac OS and other hot ticket topics. You also heard from Parker Plaisted, Product Brand Manager for Microtek Lab, Inc. Topics included scanners and related matters.

    This week’s guest list is still under construction.

    THE TECH SUPPORT REPORT: SORRY, THERE ARE NO HEROES

    In the scheme of things, Apple has what is considered the best support in the PC industry, but don’t feel too confident about that, because that may not be saying much. Based on the surveys in Consumer Reports magazine, for example, the company barely rates a “B,” and that’s not something to be proud of.

    While I have had good experiences with Apple from time to time, there was a sadder, still uncertain outcome, with my last effort.

    My 23-inch Apple HD Cinema Display began to develop some display anomalies. A large grayish smudge began to fill the top of the screen, and four thin vertical lines, from two or three inches in length, began to appear with more prominence. Since the monitor was barely three months old, I wanted to see what sort of warranty support I could get.

    The Apple support person, someone named “Scott,” who said he worked at their call center in Pennsylvania, seemed courteous enough when I called. He first asked me to connect the display to my MacBook Pro’s DVI port, just to see if the problems persisted, and, yes, they were still in evidence.

    Without giving me any excuses, or forcing me to jump through a succession of hoops, Scott said they’d gladly replace the monitor if I shipped it back to Apple. Although I usually have a spare display around for review purposes, this was one of those occasions where no substitutes were at hand.

    What to do? Well, Scott said that all I had to do was drop in at a nearby Apple Store and they’d exchange the unit on the spot. I contacted the store, was assured the had the units in stock, but I was informed I’d have to make a reservation for the Genius Bar at the online Concierge. I booked the earliest possible appointment, for 5:20 that evening, and was present with the malfunctioning display ten minutes before the appointed time.

    When my predecessor in the queue failed to show, I delivered my case number to the “Genius,” but he said he had to confirm the problem first, which he did. However, the promises from customer support promptly went out the window. No way would they exchange the unit, although I could leave it for repair.

    Unfortunately, flat panel repairs aren’t done in the field. It would have to be shipped to the factory to be properly fitted with a replacement panel, and that would entail a surviving without a display for five to seven days.

    At this point, you can understand why I felt betrayed, since the promise didn’t match the reality. I kept my cool, which was rather difficult on a Friday evening after coping with one of Arizona’s location-limited monsoon rains and heavy traffic. The store manager contacted a few higher-ups, but everything came to a dead stop at 6:00 PM when Apple’s customer service went home for the day.

    Could he find a monitor for me to borrow until the repairs are done? No, he said, but I could still have the unit exchanged if I sent it to Apple. It could not be done in the store, regardless of what the support person promised, and that’s was that.

    The following morning, I tried to plead my case yet again, but the people with the power to overrule the lower level support people weren’t present.

    So where does this all stand? Well, clearly the original support person made a mistake, although I have this thing about keeping promises. So I will take it up the ladder to see what happens, but, despite the obvious temptations, I didn’t attempt to use my status as a tech journalist to request preferred treatment.

    Update: After conversing with a couple of Apple people on Monday morning, we reached a mutually satisfactory arrangement to handle the defective monitor. So the lesson is to just be persistent. Gentle, but persistent.

    Alas, this was not the only less-than-favorable outcome to recent tech support calls. The other day, I contacted Verizon Wireless about a questionable item on my bill. They couldn’t do anything about it, at the support level I reached, but the promised callback from a supervisor never came.

    A malfunctioning Bluetooth headset from Motorola took me through the dreaded maze of offshore support, but I somehow convinced them to ship a replacement unit, although I’m not sure which words had the proper impact. I had to go through a few hoops to find someone who could understand more than my name.

    No, this hasn’t been terribly good week support-wise.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: MORE VIOP FOLLIES

    The last time I covered this subject, I made it clear I’d begun to sour of Vonage, the country’s largest provider of what I’d call “traditional” Internet calling services, because they let you use your regular old telephone. It’s not the disastrous public offering that turned me off. Rather, the declining level of technical support and one specific outage of several hours duration that was never acknowledged, but particularly disconcerting.

    My wanderings of user reviews of the other services wasn’t terribly encouraging. While some folks adored the service they were using, others complained vigorously about subpar support, delays in porting their old numbers to the new service, and various and sundry quality issues. I went through the chatter of such services as Lingo, SunRocket and Packet8 without finding any particular standouts.

    In the end, I settled on Packet8 for several reasons, one being that they were able to essentially duplicate the features offered by Vonage, including an extra “virtual” number from another area code, and Toll-Free service. The price was $5.00 a month less, with the standard “unlimited” service at $19.95, but I would have to pay extra for all international calls and E911 support.

    The last is the most critical factor of all, because it means that, in the event of an emergency, you can get ahold of the local authorities in the same fashion as a regular landline. It usually requires registering your home address with the phone service, by the way, and this is a step you shouldn’t ignore if you decide to go for VoIP.

    Believe you me, some of the comments about Packet8 were particularly unsettling, although it has its enthusiastic supporters. But one thing stood out, and that is that the company set up its own community forums, where customers heaped praise and served brickbats with equal fervor. Surprisingly, some pretty nasty comments were allowed to appear on the board, but there were also regular commentaries from company CEO Bryan Martin. Even more incredible is the fact that Martin admits to problems the company has had in the past, and this honesty from a company executive is refreshing in this day and age of corporate spin.

    So I took the plunge without, of course, canceling Vonage. But my initial encounter has been reasonably encouraging, ranging from the initial online ordering experience to installation. To Packet8’s credit, they’ve simplified the setup process to an amazing degree. After unpacking their adapter module, I simply connected it to my wireless router, attached the phone cable, and plugged it in the surge protector.

    Two minutes later, I dialed a special setup number, entered the ten digital activation code, and I was connected. That’s it! Now you might encounter a few extra steps for DSL hookups and other situations that are clearly explained in the simple printed setup guide.

    Voice quality, so far at least, seems comparable to Vonage, but it does the world’s biggest VoIP provider one better by being able to work with businesses that use phone menu systems. The digits I dialed when making car and credit card payments were recognized without any fumbles. Vonage was never able to achieve that worthy goal consistently and getting support from them these days can often take several frustrating hours.

    Of course, the first few days may represent beginner’s luck, so we’ll have to see. In any case, porting my numbers from Vonage may not come too quickly, since it will also signify my resignation from their service. Packet8 says it takes from six to eight weeks to complete the process, although some users say it happens faster. The fault lies in the time it takes for the company that’s losing your account to do their part, and it clearly gets a low priority.

    So let’s just say that my introduction to Packet8 seems promising, but I’ll withhold further comment until I have more experience with the service, and, of course, when and if that number porting process is complete.

    My general feeling is that the entire field of Internet telephony is massive work in progress. We use Skype to record many of the interviews for the radio show, and it has more than its share of foibles too. Your comments are particularly welcomed.

    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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    11 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #347”

    1. gopher says:

      If E911 is so important to you, you should consider this. Only POTS runs over copper lines using a trickle signal. That’s why you can have phone service when your electric is out. With FIOS and Vonage, you must have electricity for the phone service to work. Sure, they provide you with a backup battery. But a battery in a fire can be a deadly combination. So imagine this, your electric is out in your house, and you need E911 before the fire starts to spread, and say you hadn’t replaced your battery in a while. You’ll be stuck.
      Until such services work under the same trickle charge as POTS, I’m not buying their phone service. FIOS it means asking to keep a copper line behind.

    2. f E911 is so important to you, you should consider this. Only POTS runs over copper lines using a trickle signal. That’s why you can have phone service when your electric is out. With FIOS and Vonage, you must have electricity for the phone service to work. Sure, they provide you with a backup battery. But a battery in a fire can be a deadly combination. So imagine this, your electric is out in your house, and you need E911 before the fire starts to spread, and say you hadn’t replaced your battery in a while. You’ll be stuck.
      Until such services work under the same trickle charge as POTS, I’m not buying their phone service. FIOS it means asking to keep a copper line behind.

      I still retain my landline, from Cox, which has a backup generator in each neighborhood where the service is offered. I’m not about to go all VoIP yet. I use the numbers from Packet8 simply for business-related stuff.

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. JamesG says:

      Regarding your Apple support quandary, I am surprised they told you to go to an Apple Store. It’s a warranty item, so Apple would typically send you a box and you would ship them the unit for repair. You would have it back in less than a week…sometimes 2 days. Being a technician myself, I have learned that the “geniuses” at the Genius Bar are not all they are cracked up to be.

      I would suggest that you always have some sort of backup monitor (and computer for that matter) to get basic tasks done when something fails, especially if your livelihood depends on it. It minimizes the level of frustration while you are waiting for your trusted equipment to be returned.

    4. Regarding your Apple support quandary, I am surprised they told you to go to an Apple Store. It’s a warranty item, so Apple would typically send you a box and you would ship them the unit for repair. You would have it back in less than a week…sometimes 2 days. Being a technician myself, I have learned that the “geniuses” at the Genius Bar are not all they are cracked up to be.

      I would suggest that you always have some sort of backup monitor (and computer for that matter) to get basic tasks done when something fails, especially if your livelihood depends on it. It minimizes the level of frustration while you are waiting for your trusted equipment to be returned.

      I normally have a spare around, but this is one of the times when one wasn’t available. That’s when things always happen 🙂

      Peace,
      Gene

    5. Joe says:

      “and this honesty from a company executive is refreshing in this day and age of corporate spin”

      Are you talking about the same guy that promised a softphone product by April 1, via a public press release?

    6. “and this honesty from a company executive is refreshing in this day and age of corporate spin”

      Are you talking about the same guy that promised a softphone product by April 1, via a public press release?

      I haven’t researched all their promises, but everyone is chronically late on these things.

      Peace,
      Gene

    7. Joe says:

      “I haven’t researched all their promises”

      Perhaps you should have researched all the “promises” and “misguidance” and “mis/dis-information” given to shareholders and customers alike.

    8. “I haven’t researched all their promises”

      Perhaps you should have researched all the “promises” and “misguidance” and “mis/dis-information” given to shareholders and customers alike.

      Well, if I was planning to research a company’s financials, I might do that, but we’d be happy to have a reasonable number of specifics and links to go by, plus an update as to how it all turned out.

      But understand that a company’s promises in a financial statement are always governed by a reasonable number of terms and conditions that the outcome may be altogether different.

      In the end, of course, Vonage is getting shareholder lawsuits, so this is not an innocent industry by any means.

      Peace,
      Gene

    9. Jeff says:

      Hmm… Having worked in management at an Apple Store, I can tell you that this was one of the recurring problems that we had. The 1-800-APL-CARE technician would make a promise that he was allowed to make for his part of the company, then have the customer try to fulfill that promise on the retail side which has almosty nothing to do with Applecare! The problem exists because the Applecare techs do not always seem to understand that, even though we are the same company, on the retail side we operate under different rules. We are actually Applecare customers! If we do work, we get reimbursed for it from Applecare. If it is NOT covered, the store eats the costs. We were very profitable, so the manager would allow us to do that sometimes in the interest of customer relations. But it was not always allowed. Especially if the customer was being as @ss. That would usually make us stick strictly to the rules.

      Remember to be polite with your tech!

      Anyway, as for the quality of the genii, I know that ones we had were awesome! But the ones that came and had some hands-on training (one week) in our store on the way to a new one… well, our guys were hesitant to trust them with ANYTHING by the end of the week, and god help the poor people at their store.

    10. Steve says:

      Try VoipYourLife at voipyourlife.com. It is highly recommended by viopreview.org for its quality service and excellent customer support. My experience with them on 2 phone lines has been great.

    11. Try VoipYourLife at voipyourlife.com. It is highly recommended by viopreview.org for its quality service and excellent customer support. My experience with them on 2 phone lines has been great.

      Well, if Packet8 doesn’t make the grade, I’ll consider other alternatives. But I’m not inclined to just switch from carrier to carrier without good reason.

      Peace,
      Gene

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