Only for squares

1 Oct

First published on MyBroadband | 01 October, 2010

If you are on Twitter and you follow a reasonable amount of people at some point you will see a tweet that looks something like this: “I’m at Joe’s Burger Barn (888 Fattie Street, Johannesburg). http://4sq.com/…”

Most of the time you mutter a little curse about people cluttering up your Twitter stream with useless foursquare updates and on the odd occasion you realise that you and your buddy are in the same shopping centre and you can hook up for a coffee and a catch up.

From my perspective there seems to be a reasonable amount of foursquare users in SA. Personally I enjoy checking in at places just for the fun of it. I honestly don’t expect to find anyone else there and I rarely send my updates to Facebook or Twitter, where the majority of my social contacts hang out.

I was wondering, however, what would it take for a real location-based service to take off in SA? And is it already too late for foursquare to become that service for the majority of users.

Although there are two main location services around at the moment, on an international level, foursquare and Gowalla. Some people like one or the other but I am squarely in one camp (bad pun intended).

For South African users there is one important thing to take into consideration. At some point in the near future the peeps over at Facebook are going to expand the reach of Facebook Places from its current US reach and take on the whole world.

The question is: How long will it take Facebook to complete its rollout? Will foursquare be big enough to hold off the irresistible Facebook and will South Africans ever embrace location services?

My answer to these questions are as follows. Facebook will take as long as it please to roll these things out. And like all Americans they probably think that Africa is one country so we will get it after the Europeans, Australians, Indians and Brazilians. That said it should be available pretty quickly and we won’t have to be the guinea pigs like those nice folks over in the US of A.

Sadly, despite the fact that I am rather fond of foursquare I don’t think it can stand up to Facebook. Unlike a service like Twitter, which seems to have excelled because it is simple, the issue of location services is one that will become exponentially more valuable when tightly integrated into a Facebook style social network. Unless there is a sudden run on location-based services in ZA over the next six months and everyone signs up for foursquare, Facebook will launch Places and we will all move invariably across, because we are sheep.

The real question is: Will South Africans embrace location-based services? This largely comes down to the push by the networks to get people to use them. Already we have services like The Grid, but in the face of international competition I don’t think this will last. What will make the difference is the adoption of smartphones by SA’s mobile users. The more people use their phones to access Facebook apps and the site itself the greater the amount of people that will start using Places.

That is unless Twitter and foursquare merge, then all bets are off.

Cancel your cell account? Don’t make me laugh

29 Sep

First published on MyBroadband | 29 September, 2010

One of the dangers of being a parent is being exposed to innumerable children’s TV shows and movies. In Beauty and the Beast there is a line, which I like to ponder on every now and then, where the villain – Gaston – says to his sidekick: “LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking,” to which Lefou replies: “A dangerous pastime.”

Well, I have been thinking and that is a dangerous pastime.

Mostly I have been thinking about how I am going to lay my grubby hands on a phone to replace my current one, which is over two years old. I can either wait until December for an upgrade, till March to take out a new contract, buy a new phone out of pocket or cancel my contract and start over again.

I am by nature a curious person so I decided to find out what it would cost me to cancel my contract. This is a little exercise that I go through once every two years to confirm to myself that nothing has changed in the cellular service provider industry.

With six months to go I would have to cough up R5 301 to cancel my current contract. The nice man at the contact centre was nice enough to explain how this figure is broken down: R3 051 in rentals up until the end of the contract date and R2 250 for the phone. This is with Altech Autopage Cellular (which has had my account for the past 4 years).

Luckily, I was sitting down at the time. It appears that the strategy is that to charge the customer the full outstanding amount plus almost the full subsidy that was part of the deal 18 months ago.

The problem is that this was all supposed to change ages ago. Icasa issued regulations that were supposed to ban these exploitative behaviours, but then Vodacom threatened to take them to court because the regulations were, admittedly, deeply flawed. Then at the end of last year Icasa issued a draft code of conduct to make sure that service providers behaved themselves. Clearly nothing has happened to get this code of conduct implemented either.

So, even though the service providers have known that the way they do business is not just flawed but wrong (even if it is a good way to squeeze money out of subscribers), for more than two years they have made no effort to change their ways.

They have continued to force people to continue to pay for contracts that they don’t want and don’t need. On top of this, they have made it impossible to cancel a contract (without paying up the remaining money owed in advance). They also charge onerous cancellation fees, in the name of recouping the subsidy that they gave you at the beginning of the contract.

There are any number of gratuitous x-rated descriptions of what these business practises entail but considering that this is a family site I will leave those up to your imagination.

The part of this that makes me really angry is that there are two very simple steps that any service provider could take to show that they are truly customer focussed. One: Allow the customer to cancel a contract at any point in the duration of the contract. Two: Allow them to pay back the subsidy that was used to give them a ‘free’ phone.

These two actions would enable the service providers to keep customers happy, while ensuring that they are not out of pocket from a subsidy point of view.

I would guess that the network operators (who shell out the subsidies and control the contract terms) are completely complicit in this little extortion scheme so this is probably not something that one service provider could do on their own. Still, I don’t see the MDs of any service providers (except maybe Virgin Mobile and they don’t really count) standing up and shouting for consumer rights. They are quite happy to sit back and screw the customer for every cent they can get.

In the end it comes down to one simple fact. Customer service in the cellular industry means keeping the cattle calm and peaceful while they are lead to the slaughterhouse. This is never going to change until Icasa gets off its ass and gets some meaningful regulations implemented.

Until then, keep the mooing down to a minimum because the bosses are trying to sleep on their bed of R200 notes.

Hell is an eternity of tech support

20 Aug

First published on MyBroadband | 20 August, 2010

Let me describe a situation that many of the exceptional individuals who frequent this site are probably familiar with.

You are sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon, the cars/bikes are lining up on the grid for the race and the phone goes. Invariably it is not one of your best mates asking if he can come round and watch the race at your place and bring beer with. Invariably it is a friend/relative/someone who you once went to school with who thinks you are god’s gift to technology and they are having some sort of technical problem with their computer and they are hoping that you might be able to help them.

So, being the good natured soul that you are, you ask a few vague questions in the hope that you might be able to figure out why they can’t print and before you know it you have missed, not only the start of the race, but also the obligatory first corner pile up and possibly the first set of pit stops and all you have left is the procession to the end of the race.

There is, of course, one thing worse than this situation and that is when you have volunteered to help out a mate/family member who needed help replacing their laptop and you stepped into the breach. To be fair you probably did this because you knew that if you left them alone they would buy some piece of junk and you would be left missing the grand prix because the machine they bought had just imploded and taken a whole day’s work with it.

But what happens when you get a great deal for a friend on a machine that you know that is pretty reliable and set it up for them and get everything up and running and all of a sudden they phone you up and not only is Window 7 randomly blue screening, but the printer doesn’t seem to work with Word or Acrobat (although it will print from Firefox and Wordpad) and half the USB ports just decide they aren’t going to work anymore.

Is it a dud computer? Has your friend done something monumentally stupid and ensured that you have to make a visit to their house and spend the better part of a weekend installing and uninstalling software, booting and rebooting the system? Or is this simply an issue that requires them to change one setting and everything will be all right?

The problem for me is that I feel responsible for the computer welfare of some of my friends. I want their experiences with their machines to be as seamless as mine generally is. And to be totally honest, I want them to think that I gave them the best technology advice they had ever had and that things have never been better.

Sadly 99% of the times helping people out with their IT problems, or even being known as the guy that knows something about computers, only results in more calls on Sunday afternoon as the Grand Prix is about to start, and this is something that should be avoided at all costs.

From my perspective I have achieved one of my goals in my IT support life and that was getting my brother to ditch his dialup connection and get ADSL and I am still working on my other goal. Namely finding a computer simple enough that my mother can use without having to call me for tech support once a day.

BlackBerry Take 2

13 Aug

First published on MyBroadband | 13 August, 2010

Last week I wrote a column about the highs and lows that BlackBerry maker, Research in Motion (RIM) is going through at the moment and it would appear that some of the BlackBerry fanboys in the forums took offence to my take on the state of the smartphone market.

I was going to leave it alone, but then I was watching the Twitter feed from the Tech4Africa conference, where Justin Spratt, from Internet Solutions, was quoted as saying that by the end of next year BlackBerry will be in steep decline. I apologise to Justin if that is not exactly what he said, but it was tweeted by enough people that it should be close enough.

His argument seems to be that RIM are focussed on keeping the carriers happy and going forward it is much more important to keep the customers happy.

I don’t disagree with him, but I think that the fundamental flaw in the BlackBerry business model revolves around two issues.

The first of these, and the one that most people in the forums seemed to bring up, is the way that BlackBerry services are packaged. You pay a fixed fee for all the mail and internet access you can use on a monthly basis. For South Africans, who are used to paying through the nose for web access, this is a brilliant offer. No massive data bills and simple setup makes for a compelling offering. However, assuming that data costs are going to remain high indefinitely is a dangerous mistake to make. There will come a point when the lure of prettier and better handsets will overcome the attraction of fixed cost internet and email.

With Cell C and Telkom set to make waves in the mobile field it is likely that the one area that they might target is giving smartphone users a better deal in terms of voice and data bundles than they currently get.

The second issue that I have with BlackBerry is a direct consequence of the first. Because all communications to and from a BlackBerry user has to pass through a BlackBerry server, either controlled by RIM itself or by a company. For most consumers (not corporates) this means that there is not only a single point of failure for their email and internet access, but also a really attractive target for government snoops to use to intercept conversations.

Corporate types with their own servers are better off, but not everyone can afford to run their own server. So the majority of people will be feeding their information through a server that government spooks can get access to, if the government of the country you are in demands that RIM hands over the keys to the house.

Based on recent events, it would appear that RIM is not willing to lose markets in order to protect its users. If that is not worrisome then I am not sure what is. And I am not even a privacy fanatic.

Knives out for BlackBerry

5 Aug

First published on MyBroadband | 05 August, 2010

This week looks like a Charles Dickens novel for BlackBerry. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Just as RIM launched their big reveal of the BlackBerry Torch and the new BlackBerry 6 operating system, governments in the Middle East such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are threatening to cut all local BlackBerry users off because they (the government, that is) can’t snoop on the encrypted traffic between BlackBerry users.

The problem is that if RIM were facing this kind of issue in more open societies it would probably be able to challenge this through the courts, but given the autocratic nature of the countries in question it seems that it has two choices, comply or shut up shop.

Even more worrying is that it appears that more and more countries have suddenly woken up to how BlackBerry moves information around the world and suddenly they are jumping up and down and shouting, “me too, me too”.

How the company will deal with half the world’s governments suddenly demanding that they change their business practises and let governments snoop (at will) on people’s private conversations is anyone’s guess.

It’s not like RIM needs any more challenges at the moment. For the first time since the start of the crackberry addiction, more Android phones were sold in the US than BlackBerrys. Even with the bad press that Apple is getting around the iPhone4 antenna issue, the damn things are still flying off the shelves. And then there is Windows Phone 7 that is going to hit the stores later this year. BlackBerry needs to come to the party and it is hoping that the combination of the Torch and the new operating system will be enough to keep it in the game.

For the most part I think that if staying in the game is its intention then it has done enough. From looking at reports from the launch they have fixed a lot of the issues with the OS that irked me (like getting a real web browser).

That combined with a decent range of handsets, from the Torch to the Curve and the Pearl, mean that corporates and keyboard junkies will keep on buying handsets just because that is what they have always had or because that is what their corporate IT department says they need to have to see their mail on the go.

BlackBerry will, however, keep losing market share, simply because most of the new entrants into the market are choosing to go with the more attractive offerings from the likes of Samsung, Apple and HTC.

BlackBerry has, over the course of the last two years, moved from being the dominant force in the smartphone market, to  one that is constantly having to play catch up with companies that have a much better understanding of what the majority of users want and which are able to deliver it faster.

The jury is out on whether RIM is following the same path that Palm trod in the PDA market, but I, for one, am not planning to buy a Torch any time soon.