A Totally Irrelevant Rant

The Values of a Weak Promise

The Little Things

My love for technology is fueled in large part by Tom Merritt and his daily efforts to relay industry news , usually aided by like-minded individuals who share his accessible analysis and gentle persona.

I can’t remember when I found him but I’m fairly sure it was related to finding CNET and his then podcast Buzz Out Loud.  Tom always reminded me of an intellectual friend who never boasted about his intelligence but helped you along the way to better understand the world.

I’ve followed Tom through his bounce from CNET, to TWiT and more recently when he ventured out on his own. I’m a fairly dedicated listener to the new show, Daily Tech News Show.

Last week, Tom broadcast from Dragoncon and the audio was terrible. At first I thought that something might be wrong with my phone but when I moved into a quieter room, the problem was certainly with the podcast. For the very first time, I thought, I’m not listening to this and then deleted the episode.

I didn’t think much of it. Tom had built up so much credit with me that the bad audio didn’t bother me. If anything, I felt guilty not listening to him.

The next day, Tom posted an episode apologizing for the poor sound. This action was something so unexpected yet so valuable just made me think so much better about Tom. He cared enough to apologize for a poor product and make up for it.

It’s not often that someone takes the care to keep the audience happy and make up for something that was their fault. Life would be so much better if so many people acted this way.

Advertisements

A Social and Monetary Experiment

November 16, 2014 at 1145AM

For the last month I’ve run a little experiment. It involves a couple of grocery chains – my current choice (Woolworths) and a new-old player, Aldi. My intent was really to find out if there was any real difference between the two and if there was anything compelling for me to stay loyal to one or another.

The genesis for the trial really was because of the opening of a new store near me and I was curious about this incredible growth from the German chain.

During four distinct weekends, here are my general thoughts on the two:

Price – trying Aldi out really opens your eyes to how high grocery costs can be in Australia. I would say that my weekly shop is fairly similar each time and there is a significant difference when shopping German. Sure there are hardly any name brands at Aldi, so decision making is largely about the functional need (cookies, peanut butter, milk, butter) rather than internal satisfaction or social cred. If I were counting in grocery bags, Aldi buys 30% more stuff for the same dollars at Woolworths.

Quality – since there are no or hardly any name brands at Aldi, there is some reticence about what you’re buying. Unlike the private label brands at Woolworths, the Aldi brands don’t necessarily work too hard at imitating leaders (well, most of the time). So, it’s hard to judge from the cover. That said, the products are reasonable. I tried tinned tuna, an organic (plain) pasta sauce, crackers, and peanut butter and all were no different from the name brands I would have purchased from the Australian chain. There were some notable quality differences in taco kits and cookies & cream ice cream in favour of the branded products. In all, for the very basic products, there is no real discernible quality difference.

It is worth noting that the fresh fruit available at Aldi is very good compared to Woolworths. Blueberries, cherries and mangoes were similar or better quality and with the price difference, the German is the better option for this.

Shopping Experience – the comparison here may not be so fair since the new Aldi store was a greenfield site. You walk in and it smells like a new air conditioner has just blasted its first breath of frigid air. It’s artificial, chilling to the nostrils and smells like the industrial plastic clingwrap on newly delivered white goods. Also, the geographic catchment is different compared to their more established haunt. This one is located in an ever so slightly more upward market and it shows in the number of expensive European cars in the carpark.

Aldi has far less stock, fewer aisles and is less taxing once you know where everything is. The first visit is daunting because the layout is unfamiliar and you can’t find the brands you know to shortcut decision making. There is a little bit of learning involved and just a slight hint of fear of the unknown. That said, a store with four longish aisles is easier to navigate and the seated cashiers flying through checking out your goods is almost welcome. There is a greater functional purpose to Aldi – less evaluation needed between this discounted item and the other one. That usual pricing structure of good, better, best isn’t here. There’s usually just one choice for a given category and once you’re comfortable with it, filling that shopping cart is quickly automatic.

Oddly, it also feels like there’s more light at Aldi. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Is the roof higher? Are there more windows? It feels less claustrophobic. That is nicer but that synthetic smell of air conditioning running at full bore just makes you want to get out as fast as possible.

Social Cred – perhaps it’s this that limits people from switching to Aldi. Being seen might box people into a profile they don’t want to be in. I think Aldi’s first promise was to be cheaper. On this they deliver and therefore attracted a customer base looking to eke out as much per dollar. Did I feel a little embarrassed shopping there? Yes, just a little, but that slowly fades with familiarity and habit, particularly when the fruit quality is so good. I would still find it a bit weird if someone looked through my pantry and found no name brands since we’ve been trained so long to use those as symbols of who we are.

I once came across someone I knew at the Aldi and I think we both had that slight sense of awkward embarrassment upon seeing each other. We both never expected the other to be there but also wished not to be seen. There’s a lot of signalling about shopping at the store, especially given its past. Will people get past this with time? I think it would depend on the continued patronage of the store. The one near me is certainly a different demographic compared to the other more established stores, so with that I’m guessing it might change, just not so soon.

Other Bits – there is one significant difference between the local and the import and it’s the loyalty program. Woolworths offers their Everyday Rewards program which is supposed to build loyalty by giving shoppers offers that would theoretically bond them to their grocery store. I’ve played with this program by trying to buy erratically  – tonnes of cat food one week, a standard shop the other. To date, I haven’t received anything that might make me want to buy at Woolworths more often because they know me better.

In the past I had received a cat food sampler (so buying $40 worth of cat food in one week did trigger something) and a pre-loaded debit card (which I earnt by buying over a certain amount for four straight weeks). Other than that, I haven’t received a set of offers that makes me say, “Yes, these guys know my needs before I do, so I’ll keep shopping there”. There have been booklets of coupons and other online activations but I can’t say they were compelling.

Still, I do hold some hope for the loyalty program. Data accumulation shouldn’t be the problem but making sense of it. You’d hope that they could hire some people who could do a good job of that.


 

Overall, shopping at Aldi or Woolworths really doesn’t make me feel any better about either one. It’s largely a monetary decision. When I see that my dollar goes further with Aldi and that the quality isn’t so bad, I’m still going to go there. However, that doesn’t mean exclusivity. There are still some things that only Woolworths does well, so I’m still need to visit.

By adding another grocery store to fulfil my weekly shop, the notion of more choice actually doesn’t make things any easier.

 

Weapons of Choice

Personal Tech

I use these to get things done.

LAPTOP : a 2010 15″ MacBook Pro that has been the bane of my existence. It has only gotten worse with Mavericks. I want to switch, but to what?

TABLET : 2013 Nexus 7. I love this thing and I would almost try and use it as a laptop but only it sucks as a laptop.

PHONE : Stormtrooper Nexus 5. I bought a bumper from the store thinking from the screen that it was Ferrari red. Instead, it was street cone orange.

EPHEMERA : I doodle with a treasured TWSBI Diamond Mini fountain pen on Rhodia No 18 pad

Nice One Intel

My take on growth of the technology game is about adoption by the masses. The pointy end creates the momentum but the real uptake comes from those who see that others have taken the risk and deem it safe to go in.

So, looking through my local catalogues and I see this:

IntelEssentially, it’s Officeworks (a local office supplies and electronics chain) trying to explain the differences between all the Intel chips – from the budget Atom and Celeron lines (“Everyday use”) through to the Core i7 (“Premium power”). The tech world needs this kind of simplification even though it could probably use some fairly common language and perhaps reinforced with some color coding or segregation in the store (this area for “Everyday use” and this area for “Premium power” – whatever that means).

I still like the approach and someone at head office is thinking about getting that middle market to understand the technology they’re buying and with understanding you think you’d get confidence and a lot more adoption.

We’ve Got You Covered

MBP Key Cap

My MacBook Pro has been problematic after the warranty ran out. A new logic board – which was faulty and never replaced. A faulty RAM clip which means it’s running off a single stick of RAM. A key cap breaking. Now with the free Mavericks OS update, the thing just runs like an office-issue Windows XP laptop. 

But in order to get someone to look at it, you need to go to the Apple Store and see a “Genius”. With the brand being so mass market these days, traffic through that place is horrendous. While the online booking is fairly straightforward, there isn’t a clear sign where you need to go in this packed meat store. Finding the concierge service (a staff member with an iPad who appears to manage bookings) has to be found. If you had no idea that this is what you needed to do first, how would you get there? Go to the Genius Bar, of course where they’ll shuffle you to the iPad-gifted person who will slot you somewhere.

For my last problem (the faulty key cap), I thought I’d book a time with a Genius and buy the key cap in store. No biggie. Re-inserting the part looked straightforward and I could see where the fault was. I’ve done this change on many XP laptops before, surely this would be a piece of cake? The Apple answer to that is no. The Genius mentioned that they couldn’t just sell me a replacement part – I needed to bring the machine in so they could determine which keyboard set I had and if it was a particular build, I would need the whole set of keys replaced. What?! I’ve ranted at the Apple Store before and their tactic is to just let you go berserk. They know that you need to let off steam and they just say nothing. So, you rant and rant and rant. Once they think you’re done, then they get to it. I knew better this time and just left and would Google for an answer later.

Of course, they were right. There is no easy fix if you have the wrong keyboard and the cost of replacement for the “wrong” part is about a hundred bucks. (What?!) The whole problem here is that I think I’m reasonably capable with computers. This keycap issue could have been remedied if I wanted to fix things (I could order the part online and do the surgery myself). But for the average user, going to the Genius is all they need. The treatment is magical. Problem with computer, a person who knows more than I do fixes it. This mirrors the user experience. Finger goes across, screen screen unlocks. Magical.

The problem with users like me is that I’m somewhat more self-sufficient and comfortable with what’s in the box. Yet, the company still chooses to treat me just like everyone else. I was once an advocate but today, not so much. Maybe because they thought they had me covered that I would be there forever. I guess not.

I’m Going Back to Windows

I’ve been an Apple guy for a long while. We’ve got everything they sell and for the most part, we’ve been very happy (well, except for that time when the motherboard on my MBP died two months after the warranty lapsed)… and yet… it’s time for a change.

I left for a different phone last year because it felt more under my control. For all the crummy, unpolished characteristics of Android, the upgrades are incredible, welcome improvements. It’s like participating in the maturing of a system. Apple, for all their beauty, nous and incredible quality feels way too… perfect. I’m just not that kind of guy. While there are tradeoffs between quality and performance (I will still stick by my MBP and I’ll likely upgrade to one of these if the rumors are true), there are times when it’s time to switch.

Case 1 – A New(er) Phone

Nokia + Windows = Lumia. I fondled one of these in a store and was intrigued. The handset was a welcome change from all the iPhone wannabes. Solid, colorful, unique – it wasn’t trying to appeal to the techies but to phone users. And of course, there’s that interface. Windows was smart not to play the iPhone game. Instead, using what they knew from the ill-fated Zune, they created a new way for a user to interact with their phone that was just as simple as Apple yet somehow more stylish.

Then they announced this. Bigger and better and you can see the progression made since the N9 (okay, it was only a few small changes really). Sure, it’s not available in Australia yet but that isn’t really a barrier these days. There are some flaws but I don’t mind them in phones. Maybe if they create a 920, it could be interesting.

Case 2 – A New(er) Laptop

Okay, this one’s not for me but for my wife. Her 6-year old MacBook is just a miserable thing right now. Plastic splinters are falling off and it’s just a browsing machine now. With Windows 8 in the near future and the imitators getting quite good at what they do, I think I may be getting my wife one of these ultra books.

My wife has always been a Windows user. She loves the right-click, Windows Explorer and its various guises, and general compatibility with most software. She just finds it easy. That’s not to say that iOS is not – it’s just that for a person who’s never used a computer before, Apple is the better bet. For a homework, assignment, work project, and home project completer that is my wife, Windows and that Office suite are her bread and butter. With Microsoft getting their user interface away from the Gates-era, I figure this switch is the better bet for the home network, too.

For what it’s worth, I also feel that Microsoft kinda wants people back. Sure they lost a lot to Apple. It was always bound to happen. Microsoft got so big that they got hated. The same is probably happening to Apple now. Maybe I just don’t want to be part of the trend or maybe there are too many people on the Apple wagon train and I’d rather be doing something different. It’s just a good thing that there are some great options and the tech game is moving into areas to that separate the products from each other and drawing different people (or deterring them) with some smart decisions about design and usability.

It’s a good time for tech.

The Mobile Phone Wars: A Consumer Perspective

Okay, maybe war is too strong but it’s clear that as the Australian phone companies vie for profitability and market share, the choices they provide to consumers in the pursuit of territory is forcing some strong compromises.

So, here’s my situation. I was among the crazy to sign up at the crack of dawn when iPhone 3G came to Australia in July 2008. At that time, I paid $39 a month (plus an extra $15 for the handset) for 500MB and a handful of calls. iPhone was the best smart phone player in the market, largely because of the cohesive blend of aesthetic design, intuitive functionality and a supporting network of applications. It was a pioneer in the usability and aspiration stakes – and the mobile phone operators need only focus on a single brand and a single model(ish).

Two years later, I’m looking at upgrading. While there has been sentiment that phones these days are more like computers, they are certainly less enduring. My phone has pressure cracks on the back, the screen is scratched and is a frustratingly laggy machine with a non-functional GPS. In any case, the choices are greater and the offerings aren’t as straightforward from each of the carriers.

First, I’m certainly not getting the iPhone4. As the market has evolved, I’m interested in greater geekery. While I’ve dabbled with the idea of jailbreaking, I’d rather have a phone that lets me do this out of the box. For this, I’m opting for Android. Besides, I’m stuffed full of Apple and really want something new.

So, where to begin? Do I choose a phone or stick to my carrier (Optus)? Therein lies the first problem – where to begin? Each carrier more or less has an ‘exclusive’ phone, meaning that you’d better be happy with what they’re offering (contract or handset) because you can’t get it anywhere else.

The case with Optus is a little dire, especially when it comes to Android phones. First, they don’t have much other than the Galaxy S. While I have nothing against Samsung, this device feels really plasticky in the hand and doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor for me. After that, there’s the HTC Aria and that is too small and has poor resolution (especially after an iPhone). The score for Optus is zippo due to lack of handsets. One off the list, despite being my carrier of choice forever.

My next port was good old Telstra. While they too had the Galaxy S, that unit was clearly off the list and I was looking for something else. The beauty here is the HTC Desire – a wondrously pretty phone with its amazing screen (although I’m not sure they’ve got AMOLED anymore). The problem here was the weirdly inconsistent plans – first $59 for 500MB, then $79 for 200MB, then… who knows. If I sign on, I don’t know if I’ll be envious of a newer plan, not knowing how the boffins at TLS are trying to make money or satisfy customers. The score for Telstra is a half – great phone, best coverage but oddly inconsistent pricing just scares me.

Then comes the fashionable Vodafone. They clearly have the best phones out and have them exclusively – the HTC Desire HD and for the stylish, the HTC Legend. Their recent plans are incredibly decent starting from $49 a month that includes 1GB of data! Handset, check. Plans, check. Network quality, not so much. The carrier with the best plan and handset combo has the worst network of the three. As a colleague mentioned to me, would I be satisfied with the phone in my hand but forever be cursing the network that it’s on? Vodafone should get a half a point but that network problem is gnawing at me. They probably deserve a zero, too.

So, which to choose? They all have negatives that outweigh the positives. Optus has no phones to speak of. Telstra has fickle pricing. Vodafone has a bad, bad network.

My final conclusion: these telcos are trying to gouge out a space for themselves by forcing consumers to compromise. Exclusive phones mean that consumers can’t really compare – if you want a phone, you automatically pick a carrier. Unless something new comes along, I’m going to buy my own unlocked phone and pick the best network, signing up to the shortest contract possible with the most data. In the end, the telcos just can’t help and I need to create my own plan.

Lucky Win: iPad

It’s old news but I won an iPad months ago. Guess I’ve got a set now.

Geek Porn: MacBook Pro Unboxing

Yes, it’s my first MacBook Pro.



Precursor to Touch Screens

I love TED as a source of inspiration. The presenters are experts in their field or have an inkling of greatness.

Here’s a touch screen presentation made in February of 2006. Enjoy.