Friday 27 April 2012

A Quick Buck

I’m inevitably going to sound as if I’m blowing my own trumpet as I write this, but one of my aims when I founded this company was to create an organisation that treated both employees and customers fairly, and if I’m hitting that target then I’m proud to announce it to the world.

Unless you service your own car (in which case you don’t probably need a garage) you’ll know that experience of taking to the mechanic who is explaining why you are about to become sever hundred pounds poorer, and having absolutely no idea if he’s being straight with you. I’m lucky enough to have learned through experience how my car works and I’m fortunate enough these days to have a garage I trust, but there have been times when I’ve confronted a lying mechanic and explained loudly enough for all the other customers to hear in no uncertain terms why he’s full of shit, and where exactly he can get off. I can’t say I don’t enjoy it when this happens because I do get a certain pleasure out of exposing corruption at every level.

This week we’ve come across two eyebrow raisers. The first was a woman who turned up with a MacBook and a 4GB memory module which she’s bought at an official Apple reseller. Our job was to install this for her, which would have been a pretty easy while-you-wait job had the memory actually worked. When we explained that she would have to return it we were horrified to find that she had been charged £120 for a SODIMM which should have cost less than £30. It seems garages aren’t the only culprits when it comes to taking advantage of middle aged women.

The second case was a small business using a single hosted Exchange mailbox. We were tasked with specifying and installing a replacement PC, and in the course of discussing their requirements I discovered that they were paying £110 a month for about 9GB of server storage for this mailbox. Now I know that this won’t mean much to anybody who doesn’t themselves use hosted exchange, but the point is that the going price for this service is about £10 a month. The original price had been about £50 a month, but then the mailbox had apparently reached an arbitrary size limit, and the company involved, realising that they had a real sucker on their hands, decide to really stick the knife in and more than doubled the charge. I initially assumed the customer was confusing annual and monthly billing cycles, but they were very organised and had all the paperwork to support the case for the prosecution.

Sadly we live in a world where consumers are at constant risk of the rip-off merchants, and it isn’t limited to the shady back street when companies such as Adobe think the great British public should pay 38% more than our American cousins. We might expect our politicians to defend us were they not too busy selling out to whichever corporate lobbyist  is entertaining them this afternoon, or whichever media mogul they are most beholden to.

Personally I think there a lot to be said for an honest wage for an honest day’s work. I may not drive a shiny black Range Rover like most of the subjects of your average Watchdog exposé, but as any Land Rover driver will tell you, there’s a lot to be said for setting out in the certainty that you are going to arrive, even if it may take a bit longer because you’re doing it properly.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

The Joy of Updates

We have a 40” screen in our shop window to advertise our products and services, and until recently we were using a laptop to feed this with looping video. I recently repurposed a 7 year old Mac Mini to free up the perfectly good laptop for other uses.

If you’re not familiar with the Mac Mini, it’s a small rectangular white box which is cool, quiet and unobtrusive, and perfectly suited for leaving running in a cupboard for months at a time without needing attention. Unfortunately a few days after I set it up an Apple update screen popped up in the middle of our video, and since it’s impossible to plug in a keyboard and still see the screen (which is facing the street) I had to plug in a second monitor in order to get rid of the update screen. While there I installed Logmein so that I could remotely administer the Mac without all that palaver next time. Two days later I came in to see our display was now fronting a Logmein update screen. It seems there’s no winning.

After a quick hunt through their respective settings I disabled both the Apple software updates and the Logmein updater, which will of course put the Mac at risk as security vulnerabilities aren’t being patched, but given that this isn’t a computer that’s used for any risky activities such as file downloading or web surfing, this shouldn’t be an issue.

This reminded me how frequently we are bombarded with update requests, and how badly some programs handle these. Windows user will know that these are fairly benign, and will often happen in the background according to you settings. Apple updates are fine on Macs, but on PCs I’m constantly having to unselect QuickTime and Safari – surely once I’ve said no the update program should be smart enough to know that I don’t want these programs installed, but it seems that the penalty for using iTunes on a PC is to forever be nagged to install QuickTime and Safari, programs which to my mind have no place on a PC.

Adobe Reader has its own overly obtrusive updater. I periodically disable it using msconfig.exe, but every time I go back in to check on start-up processes there it is again, turning up like an unwelcome social disease. After incessant nagging we all eventually apply updates, which is wise given the security vulnerabilities that Adobe exposes us to, and our reward is that for the hundredth and fifth time we get an unwanted Adobe Reader icon on our desktops. I have never met anybody who has ever opened a PDF by any other method than clicking on a PDF file, so the purpose of this icon escapes me, yet however many times I delete it from my desktop Adobe don’t seem to get the message. Exactly the same criticism applies to QuickTime, with the added irritation of a new icon in your Quick Launch bar that is so useful in Windows XP. You’d think it would be common courtesy to ask, but the software updater blithely decides that QuickTime IS going to be one of our most commonly used programs, and damn you for disagreeing.

It wouldn’t be fair of me to miss out AOL, which took the shotgun approach to scattering your system with icons, and would no doubt have tattooed a start-up icon onto your chest if that had been possible, but I’m happy to report that in a neat demonstration of Darwinian selection we rarely get to see that program any more.