Honda, Here’s Your Damn Survey

We’re shopping for a larger car for some reason. (Cough. Twins. Cough.) And our favored option is the Honda Odyssey. We picked our color and model and then used a number of websites, including Honda and Edmonds, to request competitive quotes from dealers in our general area.

Honda’s website had a number of brilliant features, including:

  1. After selecting trim level and moving forward to pick color, my wife went back to double-check something and inadvertently reset the trim level to default. So all the quotes we got were for the wrong trim level. (The dealers dealt with this just fine, including some asking if we’d possibly picked the wrong trim level right off the bat.)
  2. Each of the dealers, or possibly Honda, then asked us to fill in a short “5 minute” questionnaire on the quality of service received. First of all, doing the same “5 minute” survey four times is no-one’s idea of fun. Second, the third question in the survey required me to go and check the timestamps of the e-mail responses, and the fifth required me to carefully parse each response to see what it contained. After trying to skip the third question (mandatory) and seeing what would be involved in answering the fifth, I deleted all the requests from my inbox. Honda, if you’re reading this, I guarantee writing this blog entry will be quicker than answering your stupid questionnaire once.

What is it about car companies? Honda.com is some kind of idiotic placeholder site from which you have to click a link to get through to the site you really wanted. Yes, I know Honda makes Acura, but if I wanted Acura.com guess what — I’d have typed acura.com into my freaking address bar. (Some of the camera and electronics companies are even stupider. Canonusa.com? WTF? It’d be one thing if some domain squatter had grabbed canon.com, but no.)

Part of the problem of course is that there’s no .com.usa, so .com serves both as .com.usa and “worldwide” .com. Even so, surely these guys have enough money hire some halfwit web developer to automatically direct folks to the correct country’s information by default, and make it seamless for 99.9% of people, versus retarded for 100% of people.

Edmonds.com, as far as we can tell, simply decides you want the EX-L trim level. Um, thanks. Again, not a problem that couldn’t be fixed in a few minutes (OK hours, it’s corporate America). It’s not like Edmonds.com has a huge database of car makes and models just lying around.

I guess this all falls under “usability issues I’ve been brought into contact with by having babies”. As a final aside, two of the quotes we got via Honda’s website were identical to the cent. (This is on a ~$25,000 item being discounted below “invoice price” — it’s worth noting that dealer invoice prices are a laughable fiction these days.) So I’m guessing that either the two dealerships in question are owned by the same company, or that they coincidentally use the same formula to calculate their prices. (Both prices are exclusive of local taxes, which — this being the USA — vary randomly based on location, wind direction, and phase of moon. The furniture chain we frequent — a whole other blog post — manages to charge sales tax based on its warehouse’s location which, in a stroke of genius, is apparently a higher tax area than downtown Birmingham or Tuscaloosa.)

So, how to wind this rant up? If you’re a multibillion dollar company with a reputation for bleeding edge technology, such as Honda or Canon or Nikon or whatever, it seems to me that it behooves you to get your house in order with respect to moderately dumb stuff, like automated emails, online surveys, and having your web site residing at the more obvious domain. In order to get a clue, consider this simple little factoid. If you impulse buy a bunch of $0.99 songs from iTunes in the course of a few minutes (e.g. you hear a song, look it up, buy it, think of another song you heard recently, look it up, buy that, etc.) then Apple automagically consolidates the transactions and sends you a single receipt. Oh, and apple.com.au gets you to apple.com, not the other way around.

It’s not rocket science.

NBC Universal and the iTunes Movie Store

This little bit of information is probably obvious to some people, but it wasn’t to me, and evidently has been missed by a lot of bloggers. Everyone who keeps track of Apple knows that NBC Universal pulled all of its video content from the iTunes Music Store. Depending on your various preconceptions, this is either a sign that Apple is doomed (of course) or that NBC is run by idiots (of course) or some random and elaborate conspiracy theory.

Today, on Sci Fi (which is part of NBC Universal), I saw an ad for Battlestar Galactica Razor, and noticed something interesting: it’s on HD-DVD. And suddenly, I realized exactly why NBC Universal pulled its content from iTMS. It’s Platform Wars, Episode IV: The Empire Strikes Back.

When you see HD-DVD, think Microsoft. When you see Blu-ray, think Sony, Apple, and most everyone else. That’s a little unfair. Some other companies with no specific Microsoft or Apple affiliation have simply been (or felt) forced to pick a side. Others, such as Toshiba, are trying to do to Sony what Sony has done to them. But you know from the existence of MSNBC that NBC has always leaned — hard — towards the Microsoft camp.

So it’s all about allegiance to the Microsoft DRM-everywhere camp.

I guess the “NBC is run by idiots” theory wasn’t too far off the mark.

Just how stupid do you think potential iPhone customers are?

A couple of days ago AT&T’s CEO “spilled the beans” about Apple’s plans to launch a 3G iPhone in 2008. Apparently, this is terrible for Apple because it will cause potential customers to hold off blowing $400 on an iPhone now and wait for the 3G model.

It seems to me that most potential iPhone customers fall into one of two categories:

First, when I mention to typical Mac or PC users that I recently installed Leopard, the most common response from either group is either: (a) “What’s Leopard?” or (b) “Oh, is it out already?” Most people do not keep up with this shit — they have lives, or at least other interests.

Second, if you’re someone who does keep up with this shit, you already knew that Apple was planning to release a 3G iPhone in 2008. How did you know this? Because either (a) Apple is freaking retarded, and yet somehow has managed to release a succession of world-beating products over the last six years or (b) they’re developing a 3G iPhone.

So exactly which category of potential iPhone customer will this information give pause to? Well, there are folks in between the two categories of “clued in” and “has better stuff to do with their lives”, and that is “idiot fan boys”. The question is, just what proportion of iPhone customers fall into that gap?

So going back to the original question — just how stupid do you (or I) think potential iPhone customers are — there’s one more piece of the puzzle to consider. Who buys someone a cell phone for Christmas?

Oh, and one more thing

Apple does have one trick up its sleeve that its competitors don’t. The price it charges for iPhones is not subsidized, so when a new iPhone comes out, folks can just buy it and swap it onto their existing account. This is not the case for the vast majority of cell phones on the (US) market which have totally bogus prices ($99 with a 2 year plan, $299 without it). It follows that Apple can transition users onto new generations of iPhone without waiting for plans to expire, which is, along with a lack of discernable improvements over time, what has killed Motorola’s RAZR.

Crime & Punishment

My wife and I have repeatedly received calls from someone claiming to be Countrywide Home Loans. These people, who give out the number 1-800-641-5302, are not Countrywide Home Loans (we called Countrywide to be sure, and then we googled the number, which is instructive and highly recommended).

Annoyed by these people (who use a combination of professional sounding operators and polished automated systems, so presumably they’re not exactly operating out of the back of a van, but who knows?) we contacted Countrywide and told them about the matter. There things have rested for some time.

This has continued for some weeks, and when I got another call today I decided to report it to the “authorities”. The recommended course of action is the FTC, but try navigating (a) their website, or (b) their phone system. E.g. after getting several levels into their spectacularly retarded menu system, I was forced to pick between two possibilites neither of which applied, with no way out. I hung up in exasperation.

The do not call list website, for what it’s worth, simply generated an error message saying that their server was having some kind of difficulty. Fabulous.

Next, I tried the local police. By far the most helpful and pleasant conversation (with a local Financial Crimes investigator) got me nowhere. She didn’t even have a number I could call, but suggested I might try the FBI.

So I called the FBI who simply told me to report the activity on a website. This website is designed (a) for people who have already been screwed (we hadn’t because we hung up when we were asked for our SSN) and (b) internet-based crime with phone-based crime as an afterthought.

The site made it clear we should keep hold of any documents (of which there are none) in case the matter ever went to trial, but of course we’ve not suffered any actual loss, and there’s no paper trail. Presumably we can document the fact that the calls took place (assuming the records aren’t automatically erased) but that’s about it.

This is just cockeyed. Here’s a bunch of scammers calling, presumably, hundreds or thousands of people fraudulently, with criminal intent, and giving out a 1-800 number. Surely there’s someone in the FBI who can do a reverse lookup of the phone number, at minimum have it switched off, and at maximum tap the line, record their bullshit, and then arrest them.

If there are any further developments, I’ll post them.

The Amazon Music Store: Usability & Motives

Like many people, I like Simon & Garfunkel. And like a sizable proportion of such people, I like Simon without Garfunkel. And finally, like a not-so-sizable proportion of such people, I don’t mind Garfunkel without Simon. As it happens, I really like one of his most saccharine songs, “Sometimes When I’m Dreaming”. I’ve been looking for it for some time — I had it on vinyl, but I didn’t like Garfunkel enough to replace my vinyl with CDs, and I haven’t seen that specific pop song appear on ITMS.

Oddly enough, the album it’s supposed to be on is on ITMS, but that song is missing, and the album is not flagged as incomplete. Well, I thought, this is a great opportunity to try out the much vaunted Amazon DRM-free music store. Feel free to go try to find some stuff on the Amazon music store while I stay here.

Anyone claiming the Amazon music store is as convenient to use as ITMS (whether or not you have an iPod, I might add) is on crack. Oddly enough, it seems many of Apple’s uncritical “fanboys” are even bigger “fanboys” of anything without DRM and so have been singing the praises of a service that offers some notable bargains over ITMS while lacking range and convenience.

I’d certainly be very happy to buy stuff from Amazon versus Apple (once I *found it* using ITMS or store) to save money and/or avoid DRM — and I expect this is how Amazon will succeed — but Amazon should be recognised for the parasitic “Burger King” strategy it’s adopting on the usability side, and the motives of the cartel backing it which allow discounting and DRM-free music on the business side.

MacDonalds is famous for picking sites for its “restaurants” very carefully. Burger King is famous for placing its “restaurants” close to MacDonalds. Get the idea? Apple produces a market for digital music, fabulous tools for browsing, buying, and selling that music, and so forth. Amazon basically knocks together a half-assed website (e.g. when I tried to listen to tracks, it said I needed RealPlayer) but it offers discounts and no DRM. Exactly the way Amazon relies on brick and mortar retailers to let people browse and select books, it relies on Apple to let people browse and select music.

As for price and DRM-free music. Is Amazon offering the labels more than $0.70 per song? Apparently, the record companies which think Apple is greedy for only paying $0.70 per song in royalties out of its $0.99 less operational costs, R&D, marketing, etc. are OK selling songs encoded at double the bit-rate, DRM-free, for $0.10 less. Well, maybe Amazon is paying them a larger percentage, so let’s look at Apple’s DRM-free offerings ($1.29 each): presumably the music labels prefer to be paid some percentage of $0.89 by Amazon than $0.91 by Apple for the same track.

Wow, what does this sound like? It sounds like dumping! The most classic form of anticompetitive behavior by a monopoly or cartel (and the record labels are in fact both — since only one label has the rights to, say, Simon & Garfunkel’s music, and music by, say, Sting, isn’t a substitute). So what we’re seeing here is Amazon acting as a stooge for the music industry which would like to break the power of Apple’s ITMS by dumping their music through a rival channel.

Well, I wouldn’t be too concerned for Apple. First of all, Amazon has been selling stuff through its website since, what, 1995, and the user interface has been very slow to improve. Based on the current gap in usability between their MP3 store and ITMS, it will take them approximately forever to catch up, long before which Apple’s usability folks will have incorporated telepathy and precognition into ITMS.

In the long run the music industry is, to put it simply, dead. They can thrash around suing teenagers and setting up gigantic anti-competitive dumping grounds to what we can optimistically call their hearts’ content, but in the end, music has gone digital, digital stuff is easy to duplicate, and the music industry (as we know it) is an artifact of technology (vinyl records and CDs) that is obsolete. It didn’t exist before we could record stuff, and it shouldn’t exist now that recorded stuff is trivially easy to duplicate and broadcast.