Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Computer That ALMOST Never Was

The Computer That ALMOST Never Was
My Misadventures With Online Ordering

– by David Matthews 2

I needed a new computer.

Not “want” or “would like”, but NEEDED.

The desktop computer that I was using has served me very well for over the past few years, but now it can’t handle what I need for it to do. I was running out of space, the latest version of my browsers and media programs require more RAM than my system has, and I don’t have the luxury of using my parents’ computer for things like burning video files to DVD. I’ve stopped buying games for the PC a while ago and I’ve been trying to figure out which programs I don’t use anymore just so I can squeeze some more hard drive space in for the stuff that I DO use it for. I can’t even consider upgrading the Office programs with the system I have now, and my versions of those programs have long since been “retired”.

I needed a new computer.

And yes, I am a techno-geek, but that doesn’t mean that I have money coming out of my butt to buy the latest, greatest, most advanced system available. My last name is neither “Gates” nor “Jobs”. Besides, I’m not the kind of hardcore techno-junkie that drools over the specs of the latest processor. I won’t be offended if my computer doesn’t have the LATEST processor or FASTEST video card. My interest in technology is tempered by reality. I care about computers because they are a means to an end. The “end” in this case is to get what I need to do done.

So buying a computer for me means to look at what I can afford to get. I have a certain set of conditions and a pretty low price range to work with. I wasn’t going to get a new computer that is “just slightly” faster than my current one. Unfortunately all of the computers that I was looking at that have what I’m looking for were OUT of my current price range.

Then, in my umpteenth online search, I came across a certain store sale. A brand name computer, 200 gigabyte hard drive, 1 gigabyte RAM, DVD burner, Windows XP Media Center operating system… all of the things that I’m looking for at JUST UNDER $400! It was just within my price range, so I go ahead and place the order.

Bear in mind that this is an online sale only. I could not purchase this computer at the website’s physical store just up the road from where I live. And the computer on sale is offered as “refurbished”. “Refurbished” can mean pretty much anything. “Refurbished” can mean the previous owner simply returned it. “Refurbished” could mean the computer had a defect that needed to be returned and then the store fixed the defect and restored it to its original factory specs and now needs to get it out of inventory. “Refurbished” could mean that the computer had a scratch or came without a manual. It’s potluck, but at $400, I was willing to roll the dice.

So, like I said, I placed the order. I put in the shipping information, the billing information, click send, and then wait. Hey, it WAS after business hours after all. And I’m all excited, because I though this was a GREAT deal I was getting.

The following morning I get the confirmation email. By the end of the day I got another email from the company. I thought this would be the acknowledgement that the order was shipped.

Thank you for your order! It has become necessary to cancel your order due to discrepancies in the information provided to us, in either the bill-to or the ship-to portion of your order.

Under the circumstances, we recommend that you contact our sales or customer service department by e-mail to have a sales person assist you in placing the order.

Your order number is ########.

We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you in advance for your assistance.

Bill-To and Ship-To were one and the same. The Bill-To had my credit card information.

Well I did send out the email asking for an explanation, but I also called their toll-free number and asked for customer service. And I waited. And I waited. And I waited…

A full forty-five minutes goes by before I get a very polite human who was quick to look up the order and say that there was something wrong with the credit card information and it got kicked back. He didn’t say what it was, and that it could be anything, even so much as a phone number being off, but that I should contact the credit card company to find out why. But if there’s nothing wrong with the credit card, then I should just go ahead and submit a new order.

Fortunately for me, my credit card statement was right in front of me, so I called the credit card company. Even though it was after business hours, there was no waiting with them. I spoke with a very kind and courteous woman whom I could barely hear who confirmed that my credit card was still active and in good standing. She connected me over to the bank. Again, no waiting at all, and the person I spoke with was kind and courteous and she also explained to me that not only was the card in good standing, but nobody’s made any kind of inquiry or approvals in several weeks. If any inquiries got made and then kicked back, they’d know about it.

So someone’s lying to me at this point. It probably wasn’t the human I was speaking to on the phone from customer service. The person who makes an arbitrary yes-no decision usually knows specifically what went wrong to cause the “no” decision.

To be safe, I re-did the online information – line by line – exactly as the bank has it in their records. Phone information, home address, everything. Then I submit a new order to the online company. I also send an email back to the service department explaining everything to them and telling them that if they have a problem again to please contact me immediately so we can resolve it.

The next morning, I get the acknowledgement email. An hour later, I get another email….

Thank you for your order! It has become necessary to cancel your order due to discrepancies in the information provided to us, in either the bill-to or the ship-to portion of your order.

At this point I’m pissed. I’m really pissed. Bear in mind that this is the SECOND arbitrary rejection, and one that comes after a SPECIFIC request to contact me if there is a problem. Why ask even for my work and home phone numbers if you’re not going to use them? (Well, I can guess why, but that’s for another subject.)

So I spend my lunch hour on the phone… on hold… waiting for a human.

Since I was pissed and on hold, I figured that I’d use my trusty old computer to do a little background check. I type in the company’s name and the word “complaints” in the search engine. Oh did I find PLENTY of reading material to keep me busy while I was on hold!!! Horror stories the likes of which would make miserly Scrooge look like the world’s greatest philanthropist in comparison.

A little word of advice to all companies with customer service numbers… you DO NOT want people to be sitting and stewing on hold for more than ten minutes. That just invites people to find ways to keep themselves pissed off. And if your company has a bad track record with customer service, then keeping people pissed off for more than ten minutes invites more trouble for your company.

This time I was on hold for only thirty minutes before I got to speak with a human. Again, she was very polite and listened as I explained everything to her, including how I spoke with both the credit card company and the bank to verify that everything was working and that they had not gotten any kind of notice that the card was rejected. She then says that she will manually submit the order herself.

Oh, but hold on…

“I need to get authorization. Apparently the price on this just went up to $449.”

I didn’t need to hear that! Here I am trying for three days now to get this computer and suddenly the price goes up? Red lights are flashing in my head. I’m trying to decide if I even want to go another round if I’m having to pay even more for this computer. And what happens if this one fails? Will the price go up again? Do they even have the computer or are they all sold out and they just don’t want to admit it?

“Okay, you’re all set. I’ve submitted a new order for $399.”

It’s at the same price, so I’m breathing a sigh of relief. She gives me my new order number and tells me that she’ll be sending me a new email acknowledgement and says that if this doesn’t work that I should contact my credit card company.

Actually at this point I’m thinking a lot more than that. I’m thinking that if this order gets rejected that there will not be a fourth attempt! Three strikes and you’re out. And I’m not going to be submitting a new order if the price of that computer is going to be edging up over my range.

A whole slew of options start running through my head. Whom to contact, who to complain to, and what to do. Should I call consumer reporters like Clark Howard for help? Should I join my voices in the choir of dissatisfied people from my little lunchtime reading list? Maybe I should just write an article and send it out? (Well obviously I went ahead with this idea.)

Out of laughs and giggles, I visited the physical store of this online company. It’s a national chain of stores, although it’s still not big enough for most people to recognize. I go searching for two things. First, what kind of computer I could get off the shelf, cash in hand, for the price that I’m trying to pay for the computer in question? Second, how much would a brand-new, factory-sealed, version of that computer cost?

The answer to the first question shocked me. For roughly $400, I could only get a computer that is SLIGHTLY faster or larger than my current one. Double the current RAM, maybe a slightly larger hard drive, a CD-ROM burner, and the same operating system. In other words, I’d be better off sticking with my old and faithful (and crowded) computer.

The answer to the second question didn’t really surprise me. If I bought that same computer at the physical store, I’d be paying $600 for it. That was clearly outside of my current price range.

The next morning, I get a new message. This time the message has the order number attached to it.

We are happy to inform you that your order has been completed and will be shipped to you.

This was followed by a link to their website that allows me to track the progress of the package so I know when it will arrive.

Well that’s great! Problem averted. Now it’s just a waiting game to see if my potluck gamble will pay off.

Fortunately the computer did show up as scheduled, although it wasn’t entirely a great ending. It appeared that someone didn’t plug the hard drive power cable, or that they didn’t plug it in properly and it got unplugged during boxing and shipping. In other words, when it started up, I was told I had no hard drive. Fortunately with a little help from the manufacturer’s support desk and a little experience of my own, everything was up and running.

By the way, I did eventually get a response to my initial email inquiry as to why the first order was rejected. It showed up in my inbox a couple of hours after I got the approval notice. The response was: “it appears that this matter has already been resolved.” No apologies or explanations (as requested), just that it was resolved and that was it.

So… why bother talking about this whole experience if there is a happy ending to it all? The deal has been made, the order was shipped, and the product is here… case closed.

Well that’s part of the problem right there. This whole episode was fraught with customer mismanagement, and nobody wants to talk about it because the end result is all that matters to most people. It is certainly all that the business is concerned about, and that is not good for them, especially if they’re trying to truly become a big-name brand company.

The truth of the matter is that this was a really good deal that almost did not happen!

If my need for a new computer wasn’t as strong as it was, I probably would have just called the whole thing off after the second email cancellation. I may not have even stayed on the line while being on hold for a half an hour on that second call after reading all of the horror stories about this company if I wasn’t determined to make this deal work. My otherwise cautious and cynical online mind would have told me not to go through with this.

I understand that sometimes online orders just don’t go through. Maybe the wrong numbers were put in. Maybe I put in a 6 instead of a 9. Those things happen even to the best of us. But that second rejection should not have happened if everything was double-checked and put in correctly.

At the very least an attempt should have been made to contact me before making that second cancellation. Why go through the process of getting a person’s phone number if you’re not going to use it for what it was intended for? That in and of itself sets off a few red flags. Anyone remember how telemarketers end up with our phone numbers?

The person who has to go through with a second order is already uneasy about it. Extra effort needs to be made on behalf of the company to make sure this order goes through on the second try, and it didn’t happen.

Also, it goes without saying that long waiting periods for customer service calls – or sales calls for that matter – are things that should not be tolerated. A person who calls customer service is already not a happy shopper to begin with, and they certainly should not be left to sit and stew for any longer than ten minutes. That only serves to further aggravate the situation.

Online companies need to remember that all of the jazzy sales and slick website promises in the world mean absolutely nothing if they cannot get the customer through the point-of-sale and actually deliver the product. I can understand how people can get upset at certain big-name computer distributors if their experience with customer service was anywhere as frustrating as mine was. I would have serious hesitations about making another online purchase with this company, although I have yet to say anything bad about their physical store and will probably rely on making all future purchases from there.

Ten years ago it would have been understandable to say that an online store would have problems with its customer service. But today, with dozens of online marketplaces ready to step in and provide the consumers with what they’re looking for, even the smallest of businesses really need to remember that customer satisfaction is more than just a fancy website and great sales offers. In the online world of business, customer satisfaction starts with the point of sale and it only ends when that customer is happy enough with his or her experience to let others know about it. If you cannot provide it, then you lose the very support you need to keep that business going.


David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in the greater Atlanta area. He is a longtime computer user and has been involved with computers since the 1980’s.

This article can be distributed freely provided that it is unaltered and all proper credit is given to the author.

2007 – Get Brutal Productions

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Next-Gen: Real and Phony

Next-Gen: Real And Phony
– by David Matthews 2

Apple Computer’s quasi-deity (and sometimes chairman) Steve Jobs recently made two "stunning" announcements at the 2007 Macworld Expo. The first was that Apple Computers was getting rid of the "Computers" part of its name and simply calling itself Apple Incorporated. Since they managed to resolve their trademark lawsuit with the Beatles over the word "Apple", no doubt the company was just itching to simplify themselves to just the one-fruit reference.

The second announcement was the unveiling of their latest toy: the iPhone! The merger between an iPod music player and a cellphone! You can surf the web, download music and video files, play games, AND talk on the phone!

Isn’t that great? Isn’t that wonderful? Here’s the NEXT GENERATION of technology! Here is THE FUTURE!


Somebody wake me up when the mindless jabbering settles down.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m all for technical advances. But the merging of a music player and the cellphone is NOT "next-gen"! It’s actually the status quo.

That’s the ugly and bitter truth when it comes to the iPhone: it’s neither the latest, nor the greatest, nor the next best thing since the microprocessor. It’s basically the same kind of cellphone available today with a larger hard drive for music, a Macintosh operating system, and a jazzy "iTitle" on it.

Meanwhile other computer makers are busy transforming their systems to conform to what they believe "next-gen" will be. They think that the computers of the future will no longer be beige metal boxes sitting with its own space. They think that the computer will actually be sleek and thin and fit underneath a huge flat-screen TV as just another component in a mammoth entertainment center.

If that’s all that they think computers will be in the future, I have some SERIOUS doubts about our technological progress.

For the past few decades, there have been two conflicting trains of thought about computers and where they should be heading.

The first train of thought is that computers are for business purposes only. This was the mindset of computer makers like IBM, who made their money creating huge mainframe systems that cost a fortune to have and another fortune to maintain and operate. It also wasn’t hard to figure out why since computers at that time could do very little except crunch numbers and run very limited programs.

But as computers got smaller, more affordable, and could do a whole lot more than just crunch numbers, a second train of thought developed that said that computers were for ENTERTAINMENT purposes only. They believe that computers should be playing games and keeping the masses entertained. This is the train of thought of companies like Apple as they made computers very user-friendly. It was also the train of thought of arcade video game makers like Atari, and later Nintendo and Sega. The rise of the Internet in the 1990’s solidified this train of thought as people began using the computer to play online games, download music and video, and to chat with friends, family members, and even total strangers all around the world.

Both mentalities think that theirs is the true "next-gen" mentality. The business-only people scoff at the entertainment-only people and think that playing games and stuff are just fleeting fads. The entertainment-only people think that the business-only people suck and are fanatically obsessed with security.

The truth of the matter is that NEITHER side has the exclusive on what "next-gen" will be. They don’t get it, because it won’t just be about either mentality. It will actually be both, neither, and everything in between.

Do you want to know what "next-gen" will be? Do you want to know what will be the REAL steps forward in technology? The REAL driving force for the next decade?

One word, my friends: Networking.

The name of the game for the next few decades will be getting everything interconnected. It won’t be JUST about business or JUST about playing games or JUST about surfing the web and keeping tabs with your friends, relatives, and complete strangers all around the world. It will be bringing together the things that you use in your everyday life.

Imagine buying a watch that will never need to be set or reset. A watch that will automatically correct itself and adjust for things such as Daylight Savings Time. It will always give you the correct time. If you travel from one time zone to another, your watch will automatically adjust to give you the correct time no matter where you go. This watch will keep up with your daily schedule and remind you of important events as they are occur. And it will remind you when its battery is about to expire or to let you know if there is a problem with it.

Impossible, you say? Right now, yes. But in a few years that watch will be as commonplace as iPod players are today. In fact, elements of those features are ALREADY present in other devices such as your cellphone and your computer.

That’s just one common device. There are plenty of others to go along with it.

You may have seen the commercials of the cars that will send an email report of how it is doing and when it will be due for service. That too is an example of next-generation networking, and it eventually won’t be just for expensive luxury vehicles. Pretty soon your car will be doing everything related to its own service except driving itself to the service station and giving itself an oil-change. Hopefully by then we will also eliminate the whole oil and petroleum dependency.

Over the past few years we’ve seen homes constructed already wired for networking. Putting in Cat5 cable and installing network switches is pretty much old hat. First, Cat5 cable is being replaces by Cat6, which can handle much more data than its predecessor. And second, the trend now is wireless. Oh, there will be some physical network connections still needed in the short-run, but eventually all devices will be speaking to each other through one common home network system transmitted through wireless frequencies.

You may have heard the word "bluetooth" in regards to cellphones. The wireless technology behind bluetooth appliances will eventually become the technology that connects other devices to that common home network system.

Imagine a touchscreen terminal in your kitchen. You tell the terminal what you want to cook. Your computer will do an inventory of your current supplies to determine what you have and what you need to get. It will compile a list for you of what you need from the store. Then it will give you the option to either print out the list so you can do the shopping in person, to prepare an electronic list for you to export, or it will allow you to electronically order the items and then pay for them in advance through your bank account. Then you can either pick them up at the store or else have them delivered to you for a nominal fee.

And again, elements of that idea are already present! There are refrigerators with network-connected touchscreen computers. They’re hard to find and expensive, but they exist. Touch-screen terminals for the kitchen are already in the works. And the idea of online grocery shopping and personal delivery? Already dabbled with several years ago but only failed because the idea was simply started way before its time.

How about shopping itself? Here’s how that would be done by next-gen technology: You get to the grocery store and you check in with a network-connected shopping cart with a scanner, scale, and wireless terminal built in. You upload your list or use the touch-screen to input what you need, and the terminal will tell you where in the store those items are. It may even let you know as to which item is on sale or has an electronic discount coupon. As you put each item into the cart, the scanner reads the item into the system and checks them off your list. You can use a scale to weigh certain items like fruit and then have that amount entered into the system. When you get to the cashier, he or she visually verifies the items in the cart compared to what’s in the system, and then you electronically pay for it. No more "price check" calls or questions as to how much an item costs. It’s all figured out by the time you get there. You just approve the purchase and you’re on your way. Your time at the cashier’s counter will be measured in seconds, not minutes.

That is real next-gen technology!

We hear about merging cellphones with music players and game consoles and cameras and video recorders, but that is really just a baby-step compared to the REAL next-gen technology. REAL next-gen means getting the computer OUT of the office and OUT of the living room.

There will still be an entertainment center, but rather than having the computer be just another component of it, the entertainment center itself will be the component of the home network system. Your favorite shows can be downloaded and available for you to watch at your leisure from any TV monitor in your house. You go from room to room and if there is a monitor, that feed will be available for you. You want to listen to music? Either stored or streaming audio can be sent to wireless speakers in any room you want to be in.

Phone messages can be sent to a personal communication device similar to a bluetooth earpiece. Instead of dialing a number, you simply tap the earpiece and tell the computer to dial either a number or a preset name. The earpiece would be personalized so that a call coming in for you will be sent to just YOUR earpiece.

Again, this isn’t science fiction! The bluetooth technology for telephone voice command exists right now!

Of course, these technical visions of the future, as incredible as they may be, will come with their own problems as well. The biggest issue in making things interconnected and available on a common network is one that we haven’t even begun to deal with… namely privacy.

Current cellphones have GPS devices on them to track where you are in the event of an emergency. Some companies have capitalized on this by allowing you to see where your friends and family members are at all times. Well what is to prevent a former boyfriend or girlfriend from using that same technology to track where you are at all times? What is to prevent the government from using that technology to track where you are at all times for any reason whatsoever?

The next-gen home networks will have plenty of personal information about you at its disposal, including your bank records, online purchases, favorite movies and songs, and all sorts of contact information about the people you deal with on a regular basis. That’s prime information about you and your life that anyone, including telemarketers and the government, would KILL to get!

Needless to say, if we don’t firmly deal with the issue of privacy now, we certainly won’t be able to when the REAL next-gen technology is here.

The fact the matter is that there is a definitive difference between REAL next-gen technology and hype pretending to be next-gen. REAL next-gen moves us ahead through a particular vision. Hype pretending to be next-gen is just about selling a product. We need to stop looking at the hype and start looking at what’s really coming up.


David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in the greater Atlanta area. He is a longtime computer user and has been involved with computers since the 1980’s.

This article can be distributed freely provided that it is unaltered and all proper credit is given to the author.

2007 – Get Brutal Productions