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Category: Tech

Apple CEO Tim Cook on Customer Feedback

This is inspiring: I wonder how many CEOs get hundreds of customer emails every day. I wonder how many of them would consider it a privilege.

It’s interesting to me – and I think this is a privilege for Apple – just like we’re sitting down at this table today, I get e-mails all day long, hundreds, thousands per day from customers who are talking like you and I are talking, almost like I’ve gone over to their home and I am having dinner with them.

They care so deeply about Apple they want to suggest this or that or say, “Hey, I didn’t like this,” or, “I really love this,” or tell me that FaceTime has changed their lives.

I received an e-mail just today where a customer was able to talk to their mother who lives thousands of miles away and is suffering from cancer, and they couldn’t see her any other way.

But the point is they care so much they take the time to say something. It’s not a letter like you might think is written to a CEO. It’s not this formal kind of stuff. It’s like you and I are having a discussion, and we’ve known each other for 20 years, and I want to tell you what I really think. I love it. I don’t know if there’s another company on earth this happens with. It’s just not people from the U.S. These are people from all over the world. I look at it, and I go, “This is a privilege.”

Is there another company in the world where their customers care so much they do this? I don’t think there is. Other companies I’ve worked at, you might get a letter every six months, and it was, you know, “I want my money back,” or something sort of terse. There was no emotion in it. So I think this is really something incredible.

At one of the companies I worked at, not to mention any names, we’d put (new products) in the lobby. We’d get on the employee intercom system and say, “Come look at them,” and nobody came. They didn’t even care.

I’ve talked to many other CEOs who look at me like I have three heads when I talk about getting hundreds or thousands of customer e-mails in a day. It’s a privilege. It’s like you’re sitting at the kitchen table. You’re a part of the family. And we have to continue to honor that.

Read the entire interview here.


Traveling with the iPad

Shortly after Apple announced the iPad, I began planning a trip to Europe. I had been thinking about buying a small-and-light notebook computer; the iPad seemed like the ideal travel device, so I bought one instead. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m traveling without a laptop. Here's what's worked well on this trip, and what could have been better.

Good:

  • Battery life. I flew from Portland, OR to Paris by way of Philadelphia, and still had plenty of battery left when I arrived. Apple’s estimate of 10 hours is conservative.
  • Instant-on. Using the iPad feels more like using a smartphone than a computer: press the power button and you're ready to go. No waiting for a PC to boot, or even awaken from sleep.
  • Portability. At 1.5 pounds with a 9.7-inch screen, the iPad is easy to bring almost anywhere; my carry-on bag has never been lighter. The tablet form factor is a pleasure to use, even for an overweight guy seated in coach.
  • Capacity. I wasn’t sure if 16 GB would be enough space, but it’s plenty. I keep music on my phone, freeing up the iPad’s gorgeous screen for video and e-books. I’m carrying 9 full-length movies, 5 books and several TV shows, and I still have about 4 GB free.
  • Remote desktop. I use an app called iTap RDP to access my home desktop computer from the iPad. This has allowed me to check my work e-mail even though my employer doesn’t support connectivity from personal mobile devices.

Not so good:

  • Sharing photos. I like to upload photos from the road to Facebook or Picasa; there’s currently no easy way to do that with the iPad. Before leaving the U.S., I made several attempts to purchase Apple’s Camera Connection Kit; the local Apple Store never had one in stock, and the wait was 2 to 3 weeks if I ordered one online. But even if I had one, I don’t know of a good way to upload multiple photos to an online service: the services’ Web sites don’t play well with the iPad’s lack of a file system, and there are no iPad apps for Facebook or Picasa. Fortunately, I’m traveling with friends who brought a laptop, so I’ve been able to impose upon them to upload my photos.
  • Limited content options. With a laptop, I can download fresh content, such as new episodes of my favorite TV shows. I can do that on the iPad, too, but only from iTunes at $2 a pop (plus DRM). Hulu is not an option on the iPad (since I’m outside the U.S., it wouldn’t be an option even on a laptop); I’m using an app called Air Video to stream content from my media center PC at home.

I brought a Bluetooth keyboard, which has turned out not to be necessary. I’m writing this from a café in Brussels using the on-screen keyboard. Maybe I’d prefer a physical keyboard if I were a touch-typist, but for this hunt-and-peck typist the on-screen keyboard is fine. When I do use the external keyboard, I find that I miss the iPad’s auto-correct feature (which converts “Id” to “I’d”, for example), and it feels awkward to have to touch the screen to select text.

Bottom line: the iPad is a great travel companion; overall, the pros outweigh the cons. For my next trip, I'll bring a Camera Connection Kit and leave the external keyboard at home. Maybe by then someone will release an app that makes it easier to upload photos. If you have any suggestions, please post a comment!

Update: Add blogging to the list of “Not so good.” I wrote this post in Pages, Apple’s word-processing app for the iPad. When I went to post it, I discovered that my blogging software’s Web interface doesn’t work well with mobile Safari: the rich text editor doesn’t work at all, and the HTML editor doesn’t display a scroll bar; if your post doesn’t fit on a single screen, you’re out of luck. [Update: I discovered, quite by accident, that a two-fingered drag scrolls a text area in the browser. Still, I’d have to edit raw HTML in order to post from the browser. I wish Pages could post to blogs!] There are a lightweight Web interface and a native iPad app, but neither of them supports formatting text — not even hyperlinks! I ended up e-mailing the Pages document to myself and remoting into my home PC to post it.

So now it’s a tie: I love the iPad’s size, weight and battery life, but blogging and uploading photos are a hassle. Add the fact that I’m limited to iTunes for additional content and I have to connect to my home PC to check my work e-mail, and maybe a small notebook computer wouldn't be so bad after all.


Women in Technology, Kosher Edition

My developer training class in Tel Aviv

When was the last time you attended a programming conference or user group that had more than a handful of women in attendance? Yeah, same here. That’s why I was so surprised when I arrived for the first day of my training class in Tel Aviv last week: 11 of the 26 students were women!

During lunch I commented on the unusual ratio and learned about this:

One company in Israel has built a successful [outsourcing] operation [by] building IT centers in specific neighborhoods in Israel filled with ultra-orthodox Jewish women, who often find traditional jobs outside the home difficult or impossible.

Because of their religious beliefs, the women often find conventional employment in the secular workplace uncomfortable at best. Ultra-observant Jewish women are more formal in their interactions with men, for example, than in the average workplace. Many – though not all – of the Talpiot workers are ultra-orthodox, and Talpiot addresses issues specific to them by offering separate break rooms to women workers, for example.

Because the ability to work at challenging IT jobs while remaining true to their religious values is so appealing to the women, Talpiot is able to pay far lower wages than are offered in nearby Tel Aviv. That enables Talpiot to employ Western workers while remaining financially competitive with outsourcing firms located in traditional low-wage countries such as India and China.


Farewell, IE7

I upgraded my home and office PCs to IE7 in late October. It’s a fine browser; I intend to keep it on my office PC. At about the same time, my wife and I bought a Dream’eo Enza Portable Media Center for our anniversary. My desktop at home runs Windows Media Center Edition, which communicates with a Linksys Media Center Extender in our living room. Unfortunately, that particular combination of devices does not play well with IE7.

You see, Windows Media Player won’t sync album art to the portable device unless the images are embedded in the individual files (or possibly if you let Windows Media Player automatically update all the album info, but I don’t trust it enough to try that). So I dutifully went through my music collection and embedded album art in all the tracks (using MediaMonkey, which I recommend highly). The portable device now displays the album art beautifully.

But now Windows MCE displays a black square where the currently-playing album’s cover should appear! This is apparently a well-known issue: MCE + IE7 displays album art just fine, unless it’s embedded in the music file.

So my choices were:

  • Keep IE7 and embed the album art, so that it appears on the portable device but not in MCE;
  • Keep IE7 and delete the embedded art, so that it appears in MCE but not on the portable device; or,
  • Uninstall IE7, so that album art works correctly everywhere.

Sorry, IE7, you’re not that good. Farewell from my home PC until you work correctly with MCE and embedded album art.

UPDATE: Windows Media Player’s refusal to sync non-embedded album art to the Dream’eo Enza may be a problem with the device. If so, I apologize for impugning WMP. Nevertheless, my options remain the same.

Also, this comment claims that one can get IE7 to play well with Windows Media Player simply by allowing WMP as an add-on on IE7’s Manage Add-ons menu. Anyone with IE7 and MCE 2005 care to try this and let us know?


Cingular Update

I never received a reply to my e-mail to Cingular Sales (brimstone beasts!) I was all ready to close my Cingular account and switch to Verizon, when I realized that it would cost me $175 to get out of my contract. Time for Plan B…

I switched my account to “Cingular Orange” (a full-blooded Cingular account, as opposed to “Cingular Blue,” a half-breed formerly-AT&T Wireless account) and ordered a free Nokia 6102. If the Nokia had Bluetooth so that I could use it as a wireless modem, that would have been the end of it. But it doesn’t, and I’m not crazy about the clamshell form factor (“Is that a phone in your pocket, or…?”)

So I purchased an unlock cable for my one-year-old Sony Ericsson T637 and unlocked it. I inserted the SIM card from the new Nokia, and voila! My old phone works great on my new Cingular account, and I now qualify for the $60/month unlimited LaptopConnect plan. I also unlocked the new Nokia phone (which I was able to do free of charge online) and gave it to my wife, whose 5+ year-old Nokia 8290 is getting a bit long in the tooth. Transferred her T-Mobile SIM card to the new Nokia, and it works great, too!

It cost me about $30 to unlock my old phone and I had to sell my soul to Cingular for another two years, but I now have high-speed-anywhere connectivity and my wife has a shiny new phone. I can live with that!


Cingular Sucks

From: Phil Weber
Sent: Monday, February 06, 2006 8:15 PM
To: sales@cingular.com
Subject: Please take my money!

I am a former AT&T Wireless customer. I am satisfied with my current phone and calling plan. I would like to add a Laptop Connect Unlimited line for $59.99/month and purchase a Sierra Wireless Aircard 860 PC Card modem. Cingular's Web site allows me to order them, but when I get to the checkout page and enter my payment information, I am told to “double-check my address and try again” (see attached screenshots; the address is correct).

I went into my local Cingular Wireless store today and attempted to order them in person, and was told that because I am a former AT&T Wireless customer, I do not qualify for the $59.99/month price. In order to qualify, I must switch to a Cingular plan, which would be fine except that in order to do so, I must also purchase a new phone!

This is unacceptable. I am an existing customer who WANTS to pay you an additional $60/month, and Cingular won't let me. I would prefer to keep my existing phone and calling plan, but if I have to purchase a new phone in order to obtain wireless broadband access, I'll do so with Verizon.

Can you help me?

Thank you,
Phil Weber

Update: Apparently, I’m not the first customer to experience this frustration.


New Toys

I recently switched to Vonage for our residential phone service. The process was relatively painless: I asked one of my co-workers, a satisfied Vonage customer, to refer me; he thereby gets two free months of service, and I get one. (If you're considering Vonage and would like a free month, drop me a line.) I completed an online application and printed, signed and faxed the (optional) Letter of Authorization to transfer our existing number to Vonage. That was it.

A few days later, I received a package containing a Linksys VoIP router. My network topology is very similar to Omar's; I followed his instructions and was up and running in minutes.

It took about a month for Qwest to transfer our number over to Vonage (Vonage provided a free temporary number for us to use while the transfer was in progress); that process went smoothly as well. Qwest didn't terminate our service until about 24 hours after our number had gone live on Vonage, so we never missed a call.

It was only after Qwest had disconnected us that I remembered that our TiVo, which is at the opposite end of the loft from the Vonage box, needs a phone line in order to download its program data. (Newer Series 2 TiVos include a USB port which can enable them to download program data over a network connection; unfortunately, I have an older Series 1 device.) It's possible, I'm told, to connect Vonage to our internal wiring so that it's available at all our phone jacks. But I'm a software guy, and TiVo was complaining that it only had a few days of program data remaining, so I just strung a 30-foot phone cord from one end of the loft to the other; if it worked, I'd think about connecting Vonage to our internal wiring later.

But it didn't work. Apparently the digital-to-analog-to-digital conversion was just too much; no matter what I tried, I couldn't get TiVo to complete a successful call on the Vonage line.

I now faced several alternatives: I could order a bare-bones phone line from Qwest (about $15/month) solely for TiVo's use. I could purchase a new Series 2 TiVo (about $90 after rebate), which would be able to download its data over my wireless network. (This option also appealed to me because we could then use Series 2's Home Media Option, allowing us to enjoy PC-resident music and photos in our living room.) I was about to drive to Costco to pick up a new TiVo when I realized that I'd also have to purchase a new "lifetime" subscription ($300) or pony up $13/month for the TiVo service. (I have a lifetime subscription for my existing TiVo, but it's not transferable to a new box.)

I eventually decided to retrofit my existing TiVo with a TurboNET Ethernet adapter (about $70). I also found these instructions for connecting TiVo's serial port to a Windows computer and using that computer's network connection to download TiVo's data (I wasted an evening trying, unsuccessfully, to get this to work with Windows XP SP2; apparently SP2's enhanced security prevents TiVo from accessing the network. It works just fine, however, with Windows 2000). Finally, I ordered a Media Center PC to replace my aging desktop system, and a Media Center Extender to connect the PC to my TV and audio system.

My plan is to transfer the 120GB drive from my current desktop PC to the TiVo when I install the TurboNET card; then I'll have a capacious TiVo with network access. In the meantime, I'm using a serial connection to my laptop to keep the TiVo up-to-date. The Media Center PC and Extender will give me the equivalent of a second TiVo with Home Media Option, but no subscription fee. And hopefully it will all get along with Vonage! I'll let you know how it turns out.


Radio Phil

While in Edmonton, I discussed with my friend David Jurewicz the prospect of creating a customized Internet radio station as a means to share our favorite music with others. I did some research and discovered Live365 and Yahoo's LAUNCHcast.

Live365 costs a minimum of $10/month and requires (or allows, depending on your point of view) you to upload your content. LAUNCHcast is available in free (ad-supported) and premium ($3/month) versions, and provides all content for you. It uses a Netflix-style rating system to allow you to specify the genres, artists, albums and songs you like, then selects music that fits your preferences. This is a quick and easy way to create a custom station -- you don't have to spend time ripping and uploading music, and you get to hear music you may not already own -- but it affords you less control over programming (LAUNCHcast doesn't have several of my favorite artists and albums in its library).

You may sample my LAUNCHcast station here; it leans heavily toward jazz (primarily bop, fusion and Latin), with a touch of trance/atmospheric. Let me know what you think!


Upgrade Cheers and Jeers

My aging desktop system (333 MHz Celeron, circa 1999) is ripe for replacement. I would have purchased a new computer months ago, but I promised my wife I won't buy a new machine until I've filed our overdue tax returns (we're due refunds on all of them, so it's not as dire a situation as it sounds. Still, they are quite late, and I needed some motivation to move the task higher on my list of priorities, so this is what we came up with.) In preparation for converting my existing system into a home media server, I purchased a 120GB hard drive and installed it this weekend.

Trouble is, the ancient BIOS on this machine doesn't recognize anything over 32GB! So, after futzing with master/slave settings and figuring out that I had to disconnect my internal Zip drive (I now have five IDE devices -- the Zip drive, DVD-ROM, CD-RW, and two hard disks -- which is one too many; I'll transplant the Zip drive into my new machine, if I ever get our taxes done), I discovered that I'm now the proud owner of a new 32GB drive.

Next stop: the ABIT Web site, to download the most recent BIOS update. Thankfully, flashing the BIOS was easy (I had never attempted it before) and came off without a hitch. Unfortunately, however, it didn't solve my capacity problem.

Finally, I decided to try running the hard disk setup utility from DOS rather than from within Windows. Success! The utility recognized the full capacity of the drive, and installed a dynamic drive overlay to work around the BIOS limitation. So now I have oodles and oodles of disk space; this must be how owners of the original IBM XT felt when they contemplated the seemingly limitless potential of their new 10MB hard drives! Only took me five hours to install...

I also bought a 128MB Secure Digital card for my Palm Tungsten T. No drama there: I popped it in, and It Just Worked™. But when I tried to use HotSync Manager to copy some music files to the card, it crawled along at a glacial 1MB per minute. That's when I discovered this amazing utility: It allows you to treat the storage card as a removable disk on your Windows PC! I used Windows Explorer to drag-and-drop files to the card in a matter of minutes. Well worth the $20 registration fee.

Update: Turns out updating my BIOS had solved the capacity problem, I just didn't see it because I had installed the capacity limitation jumper in order to get the original BIOS to recognize the new drive. I removed the jumper and had the updated BIOS autodetect the drive: Primary Slave: 122GB! Next, I re-ran the hard disk setup utility to remove the dynamic drive overlay, and held my breath while I rebooted: Everything works!


Cool Stuff for My New Palm

  • Newpen: Enables Graffiti input directly on the screen. Perfect for the Tungsten/T, which hides the input area when the unit is collapsed. Free, 22KB
  • VeriChat: Unified IM client. Chat with AOL, MSN and Yahoo! Messenger users simultaneously. $24.95/year, 87KB
  • SilverScreen: App launcher with gorgeous color themes that replace standard icons. Drag-and-drop, shortcuts to frequently-used apps. $24.95, 300KB
  • McKinley-Burnstein Handwriting Analyzer: Hilarious handwriting "analysis" program. Amaze your friends! Free, 11KB


New Toys!

I went ahead and ordered a Palm Tungsten/T and Sony Ericsson T68i this week. Bought the Palm online for about $400; AT&T (my current cell provider) sold me the phone for $100 after discounts and credits. That's $100 more than I would have paid had I switched to T-Mobile, but I got to keep my existing phone number, and AT&T's wireless data plan will save me $7/month over a comparable T-Mobile plan, so it won't take long to recoup the cost of the phone.

So far, everything looks pretty cool: via Bluetooth, I can use the phone as a wireless modem for the Palm without removing the phone from my pocket. (In informal speed tests, I've only been able to get up to about 25 Kbps.) I can also use the phone as a modem for my laptop via infrared, and, of course, I can send and receive e-mail and visit WAP sites on the phone itself. I'll be happier when I can get Wi-Fi anywhere, but it's nice to be able to check e-mail or surf the Web (well, it's not so much surfing as it is treading water) at near-dial-up speed when I'm nowhere near a laptop or a landline.


Handheld Computer Wishlist

For the past two and a half years, I've been using a Palm Vx with a Minstrel V wireless modem. It's functional -- I enjoy having anywhere access to e-mail, instant messaging, yellow pages, Google, etc. -- but I must admit that newer devices have given me a bad case of PDA envy: I'd like a color screen, more memory, more bandwidth, a better browser, etc. But I can't find a device (or combination of devices) that provides everything I want for anywhere near the price I paid for my current setup (about $500). Here's my wishlist:

  • Small & light. As close to the size and weight of a Palm V as possible;
  • High-quality color screen. Minimum 320x320, 64K colors. Transflective preferred;
  • Wireless. Integrated Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, with the other available via expansion card (2.5G or 3G wireless data capability would be OK as an alternative to Bluetooth);
  • Full-featured Web browser. I currently use Handspring's Blazer, but it doesn't support JavaScript or do a very good job with "full-size" Web sites. I'd prefer the new Palm Browser (requires OS 5), a mobile version of Opera, or at a minimum, Pocket IE;
  • Reasonably priced. As close to $500 as possible.

Anyone care to recommend their favorite wireless handheld device(s)? Any manufacturers want to send me an eval unit? ;-)


Sign me up!

Coast-to-coast Wi-Fi, via "stratellite", for $29/month. I want it! (Don't tell Sanswire, but I currently pay $39.95/month for pokey 19.2 Kbps CDPD access from my Palm computer. I'd gladly fork over $50 for unlimited, nationwide Wi-Fi.) Source: Wired Magazine