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Train wreckScott Hanselman caused a stir writing: Everything’s broken and nobody’s upset. He lists key software products bristling with flaws. They fail to work as expected.

Hanselman takes no prisoners. He is as scathing about Microsoft, who he works for, as he is about Google and Apple.

The story isn’t just venting. Hanselman says he is complaining because he knows we can do better.

And so we can. Hanselman’s post is brilliant and essential reading for anyone who works with technology or remotely cares about the tools they use.

Worse than Hanselman thinks

Sadly it is not just a case of “everything is broken and nobody’s upset”. There’s also the point that nobody cares, especially not the people making those broken things.

Or, more accurately, few of the companies care enough to bother fixing their products’ flaws and looking after their customers.

Call me naïve if you like, when I find broken software or hardware I look to troubleshoot the problem. This means going to company websites searching FAQs or forums for answers.

My finding answers strike rate is not good. Many software companies and hardware makers barely pay lip service to fixing the messes they create. I found less than half of the technology complaints and queries I submitted were acknowledged, let alone answered.

Some help forums are like the fake towns built for western movies – there only for show.

Hanselman says he comes away with the impression no-one cares about the problems. That’s my experience too – although not with everyone.

Money doesn’t help

Here’s the oddest thing. The amount of caring is often inversely proportional to the amount of money the company at the other end of the transaction took from me.

Logic says you can’t expect much support from developers of free software, WordPress plug-ins and shareware. Likewise, companies selling $2, $5 or $10 apps for iPads or Android phones.

And yet in my experience, I’m MORE likely to get a satisfactory response to my support requests from these people than I am from businesses that have taken hundreds or thousands of dollars from me.

Non-support forums

Here’s a recent example, I’ve got dozens of others I could mention:

I added 4GB of Ram to my desktop computer. Nothing happened. I did all the right things, went to the various forums and troubleshooting routines. This is possibly a motherboard problem. You can see my post at the Asustek forum doesn’t get taken seriously.

I didn’t get ANY response to an emailed query.

The Ram maker did respond, but only to tell me I’m an idiot who doesn’t understand it is not the company’s problem.

What makes this more galling is the Asustek forum and Google in general shows hundreds of other people have exactly the same problem and issues that are similar. Something is wrong. I’m not just another muddle-headed ham-fisted idiot who doesn’t understand the technology.

Asustek has my money and it just doesn’t give a toss. I’ll keep this in mind when I buy a new motherboard, yet the sad truth is the alternative suppliers are no better.

Another answer

Hanselman articulates the problem well, but for my money doesn’t offer much of an answer although he is right when he says we need to care and need the collective will to fix the problems.

I’d go further and say we need to jump up and down more. Consumers need to be stroppier. We need more brutal product reviews – which means we need an independent media, but that’s another issue. We need stronger consumer laws and officials willing to tackle big, powerful corporations when they stuff up.

And most of all, we need to speak out when things aren’t satisfactory and keep on speaking out.

Cloud computing allows businesses and individuals to do more work while using fewer resources. Cloud is a dramatic rethink of how we work with technology. We’re only starting to explore its potential.

Thanks to the cloud I can work on documents using my PC, iPad or smartphone. It doesn’t matter where I am, all I need is a net connection.

Free storage

Cloud computing isn’t expensive. Many popular services for individuals are free. That’s where things get silly.

Because I have an HTC Smartphone, I have 26.5GB of free storage at Dropbox. Microsoft is almost as generous, there’s 25GB in my SkyDrive account. I have another 5GB of free cloud storage at Google Drive and 5GB at Apple’s iCloud. There’s also 60MB with my free Evernote account. If there are others I’ve forgotten about.

That’s a total of 60GB; none of it costs me a penny. As I’ve pointed out before sometimes free is too high a price.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth?

While this sounds great, it isn’t problem free. Each service installs apps on each device. Each syncs data. Often.

I haven’t tested this, but I suspect collectively they chew bandwidth and slow other online applications.

There’s also a lock-in.

Google, Microsoft and Apple cloud services integrate tightly with other products from those companies. Although documents can move between, say, Google Docs and Microsoft Word, the process is not seamless.

Just one cloud

Ideally, I’d be able to commit to just one cloud service. Dropbox is the most open making it the best candidate. That way I’d only need to learn one way of doing things and worry about a single password. It would also mean only one lot of syncing.

I’d pay for that.

Yahoo!Mail shows two ad images. The one on the right flashes.

After a wave of nagging emails telling me to upgrade my old, barely-used Yahoo!Mail account, I clicked the button.

Yahoo! says mail is now faster: “up to twice as fast”. It doesn’t say what it is twice as fast as, presumably the old Yahoo! Mail.

While it may be faster, Yahoo!Mail is still way slower than Gmail. You don’t need to look far to see why. The application loads two colourful, flashing advertisements.

Flashy – and I don’t mean that in a good way

Not only does this slow Yahoo!Mail to the point of making it almost worthless – at least when compared to Gmail – the ads are distracting. I cannot focus on reading anything complicated or difficult when there’s flashing graphics on the right-hand edge of my screen.

Oh, and the advertisements displayed are totally irrelevant to my life. I’ve seen research which says readers are more forgiving when the advertising they see is relevant.

Yahoo!Mail offers a number of features that are clearly better than those in Gmail. Unlimited storage and being able to attach up to 100MB files to an email are huge pluses.

Pain barrier

Yet none of this matters a jot, if the application is painful to use.

We all understand service providers need to make money. Advertising pays for the mail service. But Gmail manages to do this without turning email into a battleground.

I’ll keep the Yahoo!Mail account for emergencies.

It took well over an hour to book and pay for Air New Zealand tickets. The company’s online system is dumb, online support is worse.

Finding flights, prices and other details is straightforward at the Air New Zealand website.

air new zealand website

After making selections and filling in ticket details you click through to a purchase screen.

This is where the trouble starts.

There are two payment options: credit card and the Poli option for online internet payment. The credit card option was available, but the Poli option was displayed in faint type. It wasn’t possible to select the button.

I clicked on the “why can’t I use internet banking (Poli)?” link.

This says: “POLi isn’t compatible with this web browser. We suggest using Internet Explorer 7.0 or later.”

why can’t I use internet banking (Poli)

 

Internet Explorer 9 is installed on my computer, so I switched browsers only to find now I couldn’t select the tickets from the first screen.

Air New Zealand’s online support told me this is because the site doesn’t support Internet Explorer 9. Helpfully ‘Breeda’ the person handling my enquiry suggested I tried Firefox.

After downloading Firefox. I stepped through the process for a third time, only to reach the same greyed out Poli option.

This time the support told me “Windows .NET Framework 2.0 or later is needed to use POLi. Install or update now”

This took a while. Stepped through again, but was roadblocked at exactly the same point. Just in case the problem was installing .NET, I rebooted and took a fifth trip through the process.

The site still wouldn’t let me pay using Poli.

In the end I used the credit card option. It costs $4 more than Poli – but that’s not the issue, I prefer to pay by internet banking because transactions are cleaner in my account.

Air New Zealand needs to fix this.

 

Xero has managed my business accounts for a year. There are negatives, but I’m happy with the online accounting application.

While the price is higher than other accounting tools, it is money well spent. It meets my needs.

On the plus side, Xero slashed the time spent handling paperwork. I now hardly touch any physical paper – part of my paperless journalist goal.

Xero saves time

I’m not a natural accountant. Book-keeping is my least favourite part of running a business, so speeding up book-keeping is a big step forward. Time is money. I estimate the extra cost compared to other accounting tools is a tiny fraction of the money value of the time I save using the application.

Xero looks wonderful. It has a clear, easy to comprehend user interface and all the tools are close to hand where and when you want them. It also produces crisp reports and other output. This interface is one reason the application is more efficient than rival accounting tools.

Before Xero it took me a day and a half every two months to prepare my GST return and two or three days at the end of the year to prepare my income tax return. Monthly invoicing would take a couple of hours.

With Xero the GST return now takes two hours. The longest part of the job is keying in cash receipts. If I could scan these paper documents into my computer, OCR them and send them to Xero I’d halve the time.

GST was hard going because I’d make small errors and need to fix them before completing the return and sending it to the Inland Revenue Department. I still make errors, but they are easier to trace and fix with Xero. This means there’s less teeth gnashing and sense of helplessness.

My invoices take minutes, not hours to prepare. I briefly had one client on automatic invoicing which mean no work whatsoever. I can go directly from adding items to sending off emailed invoices to clients without leaving the application.

So far I’ve only been through one end of year. It was still painful but less stressful than in past years – mainly because Xero is easier to understand and use than desktop accounting packages like MYOB or Quickbooks. It has a slick, uncluttered interface and a seamless connection to my bank accounts. Sure other applications now do this, but Xero is better integrated.

Well balanced feature set

Another great feature is the software is nicely balanced for non-accountants. Many accounting packages come with esoteric features that accountants love, but leave the rest of us befuddled. I can just about understand everything that goes on with Xero. If I ever run into problems – and that happens less than with Quickbooks or MYOB – support is fast and professional.

One feature that sets Xero apart from other accounting applications is the automatic bank feeds. While rival applications offer something similar, Xero’s integration with the banks is both seamless and effortless. I’ve never seen anything as impressive here in New Zealand. If Xero could reverse this integration, so you could pay Inland Revenue direct from the application, it would be a killer advantage.

So what’s not good?

I’m not comfortable with security. Keeping financial data in the cloud and not on a secured home computer carries a risk. I’d like more reassurance that my data is safe. The company says its application is safe, but I’m operating on trust instead of knowing for certain strangers can’t fool around with my accounts.

The price is at the high-end of the range – Xero works out at NZ$600 a year which is more than MYOB or Quickbooks. As I’ve said the time saved more than makes up for this. However, most of my business involves billing Australian clients. Xero invoices are hardwired to state amounts in New Zealand dollars – at the time of writing the difference between the two is close to 30%.

There is an add-on multicurrency option but that’s another NZ$180 a year. The higher price takes Xero into the luxury product range – a high price just to write A$ on invoices instead of NZ$. There’s extra functionality, but the bit I need is the A$ on the invoice – not the rest of the functionality.

This last point aside, Xero remains the best accounting tool I’ve found to date. Over the years I’ve used plenty including Quicken Cashbook, Quickbooks, MYOB and Accpac Simply Accounting. None comes close.