How Long Can AT&T Keep Its Beloved Ball and Chain?

Empty pockets and tight budgets are in style this season, but it looks like Apple missed the memo. The company reported an unfashionably prosperous third fiscal quarter, growing its revenue nearly 12 percent year over year to US$8.34 billion. Its gross margins shot up to 36.3 percent, compared to last year’s 34.8.

Where did it all come from? Well, there was a 4 percent uptick in Mac sales, which may have something to do with the Macbook improvements it’s made over the last year. iPod sales actually trailed off by 7 percent. The real star was the iPhone, and the release of the new 3GS model and a price cut on the old version managed to move 5.2 million units, representing growth of 626 percent. That’s 5.2 million iPhones sold in Q3 alone.

Almost all of those sold in the U.S. — along with the many millions sold in previous quarters — send a handful of cash AT&T’s way every month in the form of mobile data fees. So the iPhone must be great for AT&T’s bottom line, right? Not entirely.

AT&T also pays a big fat subsidy on most of the new iPhones it sells. As iPhone sales accelerate, so do AT&T’s expenses. Sure, the idea is to eventually get the money back — and then some — by chaining you to a contract for a couple of years. But for now, it just has to keep feeding the beast. That grocery bill ground down the company’s profit by 15 percent in its second quarter this year.

Also, iPhone users tend to deal with a lot more wireless data than other smartphone users — all that browsing and Facebooking and Twittering and app downloading really adds up. AT&T has had to pump money into its 3G infrastructure just to keep pace. So, when the iPhone 4G eventually comes out — you just know it’s gonna happen someday — who knows whether AT&T or someone like Verizon would be the best carrier for the job?

Listen to the podcast (11:50 minutes).

A Shoo-In for Amazon

That silly airhead Amazon just went and spent $900 million on shoes. Actually, that might not be such a bad idea at all. The etailer has purchased Zappos.com, a very popular online footwear vendor, in what looks to be Amazon’s biggest deal ever.

The deal includes the transfer of more than $800 million in Amazon’s common stock, and Zappos employees will get another $40 million in cash and restricted stock. It will close by the time you’ll need winter boots, and Zappos will remain independently operated.

Overall, reaction has been positive. Zappos is a strong etailer, having doubled its sales between 2006 and 2008 to nearly $1 billion. It also gets high marks for customer service. Amazon’s goal is growth, and the buy will deliver the brain power that took Zappos in that direction. In exchange, Zappos will surely get huge traffic by associating itself with the Amazon brand.

Microhoo: Myth or Reality?

For years, we’ve been hearing about Microsoft’s flirtation with Yahoo in the hope of coming together on some sort of joint search project. Now there’s a new crop of rumors suggesting that the mythical Microhoo beast lives on, and that the two companies are finally getting down to the details.

Neither Microsoft nor Yahoo is saying anything official, which gives the gossip a certain “cry wolf” flavor. But it was reported by Kara Swisher at All Things Digital, a blog associated with The Wall Street Journal — a publication that companies love to go to with their officially unofficial corporate leaks.

Of course, the rumored deal would most probably be a partnership, not the whole-hog buyout Microsoft was gunning for when the Microhoo dance music began. Some things have changed since then — online advertising is much weaker, for one thing. Yet other things haven’t changed much at all: Google still dominates Yahoo, and Microsoft is still a distant third, despite its aggressive promotion of Bing.

Summertime Mojo

Ever since it first showed us the Pre back in January, Palm has promised a software developer kit for webOS, its new operating system. The SDK is what allows devs to churn out applications for a particular platform — such as Windows Mobile, iPhone, Android or any of the six dozen other smartphone operating systems now on the market.

We were told a while back to expect a Pre kit by the end of summer, so we figured sometime in September. Then last week, there it was: the webOS SDK, also known as “Mojo,” in all its glory.

So, did Palm’s crew pull a month’s worth of all-nighters and live on nothing but Red Bull and pure, uncooked protein in order to get done early? Perhaps — or maybe a late-June leak of the SDK motivated them to get something out there sooner rather than later.

In any case, some developers are calling the kit half-baked, since it apparently gives them little or no access to certain components, which limits their ability to create the kinds of apps people can find for other platforms — specifically games. Then again, this kind of problem is exactly what the word “beta” is for.

More Megapixels, Please

Most camera phones are capable of making even the happiest moments of our lives look cold, dreary and awful. They take low-res pictures, the lighting is almost always bad, the focus is off, and the end is rarely worth the memory space, much less something you’d want to print out and frame.

However, a few cellphone makers are trying to make it better, putting 8 megapixels or more into the cameras attached to their new handsets and upping the quality to around what you’d find in a low-priced pocket camera from a company like Canon or Nikon. We’re still not talking pro quality, but definitely something capable of taking a decent photo. Instead of a phone that happens to be a camera, these are cameras that also happen to be phones.

One is the Nokia N86, a smartphone running the Symbian OS. The company will make the phone available in the U.S. in the coming weeks, but like most high-end Nokias, this one is for big spenders only: It rings up for $558, whereas phones from rivals like Sony Ericsson and Samsung go for somewhere around a third of that.

That’s probably because Nokia’s selling the phone unlocked rather than through a partner carrier. That’s business as usual in Europe and other parts of the world. In the U.S., buyers are used to getting a discount from carriers in exchange for service agreements, so the N86’s popularity may be pretty limited stateside.

VIP Access

Customers aren’t the only ones U.S. wireless carriers like to tie up and hang by a strap. They also like to string up their vendors. If a company like Apple or RIM or Palm or HTC is coming out with a nice new phone and the carriers smell a hit, chances are one of them will call dibs on it and become the only company you can go to if you want to buy this lusted-after little techno-bauble — at least for the first year or so.

Sometimes that can be a good thing for both phonemaker and carrier. They can work closely together to develop proprietary pieces of software, and a slow launch gives them both time to deal with glitches and shortages. On the other hand, it can also hurt. The vendor has fewer sales channels, and the carrier may draw consumer fire if it’s shouldered with a really popular device — like the iPhone — that it can’t manage to support perfectly.

So, phone exclusivity may not always work out to the benefit of customers, but does that make it anticompetitive? Maybe not so much for the Big Four — they’ve all managed to get theirs, after all, and may the best phone win, right? But what about smaller carriers that operate regionally or in rural areas of the U.S. that aren’t well-covered by big carriers? They tend to get the short end of the deal, which is one reason some members of Congress are apparently talking about investigating the practice.

Verizon’s latest move may be an attempt to head off a probe. It’s promised to limit itself to six months of exclusivity on new phones, after which smaller carriers can have at it. Frost and Sullivan’s James Brehm said this might be a decent model for compromise, but Free Press’ Chris Riley said it’s all just an attempt to forestall regulation.

Land, Sea, Air and Cyberspace

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Web sites in both South Korea and the U.S. were hit with a denial of service attack. Some of them, including some government sites, were actually knocked out for a little while. Suspicion quickly centered on North Korea, but regardless of whodunnit, the event called attention to some worrisome soft spots in America’s national defense — specifically, its weakness in defending against cyberattacks. There may not be any bombs and bullets, but an online attack on a country’s digital infrastructure could still cause a lot of chaos.

This week, the Partnership for Public Service and the consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton released a report detailing just how unprepared the federal government is when it comes to cyberdefense. The main problems are lack of skilled personnel, a bureaucratic quagmire, outmoded approaches, and frequent communication breakdowns between agencies.

The report urges the White House to develop a government-wide strategic blueprint to address the problem. It recommends reaching all the way down to middle school level to stoke interest in computer science education.

It’s up to you, youth of America. If not for love of country, do it for love of Facebook.

For MacBerry Users

Just because you happen to use a Mac doesn’t mean you have to go whole-hog for Apple. You don’t have to get an Apple TV, you don’t have to buy a $500 computer monitor, and you don’t have to wear black turtlenecks and drive around with a little Apple logo sticker in your back windshield. You can even use a BlackBerry, if you prefer it over the iPhone.

The trouble with that, until lately, was that syncing your BlackBerry to your Mac required a third-party app like PocketMac for BlackBerry or the Missing Sync. Now, though, Research In Motion itself is coming out with BlackBerry Desktop Manager for Mac, which will give users a variety of smartphone control options by hooking it up to an Apple computer. The application even allows the user to sync a BlackBerry through iTunes.

That’s funny, because recently Apple gave phone maker Palm the boot, cutting off the Palm Pre’s ability to sync with iTunes. RIM may have to approach iTunes syncing a little differently in order to avoid getting 86ed.

This just in: The Pre syncs with iTunes again … for now …

Bookseller Battle Royal

I’m going to go ahead and call the Kindle the iPod of e-readers. Please don’t start spouting sales figures and telling me how wrong I am. All I’m saying is that there were e-readers before the Kindle, just like there were MP3 players before the iPod, but it took Amazon’s entry to really knock down doors and get people to notice this new type of media device that’s out there. Now that we’re all in agreement, I’ll move on.

Having won the approval of Oprah and her minions and enjoyed a lot of publicity for making more people understand what an e-reader actually is, Amazon’s Kindle looks like a good target to try and topple, and next at bat is bookstore chain Barnes & Noble.

Its new eBookstore isn’t its first foray into the e-book market, but now that more people are aware of what’s out there, perhaps it’ll see more success this time around. Barnes & Noble boasts a larger library than Amazon’s Kindle has, and it’s lined up Plastic Logic as its manufacturing partner.

You won’t have to buy a Plastic Logic e-reader, though — you’ll also be able to read Barnes & Noble e-books on iPhones, BlackBerrys and home computers.

The relatively high cost of the Kindle may give Barnes & Noble an opportunity if the Plastic Logic item can hit the right price point, and if the apps for reading on a smaller device don’t make us all go blind. Or this could be the dawn of the Zune of e-readers. We’ll see.

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How Not To Do CX, Lenovo Style

Customer Experience CX

Sometimes the world of smart technology innovations collides with the planet of dumb customer service provisions. That collision usually does not bode well for the customer.

In my case, that scenario is particularly true. I bought Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet 5 for an attractive price from a major national electronics store. In hindsight, that was a purchase I wish I could undo.

The Duet 5 is regarded in numerous reliable reviews as the best overall ChromeOS tablet/detachable computer available this year. Its larger screen and detachable full-size keyboard make a usable and fun tablet experience not available with pure Android devices.

For me, that accolade falls far short of reaching that mark. In fact, if your primary need for a Chromebook is to run Linux apps, think again about not buying Lenovo’s Duet 5. You might get a unit like mine that does not do Linux even though it is supposed to work. That failure is not considered a valid claim under Lenovo’s warranty.

I have become quite fond of Chromebooks. ChromeOS devices supplement my home office cadre of Linux computers. They link to my Android phone and its apps. I can run the same productivity apps and access their data directly on the Chromebook.

What fed my attraction to the Duet 5 is its logical follow-up to the very popular 10.1″ original Duet I bought a few years ago. The Duet line has a detachable keyboard and is a stand-alone ChromeOS tablet.

Putting want versus need aside, I debated the prospect of more productivity and convenience with a bigger screen at 400 nits, larger keyboard, and 8GB of RAM. I knew the manufacturer and the retail store as well as the product line. Or so I thought.

What could go wrong? Three things: a failed product, no support, and a warranty that also did not work!

Maybe One Too Many

The last thing I needed to buy was yet another Chromebook. Over the last few years, I have used four or five models from HP, Lenovo, and Asus.

The Duet 5 seemed to check all the boxes. As it turned out, the check mark fell out of the box for reliable tech support and customer service.

Nope, I could not return the computer. By the time I discovered its defective nature the undo window had closed.

I suppose this incident will nudge me to buy expensive add-on store warranties for less expensive electronic devices. Adding insult to injury, Lenovo tech support said the malfunction was “beyond the scope of the manufacturer’s one-year warranty.”

A final correspondence from Lenovo’s tech support told me that if I shipped the device to its repair facility, all the technicians would do is reset the unit to its original OS status and remove Linux.

Heck, I had already done the same thing twice.

Lenovo Buyers Beware

This account is not intended to be a product review. Rather, it tells what happens when corporate arrogance destroys the customer experience.

I usually write about business technology issues and open-source developments impacting the Linux OS. My reporting beat overlaps with e-commerce and customer relationship management (CRM) issues.

As a tech writer and product reviewer, I am used to manufacturers sending me top-of-their-line products in hopes of showing off their best wares. Marketing marvels often offer high-end configurations to curry consumers’ attention. They go out of their way to make sure the reviewer is fully satisfied.

Too bad that mentality does not always exist when lowly consumers are on the receiving end. But I was not using a loaner unit I would send back anyway, satisfied or not. I bought this model with no plans to review it. I just wanted to use it.

My personal experience hardened my resolve to not buy a Lenovo product going forward. Not because of a bad product encounter. Lenovo lost my customer loyalty because of shoddy customer service and no dedication to resolving my issue with a malfunctioning computer that they built.

The Gory Details

According to Lenovo’s ill-conceived logic, the warranty on Chromebooks does not cover user modifications. Since I activated the Linux partition, ran into a problem, removed the partition, and reinstalled Linux apps not there when I bought it, I was guilty of modifying the device.

To clarify, all Chromebooks require the user to turn on the Linux partition and install Linux apps. That is the same process for using Android apps on Chromebooks.

Chromebooks are built to run the ChromeOS and optionally to run in separate built-in containers Android and Linux software. Google certifies the hardware to ensure the software works.

The ChromeOS similarly enables users to access websites in a browser environment. An added option lets users access those web destinations to run application services within tabbed browser windows or as progressive web apps (PWAs) in their own isolated windows.

That is what Chromebooks are designed to do on any manufacturer’s hardware. Turning these built-in features on/off should not be construed as “modifying” the device.

Tech Support Hell

A few weeks after receiving the Duet 5, I experienced only an intermittent screen flickering issue. That cleared up after a system update. No worries. No concerns.

At that point I turned on the Linux partition and installed the same Linux apps that I use on my other lesser-endowed Chromebooks. Those devices worked fine with the same apps installed.

But the Lenovo Duet 5 froze after loading the Linux apps and running for a few minutes. Glitchy installations happen. So I did what is standard troubleshooting. I reset the ChromeOS to its original status. I then set up the Linux partition and sized it well beyond the Google-recommended minimum size.

Problem NOT solved. So I wiped the Linux partition again. This time, I installed a single Linux app one at a time looking for the culprit throwing the others out of whack. Every Linux app in isolation froze.

Lenovo tech support declined to investigate or test the hardware. The agents suggested finding an affiliated tech center to pursue a solution.

Stuck With No Options

I gladly would have done that. But the nearest such Lenovo repair center was across state lines some 150 miles away.

I reached out to the Google Chromebook support community for an alternative solution. A support person there had me run the “df command” in a Linux terminal to determine the physical health of the partition.

The readout from that diagnostic confirmed the device has a valid and working Linux container. That partially settled the question about the hardware. It did not, however, identify what other hardware issues might be involved.

The Google support forum tech then suggested I look for one or more dud packages by following the procedure outlined above. But, of course, I already did that several times.

Lousy Lessons Learned

If you plan to buy a Chromebook just to have easy access to selected Linux apps, seriously consider my experience. Maybe look elsewhere instead of the Duet 5. Numerous Chromebook alternatives exist.

Who knows? Maybe the Linux apps will work fine for you on your Duet 5. As I said, I have not had this situation on any other Chromebook product I use.

No doubt my experience was a gross anomaly. The aggravating part in all of this is that I will never know the cause.

But if you buy a Duet 5 from a retail outlet instead of directly from the manufacturer, be sure to confirm how that store honors the warranty. You now know how Lenovo honors its warranty.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.
Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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Accent Altering Voice Tech Aims To Replace Frustration With Communication

frustrated customer calling customer service

Having trouble understanding that person at the end of the support line you’ve called to get some customer service? A Silicon Valley company wants to make those kinds of problems a thing of the past.

The company, Sanas, makes software that uses artificial intelligence to remove the accents in the speech of non-native, or even native, English speakers and output a more standard version of the language. “The program does phonetic-based speech synthesis in real-time,” one of the firm’s founders, Sharath Keshava Narayana, told TechNewsWorld.

In addition, the voice characteristics remain the same even after the accent is removed. The voice output by the software sounds the same as the voice input, only the accent has been removed so, for example, the sex of the speaker is preserved.

“What we’re doing is allowing agents to maintain their identity, maintain their accents, without the need to change it,” said Sanas CEO Maxim Serebryakov.

“The call center market is enormous. It’s 4% of India’s GDP, 14% of the Philippine’s GDP,” he told TechNewsWorld. “We’re not talking about a few thousand people getting discriminated against on a daily basis because of their cultural identity. We’re talking about millions and millions of people that get treated differently because of the way they sound.”

“The concept is sound. If they can make it work, it’s a big deal,” observed Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, an IT advisory company in Northborough, Mass.

“It can make companies more efficient and more effective and more responsive to consumers,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Talking Local

Gold explained that locals tend to better understand local dialects and associate with them better. “Even talking to someone with a heavy Southern accent sometimes gives me pause,” said the Massachusetts resident. “It affects the effectiveness of the call center if you can be much more like me.”

“Many call center workers are based overseas and customers could easily have trouble understanding what they’re saying in the case of strong accents,” John Harmon, a senior analyst with Coresight Research, a global advisory and research firm specializing in retail and technology, told TechNewsWorld.

“But the same could be true even for regional U.S. accents,” he added.

However, Taylor Goucher, COO of Connext Global Solutions, an outsourcing company in Honolulu, discounted accents as a source of customer frustration.

“It is well known that companies outsource call center support to different countries and rural parts of the United States,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The larger issue is the right selection of employees for the position and the training and processes that are in place to make them successful.”

Customer Perceptions

Harmon noted that consumers can have a negative reaction when they encounter a support person with a foreign accent at the other end of a support line. “A caller could feel that a company is not taking customer support seriously because it’s finding a cheaper solution by outsourcing service to an overseas call center,” he said.

“Also,” he added, “some customers might feel that someone overseas might be less able to help them.”

Goucher cited a study taken by Zendesk in 2011 that showed customer satisfaction dropping from 79% to 58% when a call center was moved outside the United States. “Everyone that I know has likely had a poor customer experience at some point in their lives with an agent that they couldn’t understand,” he observed.

He noted that the biggest problem with bad customer experience is the lack of support systems, training, and management oversight in the call center.

“Frequently we see companies move call centers offshore just to have the phone answered.” he said. “In customer service, answering the phone isn’t the most important part, it’s what happens after.”

“Agents, accent or no accent, will be able to provide winning customer experiences if they are the right person for the role, have the right training, and have the right tools to solve customer problems,” he added. “Saying the accent is the problem is an easy out.”

Bias Against Accents

When a customer support person doesn’t have the tools to solve a problem, it can be a huge frustration to a customer, Gold observed. “If I call somebody, I want my problem solved, and I don’t want to go through 88 steps to get there,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me because I just spent a whole bunch of money with your company.”

“Anything that can be done to get over that hump faster has multiple benefits,” he continued. “From the consumer perspective, there’s the benefit of not pissing me off. In addition, if I can get through faster, it means the service person can spend less time with me and can handle more calls. And if I can hone in on the problem better, I won’t have to call again about it.”

Regardless of whether a customer support person has the tools they need to provide top-notch service, accents can influence a caller’s response to the person at the other end of a phone line.

“A customer could become upset at having to decode a foreign accent,” Harmon said. “There is also the stereotype that some U.S. accents sound uneducated, and a customer could feel like that the service provider is getting by with cheaper support.”

“In some cases, I think the biggest pre-existing bias is that if the agent has an accent, they aren’t going to be able to solve my problem,” Goucher added.

Choice for Voice

Serebryakov noted that one of the goals of Sanas is to provide people with choice when it comes to their voice. “When we post photos on Instagram, we can use filters to represent ourselves however we want to,” he explained. “But you don’t have a similar medium for voice. Our mission at Sanas is to provide that kind of choice.”

Although Sanas has initially targeted call centers for its technology, there are other areas that hold potential for it.

“One of the biggest uses we see for the technology is in enterprise communication,” Narayana said. “We got a call from Samsung saying they’ve got 70,000 engineers in Korea who interact with engineers in the U.S., and they don’t talk at team meetings because they’re scared how they’ll be interpreted. That’s the next use case we want to solve.”

The technology also has potential in gaming, health care, telemedicine, and education, he added.

Sanas on June 22 announced a $32 million Series A, boasting the largest Series A round in history for a speech technology company.

John P. Mello Jr.

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.

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