Seven things I hate about you – an open letter to the computing industry

I spend a lot of time with computers. I use them for work and for play; I watch my DVDs on my PowerBook and use iTunes to play virtually all of the music I listen to. When I go to a bookshop, the computing section is one of the first I like to check out, and anytime I visit a big city, I make a point of visiting any Apple dealers I’ve not been to yet. I write books about computers and I frequently contribute to Apple-centric web sites such as this one. I do have other interests of course, but computers easily make it into my top three, and over the years my love of Macs has profoundly influenced my professional life, and to no small degree has allowed me to define and develop my skills and experience.

But there are some things about the industry that just drive me nuts. I’m not going to whine about how come there little rubber feet from my iBook came off so easily, or complain that Bill Gates just doesn’t play nicely; these issues have all been done to death on the Mac press many times and really don’t interest me. No, what bothers me are things that could be fixed relatively easily, or exist purely for the benefit of the manufacturers and retailers, or don’t seem to have any obvious advantages to anyone. So, beloved computing industry, here are seven things I hate about you!

1. Mail-In Rebates

Short of root canal, is there anything more unpleasant than mail-in rebates? If we’re getting fifty bucks off the damn printer, then just take it off the ticket price already! Why do we need to mail in anything? Likewise anything that involves getting a free gift once we’ve bought something else, like the extra memory or the expansion pack to a game. Just put them in the box, please.

Ask anyone who’s ever done these rebates how many they’ve actually received. On a good day, it might be fifty-fifty. Months can go by before you get a response, and if you don’t, then following up the paper trail you’ll be told there was a mistake on the form and the offer has been stopped now anyway, so please go away. Whether or not there really was something wrong you can’t tell unless you cleverly made a Xerox of the forms before you sent them in because despite asking for your address, e-mail, and phone number on the form, there’s no way in Hell that they’ll call you to query something in a timely manner. But you better believe that that information will be shared with their ‘partners’ who will bombard you with special offers and sales calls.

I know plenty of people who deliberately avoid anything with a rebate. Rebates, they argue, are only offered with end-of-life items that are either obsolete or otherwise difficult to sell at full price. They are also a characteristic of the suckier computer dealers, like Best Buy and CompUSA; proper dealers may offer special deals and markdowns, but these are almost never mail-in rebates. The Apple Store, for example, often has variations on the theme of “get a discounted printer when you buy a new Mac”.

2. Electronic Documentation on CDs

I can understand the logic to this: saving on paper, lowers the cost of shipping, and so on, but in many cases electronic documentation makes no sense at all. If you buy a game, most of which occupy the full screen, you cannot read a PDF file at the same time. Likewise, anything that requires complex troubleshooting to work well is much easier to use when you have an open book beside you.

If the software comes from the bargain rail in Target, then maybe I can forgive the producer for leaving the printed manual out of the box, but not if I’ve spent $50 on something like SimCity 4, a big, complex game that absolutely demands a manual. They know this of course, and companies like Prima and Brady Games have found a nice niche for themselves selling these “missing manuals” and $20-30 a pop. For games producers to slip in a little booklet outlining installation and what the buttons do, but saying nothing about strategy and special features, is simply a con. The SimCity 2000 manual, by the way, was great, a book in itself that was classy, spirited, and insightful. You learned as much about real cities as you did about the game, and this leant to the whole package a real feeling of quality.

I’ll admit many applications don’t really need big manuals, and I for one don’t miss the printed documentation that used to come with Microsoft Office or the Mac OS itself, both programs that can be picked up easily enough with a short booklet and then explored in more detail using the online help. Besides, who am I do David Pogue out of a job?

3. No Customer Service

Electronic Arts is my favourite loathsome web site when it comes to customer service. For a start, the only way to get a response from them is to use their bulletin board service. There are no e-mail addresses you can write to and definitely no telephone numbers you can call on. Instead, you need to navigate an arcane series of steps and options that only allow you to post enquiries that fit into very specific parameters, and even then, only on products currently being developed by them; anything more than a year or so old, even if it is still being sold in computer stores, is essentially unsupported.

Symantec is another awful company to deal with, not least of all because you cannot download updates for Norton Utilities directly but only through the program itself, making re-installations a hassle (particularly for those who use a modem rather than an Ethernet connection, and prefer to archive updates for re-use rather than download them repeatedly). The whole site is pitched to sell you more stuff rather than help you work with what you have; perhaps not inexplicable, but certainly annoying.

Apple at least has pretty good customer service, and almost every time I’ve had to work with them they’ve fixed my problems quickly and painlessly. Once or twice things haven’t been entirely smooth, but basically I’m happy with them. Since I’m spending a fair bit of money on the AppleCare package for my PowerBook G4, I’m glad this is the case. Microsoft is another company that on the whole does a good job. At least on the Mac side of things, the updates are easy to find and download, and the Mac Business Unit seems to respond to bug reports fairly briskly.

4. Norton Utilities

I used to like this program, but now I hate it. In many ways it epitomises for me the greedy, unhelpful software companies we’ve all had to deal with at some time or another. There is no doubt that the basic premise of this application is a good one: a tool for repairing errors on hard drives and retrieving lost or damaged files. Early versions could fit on a floppy disk and were forwards as well as backwards compatible with computers made over several years. The first version of Norton Utilities I owned could be used as effectively on a Mac Plus as a PowerMac 7500, and worked fine with Macs running System 6, System 7, and even System 8.

The problem is that over the years it has turned into unstable, expensive bloatware. With each system update (let alone upgrade) it becomes incompatible, and the auto-update feature is flaky at best, and even when it works gives you very limited options in terms of extending the life of the Norton Utilities package you’ve bought. Norton Utilities 6 is incompatible with OS X, while version 7 will work with 10.1 and 10.2 as well as OS 9.2. But to fix things on a computer running 10.3, you’ll need Norton Utilities version 8, and it is a very safe bet that OS X 10.4 will be
incompatible with that, and you’ll need to go out and buy yet another version of Norton Utilities. So, each time you upgrade your operating system, you need to upgrade Norton Utilities, too.

As if this wasn’t annoying enough, the once-detailed book that Norton Utilities used to come with has been almost completely replaced with a PDF version, which as mentioned above really doesn’t cut the mustard. For one thing, if your computer is broken, how do you read a PDF file? Updates have to be downloaded using Norton Utilities itself, so you cannot keep the update patches on a CD for re-installation at a later time. All in all, using Norton Utilities is an expensive and unpleasant business.

5. Over-optimistic System Requirements

This isn’t just a Mac thing; if anything, it’s even worse on Windows where every system update demands a whole new computer, let alone a bit of extra memory. Even so, I can’t be the only one who’s bought a computer program (particularly a game) only to find that despite what it says on the box, it is essentially unusable on my machine. But of course, once you’ve opened the magic cellophane on the box, all the promises the retailer makes evaporate in a puff of end-user legal agreement smoke, and you’re stuck with the thing whether it works for you or not.

Sometimes it’s that the language on the box is misleading rather than inaccurate. A few months ago, I bought my girlfriend a copy of SimCity 3000 for her Dell laptop. The box said it was fine for Windows 98 and better, and so we figured that since she was running XP, it would install fine. After all, the game was being sold in Best Buy, and all the computers they sell run Windows XP as well. But did it install and run? Nope. Only later did we learn that this game was effectively incompatible with Windows XP! Quite why Best Buy was selling software that wouldn’t run on any of their machines is a question for another day…

6. Registration Cards

Every program I’ve ever bought comes with these, and except maybe when I was very wet behind the ears, I never bother filling these things in. Why? Because they’re pointless and do nothing more than invite junk mail (of both the e-mail kind and the traditional paper-based sort). If you look over one of these cards, you’ll see it is covered in subtle and some not so subtle questions that allow them to get an idea of your profile as a consumer. The companies that create these cards ask questions that let them pin down not just obviously relevant things like what computer you own and what operating system it runs, but how old your are, what your income is, what you do for a living, and usually sundry other aspects of your life like where you take your holidays and what your hobbies are. Do Adobe or Microsoft really need to know this?

They’d say yes, as the more they know about your background the better they can produce products that meet your needs. What they really mean is the more accurately they can describe their market, the more effectively they can target their marketing. Many of these companies also sell this information to others, allowing them to put you on mailing lists for retailers of goods and services that would seem to fit your consumer profile.

I used to think that at least by sending in a registration card I could tell the company that I’d bought a Mac version of their product, and this would in some way help secure their interest in the Mac software market. Just conceivably, this still makes sense where products are sold in a hybrid format (as is often the case with driver software for things like webcams and keyboards, as well as games and multimedia programs). But for the most part, utility and productivity software is sold specifically as Mac software, and that the retailer will need to buy in more stock of whatever it is I have just bought is all the information Adobe and Microsoft really needs.

Besides, not once have I seen any benefits to me in return for filling in these cards. No discounts on other products, no access to unique freebies like add-ons and templates, and certainly not additional customer support I couldn’t have obtained otherwise. In short, registration cards are a racket.

7. Abusing My Documents Folder

Okay, maybe this one is a little bit whiney, but it does bug me. Take a look at the Documents folder in your Home folder. If you’ve installed applications like AppleWorks and Microsoft Office, you will have folders put there by these programs, not for your benefit but for the programs to store various support files. I’m sorry, but isn’t that what the Application Support folder in the Library is for? Why clutter up my Documents folder with stuff I won’t need to manipulate directly (and probably shouldn’t if I’m not an expert user).

These two programs aren’t the only ones to do this: also in my Documents folder are two folders put there by Virtual PC, one by Fax STF (which I don’t even use!), and one more apiece from CD Finder, SimCity 4, and Goliath. None of these contains stuff I’d ever need to access outside of running those programs, so there’s no compelling reason to keep them in my Documents folder. I suppose an argument could me made that this makes it more obvious that these folders need to be backed up, and the limitations set my the multi-user nature of OS X makes it impossible to simply store these documents in with the applications themselves, as is normally the case in Mac OS 9. But since people back up their Library folders now (if only to keep hold of things like their e-mail and web browser bookmarks) it surely isn’t that difficult to tell users that these applications also store stuff in the Library folder. Besides, apart perhaps from CD Finder’s catalogues, none of these folders holds anything irreplaceable. No, like the other things on this list, dumping stuff in my Documents folder is more about laziness that trying to make my life better.

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