An open letter to cellular companies

On April 17, 2010, in Uncategorized, by Rob Levandowski

Dear Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile:

You’re losing out on a big opportunity.

There is a product that you could introduce with off-the-shelf hardware that would fly off the shelves if you priced it properly. Some of you already offer something very close to this product, but you treat it as a red-headed stepchild and hobble it.

There are now hundreds of thousands of iPad owners who have the WiFi-only model and are discovering that there are places they wish they had connectivity. You could be capitalizing on this buyer’s remorse.

If you offered a small 3G-to-WiFi router that was designed to be mounted in a car, and bundled it with service plans that approximated Apple’s deal with AT&T—no contract, limited or unlimited, come and go at will, and pricing in the $20-$40/month range—you could pick up a lot of customers.

By making the device designed to operate in a car, you’d limit it to mobile use. It’d be more difficult to use it instead of a broadband connection in the home. That’d inherently limit any perceived “abuse” of your networks.

You’d have to price it to compete with the 3G iPad. Yes, it’s not as lucrative as the gold-plated Cadillac data plans you’re offering with similar products today… but really, how well are those things selling outside of the dedicated road-warrior outside salesman market? Think big: a little money from a lot of people.

Heck, you could even design the unit so it only operates on the 5GHz 802.11n frequencies. That would keep it from penetrating walls efficiently and effectively tie it to the iPad; Apple’s practically the only company that offers 5GHz functionality across its line. Then you could still sell the rip-off routers to people that want 2.4GHz. Plus, then the device wouldn’t be competing for the scarce spectrum allocated to 2.4GHz WiFi.

So how about it? The world might not beat a path to your door, but I know I would, and I bet a good percentage of the half-million or so other iPad early adopters would as well. It would be an effective way to work around AT&T’s U.S. monopoly on 3G iPad connectivity.


Two weeks with the iPad

On April 17, 2010, in Recommendations, by Rob Levandowski

After two weeks, I still really like my iPad, and it has replaced my Mac for a lot of things. It’s with me almost constantly. In many ways, it is the revolution of computing that it’s made out to be. There are still some rough edges, though.

I’ve gotten more used to the onscreen keyboard. It was great to discover that you can type an apostrophe by touching the comma key and sliding your finger upward. That was one of the most glaring problems I’d had—having to go into the numeric mode to type punctuation. There are other shortcuts like that hidden throughout the keyboard.

Even so, the lack of number keys still bothers me. Even more is the semi-smart behavior of the numeric mode. It’s hard to predict exactly when it will decide to switch itself back to the alphabetic keyboard. Typing an apostrophe seems to trigger an immediate switch when you’re in the middle of typing a word. Typing a space does it reliably, which is really annoying when you’re filling out a form with a phone number.

I just picked up an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, and I’m using that to write this blog entry. So far, it seems like an improvement as far as typing goes… but it does bring up the fact that the iPad desperately needs some sort of stand to use with the keyboard. The reason it needs a stand so desperately is the high-glare screen.

Apple’s worst design decision with the iPad was the high-gloss glass screen. Yes, it feels slick to the touch, and it’s probably easier to keep clean than a matte finish. However, it’s also utterly impossible to use comfortably under office lighting. Any sort of overhead light, or lighting behind you, or for that matter sunlight, will make it difficult to impossible to see the iPad’s screen. If someone comes out with a good antiglare overlay, I’ll buy it in short order.

Mobile Safari works well. It’s particularly good at pointing out web pages whose authors have made unwarranted assumptions about screen size and CSS layout code. There are a lot of web pages that are illegible upon first loading. Thankfully, the double-tap-to-zoom function works brilliantly.

The AIM app is a big disappointment, although some of that has to be laid upon how AOL has implemented multiple sign ins. When you leave the AIM app to do something else, after a while your buddies may not see you online, which makes the push notification feature a bit useless. When you get a push notification, you’re offered a choice of “view” or “close.” If you choose “close,” the IM may disappear from the iPad without a trace. OK, I thought, I’ll leave iChat logged in on my Mac to catch those messages. Well, no matter what AOL claims on their website, it seems essentially random as to which AIM session, if any, will receive messages when you do this. Apple and AOL need to collaborate on making multiple logins more useful in the context of portable devices.

Too many apps “drop state” when you leave them to check something in another app, especially if you’re in an “add item” or similar composing sort of mode. This becomes annoying quickly, and is probably the biggest reason why the iPad’s lack of multitasking is an issue.

If you walk around with an iPad, you’ll attract attention. The one thing you won’t hear, however, is “What is that?” It’s a testament to Steve Job’s marketing prowess that everyone you meet will instead say “Isn’t that the iPad?” It seems like everyone knows about the thing and can recognize it even if they’ve never seen it. The next question is almost invariably “Do you like it?” Yes, I do, for all that I see the rough edges.

I do wish I’d waited for the 3G model. There aren’t as many wireless hotspots in my area as I’d thought, and where there are hotspots… the iPad’s internal antenna is… quirky. Sometimes it works quite well. Often, it fails to pick up signals that laptops pick up fine. Occasionally it will ping-pong back and forth between strong signal and no signal while you hold it stationary in one spot. When it switches base stations, it interrupts your work with a “Connecting…” message for a second or two. This annoys me, because I have two base stations in the house for coverage. They’re on the same network and have the same SSID. Every other WiFi device I have switches seamlessly between them, but the iPad struggles with it. I hope Apple will release a firmware update that addresses this.

But, although I complain—products can’t improve if people don’t complain—I still love the thing, it’s my constant companion from the time I wake up to the time I sleep, and it’s definitely the future of computing. It won’t replace my desktop computer, but for most of the day it does supplant it.


[Edit: added one of the biggest examples i forgot while drafting this: the JIRA dashboard.]

I’m not particularly fond of Linux. I’ve used it, and it’s good for many things, but as a professional system administrator I prefer Solaris, or FreeBSD, or even Mac OS X (as a UNIX). Why? A great many of the Linux enthusiasts I’ve had to deal with have suffered from what I call Shiny Object Development Syndrome (SODS).

SODS is characterized by a tendency to concentrate on developing new features that are pleasing and attractive to the developer, with a complete disregard to the usefulness, usability, or basic function of the product itself. It is particularly prevalent amongst open-source developers, particularly those who work on obscure Linux distributions.

Developers who suffer from SODS are often heard replying to legitimate user complaints with some variation on “you can fix it yourself if it’s important to you, the source code is available.”

Sometimes SODS infects an entire organization. When this happens to a company with paying clients, symptoms include: refusal to fix longstanding bugs; failure to supply updates to widely-deployed, stable versions when longstanding bugs are finally addressed; issuing updates that break existing functionality such as extensions, plug-ins, or settings.

Terminal company-wide SODS often reveals itself as intractable bugs pile up because the new shiny features beloved of the developers and the marketing department depend upon so much spaghetti code that it becomes impossible to fix all the problems without starting over from scratch. By this stage, the company usually begins to hemorrhage users as the cost of migrating to another platform becomes cheaper than dealing with the SODS-ridden status quo.

A good example of a company full of SODS is Atlassian.

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Some iPad thoughts

On April 6, 2010, in Uncategorized, by Rob Levandowski

My coworker Jack expressed a thought about the iPad that I have had myself a few times over the past few days. While it’s a great too, and does many things well, it is a bit on the large IDE to be one’s constant companion. It would be awesome if Apple released something in between the iPad and the iPhone. Something paperback-sized. Something that would fit in cargo shorts.

I also have a few gripes about the onscreen keyboard. Typing on it isn’t a problem, per se. The thing is the keys that it’s missing.

The worst omission is the apostrophe key. You have to go into a submenu to get that. If you are used to touch-typing, you will find yourself hitting Return a lot when you mean to use an apostrophe. Your alternatives are to learn to type without them (and hope that the autocorreect does the right thing, not always possible with English’s homophones), or press a button to make the keyboard switch to “symbol mode.” That’s quite annoying.

The other problem is that there are no number keys on the main keypad, even in portrait orientation where there is plenty of room to have them.

I’d rather have a smaller visible arrea above the keyboard and have number keys and an onscreen apostrophe.

Maybe the idea is to sell more Bluetooth keyboards…

If someone comes up with a decent iPad case having an integrated Bluetooth keyboard, even if the keyboard is largely rubbish, it will sell like Ames.

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UPS still sucks at tracking

On April 3, 2010, in Doing It Wrong, by Rob Levandowski

If you’ve read my article “The Art of Turboing,” you know that I’ve had run-ins with UPS before. Years ago, they didn’t offer package tracking for ground shipments.

Although UPS has fixed that, the tracking service they offer… Lies.

It lies often.

What’s the point in having package tracking if it’s so unreliable that you can’t trust it?

I know that Apple requested extra security for the iPad rollout. I can understand not wanting to advertise where a shipping depot might have a large number of prerelease iPads. But surely there was a way to do it that wouldn’t cause anxiety for thousands of expectant customers? This reflected badly not just on UPS, but on Apple as well. It seems odd that Steve Jobs, notorious perfectionist, would accept this kind of inattention to detail from a vendor.

My iPad was shipped from China on the 29th of March. UPS quickly showed it making its way to Alaska, and then to Louisville, Kentucky. It then sat there for days. OK, so far nothing too strange.

Of course, that’s the story now. If you had been watching the package’s progress, you would have seen a number of entries related to clearing Customs. They disappeared from the record a few hours after they appeared.

There was one cryptic entry entitled “UPS Internal Activity” that appeared for a brief while before disappearing. The most interesting part about that entry was that it had a timestamp 10 hours in the future.

At least that entry had a local location stamp. That was the only time that the tracked package appeared to move until it was actually delivered to me. As far as I could see, the package was stuck in Kentucky until being magically teleported into my hands.

At least UPS had two employees watching Twitter to reassure all the confused Apple customers.

FedEx gets this right. I don’t understand what’s so hard for UPS that they can’t master package tracking after all these years.

Certainly, if I have a package to send and I want to be able to track it, I’m not going to choose UPS after this experience!

The iPad did arrive safe and sound, eventually. I used it to compose this post.


iPad iPad iPad

On March 15, 2010, in Administrative, by Rob Levandowski

My iPad is on order.  Maybe I’ll post more often once it arrives…

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Weber Grills gets it

On March 15, 2010, in Doing It Right, Recommendations, by Rob Levandowski

I like to grill in the summer.  If it’s not raining, I’m more likely than not making dinner on the grill.  So, a few years ago, my birthday present to myself was a top-of-the-line Weber Summit Platinum D gas grill.

It’s a great grill.  It grills evenly, it has predicable heat, it can sear like nobody’s business and give you beautiful grill marks.

And yes, it cost a lot of money.

Last year, one of the burners no longer wanted to light.  Weber’s instructions include detailed annual-maintenance tear-down instructions.  I found that one of the ignitors had a cracked insulator.  This happens with gas grills; I expected that I just needed an inexpensive part.  It’s the sort of thing that one would consider a “wear item.”

Now, Weber doesn’t have an online store for their spare parts.  You have to email customer service.  Normally, I’d complain about this.

In Weber’s case, though, it seems that customer service usually replies with “that’s covered under warranty.”

They sent me a new ignitor at no charge.

I love this grill.  I do a maintenance every year, taking it apart and cleaning out the burners.  Even with this, two of the burner tubes have clogged up so that they don’t burn evenly any more.  Once again, I emailed Weber to get the price for two new burner tubes.

I didn’t include a serial number or anything.  I just said I needed the price for a burner tube part number such-and-so.

Paraphrasing: Well, Mr. Levandowski, our records show your grill is still under warranty.  How many do you need, and are you still at the same address?  We’ll ship them right out.


There are a lot of companies that are willing to charge you tons of money for a product that’s top-notch when you buy it.  Sadly, it seems like few of those companies are interested in doing anything after they have your money.

Weber isn’t like that.  They understand: I paid top dollar for a top-of-the-line grill.  Even though this is a very durable grill with an impressive warranty, some day I will be in the market for another grill.  Or I will know someone who wants a grill.

When that day comes, I’ll be remembering that Weber didn’t nickel-and-dime me with spare parts — they went out of their way to save me money and keep me happy.

If you’re looking for a gas grill, buy as much Weber as you can.  It will be a good investment.


Customer Communication is Not for Yahoos

On June 9, 2009, in Doing It Wrong, by Rob Levandowski

I wanted to give Pilot Pens some feedback about their G2 pen line.  I like the pens—unlike recent UniBall gel pens, the Pilot G2 doesn’t suddenly stop writing for no apparent reason despite having plenty of ink—except for one small flaw.  The rubber finger-grip area has two small nubs from the molding process, and they’re usually just prominent enough to be annoying.  Nothing that can’t be fixed with a knife in short order, but if Pilot could improve that part of their manufacturing process, it’d be an even better pen.

Good: They have a customer feedback form on their website.  It even lets you fill in all the blanks with the keyboard, instead of being forced to pick up the mouse to select your state.

Bad: Sending in a message via the form gets this reply…

From: To: (omitted) Subject: failure notice  Hi. This is the qmail-send program at I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses. This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out.   <>: failed after I sent the message. Remote host said: 554 delivery error: dd Sorry your message to  cannot be delivered. This account has been disabled or discontinued [#102].  -

Worse: Immediately following up that message with

To: (omitted) Subject: Customer Submission From: Pilot Pen <> X-Mailer: PHPMailer [version 1.73]   Your email has been received and will be responded to shortly Please note our new contact information:  Pilot Consumer Service  3855 Regent Blvd. Jacksonville, FL  32224 Tel. (904) 645 - 9999 Fax (904) 966 - 2974 Sincerely, Your Friends at Pilot Pen

I’m not sure what the worst part of this interaction is:

  • Using Yahoo! Mail for your customer service account after going to the trouble to buy a domain name, especially when you’re an international manufacturing company;
  • Sending an automated message from a third domain ( that sounds more like spam than legitimate mail from a commercial interest;
  • Telling someone who e-mailed you at the contact link you set up that they should write, call, or FAX you instead;
  • Not testing your customer feedback mechanism occasionally to discover it’s massively broken.

The experience sure made me feel less warm and fuzzy about Pilot Pens.


“8 tips for improved turboing”

On February 14, 2009, in Consumer Advocacy, by Rob Levandowski

While egosurfing the other day, I came across an interesting entry at Chris Keane’s blog that links to my Art of Turboing article.

In “8 tips for improved turboing: customer service workarounds,” Chris details a few tips that can help you take turboing to the next level.

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Hollywood’s First Rule

On January 27, 2009, in Doing It Wrong, by Rob Levandowski

Terry Goodkind wrote a pretty good fantasy story some years ago, Wizard’s First Rule. This turned into a book series, The Sword of Truth.  Although the books weren’t all as good as the first—after the fourth one, there were some missteps—the series still told a good, thoughtful tale.  They also told a decidedly mature-audiences tale.

When I first heard that Disney/ABC was developing Wizard’s First Rule into a syndicated TV series, “The Legend of the Seeker,” I wondered how they would possibly handle some of the more, ah, exotic content of the book.

It turns out they handled it the way I had feared: by totally bastardizing the book.

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