Why the hell not?

During a recent very difficult time, I was once again given cause to wonder what software designers think they are doing.

The situation was that I had e-mail that I needed to take home and edit and, as I usually do, I exported the messages I needed from Microsoft Outlook at work in the form of an Outlook PST folder. I saved the folder onto a flash disk and took it home where I expected to import the messages into my Outlook Express mail client and do the edits I needed.

hellnot  My suggested new dialogue box!

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PC woes

What a miserable situation! Woke up a few days ago and my PC was dead in the water. The full story will be written as soon as I have something more convenient than my BlackBerry to do it on.

Guru Vaughan, the fixer, assures me that the PC will be back tomorrow. The main problem I’ve been coping with is not the data, which is intact, but my missing bookmarks and website passwords.

I’ll need to work on some solutions for that in future. With that resolution, I come to the end of my first post done from a mobile device.

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A new Windows opens

I see that there has been a study by the universities of Oxford and Oviedo about broadband Internet quality in various countries.

South Africa’s broadband quality is apparently below the international average and considered to be below the level at which it is really practicable to run online applications in any useful way. South Korea has the fastest Internet, with an average speed of 21.85 Mbps and Lithuania, of all places, comes fourth with 13.5 Mbps.

I’m in danger of sounding like a stuck record, so I’ll change subjects quickly to say Windows 7 has finally arrived and we’ll see if it can rescue Microsoft’s reputation which was damaged by the previous version of Windows, First.

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Pernicious pricing policies

Just what is it with this country that our prices on some things are so high?

Regular readers will know that I have referred to this once or twice in the past and what got me going this time, was the visit of an old friend, my oldest in fact, from Canada. He has made a life for himself and his family on Vancouver Island for the last decade and a half.

Our conversations wandered here, there and everywhere, over the course of four or five days, and I couldn’t help building up a picture of his life over there with the significant other, the mother, and three active teenagers sharing a house. Like most other people in cold climates, they spend quite a lot of time indoors each year, and they rely partly on electronics to keep them amused.

Their leisure time is preoccupied with six television sets and four computers, all of which are fed by a fat cable which comes into the house, and provides umpteen TV channels and more Internet bandwidth than you could shake a stick at. My friend, in fact, doesn’t know a how much bandwidth they all use, and he doesn’t care.

Their cable TV and Internet package sets him back CA $130 a month, about R910. When you add to that the fact that local landline calls are totally free, and they can phone South Africa at 6-8 Canadian cents a minute, it is clear that this bandwidth-intensive family is paying less than it costs me, alone, for my television, telephone, and meagre bandwidth allowance.

The college-going teenager has a part-time job, and an Apple iPhone, which he quite easily pays for himself. My friend has a Blackberry with unlimited e-mail, 200 minutes of talk time during business hours, free calls in the evenings and at the weekends, and all for CA $60, R420, a month.

Most readers by now will be nodding their heads and agreeing what swine our service providers are. From experience, however, I know that there will be a percentage of you who are thinking something along the lines of: “Whining again! Doesn’t he know that they have a bigger market than we do?”

Well, it turns out Canada has a population of 33 million people and, although we don’t know exactly how many South Africans there are at this point, SA Statistics’ best guess is that we are currently nearly 50 million.

So the naysayers can stick that in their pipes and smoke it! It’s not a small market we’ve got, so much as one that accepts whatever is dished out to it, and a government that is no help at all.

My friend mentioned that the significant other had just taken delivery of a Mazda 3 motor vehicle and I wondered how our prices would compare with their Canadian ones. A quick look online (and you were wondering where the online bit would come in this week) revealed that a Mazda 3 2.0L. was being offered by a South African dealer at R242,300.

In stark contrast, on Vancouver Island, Pacific Mazda at 1060 Yates Street in Victoria, was offering the same vehicle at $15,995 Canadian dollars, or about R113,000. And if you really want to feel miserable, just take a look at their listing of used cars. How about a black Subaru Impreza 2008 model for CA $16,990, or about R120,000?

To sign out this week, I’ll just repeat my opening question: ‘Just what is it with this country?’

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Some sort of wally

Insomnia is not one of my problems, but I sometimes do lie awake at night and think deep thoughts.

One of the most puzzling issues which occupies my time is the question of where the tendency for South African service to be so shockingly bad came from. It seems that we are a nation that just accepts whatever we are given and, although we may moan about it in private, we let the culprits get away with it.

I had an example last week, where I finally decided to renew cellphone contract, close to a year after it had elapsed. This was on a Monday, and everything went smoothly until the phone had been chosen and the final papers signed.

Then the assistant went and ruined everything by saying that he would put in the order the following day, and that I could probably expect to get my new handset and speakerphone by the Friday. Probably.

This store was selling a product that it didn’t have in stock and, in it’s don’t-give-a-damn business model, was only prepared place an order the following day. Maybe I’m unreasonable, but shouldn’t the aim have been to fill my order as promptly as possible, not to make me fit in with whatever schedule they deem acceptable?

I regularly deal with a store in New York where I can more or less count on getting the goods in my hand, a week after order. Five days (probably) to get stuff from Johannesburg is just unacceptable to me.

Given a little sympathy and understanding, and agreement that perhaps the way things are done is not ideal, I might well have left the order stand and not done anything about it. As it was, the assistant could not begin to understand why I might be annoyed, and clearly believed me to be some sort of wally.

Anyhow, I made him tear up the new contract, and I’ll stick with my el-cheapo handset, with no camera, no colour screen, and whose battery lasts more than a week. Most people would probably not have gone to that length to make their point but, if there were more consumers like me, there wouldn’t be service like that.

The print version of this column mentioned the program Polardroid

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Intimate relations with the stars

Sometimes my heart really bleeds when I read a sad story in the newspapers.

This time it was about some analysts who are predicting that the Internet is approaching full capacity and that, when this happens, things are going to slow down to a crawl. They expect the Internet to suffer brownouts, when nothing seems to be happening, and for computers to be dropping their connections all the time.

The analysts could be right but have certainly overlooked the fact that, here in South Africa, we’ve had those conditions for years. We were years ahead of the US with online banking and now we are also ahead with crappy slow Internet; the same organisation, ironically, being responsible for both of those glorious South African achievements.

In one evening at the computer, preparing for this column, I had to restart my ADSL router twice because it lost its connection and forgot where to find Google, and everything else for that matter. It’s so frustrating but that seems to be our lot as South African consumers.

The same report says that the video sharing site YouTube now uses as much bandwidth by itself as the whole the Internet did in the year 2000. Internet traffic is now measured in exabytes which consist a quintillion (that’s a 1 followed by 18 zeroes) bytes of information. An exabyte is apparently equivalent to about 50,000 years of DVD data and the monthly Internet traffic is currently about 8 exabytes.

Some of this is undoubtedly down to my new and close interest in YouTube, where my latest discovery is an elfin comedienne by the name of Sarah Silverman. She is very funny but to say that her sense of humour is robust, is to be guilty of a gross understatement.

There is a brilliant clip on YouTube in which she appears on her boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel’s late night television show with a music video to show him. She plays guitar and sings that she has been having an affair and that “I’m f***king Matt Damon“, who also appears in the video.

It was so funny I nearly cried and, to top everything, the song is so good that that it won Silverman an Emmy award for outstanding original music and lyrics, and I challenge you to get it out of your head, once you’ve heard it.

And that’s not the end of the story, however, because there is also a music video clip in which Kimmel, with the help of Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Cameron Diaz and a number of other stars, sings that he’s also been having an affair and that “I’m f***king Ben Affleck“.

Kimmel hosts a late-night talk show on the ABC network in the USA and highlights from the show are available on the show’s own channel on YouTube. There’s plenty of interesting and amusing stuff to see there.

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Somebody who isn’t Telkom

By this time you will probably have heard from my colleagues in the daily media that we finally have a competitor to Telkom up and running in parts of Durban.

A group us of went along to the launch just over a week ago where the details of Neotel’s NeoConnect package were revealed to us. The company is offering a voice and Internet connection service via a Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) cellular wireless network.
CDMA is quite similar in concept to the cellphone networks we had already and the data side of the service conforms to the Evolution-Data Optimised (EVDO) standard.

When you sign up for NeoConnect, you get a box containing a biggish phone with an aerial, a USB cord to connect your computer to the phone, and a disc of software to load onto the computer.
Once set up, and the process looks very easy, you can dial any phone in the world, send and receive SMS messages, and connect to the Internet at a theoretical speed of 2Mbps but which will, more likely, turn out to be between 300 and 700Kbps per second.

I had a chance to make a test voice call and it was as clear as crystal, as promised, while the Internet connection looked pretty speedy. A YouTube video played perfectly without the stuttering and starting I experience using Telkom’s service.

The phone can be plugged-into the mains but it does have a battery and, because its wireless, it can be used anywhere in Neotel’s coverage area. It has to be said that the area of coverage is not yet that great but there are gangs digging furiously all over town to extend the network.

If you’re one of the lucky ones and you live in the coverage area, you can order the service online from Neotel’s site at www.neotel.co.za or walk into any PostNet in those areas, and get the kit from them.

You can’t get a voice-only service at the moment so the monthly costs include Internet and range from R399 per month, including the phone and 2,5Gb of data traffic, to R999 per month including unlimited Internet access. The cost of extra Internet bandwidth is eight cents per megabyte if you use more than your monthly allocation.

Some packages include free talk minutes but, even on the basic package, you’re paying fractionally less than Telkom rates for calls to Telkom phones and mobiles. It sounds unlikely, I know, but apparently true that you pay less to phone a Telkom phone from the Neotel network, than you would from a Telkom phone.
The speakers at the launch stressed that the company was paying as much attention to service as it was to pricing, which I found this to be true when I phoned the customer service line. I was quite amazed to be put through to a human being almost immediately and get the information I wanted in only two minutes.

Time will hopefully cure the problem of limited coverage but, even if I lived in a coverage zone, there are a couple of negatives I can see. These include the fact that you can’t talk and surf the Internet at the same time, as with ADSL, and there’s no provision at. present for using a fax machine on the network

I was a little disappointed after calculations showed that I would only save a couple of rand on my monthly phone and Internet bill by switching to Neotel, but I wasn’t too surprised. I’m guessing that they didn’t want to start a price war but at least they are a tad cheaper and, most importantly, are somebody who isn’t Telkom.

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Terrible telco troubles

Last week, I reported that I was about to move to a new house and that I was concerned that I would have no telephone or ADSL connection for the foreseeable future.

The actual move went quite smoothly apart from the heatwave on Sunday and Monday. My computer remained in pieces for quite a few days afterwards because there seemed little point in connecting it up, as I couldn’t use it to communicate anyway.

I did manage to check my e-mail a few times but I missed one important message notifying me of a meeting with a client whom I really don’t want to inconvenience. Being without computer and e-mail was frustrating but I’ll admit that it was quite pleasant, in some ways, to read and watch TV at night with a clear conscience.

I was relieved, after being in the new premises for six days, when Telkom rang up to say that they would be round the following Monday to do the necessary. There was relief but also frustration when the caller couldn’t tell me when on Monday.

I arranged to be free of my and was up bright and early just in case. There was deafening silence until after 9am when a technician phoned to say he’d be over in about half an hour.

He was as good as his word but there was some bad news in that my order had been put through as a transfer and not a new service, as I had intended. I wanted to keep the line at my old place and have an answering machine on it for six months or a year to tell callers my new details.

The techie advised to me to drive in to Telkom’s customer service office in Hillcrest to see what could be done, while he worked his magic on the lines. I was frustrated, but not surprised, to find that I couldn’t get my new phone and ADSL lines that day, and keep my old line.

The best they could offer was a recorded message telling callers my new number but which would only come into effect after 48 hours and would only last for three months. Scared of being shunted to the back of the installation queue, I agreed, but I can tell you that I REALLY hated to have to do so.

I then drove back home and, as usual once the technical guys arrive, the installation went smoothly and I was soon phoning and Internetting away. I was pleased but resentful of the fact that it had taken all that frustration and more than half a day of my time to do the job.

There are many helpful people working for Telkom but they often seem not to be able to obtain a good result for the consumer when it come to other departments in the organisation. There also doesn’t seem to be a mechanism in place to hold staff accountable for mistakes such as, for example, getting my order wrong.

The other problem is that the overall planning for service delivery is not made from the basis that the consumer is king but that we will jolly well take whatever we are given, and be grateful for it.

There is a better way of doing things as I found when I ordered a line from British Telecom (BT) in the wilds of Scotland and was immediately told when installation would take place. The technician arrived dead on time and was gone in half an hour.

The Brits sometimes moan about BT’s service but they have absolutely no idea what bad service is really like. We South Africans, unfortunately, know all too well.

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Having a blue (and Orange) Monday

It does me no good at all to dwell on the difference between the South African Internet experience and that of people in other countries.

In the normal course of events I shut my mind and try to get on with things but every so often, maybe only once or twice a day, I am reminded of the disparities. I was already full of the Monday blues last week, when I happened across the website belonging to UK-based telecommunications provider Orange.

It seems that they have a special this month in terms of which UK locals can save 50% of the monthly fee for the first three months, when signing up for broadband Internet connections. We’re talking unlimited downloads at speeds of up to 8 megabits per second which, even at the regular monthly price of R292 (£19.99), still seems to me like one hell of a bargain.

Included in the contract is a Livebox wireless modem which connects to the Internet via ADSL, and which can be shared by up to six computers with wireless network capabilities. You can also plug a telephone into Livebox and, even if your computer is switched off, you can phone any landline number in the UK and 100 countries around the world for free.

And that’s not all, because you can plug a variety of games consoles into the modem and play your choice of games against other gamers around the world. In the future, users will be able to receive television broadcasts on Livebox, or plug a video camera into it, and monitor the goings on at home from anywhere on the Internet.

Telkom’s starter broadband package is now R199 per month and gives new meaning to the word minimal, offering as it does a theoretical speed of 384kbps, if you’re lucky, and 1Gb of downloads. The Orange offering, at barely R100 a month more, was enough to turn me green at the gills with envy.

On a more cheerful note, I was looking at a computer program on the BBC the other night when they reminded me about a great little free program which I’ve been meaning to mention for a while. CutePDF, from www.cutepdf.com, can be used for converting just about any document into Adobe’s Portable Document Format, so that it can be viewed on any computer by people who don’t have the program you used.

It is very useful to be able convert a Word document before you e-mail it, for example, because the recipient won’t be able to edit it and it will generally be much smaller and easier to e-mail.
There are plenty of programs that you can use to make PDF documents but CutePDF is the only genuinely free one I’ve found because it gives you full functionality and doesn’t try to pester you into paying for an upgrade.

You have to get the CutePDF and Ghostscript from the site and install both on your computer. before you can set to work making PDFs. CutePDF appears on your computer in the list of printers and you can convert a document created in any program by printing your document and choosing it as the printer.

There is an upgraded professional version but the free one will be sufficient for most people.

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