Monday, February 10, 2014

The law of large numbers (but not what you think)

There is an interesting thing happening these days. I suspect it has been happening for a while now, actually.

With the consolidation of the markets within only a few players, quality of services has slowly eroded.

It used to be that as a customer I was king and that customer service meant something. The company had to provide a solidly engineered product and satisfy certain QA standards. Not anymore!

The products are increasingly complex and layered, with each layer come certain benefits for many but problems for some. When these "some" have a problem, well, they are not so important to the company because they do not represent the majority of the customers. In addition, due to so many layers, it is becoming impossible for a single group of company employees to be in the position to help the clients (so they don't).

This has been evident in many fields. Consider telecommunications. It used to be that we all had land lines. They were fixed (yes, you could have a wireless handset, I know) but they were reliant on REAL wires and unless the wires were physically down, you had reliable service. Losing or "dropping" a call was unheard of.

Enter cell phones. They are convenient, they were advertised as better and more versatile. And they are, for many. The telecoms realized that cell phones are a much bigger market to be mined and decided to kill off the land line businesses themselves. Why not? You can only have one or two landlines per household but people are known to have multiple cell phones AND these cell phones get upgraded all the time. You can get locked into contracts, charged overage fees etc. This field has unlimited earning potential!

However, consider how many calls "suck" in quality, how many times they get dropped and consider that there are quite a few people who still have poor reception in their own homes. For these people a good, old fashioned landline would have been the solution (and no, not all of us get high speed internet where we live so no, we can't talk over the internet). Cell phone networks are vulnerable, less stable and exist in "thin air", especially compared to their landline cousins. But, nobody cares, right?

Let's consider the cloud, the email and other "personality" driven services where we have a few monopolies like Google or Facebook or Apple. Google's services experience problems non-stop. Sometimes your connection to their mail front-end experiences delays. Sometimes you get an email telling you that they discovered that some of your emails got incorrectly classified as SPAM, other times you get logged out of your web browser window because you have another Google account open in the same browser (with no rhyme or reason why this is happening). So on and so on.

Or take Facebook - sometimes you click on a photo and it just takes forever opening and it eventually does not open. It takes five or six clicks on the photo to maybe get it to display.

How about Amazon? You can request to watch a movie online and sometimes it will just spin and spin and spin and after an excruciating delay it will tell you that it cannot load the video (clearly a problem on their side). Sometimes you cannot get the video to load for a while and then all of a sudden you can.

Most of these services are reliable most of the time. However, none of them are reliable ALL the time. They "work", kind of, for, well, most people. But when they don't work, it is a) difficult to figure out why and b) you are just a drop in the ocean and Google honestly doesn't care. Even if you pay them $25/month per user on a Business Google App account.

Take Apple. You can spend $2000 on a Macbook and extra $700 on an iPhone 5S and still have no simple way to move a photo you took on the phone to the new Mac laptop without involving a cord or the Internet or a large app like iTunes. As someone told me recently, I may just be too "old school" and I may not understand what Apple is trying to do but: a) both their devices offer Bluetooth (but cannot be paired for some reason), b) both offer Airdrop but it only works iPhone to iPhone or laptop to laptop (retarded, right?). However, most Apple people just use a) a cord, b) iTunes over wifi or c) the cloud to upload the photo and then an additional round trip to download it to the Mac. And I am dumb? Anyways, the people like me, who think that in the 21st century you should just be able to share stuff between two devices without cords or extra roundtrips or specialized app intermediaries are the minority.

What has happened is that all of these companies have decided to charge you money for a BEST EFFORT approach to providing a service. You pay a subscription or for you pay a monthly fee but so long as things work for the majority of the people majority of the time, things are good. The rest is "washed out", the engineers shrug their shoulders at these things as untraceable anomalies, the sales people get paid anyways and the high level sharks still get their bonuses.

So, to recap: extra complexity, too many layers, nobody cares - the small fish are a wash, they are still making their money (even more) and YOU are the donkey.

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