An individual customer rep is not a reliable source

Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve gotten into debates with readers about whether an option I’ve written about exists. Each time, my source has been a company PR contact, against which the reader has cited a sales or support representative who told them otherwise.

Verizon support chatThe first case came up in my Wirecutter guide to wireless carriers (updated today for the iPhone 6!) when I warned readers that Verizon’s otherwise appealing “Single Line Smartphone” plans exclude tethering.

I noted that I’d seen Verizon reps say otherwise (as in the screenshot here), but that I’d gotten the official word from a Verizon spokeswoman and the @VzWSupport Twitter account.

Then I had a commenter on the story report that two different reps had said  tethering was included. Even though that would make zero business sense for VzW–why offer a plan with the same features as one that costs $30 extra?

Next came last weekend’s USA Today column about buying an unlocked iPhone 6. In it, I cited reports from iPhone 6 purchasers and a confirmation from an Apple publicist as proof that the “no-contract” T-Mobile iPhone 6 for sale at Apple’s site is unlocked and can be used with any carrier.

Big surprise: I’ve since had readers saying Apple and T-Mobile reps told them that this phone is locked to T-Mobile. One particularly anxious shopper wrote that he’d gotten that answer from nine different people at Apple and T-Mobile.

Look: I am not the biggest fan of Apple PR, but they have been honest when I ask a yes-or-no question about an Apple product such as “is this phone unlocked?” (That’s going back many years; the staffer who gave me this answer is somebody I’ve dealt with since at least 2008.) Remember, too, that you’ve got firsthand reports from iPhone customers, including several who commented on the USAT piece.

(T-Mobile’s @TMobileHelp Twitter account did chime in, but its reply only mentions the carrier’s own warranty and “premium handset protection”–neither of which should concern you if you’ll use another carrier–and doesn’t actually say the phone sold by Apple comes locked. Apple said nothing in response because it’s apparently allergic to social-media conversations.)

Meanwhile, customer-service and support reps get the story wrong all the time. They think an old policy still applies, they try to make the customer happy, their boss told them something else, they just guess. This happens so often in travel that FlyerTalkers have an acronym for their preferred workaround for getting reps to do something allowed by policy: HUACA, short for “hang up and call again.”

None of this back-and-forth is necessary when companies post the correct answer on their sites. But I shouldn’t complain too much; their failure to do so opens an information inefficiency that I can exploit for profit… and subsequent reader e-mails explaining how they know I got it wrong.

 

Weekly output: Maker Faire, Apple flubs, unlocked iPhones

I should be using this space to go over my weekend at the Online News Association’s conference or what I’m up to this week, but I really just want to talk about seeing Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter at Nats Park today. I’d never seen one before. And in an alternate scenario, I wouldn’t have changed my original flight back from Chicago to United’s 8 a.m. departure, or that painfully-early flight would have been cancelled, and I would have missed the whole thing.

Sometimes it’s worth waking up at 5:15 a.m. on a Sunday to get home.

Yahoo Tech Maker Faire report9/23/2014: Report from Maker Faire: You, Too, Can Be a Maker, Yahoo Tech

Going into this celebration of DIY creativity and culture, I wasn’t sure I’d have a column’s worth of material. I shouldn’t have worried.

9/25/2014: Famous Flubs in Apple History, Yahoo Tech

When an extra review of a smartphone accessory got spiked (PR tip: make sure your client’s gadget works on the reviewer’s phone, lest the reviewer find himself unable to try it out), I had some unexpected free time I could devote to a quick catalog of past episodes of readers and writers alike freaking out over Apple mistakes and mishaps that, in retrospect, were perhaps not so world-ending.

9/27/2014: How to buy an unlocked iPhone 6, USA Today

This column untangling a confusing presentation on Apple’s online store ran a day earlier than usual. The comments feature some useful first-hand reports about activating Apple-sold iPhones on carriers other than those Apple intended–for instance, putting a Verizon iPhone 6 on T-Mobile.

 

Newspaper alumni need the occasional reunion too

CHICAGO–I’m here for the Online News Association’s annual conference, and it’s been pretty great so far. Not necessarily for all the panels and discussions (although they’ve been good too, especially Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile’s explaining how news sites and advertisers need to focus on time spent instead of page views, then Texas Tribune editor Amanda Krauss discussing how changing the “Like” button in their commenting system to a “Respect” button helped elevate the discussion), but for the people.

ONA 14 logo on tote bagThe right and honorable profession of journalism has many virtues, but occupational permanence or even long-term stability isn’t among them. Jobs change, news organizations grow or shrink, and your fellow cubicle farmers may not be there next year. The cubicle farm itself may vanish.

(That lesson is particularly obvious in this city: My walk to the ONA venue takes me past the Tribune Tower, where Sam Zell’s malicious mismanagement sent the newspaper into bankruptcy.)

You can still talk to the people you used to work with on Facebook, Twitter and mailing lists, but sometimes you want to see them in person. Tech events help–I don’t miss going to Apple product launches because of the chance to inspect a new iPhone under tightly-controlled conditions, but because they let me catch up with tech-journalism pals–but ONA is fantastic for reconnecting with old Post colleagues.

We run into each other, we ask what we’re up to now, we share our recollections of horrible CMSes, we trade tips about travel and technology, we talk about our families… and I love realizing that we’ve found happiness in our post-newspaper lives.

I’ve also run into some current Posties here, who seem much more content than many of us were when we left: The Jeff Bezos money has ended a long and seemingly unending cycle of staff cuts and started paying for hiring and travel on a scale unimaginable back then. That’s good to see too.

Weekly output: cell-phone lane, iPhone 6 pricing, wireless carriers, Moto 360, iOS app bandwidth

NEW YORK–I spent two fascinating days here checking out Maker Faire (and catching up with some old friends), and now it’s time to head home. Make that, 16 minutes ago was the time to head home, except my train is late. Yay, travel.

9/15/2014: Chinese cellphone lane inspired by D.C., WTOP

The post I did for Yahoo Tech about a mock cell-phone lane on a D.C. sidewalk was back in circulation after a city in China staged a similar exercise, so WTOP quizzed me about what I’d seen earlier this summer.

Yahoo Tech iPhone 6 pricing plans9/16/2014: iPhone 6 Plans Compared: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, Yahoo Tech

This column was about 50 percent shopping advice, 50 percent a desperate plea to the wireless carriers (T-Mobile excepted) to simplify their offerings. As one heading from the story cried out: Why, Sprint, why?

I know some of you wanted me to offer guidance about family-plan deals for the iPhone. We didn’t have room for that in this piece, but I did file an update to my Wirecutter guide to wireless service with that info and much more; it should be up soon.

9/17/2014: The Best Wireless Carriers Today, Tested.com

Speaking of, I wrote a condensed version of that guide, complete with updates to account for iPhone 6/6 Plus pricing, that the site’s syndication partners could run. Tested.com posted its version on Wednesday… and tonight the link is coming up 404. Not sure what happened there.

9/19/2014: Moto 360: A round smartwatch not yet ready to roll (review), VentureBeat

This review had an amazingly short gestation time compared to some of the things I’ve written: I started it on the train up from D.C. late Friday morning, and it was up by mid-afternoon. That’s a great feeling.

9/21/2014: Check it: Which iPhone apps are data hogs?, USA Today

I was mostly done reporting a different Q&A column when I discovered that I’d covered almost the same topic last summer. (Oops.) Fortunately, I had this idea as a backup; unfortunately, I left out one step in the tip about iOS 8’s per-app battery-usage data, so we had to update the story this afternoon to fix that.

Speaking of column updates, we also revised the prior weekend’s column to add a couple of paragraphs explaining the NFC-mobile-payment app Softcard’s hitherto under-documented security options.

Your con-call invitation isn’t as enticing as you think

I enjoy talking shop, but not so much when I first need to call a toll-free number, punch in a four-to-six-digit code, press the pound key, speak my name after the beep and be dumped into a cybernetic void in which I must wait to hear the sound of another human voice.

Con-call invite from OutlookNo, I’m not a fan of conference calls. Part of that is a common rationale–they allow a PR minder to be on the line and make sure nobody says anything too compromising–but, really, most of it is the exasperating user experience.

That starts with the con-call invitation, which inexorably arrives on my Mac as a blank e-mail consisting only of a “Mail Attachment.ics” file. OS X’s Quick Look won’t reveal its contents, so I must open it in Calendar to see that it contains the number, con-call code and time that should have been in the e-mail itself.

Make me open another program to see what you’re talking about in your e-mail? No.

To judge from the headers of these messages, this is a Microsoft Outlook-transmitted social disease–sending a calendar invitation from inside that sprawling program must not offer the sender any hint of how it will be displayed to a recipient. In my case, it’s badly: Not only does Mail for OS X throw up its hands, the Gmail app for Android doesn’t even show this file.

(And yet Mail for iOS displays a nifty calendar widget for those invitation messages. Apple’s inability to keep its desktop mail client at feature parity with its mobile mail client is a subject for a future rant.)

After the aforementioned routine of punching in numbers and waiting for a response, I often face an extra challenge in con-calls with more than one executive, or in which the publicist and the executive are of the same gender: figuring out which of two or three white guys is speaking at any one time.

And have I mentioned that this is the tech business? There are good, Web-based conference systems that let you connect by clicking a link and then make it easy to tell who’s there and who’s talking. I’ve used UberConference and it was terrific; I hear great things about Speek but haven’t used it yet (note that a friend works at that D.C.-based startup); video chat through apps like Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Vidyo or Rabbit works too, as long as I tidy up the parts of my home office within camera view.

And yet when a company wants to talk up its technological prowess, we must jack into the AOL chat room of group voice communication. PR friends, if your client insists on that routine, can you at least do me a favor and dial my phone directly before patching me into the call?

Weekly output: iPhone upgrades, iPhone 6 cases, safer retail payment options

Although I was out in the Pacific time zone this week, I didn’t go to Cupertino for Apple’s event Tuesday. I was in Las Vegas instead for CTIA’s Super Mobility Week trade show–but most of the writing I did there was not directly related to the show. It’s been a strange and tiring week, and made more so by the last piece I filed.

9/9/14: Don’t Be That Person Who Buys a New iPhone Every Year, Yahoo Tech

My contribution to Yahoo Tech’s new-iPhone coverage was this column questioning the financial wisdom and basic judgment of rushing to buy a new iPhone, at a real cost of $650 and up, every year. What I didn’t know when I wrote this Monday evening was just how confusing three of the four major wireless carriers could make their iPhone 6 deals–and you may see more about that from me soon.

Yahoo Tech iPhone-cases post9/12/2014: iPhone 6 Cases: The Best-Guess Editions, Yahoo Tech

This is the one story to emerge from all the notes I took in Vegas: a look at how case vendors found it so easy to get advance access to specifications about the size and shape of the iPhone 6 that they could promise to have compatible cases available when that device goes on sale Friday.

9/14/2014: Home Depot breach lesson: Safer payment options, USA Today

This was a worthy topic poorly executed. I didn’t take advantage of chances to quiz mobile-payment experts in person while I was at CTIA’s show, then latched on too readily to one source’s finding of fault in the Softcard NFC-payment service (until recently known by the terrorism-tarnished moniker “Isis”); another expert had made the same critique and it seemed to match Softcard’s public documentation, but Softcard says it ain’t so. And I managed to take my time getting this iffy column to my editor; I filed it after 6:30 on Friday, which even in her West Coast workday is way too late for a story not based on breaking news. Gah!

You know what would have been a better-grounded way to close out the column than a digression about this in-the-weeds issue? A simple reminder that paying with the device-independent, offline-enabled medium known as “cash” also leaves no traceable link to your bank or credit-card accounts.

Halfway around the world in less than two weeks

I racked up 13,686 miles in the air over the last two weeks–with about 21 hours on the ground between each trip–and yet the experience didn’t physically destroy me as I expected. Color me pleasantly surprised.

Thinking of homeThe stage for this exercise in propping up the airline industry was set last January, when the wireless-industry group CTIA announced that it would consolidate its two annual conventions into one and run “Super Mobility Week” in Las Vegas right after IFA.

I tried not to think about the scheduling until this summer, and then I gulped and booked my tickets: Dulles to Berlin via Munich and returning through Heathrow, then National to Houston to Vegas and back.

The flying was actually pretty good. The perhaps embarrassing amount of time and money I’ve spent on United paid off when I could use an upgrade certificate to fly across the Atlantic in business class on a flight going as far east into Europe as feasible.

Not to sound like every other travel blogger, but the lie-flat seat really is one of commercial aviation’s better inventions. I slept sufficiently well on the way to Munich that on waking, I momentarily wondered where I was. That rest, followed by being able to shower and change out of slept-in clothes at Lufthansa’s lounge in Munich, helped me feel human again sooner than usual; instead of napping that afternoon in Berlin, I wrote an extra column for Yahoo about Apple’s iCloud security breach.

I almost fell asleep at dinner that evening and then had one obnoxious night when I woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep for another hour or two, but that was about the end of my adaptation to Central European Time. And then an exceedingly rare, free “operational upgrade” at the gate bumped me from an oversold economy section into business class for the return. (Thanks, United!)

Even with a great nap on the way home, I could barely type a sentence in one try by the time I fell asleep in my own bed after 11 p.m. that night–5 a.m. CET. But I zonked out for seven hours straight, woke up feeling fine, walked our daughter to her pre-school (a big reason why I didn’t book a direct but early flight to Vegas), did a few chores and then headed off to the airport.

I was a bit of a zombie on the first flight, but from then on the jet lag was only slightly worse than on any other trip to the West Coast.

Flying home on Sept. 11So apparently I can function on that kind of schedule.

But over the last two weeks, no amount of frequent-flyer travel hacking could stop a lot of things from slipping. Back at home, the lawn grew untidy and the vegetable garden became a mess. I couldn’t use my ticket to an exciting Nats game.

On my own screen, I gave up keeping up with my RSS feed after a week; it’s probably now groaning under the weight of 2,000 unread Apple-related items.

Even without companies committing any major news in Vegas, my ability to fulfill my regular obligations decayed to the point that I filed today’s USA Today column on Friday evening. That should never happen with a non-breaking story, especially not when that haste apparently results in an avoidable error in a piece.

This post, in turn, was something I’d meant to write Saturday.

And I missed my wife and my daughter something fierce when I had to say goodbye to them twice in six days.

Next year, CTIA’s show will again follow IFA by a day. Should I once again fly more than half the circumference of the Earth in less than two weeks? That will require some careful thought.