Call & re­sponse Ver­i­zon users get wish

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - ROB PEGORARO robp@wash­post.com

Tues­day morn­ing fea­tured a some­what fa­mil­iar spec­ta­cle in the technology busi­ness: con­sumers fi­nally get­ting what they wanted.

But this time, the sight of a tech com­pany grant­ing its cus­tomers’ wishes af­ter a long wait re­ceived more no­tice than usual.

In­stead of the stan­dard re­cep­tion for a smart­phone ar­riv­ing on an­other wire­less car­rier — a few sto­ries by trade pub­li­ca­tions and en­thu­si­ast sites — Ver­i­zon Wire­less’s an­nounce­ment that it would sell a ver­sion of Ap­ple’s iPhone 4 was greeted with a storm of pub­lic­ity that in­cluded a spot on “ The Daily Show.”

This was an in­or­di­nate level of at­ten­tion, even fac­tor­ing in reader in­ter­est in any­thing Ap­ple-re­lated.

But did it go be­yond in­or­di­nate to in­sane? Maybe not, when you look at the many other items on tech users’ wish lists.

We can be a de­mand­ing bunch when it comes to ask­ing for up­grades. Be­cause man­u­fac­tur­ers and de­vel­op­ers rou­tinely de­liver things pre­vi­ously thought im­pos­si­ble — or not even imag­ined — and make these prod­ucts bet­ter with soft­ware and ser­vice up­dates, they’ve taught us to ex­pect fre­quent wish fulfillment fol­lowed by con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment.

When these com­pa­nies fail to de­liver on that im­plicit bar­gain, it be­comes all the more mad­den­ing.

Here’s a rough hi­er­ar­chy of those tech needs and how en­rag­ing it can be to have them go un­met.

At the very bot­tom come re­quests to fix a prob­lem in an ex­ist­ing prod­uct, most of­ten a se­cu­rity flaw in a pro­gram. We shouldn’t have to ask ven­dors to close vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that could get our com­put­ers hacked, but it hap­pens. A lot. For ex­am­ple, Ap­ple didn’t close a se­cu­rity glitch in its Sa­fari browser re­ported this sum­mer un­til Novem­ber. Mi­crosoft took not months but years to ad­dress ma­jor se­cu­rity is­sues in its In­ter­net Ex­plorer browser.

You can and should be an­gry about that sort of de­lay.

Then come pe­ti­tions to add a fea­ture to an ex­ist­ing prod­uct. Some of the ad­di­tions we de­mand should be easy for de­vel­op­ers to ful­fill and some aren’t, but the time they re­quire may bear no cor­re­la­tion to the dif­fi­culty of the work in­volved.

For ex­am­ple, Google didn’t add time-zone sup­port to Google Cal­en­dar un­til De­cem­ber, more than 31/ years af­ter that Web

2 ap­pli­ca­tion de­buted with­out this ba­sic ca­pa­bil­ity.

If you think that’s ir­ri­tat­ing, con­sider what hap­pens when open-source soft­ware devel­op­ment — in which any­body can in­spect and re­vise a pro­gram’s source code, en­sur­ing no one com­pany can hold up progress — also fails to de­liver a de­sired up­grade. The Mozilla Thun­der­bird e-mail pro­gram didn’t get a sim­ple, needed fea­ture for its ad­dress book un­til five years af­ter a com­plaint about it showed up in its bug-track­ing data­base.

We face steeper odds when we ask com­pa­nies to bring prod­ucts to new plat­forms and mar­kets — for ex­am­ple, re­quest­ing that a de­vel­oper write an iPhone ver­sion of a pop­u­lar An­droid ap­pli­ca­tion, or vice versa. That means a great deal more work and risk for the com­pany in ques­tion, which has to take po­ten­tial cus­tomers at their word that (a) they ex­ist and (b) they will put down their credit cards when they have an op­por­tu­nity to do so.

If you’re on the other end of the con­ver­sa­tion, there’s lit­tle to do but re­sent your un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated sta­tus, un­til you give up on wait­ing and take your busi­ness else­where.

In many of these sit­u­a­tions, we can take ac­tion on our own when com­pa­nies won’t. You can add a missing func­tion to a pro­gram with a third-party soft­ware plugin or patch, or tinker with un­doc­u­mented ap­pli­ca­tion set­tings.

Des­per­ate users will go to fur­ther ex­tremes, such as “jail break­ing” an iPhone to use it on an­other ser­vice com­pat­i­ble with AT&T’s GSM wire­less technology or “root­ing” an An­droid phone to get rid of un­wanted apps pre­in­stalled by a car­rier.

( You don’t need to par­take in these ac­tiv­i­ties to ben­e­fit from them; the ef­forts of tin­ker­ing types can have a pow­er­ful ef­fect on com­pa­nies smart enough to rec­og­nize free mar­ket re­search and prod­uct test­ing when they see it.)

Man­u­fac­tur­ers have taught us to ex­pect fre­quent wish fulfillment fol­lowed by con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment.

But some­times, there’s noth­ing you can do but beg, plead or ca­jole, as dispir­it­ing and de­mor­al­iz­ing as that gets. That’s ex­actly what hap­pened with the iPhone: Only Ap­ple could bring its smart­phone to Ver­i­zon, since even a jail­bro­ken AT&T iPhone could not be taught Ver­i­zon’s in­com­pat­i­ble CDMA sys­tem.

And yet noth­ing hap­pened, even as AT&T’s is­sues — from a fre­quently over­loaded net­work to its fail­ure to sup­port such new iPhone fea­tures as multimedia mes­sag­ing on a timely ba­sis — made the use­ful­ness of a choice of iPhone car­ri­ers that much more ob­vi­ous.

( Yes, some iPhone users have had no prob­lem with AT&T and are happy to tes­tify to that. But in my ex­pe­ri­ence with re­view iPhones, com­plaints about AT&T’s net­work seemed well founded: The model I took to the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show in Las Ve­gas last week could most pos­i­tively be de­scribed as “dec­o­ra­tive.”)

Ap­ple’s ex­clu­sive ar­range­ment with AT&T dragged on for 31/

2 years — about three years longer than many smart­phone ex­clu­sives — and out­lasted nu­mer­ous pre­dic­tions of its demise.

But it’s over. The wait has ended for all those would-be iPhone buy­ers. Now the rest of us get a long-awaited up­grade of our own: We no longer have to hear iPhone users go on and on about how they’re stuck with one choice for ser­vice.

JULIE JA­COB­SON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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