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Try Not to Hate Your Customers

A few years ago Atalasoft bought me a Cingular 8525, a phone made by HTC running Windows Mobile 5.  It was the top of the line model at the time and quite a nice phone.  I used it for writing prototype code to see if the mobile market was ready yet for document imaging (at the time, my conclusion was no).  I attended MDC, the Microsoft mobile developer’s conference, to learn more about the space and the future.

I remember attending a session where one of the presenters was talking about some of the main issues with mobile development, not the least was that after the date of purchase, the chances of a user upgrading their firmware is slim to none.  In other words, bug fixes, extensions or new services have to wait for the users to buy a new phone.  I have been thinking about this for a while and what I believe the real reason for this is that the phone manufacturers and the phone vendors hate you.

They don’t just hate you a little bit, they hate you a lot.

For example, I don’t like the contacts list on my phone, but I have a scroll wheel and some understanding of UI, so I thought I’d write an alternate contacts selector using a spinning alphabet selector with proportionally sized letter wedges.  Since WM5 runs Mobile Direct3D, I thought this would be easy, but Direct3D texturing was fundamentally broken on my phone.  This was my consistent experience in trying to develop code on this phone.  I did my best to try to report this bug (and others) to someone who either cared or could get it in the hands of someone who cared.  I was aching for an upgrade, and Windows Mobile 6 was coming out and I could upgrade to that, as promised by AT&T, who had purchased Cingular.  The upgrade arrived late and apparently required the community that cared to send haranguing letters to various people in AT&T.  It would’ve been nice if they sent me a text message about the upgrade.  I mean, a phone is a communication device so couldn’t the actually use it as one?  AT&T sees fit to send me an advertisement of some kind every few months through SMS, but they never let me know about upgrades.

I remembered the upgrade process being pretty scary.  I wanted to refresh my memory by going through the entire process again, so I went to AT&T site, which sent me to HTC’s site.  In going through entirely too many links, I found that the upgrade had been taken off their site.  So if you didn’t know about it (there is no notification process) and didn’t get it, you are totally out of luck.

Fortunately, I kept the installer app that I downloaded two years ago, which is named this:


Yeah, good one.  Next, while the installer runs, I get this:


which dominates your UI for a couple minutes.  I don’t know what it’s really doing and I really have no idea what information it either needs or wants to verify and why it should take so long, but gosh that red message is scary.

Then I get this bit of information when the upgrade utility actually runs:


Check out that red warning there.  Let me translate it for you, “we will destroy the contents of your phone, and we going to make sure you agree to it.”  Oh, and that helpful picture?  It’s not my phone.  It looks like it, and I’d actually like to have the second camera on the front, but it’s not my phone.  I read through the Readme and it is fairly huge.  Buried in there is this gem:

Almost all RUU related errors can be recovered. When an error occurs, the utility will display an error message and provide recovery measures to allow you to continue with the update process. 

Which I suppose is meant to assuage your fears when/if something goes wrong.  The thing is, they don’t spell out what “Almost all” is, what those errors might be, what causes them, how to minimize the chances of them happening and so on.

And FYI, the Direct 3D bug is still there.

So let’s review how many ways I’ve been hated to date:

  1. Buggy software.
  2. Inability to get bug reports to someone who cares.
  3. Inability to get available ROM upgrade in a timely manner.
  4. Inability to communicate this to your customers.
  5. Files named in a way only a computer could love.
  6. Terrifying documentation.
  7. Craptacular upgrade UI.
  8. ROM upgrade that wipes all your data without even attempting to preserve it or even giving me a list of what it is likely to tank.
  9. Generic update not branded to the actual phone.
  10. No archive of old upgrade.

I have no problem with (1).  I write software for a living, therefore I create buggy software.  Everyone who writes software does.  As a result, if there is no process in place for managing bug reports and getting them to developers, (1) will never improve.  If updates aren’t made in a timely manner (1) will never improve.  If ROM upgrade software is written in a way to terrify your users, they won’t go through with it and (1) will never improve.  If you don’t notify your customers when you have important upgrades available (1) will never improve.  If you don’t archive your old versions, (1) will never get better (FYI, we archive legacy versions of dotImage, although quite frankly it could be easier to find them).

AT&T and HTC found 10 ways to say that they hate me.  It’s like they condescended to even release an upgrade at all (which apparently was mainly to take care of the change in daylight savings rules).  They made the upgrade painful and have now made it impossible.   I would also argue that they’re also trying to get me to hate my phone so I’ll buy another one from them.

Now, let’s contrast the iPhone.  Apple traditionally takes a marketing approach where they do a lot to make you want to love what you’ve purchased.  You are special – the packaging says this from the moment you open it. There are 21,000 hits on youtube for “iphone unboxing” and 521 for “htc unboxing”.  What does that tell you?  Apple has succeeded in making the experience feel special enough that thousands of people recorded themselves opening the packaging.

I looked for Apple’s upgrade instructions for iPhone OS 3.0.  They were easy to find:


It’s allegedly four steps (I say allegedly because I haven’t done them), but it’s four friendly, simple steps, most of which are commonplace activities already, whereas in the HTC upgrade software, I’m cautioned about making sure I have at least 50% battery life, have sleep mode turned off on my PC, etc.  Apple has tried to make sure that their customers love the product and want to feel special about upgrading.  AT&T and HTC want me to feel hated and burdened.  Apple wants you to love their product so that you’ll love the next one even more.  AT&T and HTC want me to hate my product so that I’ll (hopefully) buy they next one and hate it less.

Now consider this, according to the Gartner Group, the iPhone market share is up to 10.8%, doubling from the previous year.  HTC’s is also up, but only by 25%, not 200%, but HTC is not the only phone running Windows Mobile.  The thing to take away is that Nokia, which runs Symbian, has lost a ton of market share and they lost more of it to iPhone than to Windows mobile.

I maintain that if a phone manufacturer can at the very least appear benignly indifferent to you as the customer, then they have an immediate competitive advantage over the status quo.  Apple has also found that by selling cheap third party add-on apps they can get their customers excited over their phones every day.

Published Monday, July 13, 2009 11:50 AM by Steve Hawley


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