AT&T iPhone 6 Pre-Order “Bait & Switch”

Wavered on whether to pre-order a new iPhone 6, or just wait, but in the end I thought I would pre-order. When I got to the AT&T site, they were still reporting delivery dates of “on or around” September 19 for the iPhone 6, though only for the 128GB model. I went ahead and ordered one and thought everything was set.

Then, early this morning (around 3am PDT), I saw a tweet telling me how to check my order status, so I did. Much to my surprise, rather than the September 19 estimated delivery date I had seen when I clicked the order button, the AT&T site was saying October 13 – October 31. That’s almost a whole month later than they promised. Had they said that on their site when I ordered it, I would have ordered it from Apple (who even today are saying the first week of October), and I would probably have stuck with the 64GB which was my first choice.

No problem, I thought, since it is 4-6 weeks out I can just cancel the order and either try my luck at a store on Friday or order from Apple. So I called the number on the web page, waited 25 minutes to speak to somebody, only to be told she couldn’t cancel the order. I asked for a supervisor, and waited another 5-10 minutes. When he came on the line, he said it was impossible to cancel the order because it was at the warehouse being packed. Really? What do they do to these people to make them believe it takes 4-6 weeks to pack a phone in a box? Of course it is not at the warehouse being packed. It is still an electronic order awaiting devices to arrive to be fulfilled. And they don’t expect those for several weeks. So canceling the order is not impossible at all.

Twitter Support

The normally responsive Twitter support team also seem to be totally ignoring me this morning. I have tweeted to them and even sent them direct messages, but still not a peep back. Amusingly, Verizon responded faster than AT&T!

Perhaps it is time to just take my business to a carrier that does care. It seems clear that AT&T don’t care, and neither can they operate an online business. Bad enough that they advertise one delivery date, and then shift it by a month after the order is placed, but to not have a way to easily cancel a pre-order is ridiculous. Perhaps I should call American Express and dispute the charge for the taxes on the phone – I suspect they’d be able to cancel the order then.

Canceled Orders

Then I started seeing replies to other people on Twitter with iPhone 6 order issues, and to be honest it looks like AT&T were totally unprepared for people to order this phone. Was it really a surprise to them that lots of people would be pre-ordering it? Haven’t they done this before?

Some Examples From Twitter

(At least they received a reply from AT&T – I have had no response at all. Apparently I am on some kind of no response list.)

Crowd Funding Update

Over the last year or so I have only backed a few crowd funded projects, several on Kickstarter and several on IndieGoGo. There has always been a lot of confusion around what these platforms offer, and many people who sign up for something wrongly assume they are buying something at a discount price. What you are doing when you sign up to back one of these projects is exactly that. You are essentially investing in an idea. Unlike more conventional investments where you typically get some form of equity, in the case of these two sites what you get is a reward, but only if the project is successful.

To help set people’s expectations, here’s an update on the few projects I have backed that actually reached their funding goals and started (note to IndieGoGo users: beware of projects using the model where they get whatever funds they raise even if the goal is not reached – that might mean they lack the funds to actually deliver anything).

Pebble Smartwatch – DELIVERED

Probably one of the best known crowd funding projects, and I believe the first breakout success raising far more than their initial goal, the Pebble Smartwatch project was successful and delivered their product. They were late however: estimated in September 2012, I actually received the reward in March 2013 (six months late).

Since then they have gone on to launch a second range of products (which I bought from their website), as well as selling their initial watch through both online and brick and mortar stores. Overall, a very successful outcome for them and a mostly successful product (it still has some bugs, but mostly related to iOS limitations I suspect).

Lima

Next on the list is a project to deliver a small device that connects a USB hard drive to your home network, and from there to the internet. The project was due to ship in April 2014, and still has not done so. At this point they claim to be shipping early beta units to those who volunteered to test it. I have not seen an updated delivery date in a while.

You can read more about their product at meetlima.com, but essentially their idea is that all your content should be available on all your devices. Cloud storage, but hosted on a drive you own.

Lono

Lono is a smart, connected sprinkler controller. Designed to give sprinkler controllers both remote control over the internet but also improve what has to be one of the worst user interface ever designed. Lono was meant to ship in March 2014, but still has not done so. The latest estimate is September 2014 (which, if they keep to it, would be six months late).

I have high hopes for this one as I would love to replace the crazy controller that our builder installed with something a little more high tech. It also connects one more aspect of the house to the internet.

Giroptic 360° HD Camera

My most recent, and largest crowd funding investment to date, is a 360 degree camera called Giroptic from a team in France. The Kickstarter page explains more about what the project is, but in essence it is a camera that can take full 360 degree photos in a single shot, as well as capture full 360° video.

Perhaps the best way to see what this means is to install one of their apps which are already in the stores (iOS, Android) and look at the sample videos and photos. Their estimated delivery date is November 2014; we’ll see how close to that they get – ramping up for production seems to be where many of these projects run into trouble.

 ParaShoot

Another camera project, this one had a rough start, raising a lot of money on Kickstarter only to be suspended at the last minute with little explanation from Kickstarter as to why they did so. The project then moved to IndieGoGo where it was successful in getting funded.

Originally due to be delivered in December 2013, the project is still on-going. The most recent update (within the last week) included a link to a pre-release unit review from one of the backers who opted to get a pre-release unit early. Those were originally expected in November 2013, so the project is 8-9 months late at this point.

Gecko – DELIVERED

My other IndieGoGo hardware project, the Gecko project provides Bluetooth low energy tags that can be used in a number of different ways. The tags act as virtual leashes, letting you know when they are too far from your smartphone, gesture controllers (shake them to trigger things), a remote motion sensor and, if you have a compatible camera, they can be used as a remote shutter release for you camera (with an additional adapter).

The project was due to deliver in January 2014, and my two Gecko tags arrived a few days ago (7-8 months late).

Preventing “Forgotten Baby” Deaths

Maybe being a father of a couple of young kids, one of whom is still riding in the rear facing infant car seat makes the recent stories of babies dying when they were accidentally left in the car all day when their parent (apparently most often their father) forgets to drop them at the day care in the morning worse, but it strikes me there ought to be something that technology can do to make this less likely. 

Low Tech Ideas

I read about the shoe trick the other day, and while it is clever, I don’t see it being foolproof. The one day you are rushing you will forget to place the shoe in the back too, and those are the most likely days you will forget the baby. Not to mention that it relies on you driving an automatic car. Those with a clutch pedal, will probably want to keep their left shoe on as well while driving.

Similar ideas exist using bags, or other items you are likely to remember, but realistically I think they all suffer from the same flaw, that they will be forgetten on the days when they are most needed.

I am also mystified why day care places don’t call to find out where their charges are when they don’t arrive on time and they haven’t been told not to expect them that day (I should actually check what my toddler’s preschool would do if he didn’t turn up and we hadn’t called to let them know).

Finally, for the low tech options, I read another suggestion that doesn’t rely on the day care place calling, but instead just has the parent who drops the kid off call (or I guess text if you prefer) their spouse to confirm the drop off. If the spouse doesn’t get the message at the expected time they can call to find out why.

A High Tech Idea

I have this little red low energy Bluetooth (BLE) device at home that is a demo/developer device for the Texas Instruments BLE chipset contained within it. This little gadget comes with a number of features that would be useful for building a baby seat alarm.

The basic idea is simple:

The device beacons continually indicating whether or not it detects a baby in the car seat. Any nearby BLE device can hear those beacons and will be able to react to them.

The parent either has an app on their BLE enabled smartphone (all recent iPhones and most, if not all, recent Android phones have support for this) that can listen for these beacons, or they have a complementary BLE gadget on their car keys that is paired with the baby sensor.

Now the clever part. One feature of the BLE spec is the ability to determine the approximate distance between the two devices. If the parent unit (app or key fob), detects the distance between it and the beaconing car seat increasing while the seat is occupied it can sound the alarm. Immediately reminding the parent that the child is still in the car seat.

Sensing the Child

There are baby seat alarms already on the market, but a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in July 2012 found none were that reliable. The devices in the study that sensed the child were mostly based on either a pressure pad under the car seat cushion, or a replacement chest clip for the car seat’s restraint. One was using carbon dioxide sensors integrated into the car to sense a breathing baby (or animal) left in the vehicle.

The pressure pads all suffer from being able to move, or having the child move off of them by shifting in the seat. The clips seem like they should be better but in the NHTSA testing seemed to have problems staying synchronized with the parent module. Also, as the report indicates, not all the deaths are from children in car seats. Some are from children who climb into the car themselves to play and then get stuck inside.

The TI Sensortag contains an array of sensors, most of which are irrelevant for this application (barometer, gyroscope etc). But, there is an IR temperature sensor behind that opening in the front of the device which functions a bit like the IR motion sensors username alarm applications. If the sensor is positioned where it can “see” the child, the IR sensor should be usable to indicate the presence of the child in the seat. The parent app can then arm itself and alert when it moves too far from the seat sensor.

Just an idea, and clearly it needs a little more experimentation and even a prototype. And then I think it would make an awesome Kickstarter/IndieGoGo crowd funded project.

An Alternative

If the IR sensor proves to be too difficult to make reliable, there is perhaps a simpler option: a tag bracelet that the baby wears and another that stays in the car. When the phone sees both tags, it arms. When the baby is dropped off, there will be a period of time when it sees just the baby tag, and then just the car tag again. If it starts moving away from the car tag and the baby tag at the same time, it can sound the alarm.

To avoid forgetting the baby tag, the app can also alert the user when it sees the car tag and not the baby tag; forcing the parent to confirm that the baby is not in the car for this trip before they set off.

United In-Flight Entertainment

Two planes, two different in flight entertainment systems, and two completely different experiences. On the way from San Francisco to Houston last week our flight was on a new 787 Dreamliner. Today’s return (where I am writing this) is on what appears to be a relative new 737. The in flight entertainment systems on the two aircraft were completely different.

Dreamliner

The 787 is obviously designed as an international route aircraft, and its in flight system was filled with a great selection of movies, new and old, as well as TV programs. While there was also audio, I did not check that out on our flight.

The large seat back touch screens made for a very simple selection process and there was no fee for any of the programming, or the flight information/map. There was also a USB power outlet right there under the screen in case you needed to charge anything up (as well as 110VAC outlets between the seats).

The only real negatives I have for the system were the headphone jack being located under the screen instead of in the armrest, leaving the wire permanently in the way, and the lack of any tilt option left the screen at an angle when the person in front reclined their seat. It was still viewable at that angle unlike some of the earlier seat back screens which suffered from very limited viewing angles.

B737 DirecTV

The system on today’s 737 is a DirecTV one. As on the Dreamliner, there are reasonably large seat back screens, which tilt in this case, but they are not touch screens. The controls are located in the arm rest. In addition to a range of DirecTV satellite TV (live), there were also a handful of current movies and an in flight map channel on the system.

Unlike the Dreamliner system though, this one would have cost us around $8 to enable for our almost 4 hour flight (over $2/hour). There is a discount for enabling three or more screens, but still that is an expensive option for some in flight TV. Even more bizarre, the map is not available unless you pay the fee either; only the United Welcome channel, essentially a stream of ads, is available without payment.

The other negative, and I can only assume they never tested this system with real passengers, is that the controls have been inexplicably installed on the top surface of the armrest, almost exactly where my elbow rests. That means I am frequently pressing one of the buttons on the controller. While having the controls on the side of the armrests is not idea from the perspective of people seeing them, placing them on the upper surface of an armrest is even worse. The controls themselves are tiny, and could easily have been located next to the screen where they would be simple to use and not vulnerable to accidental elbow presses.

We do also have power outlets located between the seats on this aircraft, though no USB outlet under the screen, so you’ll need to pack the USB charger too if you want an in flight refueling for your electronics.

Everybody Needs a Nudge Occasionally

For many a journey is about the destination. If ever there was proof that the destination is not really the main point though it is the journey called life; the destination of that particular journey is far from its highlight. Indeed, most of us would like that particular ETA to be as far out as possible.

Waypoints

This weekend I have been away from home, suffering in the heat of Texas (although from what I can tell Alameda was not much cooler) to attend a high school graduation ceremony. While that might seem like the destination of a kid’s school life, not to mention a more meaningful transition from child to adult than perhaps the 18th birthday that almost always predates it, really it is just another waypoint in a much longer journey. The day’s ceremony, and the parties after it, represent something of a stop over on their journey, but when they (eventually) wake up the next day, the unrelenting journey of life continues.

Early Arrival

Tonight I was surfing social networks looking for things to read, when I chanced upon a retweet that almost brought tears to my eyes. Tapping into the author’s stream revealed an outpouring of emotion that I am not sure I could ever send to Twitter, about something that every parent would dread: losing a child. I don’t know the author of those tweets, I don’t even follow him on Twitter (I saw his tweet as a retweet), but I immediately felt for him and his family’s loss. I cannot even begin to imagine what that must be like; I just know his words, limited to tweet-length bursts, touched a nerve.

Nudge

So, how does any of that fit with the title of this post? On Saturday, at the graduation ceremony, it occurred to me that I have another 15 years before the little boy lying here next to me as I write this will be in that same place. That seemed like a long time while sitting there, but reading those tweets tonight reminded me that the graduation ceremony was not important; being present, and being a real part of those 15 years was.

This year, more than ever before, I really want to get to a place where I am not missing any of their growing up. Of course, the challenge there is also being able to provide for them, but solving problems is perhaps my strongest skill, and that seems to me, at least at 3am here in Texas as I struggle to sleep in the heat, like a problem well worth solving. Maybe those tweets were just the nudge I needed; though I still wish they had never needed to be written. RIP Rebecca.

PostScript

More than any, one tweet in the stream, and the photo attached to it, kept tugging on my heart:

Toddler Book: B Is For Bulldozer

Purchased at the same time as My Truck Is Stuck, B Is For Bulldozer by June Sobel & Melissa Iwai, also made it into the nightly reading list on a regular basis for our little boy.

Cleverly designed such that each page represents a letter of the alphabet, the book describes the construction and opening of a new theme park. Most of the time the rhyming works well, and this book was also a firm favourite.

Adult Opinion

Personally, while I like the overall concept, the title is a little misleading (the bulldozer only appears on the one page!) and I think the highlighted letter for each page is totally lost on our little one right now. 

Again, I would give this a three star rating if it wasn’t for the number of times it was requested by our little boy for his evening reading. So, on the basis of that, I think it too gets a four star rating.

Pebble Update

A couple of updates on my communications with Pebble about the audio interference, especially the A2DP but also the handsfree interference (which makes handsfree calls in my car near impossible most of the time).

I also get a response to a tweet about Pebble not really being ready for mass consumer use:

@bluedonkey We're proud of our approach. Shooting to be the best wearable out there.

I am happy that they are shooting to be the best, but I still don’t think they are quite there yet (and to be honest the recent versions have been going backwards IMHO).

Battery Issue
The latest on the battery issues I am seeing with the latest firmware came in the form of this email from their support team:

The logs I referenced were from 1 charge cycle, which did not reveal the substantial drop in battery life that you experienced in the aforementioned charge cycles.

Since we’ve verified the issue, let’s get you Pebbled again as soon as possible!

To make sure I fill out your Replacement Authorization with the correct information, could you please confirm the following:

Please also include a picture of the back of your Pebble with the Serial Number clearly shown and “Case # 239312 ” written beneath it on a slip of paper.

Once you have confirmed the above, I will fill out your Replacement Authorization and get you set up with a new Pebble!

So, aside from the fact that seeing one charge cycle that looked OK was enough for them to dismiss the issue initially (even though the report clearly stated that the battery issue was somewhat random), now their answer is to swap the hardware without any explanation. Since the watch is clearly operating normally, and some of the time has a very acceptable 10% per day battery consumption rate, I don’t see this being hardware. Seems far more likely that the problem is a software issue with something getting stuck in a state where the radio is on more than it should be.

Audio Issues
On the audio issues, I am not getting far either. The best response I got was to the update I sent their support organization with two 30 second samples recorded from an external Bluetooth speaker with and without the Pebble connected to the phone too:

With Pebble Connected:

Without Pebble Connected:

The drop outs you hear in those happen on all the A2DP playback devices I have tried so far, and only with the latest firmware (previously music playback to Bluetooth devices was fine). That got this reply from support which I take as progress:

Thank you for your e-mail and demonstration. The engineers have been made aware of this issue and are working on a fix for future updates.

I should probably try to record some samples of a phone call too so that they can hear how bad that is (it is much worse than the A2DP).

Pebble Battery Life

Given how random my Pebble’s battery life can be these days,I thought I would extract the battery level information from the logs they keep (tip: if you want to see these, just start the process to generate a support request but when the email editor opens change the recipient to your own address before sending).

The graph is quite telling:

That is a little over 6 days worth of data and clearly shows periods where the consumption is far faster than it should be to allow for several days of battery life. The last two days, I have had to charge the watch every night or risk having it run out mid way through the day (and I don’t want to carry the charging cable with me everywhere I go).

The most recent firmware was meant to address the crazy power consumption issue, but it looks from this chart as though their fix doesn’t change anything.

Pebble: Still Not Ready

Sadly, I have to say the Pebble smart watch is still not ready for general use. There are still too many bugs in the firmware, and too many limitations for it to be acceptable to anyone outside of the early adopter crowd. Even a year after they initially shipped.

In the early days, the regular firmware updates seemed to improve things. Unfortunately, the most recent updates seem to have made things worse. 

Battery Issues

The new stainless steel watches were launched with version 2 firmware and the Pebble App Store all of which seemed great. Except that the battery life of the watch could suddenly drop from the several days normally achieved to just a few hours. And it could go from super efficient to super inefficient at any time. Given that battery life is one of their key advantages, this was a pretty serious regression. Something that should have been caught during testing.

The fixed firmware was released recently, but apparently it is still not really fixed. My watch took around 24 hours to drop from fully charged to 89% (that is pretty much the normal rate I have observed – around 10% a day).

2014-05-18 04:48:27:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 4224mV 99% hardware charging 0 plugged 0
2014-05-19 02:55:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 4095mV 90% hardware charging 0 plugged 0 
2014-05-19 03:00:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 4086mV 89% hardware charging 0 plugged 0 
2014-05-19 05:41:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 3994mV 79% hardware charging 0 plugged 0 
2014-05-19 08:19:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 3927mV 69% hardware charging 0 plugged 0 
2014-05-19 09:44:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 3869mV 59% hardware charging 0 plugged 0

But then look at what happened. The next 30% drop took less than 7 hours. And for most of that time I was asleep and very few notifications were being delivered (I get far more during the day when all my calendar event reminders are firing off).

Seems the issue with the battery is still not fixed. I have submitted the logs, but at this point I am losing confidence in Pebble’s ability to fix these serious firmware issues.

Audio Interference

For the longest time the audio quality I have experienced when using my car’s hands free telephone system has been terrible. Very occasionally it would be crystal clear, but most of the time it was crackly, sometimes to the point where I would need to hang up and redial in hopes of getting better quality. It never occurred to me that the cause of this noise was the Pebble. 

Last week though I was driving back home after going to pick up some paperwork and I was stuck in traffic listening to music from my phone connected via the car’s A2DP connection. This had always been good quality (further confusing me as to why the telephone audio should be so bad), but now it was experiencing periodic drop outs. Very short times in the music when there was silence, but easily noticeable. Since I was stuck in traffic, often not moving at all for several minutes, I had time to trace the cause.

Remembering that the Pebble had just updated its firmware, that was an obvious place to start. Turning off the Bluetooth on the watch didn’t impact anything immediately but right then the traffic moved, so I turned my attention back to the road; leaving the Pebble’s Bluetooth off. Perhaps 30 seconds or so after I switched it off, the dropouts stopped. The next time I stopped, I turned Bluetooth back on and sure enough the drop outs re-appeared. So now, the Pebble interferes with A2DP music streams (a clear, and serious regression).

Even more interesting, during one of the times I had Bluetooth off I received a call. It was crystal clear. More experimenting with that showed that the interference I had long put down to an incompatibility between my car and iPhone was in fact also being caused by the Pebble. That is not a regression in the latest firmware though; that has always been there.

Some searching online revealed a thread on their support forums describing the hands free audio interference that is happening in lots of cars. And yet the support response I got merely shrugged it off with the advice that I should disable Bluetooth on my watch when in the car & there was no way they could test all cars. Obviously, nobody would expect them to test all cars, but it doesn’t seem hard to find some that show the problem. And there is even a detailed post in that thread stating the problem can be reproduced on Bluetooth audio quality measurement test equipment:

The Voice Quality algorithm used for this test was ITU-T P.862.1 (PESQ). The scale for the PESQ algorithm is 1-5 (5 being perfect). For all tests, the iPhone is on ATT network whereas the far-end is Verizon PSTN. Each test consisted of 3 different calls, each call sending/recordng 4 voice files. After each test i averaged all PESQ scores.
The average score for iPhone5 without Pebble was 2.71. This is average for mobile to PSTN.
The average score for iPhone5 with Pebble was 1.36. This is considered extremely low.
The average score for iPhone4 without Pebble was 2.40. 
The average score for iPhone4 with Pebble was 1.22.

That makes it pretty clear that the Pebble is interfering with the audio quality on iOS devices at least. Again, this should really have been caught during testing.

Recommendation

At this point in time, if you asked me whether you should buy a Pebble I would have to say no. Not unless you are willing to live with pre-alpha quality software, potentially abysmal battery life, poor quality Bluetooth audio connections and relatively little support. When it is working well, the Pebble is a great smart watch, but the ongoing software quality issues are really letting it down right now.

United Accounting

We recently called United Airlines to see if there was any way to get an award ticket that had been issued with a return via LA changed to one that was a direct flight since the traveller was a teenager who has never flown alone before & was not confident of changing planes in an unknown airport.

The representative we spoke with was very helpful, and said he had managed to move her return to the direct flight without it costing any more money or additional miles (something we had asked several times). He confirmed that the total number of miles needed for her round trip would still be 25,000. The same as the original booking with the plane change.

We also received a receipt confirming the booking, the direct flights and the cost (both the $5 fee and 25,000 miles) just as the representative had stated on the telephone. That receipt is still visible in the web portal too (I have blocked out all the personal info):

However, when we next happened to be logged in to the MileagePlus website, we noticed they had refunded the 25,000 miles for the original booking and debited 37,500 for the new itinerary – taking 50% more miles from the account than their customer service representative had stated, and 50% more than the receipt / confirmation they had issued for the booking stated the trip would cost:

Misunderstanding

OK, thinking it must have been a misunderstanding, we called, only to be told there was nothing they could do. It was a mistake they had corrected. You might expect somebody to call and confirm that deducting more miles was OK, or at least send an email. Or even issue a new receipt with the corrected amount. But, no. They did none of those things. They just took the extra miles, presumably hoping we wouldn’t notice? Also notice the activity doesn’t show the correction as a separate transaction – it seems to suggest that they actually deducted 37,500 at the same time they issued a receipt for just 25,000. I wonder if they are that lax with all their financials? If we’d been paying money for this, could they have just billed the credit card 50% more than they show on the receipt?

Anyway, I contacted the Twitter support team (having found that social media support groups are generally more responsive at other companies). They took all the info (over private DMs) and after a bit of back & forth, came back with this:

Sounds promising. At least they can see that the receipt still shows 25,000 and something is amiss. But then, 21 minutes later, they came back with this:

No explanation for the mismatch between the receipt and the amount debited from the account. Just a repeat of the statement that they can’t honor the receipt / confirmation they issued (and still show online). Wonder what would have happened if the miles were not there. Would they have called, or just quietly canceled the ticket and let us find that out at check in time?

Customer Service

Most companies, if they made a mistake like this would simply apologize and refund the difference. But not United it seems. They would prefer to upset a customer (and I should note that the customer who booked the flight in this case is a gold card holder who travels all over the world with United for work) over 12,500 miles.

Of course, you could argue that we are still getting a free flight, and the miles were in the account, but the miles in question were coming from another family member’s account as a favour & he only had 25,000 spare (the remainder being ‘reserved’ for a trip later in the year). Now we are left trying to sort this out; most likely we will just cancel the ticket entirely and see what other options there are. Ideally that would be on an airline that actually cares about their customers, and especially their most loyal ones, and doesn’t make promises they can’t keep. Can’t see myself trusting United again after this.