Ten technology company practices that drive customers ballistic

Read the next part of this story: Ten technology company practices that drive customers ballistic – Part II

May we vent for a minute? Much as we love technology, sometimes we get fed up with the companies that provide it. Maybe it’s the notice saying that important features of our perfectly good money-management software no longer work just because it’s a couple of years old.

Maybe it’s the new PC we just bought, so loaded with unwanted junkware that it takes minutes to boot and runs like molasses. Or maybe it’s the way we’re forced to switch to a certain behind-the-times carrier if we want to buy a certain way-cool phone. (Oh, and that fairly new operating system we don’t like, don’t want, and can’t escape? Don’t even go there.)

Yeah, we’re fed up, all right. And we’re not the only ones: We surveyed readers at PCWorld.com and found that you’ve had your fill of such annoying policies and practices as well. Hoping for a little retribution–or at least some explanations–we went knocking on the doors of Apple, Intuit, Sony, Symantec, and other perpetrators of bad behavior.

We didn’t always receive good answers (or sometimes any answer–Apple didn’t bother to return our calls), but we did put these companies on notice: Annoyed customers frequently turn into ex-customers.

Who got served? Here’s our list of some of the most annoying practices (and practitioners), along with suggestions for working around the hassles or avoiding them altogether.

Software sunset policies

Major offenders: Intuit, Microsoft

The problem: For Quicken 2005 users, April 30 must have been an incredibly annoying day. That’s when Intuit pulled the plug on that version of its money manager, in accordance with the company’s discontinuation policy (also known as sunsetting). Consequently, owners of that product can no longer use Intuit’s online bill-pay services, download financial data from their banks, access Quicken.com investing features, get live technical support–shall we go on?

Sure, the software still functions, but with only a fraction of its former capabilities. Your sole recourse is to upgrade to a newer version with features you may not want, an interface you don’t recognize, and other changes. On your dime.

What gives? Why can’t you keep using the software you already know, love, and paid for? To hear Intuit tell it, out with the old and in with the new. “Retirement of online services and live support in older versions of Intuit desktop products allows Intuit to focus its resources on innovation and resources for current and new offerings,” says company rep Jodi Reinman. Microsoft Money–Quicken’s biggest competitor–sunsets even faster, after just two years, and a Microsoft spokesperson offered us a very similar explanation.

In plain English, it costs a company money to maintain and support older products–and of course, someone who is using one of those products isn’t spending money on a new one. Sorry, but we can’t sympathize. Just as Windows XP users want the option of keeping their OS instead of having to invest in Vista, finance-software users want more than two or three years’ worth of functionality from their programs.

The fix: Unfortunately, you can’t do much about sunset policies if you want to use the software. Web-based alternatives such as Mint.com, Mvelopes, and Quicken Online aren’t nearly as full-featured, and all but Mint.com charge monthly fees, so you’re not much better off financially than you would be by upgrading every few years. In the meantime, if you’re a Quicken 2008 user, mark your calendar for April 30, 2011–the likely discontinuation date for that version.

Rebate runarounds

Major offenders: Buy.com, Office Depot

The problem: An oldie but goodie. You buy a sweet little home-office laser printer that costs all of $49–after a $50 rebate, that is. After filling out and mailing in the paperwork, you wait four to six weeks: nothing. You wait another two weeks: still nothing. Finally you realize that your $49 printer has cost $99 after all. Welcome to the rebate runaround.

Horror stories about Buy.com rebates involving Wintergreen Systems and the now-defunct Connect3D abound. Office Depot, meanwhile, had the most gripes on Rebate Report Card at press time. But even small, reputable firms can incur a customer’s wrath when a rebate goes sour.

James Stewart, owner and operator of a videography company in Santa Rosa, California, is still trying to figure out exactly what Primera was looking for when it asked for a copy of his “receipt” in the instructions for a $150 rebate on a disc duplicator he had bought online from retailer J&R.

Stewart sent a copy of an e-mail labeled “J&R Order Receipt” that included the billing address, the shipping address, the payment method (his credit card), and details about the price; some five and a half weeks later, he received snail mail from Primera saying he had not provided the required “invoice,” but offering to review his claim if he could send it.

Perplexed, Stewart contacted J&R to ask for a copy of whatever Primera needed; J&R sent him an electronic document that he printed and mailed to Primera–but he heard nothing back.

When we contacted Primera, the company said that while neither document met its requirements (put in place to avoid fraudulent claims by people who order products and then return them once they get the rebate), it had verified Stewart’s purchase with J&R and the rebate was on its way–well within the eight-to-ten-week time frame required to process a properly documented claim. But Stewart (who says he learned that the rebate was coming only when we told him) is still angry. “I think that rebate deals are an enormous scam on the consumer and should be outlawed,” he says.
Of course, instead of offering rebates, tech vendors such as Primera could simply lower their prices–but companies say there are solid business reasons for rebate programs.
The fix: Before you jump on a rebate deal, check the company’s customer ratings at the Rebate Report Card site. When filing a rebate, make sure to follow the instructions to the letter (which means reading every inch of the fine print). Keep copies of everything you mail in and of every piece of paperwork involved. And send the rebate via registered mail so that you can prove the fulfillment company received it.

Crapware on new PCs

Major offenders: Gateway, HP, Sony
The problem: PC vendor logic must work something like this: “Mammoth hard drives are the norm, so there’s ample room for stuffing new systems with trialware, adware, junkware, and other ‘ware nobody asked for and hardly anybody ever wants.” Note to computer vendors: Your logic stinks. Let users install the software they want, okay?

Loading a new PC with trialware made a certain amount of sense in the prebroadband days, when downloading an antivirus utility or game demo took longer than 30 seconds. Now there’s simply no excuse for it.

Some vendors are getting the word. Dell, once one of the worst offenders, now gives customers more control over software preloads. But Sony, whose products received the worst “junk” rating of the 11 vendors in last year’s “Junkbusters!” story, in March began charging customers an extra $50 to remove excess apps from new laptops. (Sure, Sony, how about we wash your car for you, too?)

Following a public outcry, the company wisely reversed course, offering its Fresh Start “software optimization” feature (read: crapware remover) for free. Regrettably, the offer is currently limited to the VAIO TZ notebook line, though Sony says it will expand the offering this summer.

And, like its competitors, Sony doesn’t seem ready to admit that junkware is, in fact, junk. “We bundle industry-leading applications to offer an all-encompassing value proposition to our end users,” a company spokesperson says. In other words, garbage is in the eye of the beholder.

Yes, some preloads, such as disc-authoring software and security suites, are worthwhile. But wouldn’t it be nice if vendors let you decide?

The fix: Before you attempt to manually uninstall unwanted programs, try the aptly named PC Decrapifier. This freeware utility, born of one user’s frustration with a junkified Dell notebook, quickly scans for and optionally uninstalls many common trialware applications. Our “Junkbusters!” feature has additional PC-cleanup instructions. Other than that, let your wallet do the talking: Don’t buy PCs from vendors that go crazy with the crap–and tell them why you’re shopping elsewhere.

Exclusivity deals for cell phones

Major offenders:Apple, AT&T

The problem: When Apple unveiled the iPhone, geek hearts everywhere sang in joyous anticipation–only to be crushed by the news that AT&T would be the device’s sole carrier for the foreseeable future. Not only did the handset limit users to AT&T’s poky EDGE network, but Apple’s decision also left Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon customers with noPhone.
Perhaps that wasn’t so surprising. Apple exclusivity has existed for years in the form of the iTunes store, which sells songs, TV shows, movies, and the like for playback only on Apple-branded hardware.

When we asked Apple reps why the company elected to stick with a single carrier when it could easily land more customers by supporting others, they referred us via e-mail to a year-old press release touting AT&T’s (then Cingular’s) advanced network, jointly developed visual voice mail, yada yada yada. We received no reply, either, to our query on when Apple would allow iPhone buyers to use other carriers (without “jailbreaking” their phones).

The fix: Rewrite the rules–unlock your iPhone so that it will work with other GSM/GPRS/EDGE carriers. Adam Pash, coauthor of How to Do Everything with Your iPhone, recommends ZiPhone, an open-source utility that makes simple work of unlocking the handset. Once you’ve removed the AT&T shackles, you can pop in a SIM card from any GSM carrier. Of course, you could also thumb your nose at Apple and buy a phone from another manufacturer. Have you seen the latest BlackBerry units? Most of them are available from multiple carriers.

Unrecoverable music
Major offenders: Amazon, iTunes

The problem: Your hard drive just went to the great storage heap in the sky, taking your entire music collection along with it. Reripping songs from your CDs is easy enough, but what about the music you purchased and downloaded from online stores such as AmazonMP3 and iTunes? You paid for those songs, so surely you can just redownload them when necessary, right? Wrong–neither store permits return trips to the well.

Admittedly, you wouldn’t expect a brick-and-mortar seller to replace your CDs if your house burned down. But CDs are tangible goods that cost money to manufacture, ship, and store. Music downloads are mere bits and bytes that require only bandwidth, and there’s plenty of that to go around. Why shouldn’t you be able to download your songs a second time–or a thirty-second time–after you’ve paid for them?

When we asked, AmazonMP3 spokesperson Heather Huntoon said only that “we recommend customers create a backup copy of their music.” She also noted that because all of Amazon’s music is sold in MP3 format, you don’t have to reauthorize a computer when restoring your tunes. In contrast, iTunes makes you jump through some authorization hoops to restore even those purchases you’ve backed up.

And speaking of iTunes, Apple utterly ignored all our inquiries on this subject. We’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the company’s customer-service reps will sometimes replace lost purchases, but that isn’t the same thing as a store policy that tells customers, “Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.”

The fix: As Amazon’s Huntoon says, back up your music. You can store up to 25GB worth of stuff online for free at MediaMax or 50GB at ADrive, though you should be prepared to invest considerable time uploading everything. And consider shopping elsewhere: Napster and Rhapsody have no problem letting you redownload music you’ve purchased. Both services also offer a subscription option that allows unlimited downloads from their substantial libraries–another worthwhile insurance policy against lost music collections.

Software that nags you to buy or upgrade

Major offenders: Intuit, McAfee, Symantec

The problem: Talk about irony–McAfee Internet Security and similar applications aim to simplify your life by protecting your PC, but they annoy the heck out of you in the process. They never stop nagging you to upgrade to a bigger, better version or to renew your subscription (even though it doesn’t expire for another six months). It’s like dealing with a pesky little kid who’s always demanding your attention.

Larry Campbell, a retired Air Force captain from Fairview Heights, Illinois, recently found himself nagged to distraction by software maker McAfee. Though his antivirus utility’s subscription wasn’t due to expire until May of this year, the company started campaigning for a renewal last October, sending no fewer than eight e-mail alerts–enough to prompt his decision: “I am not renewing,” he says, “but will switch to another company in May.”

If such nonstop nagging can actually drive customers away, why do companies do it? McAfee’s explanation was about what you’d expect. “McAfee sends promotional offers to subscribers that feature discounts on the current product they have subscribed to and/or discounts on suites that offer additional levels of protection,” said a company rep. “We want consumers to remain protected and not experience any lapses in protection.” The rep went on to note that customers can easily opt out of such offers by unsubscribing. She also apologized for annoying Campbell with all the e-mail.

The fix: Unfortunately, nagging seems to be a part of modern computing. Any company that has taken your money once will work hard to take more of it. You can always try freeware alternatives–Avast 4 Home Edition and Avira AntiVir Personal offer robust virus protection, for instance–but don’t be surprised if you get nagged to buy their commercial counterparts.

Full-Screen ads that precede home pages

Major offenders:CareerBuilder, Forbes, Monster

The problem: You head to your favorite site in search of the latest news, only to be stopped cold by some lame splash-screen advertisement. (Okay, PCWorld.com is guilty here, too, as are our major competitors. But at least we don’t call it a Welcome Screen, as Forbes.com does.) Or you visit a jobs site to peruse the latest postings, but a come-on for a resume builder or an online degree program intervenes–and it isn’t just a pop-up, either, but a full-screen blockade.

Sure, these “interstitial” or “transitional” ads pay for your free content and services. “They’re no different than commercial breaks, and most users are willing to accept advertising to not pay for content,” says Pesach Lattin, CEO of New York-based ad agency Vizi. But can’t marketers wait until we get to the site before bombarding us?

The fix: Firefox users should try the Adblock Plus extension, which suppresses not only button and banner ads but also transitional ads. Internet Explorer 7 users can find similar capabilities in IE7Pro. Meanwhile, advertisers take note: You could grab more eyeballs by creating ads that make us want to watch. Show us something funny or surprising. Offer a freebie. Visitors may click past the ad anyway, but at least make an effort!

Read the next part of this story: Ten technology company practices that drive customers ballistic – Part II

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