Category Archives: rants

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Why Spotify should stick to streaming, not copy iTunes

Today Spotify announced iPod support. Essentially it has reverse-engineered enough of the Apple iPod’s protocols to let you connect an iPod and sync a Spotify playlist to it.

The catch: in order to sync a playlist you have to buy MP3s for all the tracks it includes.

Spotify has great software and I love the service, though sadly it is now crippled for free users. It already supports smartphone users through an offline feature, combined with a mobile app, though this requires a premium account.

The new model is different. Instead of being an offline cache for streamed music, it is old-style MP3 purchase. In fact, the promotional video presents the new feature in simple terms: you can now purchase and download your Spotify playlist.

So what is Spotify now? A streaming service, or a download service? Was the crippling of the free service done with this in mind, to push users towards MP3 purchase? Is this another symptom of music industry pressure? Will Spotify further cripple its streaming service, to promote download purchases?

Personally I have little interest in yet another MP3 download option. For iPod or iPhone users, Apple iTunes wins on usability and integration, Amazon MP3 on price.

I have great interest in subscription though. Spotify has been liberating in this respect. Want to play something? Just search and play, instantly. That is what Spotify does so well. It should stick with it, rather than moving back into the download era.

Escaping Apple: trying to switch away is hard

Mark Wadham posts his Thoughts on switching to Android. Last week he sold his iPhone 4 and switched to an HTC Desire S. I found this interesting, since I have an iPhone 4 and an HTC Desire.

The motive behind Wadham’s switch was to escape Apple’s “over-controlling ways”, rather than immediate dissatisfaction with its products, and there is mild disappointment running through his whole piece:

So in summary, android isn’t really /that/ far off the iPhone. It’s missing the cleanness of the user experience, consistency in the user interface and the glorious wealth of apps, but hopefully that will all come in time. This is a great little phone and I’m happy I made the switch. It’s not as fun to use as an iPhone, and if you’re a real UX freak you should probably stick with the iPhone at least for now, but if you’re someone who likes to tweak and customise and play around with your device android seems much more suited than Apple’s offering.

There is also some irony: HTC’s offering is not as free as he would like.

I would have loved to get rid of HTC Sense and install one of the modded roms like Cyanogen, but that currently isn’t possible due to restrictions HTC has placed on these new handsets …The good news is that, according to the research I’ve done, the root for the Desire S (and the incredible S) isn’t far off.Actually the worst thing about this phone is that it comes with a Facebook app that I can’t remove until it gets rooted.

Still, there is no question that Android is a less tightly controlled platform than iOS. The fact that you can install apps from outside Google’s Android Market is all you need to know.

In usability though, Android falls short. It lacks the obsessive attention to design that characterises Apple’s devices and software; and once you are used to iOS it is particularly hard to switch:

Eventually I got the hang of it, but even now after two days of playing and installing apps and tweaks, the UI still feels counter-intuitive and I have to consciously remember how to do things rather than it being obvious and simple like iOS.

One thing I have noticed since getting these two phones is the impact of Apple’s dock connector. There are countless iPhone/iPod docks and although there is often an option to use a non-Apple device with a mini-jack cable it is not as convenient or elegant. You cannot easily build a generic Android dock because there is no exact equivalent.

Another issue is apps. Once you have purchased a bunch of apps, you can transfer these to another iOS device. If you switch to Android, you have to start again.

There is also iTunes to think about. Let’s say you have got used to iTunes and have your music stored there. While it is possible to transfer non-DRM music to Android or other non-Apple devices, it is not necessarily obvious how to do so; and iTunes itself will only sync to Apple devices. Personally I am not a fan of iTunes; but I can see how it tends to encourage users to stick with Apple.

The bottom line is that escaping Apple requires some determination, once you are hooked into its ecosystem.

Fixing modern plastic junk that should be thrown away

I have a Canon MX700 all-in-one printer. I have written about it before. It went wrong and would do nothing but issue a sullen error 6a80. I discovered a way of clearing the error but still could not print; I remarked:

I now think that somehow cleaning up this part of the printer (which is hard to get at) could fix it.

This weekend the time came to prove it, or else to chuck it away. I should have thrown it away. Even though I pretty much fixed it, the time it took and the frustration it caused was really not worth it. Well, it could be worth it if you enjoy such things as a hobby; I am not sure if I do, but I do hate throwing stuff away that can be made to work with a bit of effort, so I guess I get some satisfaction from the process.

Technically of course the correct advice is to get a machine like this fixed by an authorised Canon service engineer, but this is not cost-effective for a three-year-old cheapish all-in-one inkjet printer. It might well have cost more than a new printer of better specification. A skilled engineer would have worked faster than I worked; but you have to get the machine to her and back again; it still takes a certain amount of time to strip a machine down, clean it up and re-assemble it; a professional engineer would probably have replaced parts that I was happy to clean up and re-use, so there would have been a parts cost; and there is an overhead of invoicing and so on; it is not surprising that the costs mount up.

My further observation is that machines like this which are mostly clipped together are not designed for extensive servicing. It is hard to take it apart without breaking a few delicate plastic clips or tabs. I guess once you learn exactly where to tug and how hard to press you get better at it; but clip on parts are not ideal if you plan to remove and re-assemble them with any frequency.

If we were serious about reducing waste we would address this. For example, if you require manufacturers to offer extended warranties as standard, then it is in their interests to make products that are more reliable and more fixable.

In the meantime, fools like me waste time fixing modern plastic junk that should be thrown away.

Poor usability in Microsoft’s Xbox Live billing and support

Leaving aside the defective hardware in its first release, Microsoft’s Xbox console is generally easy to use. I am not so impressed with the way Xbox Live purchases and accounts are handled though.

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Today’s story begins when I followed a link on the XBox 360 dashboard to upgrade my Live Account to Gold and get a free game: one of Kinect Sports, Kinectimals, Fable 3, or Halo Reach.

I followed the link and tried to pay. I got error 80190848. That’s right, just the number.

Of course I googled it. It seems that it indicates a problem authorising the credit card. Fair enough; the card on file was out of date. But what is wrong with a message that says “We could not authorise your payment; please check your card details”? This is poor usability.

Next, I found I could not delete the old card from my account. To do this you have to go to the Xbox Live website on your PC. However, you cannot take advantage of the special offer from the Xbox Live website. No, you have to use the dashboard, otherwise it does not apply.

OK, I left the dud card there for the moment, added a new card, and made the purchase.

That went through OK, but what about the free game? Nothing. No on-screen information. No message. No email.

OK, so I contacted support. This isn’t too good either. You go to the support page and have to find the tiny contact us link at the bottom of the page. At least that one works. Some paths through the site just don’t work at all. For example, go to My Xbox – Accounts – View Billing History. On the Billing account overview, click Contact support. You get this:

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Lovely. Note that for Xbox, it says go to to the Xbox Live Accounts and Billing page. Yes, that was where I just came from. I click it anyway:

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Nice.

Apparently Microsoft has lost a significant amount of money because of weak cryptography in its Xbox Live Points scheme. I wonder how much more it has lost thanks to annoyed or frustrated would-be customers?

When the cartridges cost more than the printer: the Inkjet market is absurd and disgraceful

I would love to be in one of those meetings at HP or Canon or Epson where they discuss the size of the ink cartridges in their next range of inkjet printers.

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“We got away with 10ml last time,” one might say. “Do you think we could try 8ml”?

“No, let’s do 6ml and call it lite. The 8ml can be XL for high capacity.”

The reason is this has come up for me is that my Canon MX700 all-in-one printer, which has until now performed well, has stopped working. The LCD display says Error 6A80, the lights on the print cartridges have gone out, and it will not do a thing.

While I am not sure what the problem is, it might possibly be the print head. This is a small piece of plastic which includes the actual print head with the microscopic holes through which the ink is squirted, and the cheapest I can find it is around £65.00.

On the other hand, I can get a new Epson BX305FW all-in-one printer for £72, less than that if I shop around.

When the cartridges cost more than the printer

Well, we are used to living in a throwaway society, but the situation with inkjet printers is beyond absurdity. The reason, you see, for the low prices of the hardware is that they are vehicles for selling ink cartridges, for which the prices are crazy high. Therefore there is a direct connection between the high prices of the cartridges, and their small capacity, and the likelihood of my taking a nice all-in-one printer with not very much wrong with it, and throwing it into landfill.

Since I needed to print some documents urgently, I got my old 2001 HP DeskJet 895cx down from the loft and went into town to see if I could still get cartridges for it. As I looked, I noticed that Tesco is selling the HP Deskjet 1050 all-in-one printer for £29.97. This takes HP 301 cartridges; colour is £16.97 and black is £13.97 (you need both): total £30.94. So yes, the cartridges cost more than the printer.

If the cartridges supplied with the Deskjet 1050 are the same size as the ones you buy, it would pay you just to buy a new printer whenever the cartridge runs out. This does not please me; it is a disgrace.

Now, curiously HP does not specify how much ink is in its 301 cartridges. Rather, it gives page yields. So we learn here that the HP 301 black ink cartridge  delivers 190 pages of average coverage. The high-capacity HP 301XL delivers 480 pages.

My old printer, as it happens, also has standard and high-capacity versions. The HP 45 standard (21ml) delivers 490 pages. The HP 45 high-capacity (42ml), which is the only one I have ever bought, delivers 930 pages.

In other words, mysteriously, what is now high-capacity is less than what used to be standard; what used to be high-capacity is no longer available, if you get the latest HP DeskJet.

You can pay a lot more than this for inkjet cartridges. Prices of £30 to £40 or more are common, for three-colour cartridges. Together with a black, it might cost you £60 or more to replenish.

This drives users towards the thriving alternative market in refurbished or compatible cartridges. This is unfortunate, because all inks are not equal, and a leaky or substandard cartridge can damage your printer. On the other hand, if you do the sums, the saving from just a couple of cartridge replacement cycles may be enough to buy a new printer. Buying the non-approved refills is the rational thing to do.

I am not picking on HP. Others vendors are equally bad.

Where do we go from here?

So where do we go from here? Logically, we should ignore the price sticker on the printers and look at the cost per page, which means mostly we won’t be buying these machines. We do though; in fact, I nearly bought the cheap Tesco printer this morning just to solve a problem, and so the cycle continues.

I would like to see the regulators take action on this. Instead of forcing Microsoft to produce pointless N editions of Windows, which nobody buys, maybe the EU could specify a minimum page yield for ink cartridges, to force change, or otherwise regulate this wasteful and damaging business practice.

Finally, if you are from HP or Canon or Epson or the like and want to tell me about the high quality and expensive research behind your ink technology, you are welcome, as long as you also tell me two things:

  • What is the ratio of manufacturing cost to retail price for your inkjet printers?
  • What is the ratio of manufacturing cost to retail price for your inkjet cartridges?

Thank you.

Update: I made some progress with Error 6A80. The print head is fine. Now, many people on the internet have reported this problem, though there are likely multiple reasons for it, but the only relevant article I’ve found is this one, which is in German. Note the helpful pictures. The print head should park at the right of the machine, where there are some pads and wipers that maintain the head. On my machine the wipers had got stuck in the forward position – see the first image in the thread. When I pushed them back – second image on page two – the error cleared. However it reappeared shortly after; but I now think that somehow cleaning up this part of the printer (which is hard to get at) could fix it.

Further update: I did eventually take the printer apart and pretty much fixed it.