Dropping the Ball

A quick lesson in how not to communicate with your customers.

I’m surprised to realize I’ve never done a blog post about Dropbox.

Since I work on three different computers (desktop, laptop, and tablet), I need to be sure I have the latest version of all of my files on each. Dropbox makes it mindlessly easy. Install the software on each machine, and once past the initial download, it all Just Works. Make a change on one machine, and it gets copied to the others. No network? No problem. As soon as you’re back on line, all the changes get shared around. And if disaster strikes (this is earthquake–and wildfire–country) Dropbox works as an off-site backup too.

It was great when Dad and I were writing The RagTime Traveler, too. Dropbox lets you share specific folders and files with other users. We shared a working folder, and everything he wrote, I got within seconds and visa-versa. No more emailing files back and forth, making changes and then discovering we’d edited the wrong version.

And, best of all, Dropbox supports Linux. The only one of the big names to do so. (Digression: it still seems odd that there’s no Linux client for Google Drive, despite Google’s use of Linux throughout the company, and early promises that one would be coming “soon”. It’s not like Google never puts money into economically unsupportable projects.)

Granted, the support has been somewhat half-hearted. Many system configurations were officially unsupported. But for the most part, they worked. They still do. But.

Here’s where we come to the “How Not To” part of the discussion.

Apparently, Dropbox has had a change of heart. On Friday, I got a warning message from Dropbox on my desktop machine (the Linux one). “Dropbox will stop syncing in November.” No explanation, no specific date, no web link for further information. Also no similar message on the laptop or tablet.

Naturally, I went online. Nothing on Dropbox’s website. So I sent a message to their Twitter support address*. That’s the one that promises “quick replies”. Four days later, nothing. Not even crickets.

* Twitter’s got to be good for something, right?

So I looked further. Used my awesome Google skills, well-trained by years of digging for odd bits of information to surprise and delight readers. (Ahem. Sorry.) Anyway, it turns out I’m not the only one who got the message. I know, what a surprise, huh? There’s a long thread on Dropbox’s support forum. Long, because of Dropbox’s response to the initial question.

Okay, I need to digress again. If you know what a file system is, you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

Greatly oversimplified, a file system is the way your operating system lays out your data on a disk. Could be a hard drive, a floppy (if you’ve got a really old computer), thumb drive, whatever. There’s more than just raw data, of course. There are indexes to allow the computer to find the files, and there’s provision for some information about the files. For example, every file system keeps track of when files were created and/or changed. On systems that support multiple users–and yes, that includes Windows–the file system will also track who owns which files.

Every operating system supports multiple file systems. Windows, for example, mostly uses NTFS, but it also supports the older FAT file system and a recent variant, exFAT. Different file systems work best under different conditions–and of course every OS manufacturer wants their own FS to work best with their OS. So file systems proliferate.

End of digression. Let’s move on.

Dropbox’s official response to the user who asked about the warning message was to sacrifice Jay. Jay is a “Community Moderator,” someone who helps keep Dropbox’s support forum on track. Jay was given the delightful job of telling the world that as of November 7, the company is going to disable their own product on non-supported file systems.

On Windows, that means NTFS only. Which is actually the status quo; you haven’t been able to use Dropbox for Windows on anything but NTFS for years. Two file systems, HFS+ and APFS, are supported on Macs. Since those are Apple’s own file systems, and probably 99% of Macs use one or the other, again, it’s no big deal.

But then we come to Linux, where exactly one file system is supported: Ext4. And that’s a big problem for Linux users. Because Linux users are long-accustomed to tweaking their systems to maximize performance. And so there are many, many supported file systems on Linux. At least two of which are arguably more popular than Dropbox’s choice.

Even if a Linux user is running Ext4, if they’ve turned on the file system’s encryption functionality, Dropbox won’t sync it after November 6.

Having delivered this bombshell–that Dropbox is not only throwing Linux users off their system, but forcing them to decrypt their computers if they want to stay–Jay disappeared.

There has still been no official word from Dropbox about the reason for the change (the technical explanation Jay gave in his message is complete nonsense, leading many to believe it’s a cover for the first step in dropping Linux support entirely). The support site has been quietly updated with the same word Jay gave, complete with the same nonsensical reason.

Now, you may be asking why it matters. After all, Linux users are a small fraction of computer users. Why should Dropbox support them.

And to some extent that’s true. Dropbox doesn’t have to support Linux. But changing the status quo is risky. Linux users are, for the most part, more technically oriented than the average computer user. They’re often the people who keep corporate computers running. And, as the comments on the support thread show, many of them were instrumental in their companies’ decision to go with Dropbox as their cloud storage provider.

By changing from a “use at your own risk” approach to “do it our way or beat it” without an announcement and with no willingness to engage the community, Dropbox has changed all of those promoter-users into ex-customers. Telling those who might otherwise stick it out that they can’t encrypt their computers (and let us not forget that many companies require all laptops to be encrypted) ups the pain.

Losing one Linux user’s ten bucks a month won’t hurt Dropbox. Losing his employer’s two thousand dollars a month (assuming one hundred corporate users) will hurt, especially when multiplied by a few hundred companies.

One has to wonder about the timing of this action as well. Thursday, the day the Dropbox software started warning users about the shutdown, is also the day Chief Operating Officer Dennis Woodside announced he was stepping down, effective September 4.

That announcement cost Dropbox ten percent of its stock value.

An interesting coincidence, no?

Has Dropbox learned anything from the furor they’re facing in the press? Say, to engage their customers and get buy in before making significant changes?

Don’t make me laugh.

Shut Up!

Today you get a double post. First, a helping of corporate advice followed by a related WQTS.

Everybody seems to have a story about corporate under-communication. It could be the company that sets five hour windows for appointments, then fails to show up at all. It might be the company that promises a call-back and is never heard from again. Or perhaps it’s the company whose product includes a “quick start” guide and invites you to download the full manual from their website–but then doesn’t put the manual on the site. Fun, huh?

Today, however, I have a different kind of story. This is a tale of corporate over-communication.

When we moved into our current house, we decided to skip Comcast for our TV service, largely because of the sort of under-communication mentioned above. Instead, we went with Dish TV (aka Dish Network, aka Echostar). Yeah, the number two satellite service. On the whole, it’s worked out well, and under-communication has not been a problem. Quite the contrary.

Last week, I visited their website to check whether our current tier of service included a channel I wanted, so I decided to upgrade to the next tier. While I was at it, I realized that upgrading to the current generation of receivers would simplify the setup and not cost the proverbial arm and leg, so I decided to do that too.

Step 1: Log into the customer site and make the programming change. Before I could do anything, I was prompted to make sure my contact information was correct. Fair enough, it’s been over a year since I logged in. Sure enough, the contact information still included my old work phone number. I deleted it and hit save. “Please supply the required information,” said the site. Apparently Dish believes that everyone has at least two phone numbers. I don’t anymore–or at least, I don’t have two I’m willing to give them. They’ve got no need for my cell number, thank you very much. So I tried my usual favorite fake numbers: 000-000-0000, 999-999-9999, and 123-456-7890 and all were rejected. Plan B: I entered my home number twice. That got the reject message as well, but it was saved, which allowed me to cancel the update and continue with my change. Why possible reason could Dish have to contact me that they need a primary and a backup phone number? Bad sign.

Step 2: Call customer service to make an appointment for the receiver swap. That went smoothly. I got an appointment for Monday, and as expected, I was given a five hour window (12 to 5). What I didn’t expect was that the rep told me I would receive a phone call on the day of the appointment with an updated, smaller window. Very nice. A few minutes later, I got an email confirmation of my requested receiver change and the appointment time.

Step 3: Sunday afternoon I got a automated phone call from Dish. Weren’t they supposed to call me Monday? This was a courtesy reminder that I had an appointment “between twelve and five tomorrow.” The computer also asked me to “ensure that someone 18 years of age or older will be home for the entire appointment and to secure any pets to avoid contact with the technician.” Oh really? Is he allergic? More likely they’re worried about him tripping over one–or letting one escape. Five minutes later, I got an email with exactly the same message.

Step 4: At 10:00 Monday, I got another automated call. This one informed me that I had an appointment “today between twelve and five”, that the estimated arrival time was “between 1:00 and 2:15”, and that I should ensure that someone 18 years… Yep, same message about having someone responsible there and that the pets were locked up. Five minutes later, I got an email with the same information.

Step 5: At 10:34, the phone rang again. Dish’s computer was calling to let me know that the estimated arrival time had changed, and was now “between 11:30 and 12:30”. And, of course, that I should… well, you know the drill. This time the email arrived while I was still on the phone.

Step 6: At 12:36, I got another call. “Hi, this is {name deleted to preserve his anonymity} with Dish. I’m just a couple of miles away. Do you still want me to come do your installation?” I suppressed my immediate sarcastic response that the need had passed, and assured him that I would be delighted to see him. “OK, great! I’ll be there in a few minutes. Is someone 18 years of age or older present?” Amazingly enough, he didn’t ask if any pets had been secured. I assured him that I was both present and over 18, and we hung up. Astoundingly, I didn’t get another email confirming his imminent arrival.

Step 7: The technician arrived and did what needed to be done. (For the record, he did a fine job of answering my questions, installing a new dish on the roof, and swapping out the receivers.) As he was leaving, he told me that I would be receiving a call from Dish “sometime in the next day or two” to request me to take a customer satisfaction survey. Sure enough, about ninety minutes after he left, the phone rang. Dish’s computer wanted to know if I could “spare two minutes for a customer satisfaction survey regarding my recent equipment installation.”

So how’s that? A single appointment involved six phone calls–including my original request–and four emails. Each of the calls interrupted my work, and if I were the sort of person who keeps a constant watch on my email, each of those would have been an interruption as well. Scale it back, Dish, scale it back! This could have been done with four calls (my initial call, the day-before reminder, the day-of schedule refinement, and the updated arrival time) and no emails. Or skip the calls and use email if the customer prefers. Put the survey online, and have the technician give the customer a receipt that includes the URL.

I promised you a related WQTS. No, it’s not the business with the website demanding a second phone number. That’s clearly working as designed, and is more a matter of corporate cluelessness than anything else.

No, the WQTS is the phone survey. According to the tech, when the survey was first launched, all of the technicians started getting horrible ratings. It took several weeks before they figured out that people were trying to give high ratings (10), but the system didn’t accept two digit responses, so “10”s were recorded as “1”s. Really? I’m guessing that the survey was “tested” by the developer, who knew that “10” should be entered as “0”. I gathered from the tech that several technicians received warnings and bad performance reviews before the problem was solved. Excuse me. “Solved”.

So how did they fix it? Change the range of responses to 1 through 9? Nope. Change the range to 0 through 9? Nope. The “fix” was to require the techs to warn customers “Do not enter 1 unless you want to say I was awful. Use 0 if you mean 10.” Dish also added a similar warning to the automated introduction to the survey. No reminders during the survey, however.

Apple Bites Developers and Customers

Apple is trying to throw a bone to users of its older devices. The bone is more of a boomerang that’s going to bounce back and hit users and developers in the back of the head.

A number of sites are reporting today that Apple has made a change to the iOS App Store such that if a user tries to install an app on a device that can’t support it, they’ll be offered the option of installing an older version of the app.

As an example, consider my first generation iPad. It cannot be upgraded to any version of iOS newer than 5.1.1. Now consider app X, which was originally written for iOS 4, and then was later updated to require iOS 5 in version 2.0; in version 3.0 it was again updated to require iOS 6. The latest and greatest enhancement to version 3.5 requires iOS 7, but 3.5 isn’t in the store yet, since iOS 7 won’t be released until tomorrow.

If I had tried to install X before Apple’s App Store change, I would have gotten a message telling me that it was not compatible with my device and that I needed to upgrade to iOS 6 — which I can’t do. Today, if I try to install it, I’ll get a message telling me that version 3.0 isn’t compatible with my device and offering me the option of installing version 2.0 instead.

Sounds like a nice, customer-friendly change, doesn’t it? Most of the sites reporting on the change are certainly describing it that way. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Consider that there was a reason why app X was updated. Developers don’t enforce a requirement for a particular version of iOS just because they can. They enforce it because the app uses an operating system function that isn’t available in earlier versions of the OS. So when iOS 6 came out, the developers of X started using some spiffy new feature — let’s say they started using the Passbook functionality to support gift cards. That functionality is only available to iOS 6 users, thus the restriction of X version 3.0 to iOS 6.

As a user, I may or may not understand that restriction — there’s a lot of feedback in the App Store that suggests that I don’t. So when I hear about the cool new gift card feature, I go to X’s page to install the app. I get a generic message that tells me I have to install an older version. It doesn’t explain what I don’t get by installing the older version, so I go ahead and install it, and I can’t find the gift card feature. What do I do? I immediately go back to the app store and post a one star rating, possibly with a helpful review that says “This app sucks. Gift card functionality is missing. Don’t use!”

Wait, it gets even better. Suppose I didn’t care about the gift card feature, but I like some of the features that are present in version 2.0. I keep the app on my iPad and use it for a couple of weeks, and then I discover bug: the app crashes if I try to use it after 5pm on Thursdays. (I’m assuming a lot here: most users aren’t going to go much beyond “the app crashes”. But I’m being generous.) Since I’m being generous, I report the bug to the developers directly instread of just leaving bad feedback in the App Store. Now the developers have a choice. They can:

  1. Tell me that version 2.0 isn’t supported any more. Now I’m pissed off. They lose a customer and I leave lousy feedback.
  2. Do the research to figure out why the app crashes on Thursday evenings and it turns out it’s only present in 2.0. Now they have a choice: do they fix the bug and release a version 2.1 for just those of us who can’t upgrade to 3.0? That’s going to increase development and testing time, so probably not. Again, I’m pissed off.
  3. Maybe they do the research and discover that it’s also present in version 3.0. At least now the time they spend doing the research and fixing the bug (and QA testing the fix) benefits their current customers. But they still have to decide whether to do a 2.1 release.

One more scenario: Many apps that require communication with a server turn off the communication for versions that have aged beyond a certain point. Consider our app X again. The makers were planning to turn off support for version 2.0 when 3.5 goes live in the App Store tomorrow. Apple has no way of knowing that they’ve turned it off, so when I come to the store this weekend and install the app it launches, but can’t connect to the server and I can’t use it. Hopefully the developers included a polite message in the app explaining that the version I’m trying to use is too old and I need to upgrade, but since I can’t upgrade, I’m pissed again.

What’s the poor developer going to do now? Apple pushes developers to adopt new OS functionality as quickly as possible, but this new App Store feature is going to punish them if they do.

No matter what, the result of Apple’s “customer-friendly” move is pissed off customers, and in many cases, additional work for developers.

Thanks, Apple.