A message to Warner Brothers

I just visited guba.com because I heard that Warner Brothers was offering feature films online. What a great idea! Oh, wait…no, it’s not so great after all. Let me see if I understand this properly. I can pay $19.99 to download a video to my computer from GUBA OR I can just buy the DVD itself on sale somewhere for about $17. If I buy the film from GUBA, I get an encrypted file that I can only play on a Windows computer with Internet Explorer or on a Plays for Sure device–but not on a standard DVD player. If I buy the DVD, I can play it on any computer with any DVD player software and on any DVD player. Now…which option do you think I’m going to choose?

I have to ask, “What were you thinking, Warner Brothers?” This is such a poorly conceived idea, it’s incomprehensible that anyone with any intelligence at any company could delude themselves into believing that this would be an attractive alternative for consumers. Why isn’t it, you ask? (1) This distribution model gives consumers fewer viewing location choices, completely eliminating the most popular one: the DVD player attached to the home TV. (2) The selection of Windows’ (and only Windows’) DRM alienates many tech-savy consumers who choose not to use IE, Media Player, and/or Windows itself. (3) The price point is completely out of line. Ultimately, consumers get less in this model, so they should expect to pay less.

Do you want consumers like me to consider buying Warner Brothers content online? Here’s what you need to offer: For 9.99 or less, let me purchase and download a file that I can play on any computer or TV in my home from a central file system. For 4.99, let me download either Plays for Sure (Windows) or FairPlay-protected (Apple) versions of the content, targetted for smaller, portable devices at 320 x 240. Then, and only then, will I consider buying Warner Brother content online. Until that time, I’ll be sticking with DVD media.

Want to let Warner Brothers know what you think?

Leave them a message of your own.

Logitech Harmony 720 Advanced Universal Remote

It’s that time again…time for another Harmony remote trial. Despite its obvious absence from Logitech’s own website, a new Harmony universal remote, the 720, has made an appearance exclusively at your local Costco wholesale outlet.

This one shares the slim-line form factor of the 520 and Xbox 360 models, and it sports a smaller version of the full-color LCD screen used on the 880 and 890. While the color screen is a welcomed addition, it seems to take up an awful lot of room. In fact, this remote is a full inch longer than the Xbox 360 Harmony remote. Strike one.

Though the LCD screen and lighted bezel around the Activities button are very bright, the buttons themselves are very poorly backlit with [what I assume to be] blue LEDs. Apparently it must take a lot of juice to power this sucker, because the 720 has a rechargeable battery like the 880/890, which requires that you place the remote in a dock to recharge when you’re not using it. My annoyance that the home base for this remote would have to be somewhere near an outlet [and therefore not near the sofa] was quickly overcome by my annoyance with the dock itself. I found it far too difficult to seat the remote properly in the dock. It would slide around, lacking any sufficiently satisfactory click or physically noticeable reaction when properly positioned for charging. I should be able to feel it fall or slip into place without so much effort. Strike two.

With the 720, Logitech has warped the Harmony’s most-used buttons–the navigation pad, volume, and channel buttons–into a rectangular form. Even the navigation pad is now a rectangle, with the OK button barely perceptible in its center. I’m not sure how someone with large thumbs would even find and press the OK button. I think this is a bad design decision. The square design makes the already-difficult-to-use navigation rocker even more awkward. Making matters worse, they’ve incorporated the Mute and Previous Channel (Prev) buttons into the bezel into which the Volume and Channel buttons are also formed. I’ve ranted about this bezel design in previous reviews, but I believe that the bezel-bound buttons are Logitech’s worst design decision in their evolution of the Harmony remote line. These buttons are difficult to discern without actually looking at the remote, and they’re far too difficult to press. For whatever reason, you must push these buttons until they click, and if you exert the same amount of pressure required to push the Menu button (which is a rubber button that presses very easily) on these bezel buttons or on the navigation pad, they will not fully depress, or click. It’s just a bad, bad design, and I’m sorry to see Logitech continue it in another model. Strike three.

Three strikes, and it’s out. I’ll be returning this one, too.

A message to Home Depot

The shelves are a mess

The aisles are a mess

From the day it opened, I’ve been disappointed in the Washington, D.C. Home Depot. The problem is, it hasn’t improved at all. At all times when I shop there, the parking lot is cluttered (not littered…cluttered) with trash; aisles are often blocked with baskets of random crap; shelves look like they haven’t been reorganized in months; store personnel are generally unable to provide ANY assistance; and check-out clerks make it painfully obvious that they’d rather be home drinking. Can you blame them?

I’ve posted some pictures I took the last time I visited the lighting section of my neighborhood Home Depot. You (and the rest of the world) can view these pictures on my blog. Welcome to Home Depot. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

I don’t want a phone call, I don’t want a reply message. I want someone to do something about this shameful store. Fire people if you have to–you clearly need to make significant changes. In the meantime, I’ll be driving to Maryland from now on to shop at Lowe’s.

An e-mail message to the D.C. government’s Customer Service center

As much as I appreciate the city’s efforts to be responsive by sending follow-up messages for online requests, this District’s current mechanism of communication is more frustrating than it is helpful. For years this has been the case. I’ve been ignoring this issue, but I’d like to take some time now to address it directly. I recently received a response for an online request I sent to the DC webmaster regarding a problem with Real Property database search. The message (below) is more confusing than it is helpful. I offer these points for your consideration so you might improve your ability to serve the residents who take the time to provide the feedback you invite on the District’s site:

[I have interspersed the District’s original message within my post, below. Some names and numbers have been removed or substituted to protect individuals’ privacy]

From: imailagent [mailto:customerservice.eom@dc.gov]
Sent: Saturday, April 29, 2006 14:58
To: [me]
Subject: Email from the EOM (Intranet Quorum IMA00447391)

  • Neither the From Address or the Subject give me a clue as to what this message is when I scan through my e-mail inbox. With all of the spam once receives these days, you should do everything possible to ensure that the recipients of these messages don’t inadvertently delete them just because they don’t recognize the sender or the subject matter.
  • Specifically, with regard to the From address, the sender’s email address: I have no idea whatsoever who imailagent is. Why would I? Why should I? It isn’t even as if this is simply an unrecognizable e-mail address—it’s the supposedly friendly display name of the sender’s e-mail address. This is the part of the name that you actually get to define. Suggestion: Change the name of the sender, the display name in the FROM address for each message, to DC Customer Service.
  • Specifically, with regard to the Subject: What is EOM? What is Intranet Quorum? Why would I care? Why should I care? The message Subject here baffles me. It doesn’t help me understand what this message is about. It’s worth noting that the message itself doesn’t ever define EOM or Intranet Quorum—and it shouldn’t have to because those terms shouldn’t even be in the Subject or the message. They’re not useful or important to me, the message recipient. The number in the Subject line is equally useless to the recipient. I initially assumed that it’s a tracking number for my request, but reading further into the message reveals that it is not. My request has a tracking number assigned to it that, in fact, is not the same as the “IMA” number in the Subject. Strange. Suggestion: Change the Subject for each message to something more useful. In this particular case, that could be Acknowledgement of service request #475602.
  • One more thing I notice before even opening the message: it has an attachment. With the many concerns about e-mail viruses spread by attachments, I would assert that sending an attachment in a message that the recipient doesn’t recognize is unwise. It might further encourage the recipient to discard the message without even opening it. Being both curious and careful, however, I first scanned the message attachment for viruses and then opened the message. To my bewilderment, the attachment is simply a text file that contains some XML with very basic metadata. I’m unsure why this attachment is included with the message that I received. At first I thought that perhaps it helps your automated system track any further correspondence on this request, but if I reply to the message I received, the file will no longer be attached to my response. So…why is this here? Suggestion: Do not include this attachment on the message that you send to the person who initiated the service request.

April 29, 2006

  • The first piece of information in the message is a date. It is today’s date. This is helpful, I suppose, except that the date of the e-mail message itself gives me the same information. What would be more helpful is the date that I made the request—especially since this acknowledgement comes to me several days after making that request. Suggestion: Replace the correspondence date in the message with the (clearly labeled) request date.

Thank you for writing to Mayor Anthony Williams. We appreciate your comments and care about your concerns. This acknowledgement is in reference to your recent email.

  • The message states, “This acknowledgement is in reference to your recent email.” I didn’t actually send an e-mail message to anyone, I completed a feedback form on the District’s website…so that’s a bit misleading. I’m assuming that your system uses the same form letter to acknowledge all requests. Suggestion: Change that sentence to “This acknowledgement is in reference to your recent request.”

Your request has been forwarded to [Jane Doe], the Mayor’s point-of-contact at the . Please feel free to contact that office at [(999) 999-9999] or [e-mail address] regarding the status of your request.

  • The message states, “Your request has been forwarded to [Jane Doe], the Mayor’s point-of-contact at the .” Yes, that last sentence is missing…something. Is it “Office of the Chief Technology Officer?” Is it something else? Suggestion: Fill in the blank.

Your correspondence has been assigned the following EOM tracking number: 475602. Please refer to this number when referencing this request.

  • The messages states, “Your correspondence has been assigned the following EOM tracking number: 475602.” Again, that EOM thing. What is that? No…forget that…I don’t want or need to know. Suggestion: Change the sentence to read “…the following tracking number: …”

If you receive no contact or reply from the agency within 5 business days, please call (202) 727-1000. Give them the contact’s name, office, and tracking number and ask for a point-of-contact follow-up.

For future correspondence with the Mayor or to submit your e-mail address for his database, please write to mayor@dc.gov.

  • Nowhere in the message is there any reference to my actual request. Nowhere. It doesn’t mention the request date, the request itself, or even the “Subject” that you required me to select when I completed the online feedback form. Suppose that I made a few requests over the past few days. Suppose that I made multiple requests on that same day. How would I know which acknowledgement corresponds with which request? I would not.
  • Why not include the original request in the response? This would be extremely helpful for some context. Especially since the sender could have initiated multiple requests.

Believe me, I appreciate the ability to submit feedback and request services online through the District’s website. I also understand the complexity involved in managing and responding to all of those requests—I’ve supported (and built) such systems myself. Having this experience, though, helps me also understand how important it is for you to help those requesting support and providing feedback to receive the information they need to know that the District has received, understands, and is working their request(s).

Thank you for your consideration of my suggestions, above.

Resident of the District of Columbia

A letter to Congressmen Smith and Sensenbrenner

Congressmen Smith and Sensenbrenner:

I am infuriated that you are backing new legislation that would further limit consumers’ use of copyrighted material in their own homes. It is incomprehensible to me that you might actually believe that consumers should just surrender control of when, where, and how they experience and enjoy the content for which they’ve purchased usage rights. Despite the pleas of consumers, of the tech industry, and of studies and scholars, this legislation broadly criminalizes what should be protected as fair use rights. It penalizes consumers in a desperate attempt at thwarting piracy, which you shamelessly masquerade as a defense against terrorism.

Help me understand, please, why I shouldn’t be able to watch the movie I purchase in any room in my home on any device of my choosing. Help me understand why it should be illegal for a parent to protect their investment in DVD movies by backing them up in preparation for the day that the original media gets scratched, cracked, or lost at the bottom of a toy box. Help me understand why copying a movie from an owned DVD to a mobile video device so as not to have to take a laptop through the TSA’s airport security lines makes someone a criminal. Help me understand why we the consumers must suffer for the recording and film industries’ failure to keep up with the market established by and for digital media.

Criminalizing consumers’ attempts to use content fairly is not going to catch terrorists. Nearly every independent study and nearly all evidence shows that piracy is not prevented by digital rights management (DRM). The content pirates you seek to defeat are not deterred by DRM. Invariably, these controls all can and will be cracked by the organizations that stand to make money by doing so [oh, wait, could I perhaps be arrested now for suggesting that possibility?]. The only real effect that DRM and the ridiculous legislation the content industries have lobbied so hard to introduce actually has is to inconvenience consumers and reduce the value and usefulness of the content you’re trying so hard to protect. These consumers are your children, their children, your neighbors, and your friends. That’s who this legislation will hurt—not the real criminals.

I suggest that you take a step back from the special interests of the RIAA and the media moguls to start thinking about protecting the people you’re elected to represent—the citizens of this country…the consumers. By backing this legislation, you are clearly not acting in their best interests.

Washington, D.C.

cc: Congressman Lamar Smith’s staff

How can you get involved?

Write to Congressman Smith at:

2184 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Call Congressman Smith’s office at (202) 225-4236

Write to Congressman Sensenbrenner at:

2449 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Call Congressman Sensenbrenner’s office at (202) 225-5101

Send Congressman Sensenbrenner an e-mail message to sensenbrenner@mail.house.gov

Contact your representative!

Logitech Harmony Advanced Universal Remote for Xbox 360

Yeah…we’re still not there yet. For those of you, like me, who have purchased an Xbox 360 gaming console, the Harmony Remote for the 360 might seem like remote control nirvana. Unfortunately, this 520-knock-off doesn’t hit that target.

Logitech did introduce several notable improvements in this model:

(a) The introduction of Back, Clear, and other new buttons makes this not only more suited toward Xbox and Media Center configurations, but more useful overall;

(b) the Mute and Prev buttons are now below the Volume and Channel buttons, respectively, allowing the Back and Info buttons to be close to the navigation pad—this is a much more natural configuration, keeping your thumb from having to stretch too far for these functions;

(c) the introduction of the color coded Y/X/A/B buttons not only makes it possible to access basic Xbox functions, it adds more programmable buttons that you can leverage (such as the pre-programmed Live TV button);

(d) changing the shuttle (play/pause/stop/etc.) buttons from hard plastic to rubber makes them much easier to press;

(e) the green backlight makes the small text much easier to see [the picture here does not show the actual lettering, but an artist’s rendering], and the ring of light in the navigation pad is a nice addition;

(f) overall, the contrast of the text and symbols on the remote is much easier to see in dark lighting conditions than with the 520; and

(g) this remote has a much more solid and sturdy feel to it than the 520.

That said, it still has a few problems that I just can’t get past:

(a) The ridiculous “ring-of-buttons” rears its head again, with the volume, glow, and channel buttons formed together around the navigation pad—this makes each of them hard to differentiate by just feeling around. I’d much prefer simple rockers for both volume and channel. These are the most used buttons on any remote, yet they’re among the hardest to find here.

(b) The volume, glow, channel, and navigation pad buttons all still require a hard click, which requires far more pressure than seems appropriate. Again, rubber buttons on rockers could solve this problem.

So, I’m closer to finding the perfect remote, but not quite yet. I love the Harmony concept, and I truly hope that Logitech gets it right in the near future. In the meantime, this one went back to the store.

Logitech Harmony 520 universal remote control

Received it. Tried it. Returned it. Unfortunately, this didn’t live up to the hopes I had. I’ll be sticking with my Harmony 659. Why? Well, I’ve tried a variety of Harmony remotes since Logitech took over (in my opinion, the downfall). I even tried the mothership of Harmony remotes, the 880. I disliked the lack of tactile differentiation between buttons and odd arrangement of the play/pause/rev/fwd/etc buttons. Further, I disliked the odd adaptation of one of their earlier remotes’ “ring of buttons,” which included volume and channel controls.

On this remote, the 520, they’ve somewhat addressed the 880’s lack of button differentiation, but it still uses the odd shuttle control arrangement of the 880 and a limited adaptation of the “ring of buttons.” Further, this remote introduces an unnecessary degree of resistance to button presses, requiring the user to push some of the buttons until they “click.” This makes quick presses on the menu navigation button ring and volume buttons much more thumb-strenuous than they should be. Add to this that the slim design of the upper end of the remote, counter-balanced by the battery-heavy lower end, causes the remote to feel flimsy, while making button pressing at the top even more difficult. Oh yeah, and they’ve gone from double-pixel-wide (bold) letters in the LCD screen to single-pixel-wide (not bold) letters, making the screen much harder to read, especially with the blue backlighting.

Now let’s talk about the new configuration software. It’s actual software that runs as a client on your PC, yet it still pulls most of the content and configuration pages down from the web. In fact, it’s really nothing more than a Java-based minimalist’s web browser. What’s the point? All this to avoid “do you trust us?” dialogs in your browser? Seems entirely unnecessary.

There are some things I do like…they have replaced the Activity buttons with one main activity button, which then displays the activities on the LCD screen. You can now (finally) resequence the activites, so you can show your most frequent activities on the first “page.” Also, they’ve added another buton to allow for forward and backward navigation of LCD screen “pages” and reconfigured the screen to support one- or two-line labels for the soft buttons on the left and right edges of the screen.

I tried to like it. I even picked it up again one night after giving up on it several days earlier. Ultimately, though, this one went back to Target in just two week’s time. Luckily, target.com makes it really easy to return items to your local retail outlet.

An e-mail message to the Director of Communications at Philips

To Whom It May Concern:

I am disappointed and outraged that Philips has pursued patents on technologies that could significantly limit consumers’ control of their television viewing experience. While I understand your assertion that you have not yet implemented nor do you intend to implement such technologies in your devices, I have read the patent applications, and the language is very clear. The technology described in Philips’ application would essentially provide broadcasters with an extortionist approach toward television advertising: Watch the ads or pay! And as if preventing fast-forwarding in recorded content isn’t bad enough, the application describes technology that could hijack consumers’ hardware by disallowing them from changing channels during advertising! That is completely unacceptable. How dare manufacturers and content providers even consider such technologies? It is outrageous. Philips must truly disrespect consumers to pander so significantly to content providers and advertisers.

I am planning to purchase a new television in the coming months. I am an early adopter who spends thousands of dollars annually on consumer electronics. Because Philips might even contemplate technologies that could so significantly limit my usage rights as a consumer, you can be assured that I will not now ever consider purchasing products from Philips—not televisions, not kitchen appliances, not light bulbs. You, as a company, have completely lost my business.

Washington, D.C.