@madpilot makes

Bad customer support = Unhappy campers

I do a lot of front end development, and as a result, I use Adobe Photoshop a lot. I also use Acrobat Professional frequently and Flash and Illustrator enough to warrant purchasing the full Design Premium package. Said Design Premium Package is pretty expensive, so to spread my costs, I’m using the subscription edition. Recently, I had to change my subscription plan, so I cancelled it, and re-subscribed, and so begins my trip down the rabbit hole that is Adobe Support.

Because I had paid for my subscription online, and opted for the downloadable version, I should have received a serial number in my email. I didn’t. Thankfully CS4 goes in to trial mode, so I could still use it whilst I sorted out the serial problem. Time to call Adobe…

Firstly, it was neigh on impossible to find the Australian support number on their website – when ever you try to access support, it defaults to you the US – I assume because the subscription edition doesn’t have an Australian number. Thankfully, one of my friends had general support number in her rolodex.I call the number, and after 45 minutes on hold listening to horrific elevator muzak, I get through to the product activations. The operator was polite enough – but they have to be – the script they are reading would demand it. I give them my email address (and say yes to allowing them to contact me on it), and then give them my phone number in case I get disconnected. After the operator goes through the rest of their script, she realises that actually I need a different department, and asks if she can transfer me. Whilst I would have though that to be an obvious solution, I play along. Phone goes dead.

I can see why they ask for your number. I left it 10 minutes to  see if they would call back. Nadda. So I call them back, another 30 minutes on hold, plus 5 minutes going through the tier-1 product activation script, and the next customer server representative transfers me through. Finally I get to the right department – Subscriptions.Unfortunately, the tier-1 subscriptions customer service representative can’t help with missing serial codes, so they take down for phone number and email address (for the 3rd time) and setup an open case in their support console, in preparation for a tier-2 support officer.Now, I play the waiting game. By this stage Christmas has come and I’m away and forget about CS4 for the moment. Due to inactivity (on their part, mind you) it would seem that they closed the job off. Result: No serial number.

I get back from Christmas, and call up again – by this stage I only have a week left on my trial, so I need to get this sorted quick smart. I go through the exact same steps as above (including the phone disconnection), and once again, a ticket gets opened. After 48 hours, I leave a message following up, as I still have no reply. After 5 more working days (By this stage my trial has finished), I ring back. They ask for my case number, which I give them, which returns a completely different customer case. After giving them my email AGAIN, they find it, and transfer me through to subscriptions. Magically, the service agent finds me a serial number and give it to me. Unfortunately, the downloaded version of the subscription trial requires a serial number with only numbers. The one she gives me has letters. Her reasoning behind this is because I didn’t install it off the DVD.

So, I’ve just uninstalled CS4, and I’m waiting for it to reinstall, which has taken (so far) about an hour. I tell you what, the serial number better be right, or shit will hit the fan.To be continued…

UPDATE: It’s the wrong serial number.

UPDATE 2: I’m once again waiting for tier-2 or tier to email me back.

UPDATE 3: Well, it’s all sorted now! It turns out that the subscription pack is being trialled in Australia, so Adobe hasn’t quite got the process down yet (They might want to make this a little more obvious…). The issue I had was resolved by circumnavigating the Adobe store, and just using the eSellerate console to purchase the new subscription. So all is well that ends well – I’ve provided my feedback, so hopefully this drama will conclude with a better user experience for subscription customers.

Thank you to everyone involved in helping to fix the issue: AJ Mercer,  Brett Favour, @Adobe_Bing and Kirsten Harris. Special mention too to Tian Cheng and Nick Hodge for making some noise through their personal networks too.

Interview: Marc Lehmann from Saasu.com

You may or may not have heard about a little conference we are putting on in a couple of weeks. We are particularly excited by the speakers that we have coming over. I was luckily enough to catch up with one of them: Marc Lehmann from Saasu.com for a quick chat about SaaS.

ME: Briefly explain what it is that your company does.

ML: Saasu provides secure and reliable online accounting software via the web so businesses can concentrate on financial success. In a practical sense you can create invoices, manage inventory, do the payroll and pay bills using a web browser in a synchronised way.

ME: You have been in SaaS, back when is was called ASP (Application Service Providers), how has the landscape changed?

ML: We used to call this a shared application back in 2000 before terms like Multi-Tennant and SaaS came along. The uptake was slow until eventually Salesforce.com educated the corporate market enough that they got traction in 2005. At the same time the consumer was falling more and more in love with having their stuff online. It was almost a barbelled acceptance by consumers and enterprises in 2006 and 2007. Small business and their advisers were probably the last to start the move and that was partly caused by the lack of applications targeting them. Now it mainstream with more than 20% of consumers who use computers using SaaS applications of one kind or another. I think 2010 will be the crossover year where software losses it’s grip.

ME: If you were back working for a corporation, how would you convince your manager to adopt SaaS systems?

ML: Getting people to accept they are already SaaS converts is the best way. They probably already use web based gmail, hotmail or online banking as examples. I’d then hammer it home by getting the P&L out and putting some big chunky black lines through the hardware, depreciation, software and servicing costs. Then add $20 to $200 per month for online accounting. Demonstrating the financial difference is very effective in larger companies.

ME: What are some of the challenges faced by SaaS providers, and how do you see companies like yours overcoming them?

ML: By far the biggest challenge is convincing people to kick their software habit. Fortunately they only have to try SaaS once before they realise it’s a much more powerful drug. They tend to flip the SaaS Utility switch on so they can have their business life online. Shifting their data to a high-end data centre with all it automated backups and high level of security becomes a whole new peace of mind addiction they didn’t know about. And at the same time it’s not ripping a hole in their pocket.

ME: Your background is in finance, so I’m sure you have an opinion on how SaaS will fair during this current climate – how do you see it affecting the uptake of SaaS services, and why?

ML: The low capital, fast implementation cycle for SaaS suits this financial crisis and economic slowdown very well. If you are looking to cut hardware, software and HR costs then invariably people keep coming back to SaaS as the answer. It is a user pays system that scales with business, saves capital expenditure and simplifies deployment and training.

ME: Thanks Marc!

If you want to hear more about SaaS, then head over to the Edge of the Web website and register your tickets!

New version of 88 Miles goes live!

For the past couple of months, I’ve been slaving away prepping the next version of 88 Miles, my simple time tracking application and now, I can happily announce it is alive! There are heaps of new features, and bug fixes, including a migration to Rails 2, a migration to a new server as well some dabbling in the wonderful world of Rails plugins. Some of the features are below:

Saasu.com integration

Many people have been asking for invoicing from 88 Miles, but since it is really outside of where I’d like to see 88 Miles go (The strap line is Simple time tracking for a reason) so Saasu | The web finance engine to the rescue! I wrote the the Rails plugin that talks to Saasu.com, and I’ll be releasing it shortly after making a few cleanups (There are some parts of the API I’m not using in 88 Miles that are still a little rough around the edges). The plugin will allow users to sync companies and contacts as will as create invoices straight from their timesheets. I’m pretty excited by this feature.

OpenID support

88 Miles is now OpenID aware, so you can use your third-party OpenID to login to 88 Miles. Just between you and me, OAuth will be coming soon (as soon as the rails plugin and ruby library settle).

New REST endpoints

There has been quite a bit of work on the REST API — it should now be much more consistent (i.e the data that the server sends and the data that the server expects is the same). I’ve also removed the /api in the endpoint URL, as it was becoming a nightmare to maintain.

New Server

Finally, the biggest change is our new server! We have moved over to a Joyent accelerator, which are specifically tuned to the Ruby on Rails platform. This means everything will be quicker. The old Media Temple server, whilst great didn’t really allow for much customisation, and with the Christmas special of two years for the price of one, it was kind of hard to pass up.

It’s been a fun ride – this project is always a great learning experience for me – and it helps that there are others out there that like it. Go and try it out if you haven’t before (or even if you have) :)

Enterprise Rails

Anyone in the Rails community would have read Zed Shaw’s rant about Rails. For those of you who don’t know Zed, he wrote Mongrel, which is the default web server library used in Rails. It has blown up and been discussed on just about every list, including Rails Oceania. I’m not going to discuss what he said, or his tone, as it has been done to death, and he seems like the type of guy that you need to know to understand where he is coming from.

What did hit home from me was what he said out enterprise Rails. To frame this correctly, have a listen to the first half of this podcast from RailsConf.

As a rubyist, I could never understand why projects like JRuby or IronRuby existed. Why would you want to run another language in a different virtual machine? After reading and listening to Zed, the answer is obvious – integration for enterprise. If you look at existing enterprise systems they will run on technologies such as Java and ASP.NET and with good reason: Support. You can go to certified training courses and become a certified engineer, which makes hiring for these large corporates easy. There is also a a large number of consultants that have based their business models on these technologies. These guys know things like Tomcat and IIS – they don’t know (or care) about Mongrel or Lighttpd or even Apache.

Web 2.0 is not going to be around forever – regardless of whether you think the web-o-sphere is in a bubble at the moment, it will cycle at some point, and there is going to be a hell of a lot Rails developers out of jobs. Software-as-a-Service will alleviate some of this, but there is one BIG area that has been ignored – and that is corporate and government applications. The beauty of targeting this audience is that it is big and constant – their will always be big business that need IT systems. There is a number of reasons why this segment has been ignored by Rails coders that Zed rattles off – issues with connecting to legacy databases, lack of LDAP/central login system access – but these are technical issues, which are easy for programmers to fix.

I think the bigger issue is the complexity culture of enterprise systems – DRY isn’t something is in their vocabularies, so we don’t like to talk to them, because it makes our lives harder, and they don’t want to talk to us, because they don’t think the systems we build will do what they are asking. Having said that, I’ve seen enough hacked up Access databases in government and the education system to realise that this is complexity, for complexity’s sake.

Things like JRuby and IronRuby are going to make the the integration side of things easier – now we need to start getting back in to the corporate space.

SaaS is basically the same thing as ASP – ASP is what it was called during the last dot-com boom.

Hot or Not

Call it lazy blogging, but the beginning of a new year is a perfect opportunity to write a list post. I’m not going to call the list below predictions for 2008 as there is absolutely no scientific basis for any of this, so I’m calling it Hot or Not – stuff that I think/want to be hot in 2008 and stuff that I would love to see head to the big TCP/IP stack in the sky.

OAuth: Hot. Anything that brings some sort of order to the big bad world of web APIs is a good thing. If you haven’t seen it yet, it is a specification that describes a method for token-based access to third party applications. So now there is really no excuse for that confounding social network to ask for your usernames and passwords to all of your other confounding social networking sites, just so it can spam have access to all of your friends.

Confounding Social Network sites: Not. OK. That is enough. I am over been bamboozed at the sight of another social network that has no direction, meaning or business model. The concept behind a social network is cool – we used to call them forums, remember – but it is now officially out of control. To the “entrepreneurs” behind them – stop trying to kill Facebook, they have more money than you and careless less about their users than you ever could (Exception: Spock – You are still Satan’s spawn).

Software as a Service: Hot. It’s kinda like Web2.0 but this time with meaning. Bring back computing to what it was meant for – helping humans to do what they do. The web is the perfect delivery method for a lot of the desktop software we use everyday. Google has already shown us what can be done with apps like GMail and Google Docs and there is a myriad of web applications that have made the leap (If I can build one, anyone can). Pay for what you use, don’t worry about license fees any more, don’t worry about what happens when you hard drive crashes, or about deploying to all 500 machines in your organisation.

Advertising as a Business Mode: Not. The darling child of Web2.0/New Media/Social Networks. Unless your site is already doing the traffic of Google/YouTube/Facebook or your are a porn site, go and erase the “we will pay for our hosting via advertising” line from you business plan. Seconds thoughts, if you are Facebook, you should probably do the same (Nice work on beacon – at what point did that actually seem like a good idea?). Advertising only works if there is eyeballs a LOT of eyeballs on pages and if your target audience is the type that clicks on ads. And since every man and his dog has released a social network this week, you aren’t a unique snowflake. Get a real business plan first.

Mashups: Hot. Yeah, I know – these have been around since the first beta of Web 2.0 but it has never really extended much beyond adding a Google Map to your site. I think 2008 and will see some really cool productivity apps built leveraging the webservices of other web sites. I think that it may even spill over in to the corporate world – I’d love to see company intranets using webservices to customise workflows.

Getting VC funding then hoping to sell to <insert large company name here>: Not. Now, I have no problem with the concept of funding, or the hopes and dreams of having a large company with a bank balanace bigger than your phone number (including country and area code) throw you some bones, per se. Where I do draw the line, however is pitching with a business plan that can’t really pay back a return to the investor unless the business get bought out. Mind you, the investors really should know better – or maybe they are just much smarter than I am, who knows. Regardless, when this whole thing collapses in on it’s self, I’ll be dancing like it is on sale for $19.99…

Mobile: Hot. This is the next frontier for the web. Everyone has a mobile (some people two or three) and they are generally on their person at all times. Extend the SaaS idea to these small devices and you really will be able to get your stuff done when it suits. Again, this isn’t new, but there have been some advancements in technology and some new players who understand the web much better (that’s Google if you were wondering). I think 2008 is the year that see the mobile platform as a first-class netizen rather than something that the work experience kid gets to work on.

Using user data with out permission: Not: You would have by now seen my (MANY) rants about Spock and Facebook. Those playing in the dirty, back alleyways of social networking really need to take a long hard look at themselves. It’s my data, and I’d prefer it if you didn’t sell my browsing habits to the highest bigger. And don’t even think about scraping my data from other sites without my permission – they asked nicely, you didn’t.

Company-as-a-Service: Hot. Haven’t heard of this? That’s because I just made it up. We have seen Software-as-a-Service, Hardware-as-a-Service (eg Amazon EC2), so why not have have companies that can shrink, grow and churn as required? There are so many freelancers and consultants out there, as well as a huge number of micro businesses. If they all grouped together, they would be able to work on sites ranging from the very-very big to the very-very small. Many places kind of do this already (this is why contracting was invented) but I can see this working in a more peer-to-peer sort of way – you aren’t contracting for someone, you are contracting with someone (there is a remarkable difference).

New years lists: Not.

Leave a comment – Is this Hot or Not ;)

Facebook, OpenSocial – meh. Why aren’t widget useful?

Widgets are a hot topic in the world of social networks and blogs, but at the end of the day they really don’t make our lives better. I mean honestly, if all of those widgets out there stopped would we miss them? Hell, some of them are down right annoying. The IDEA of a widget is not as dumb as some of these apps, but for some reason they haven’t been embraced by those developers that are helping us to get things done.

Google has just released OpenSocial, and I was admittedly pretty excited – for about 5 and a half seconds at which point I realised it would have limited scope outside of the social networking world (hence the name). Why was I excited? Well I would love to be able to create a widget for 88 Miles – imagine being able to drop a time-tracking widget into BaseCamp or NetAccounts or <insert you favourite GTD application here>? Or, even better, into your internal intranet.

OpenSocial has so much potential, but isn’t quite there for the Software as a Service guys, so why don’t we create a an Open Widget API? What do we need? Well, not that much – if we flip the way that OpenSocial works a little and do a little work from the application side.

JavaScript, JSON and HTTP

The easiest way to drop your widget on to a third-party site would be JavaScript. Create a standard JavaScript end-point that the third-party app can retrieve. Maybe it could pass in a element id that you could use to build your DOM tree from. Because the script is hosted on YOUR server, you can make calls back to your server via AJAX. You can use this to generate HTML, make callbacks, retrieve JSON and generally interact with your database.

This is SO easy with Rails, as you can get a JSON REST API out of the box, with very little effort. PHP/Pylons/ASP.NET will do the same thing easily enough to. Extend that idea, and with a little knowlegde of the site you are embedding on, you could probably even interact – add a company to your Basecamp account and it would automatically add it to 88 Miles. You could do it by registering observers of specific types maybe – not sure, will still have to think that bit through.

Authentication

We already have a system for authentication – it’s called OpenID. If your site implements OpenID, it is pretty god-damn trivial to authenticate a user that has already authenticated on the third party site. Any OpenID provider worth it’s wait will remember your credentials once you have logged in – so the third party site can pass your OpenID URL down to the widget, then you can authenticate them from there, and because your provider has already logged you in, you won’t need to enter a username or password.

The ultimate mashup

If all of your favourite apps had these widgets, you could easily drop them in to your intranet site. How kick-arse would that be? What do you think?