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 IT users 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 behaviour. 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.
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 labelled "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 fulfilment 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.
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 reauthorise 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 favourite 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!
Canned e-mail responses
Major offenders: Too many to list
The problem: The scan function on your multifunction printer won't work. You fire off an e-mail to the manufacturer's tech-support department, and a few minutes later a reply lands in your inbox. Wow, fast service! Suspiciously fast, in fact: Turns out it's just an automated response acknowledging receipt of your message. Or a boilerplate list of common questions and answers--none of which apply. Talk about tossing a boat anchor to the man who has just fallen overboard.
Bob Cameron, a systems administrator from Lawrenceville, Georgia, needed Yahoo's help with an e-mail problem: The service was blocking messages sent from his church to members with Yahoo accounts. So he visited Yahoo's support site, spent considerable time collecting the information that Yahoo requires for reporting an issue, and submitted his help request. In return, he received a canned response "asking me for the same information that I had already spent all that time collecting and editing." When he tried again, another response promised a personal answer within 48 hours (it never came) and directed him to the very site where he'd submitted the support request in the first place.
Seems like tech companies are doing more canning than Campbell's Soup. We contacted Yahoo--and received no response. We also got the silent treatment from HP, another company that dispatches canned replies to requests for help.
The fix: Believe it or not, we're willing to cut companies a little slack on this one, as support departments receive huge volumes of help requests, and a canned response at least assures you that your mail arrived. But when companies promise a personal follow-up, they'd better deliver. If the company doesn't answer your queries, you can always call tech support--or try a live online-chat session, if that's an option. In fact, both alternatives should yield much faster and more efficient results than e-mail.
Preferential support for business customers
The problem: You buy a PC from a vendor's home-user division, only to discover that the support reps barely speak English, know less about the product than you do, and fail to help you solve your problem. That's what happened to PC World contributor Dave Johnson, who has been living in tech-support hell since he purchased a high-end Dell XPS 720 desktop last fall.
The system blue-screens "at least once per day," Johnson says. Although Dell has replaced the system twice, each new machine behaves the same, and help seems nowhere to be found: "Every time I call tech support, a level-one rep walks me through the same basic troubleshooting steps, even if they've been tried a dozen times before." Promises to escalate the problem to a higher level never pan out.
Too bad Johnson didn't buy from Dell's business division. Ben Popken of consumer-advocacy site The Consumerist says there's "a world of difference" in the level of support that Dell's business customers receive. "Dell's small-business department is still in the U.S., and the techs are friendly, fast, and knowledgeable. They've even called me days after the tech call was over to check in and make sure everything is okay." But on the occasions when Popken inadvertently dialled the "home" support line, "the reps read off scripts, didn't listen, and didn't solve problems," he says.
The company refuses to acknowledge any disparity in support for its home and business lines. "Dell provides quality support for all our customers all over the world," says rep Tara Giovinco, adding that Dell has United States-based support centres for consumers as well as business customers. We don't think that's going to make Johnson feel any better.
The fix: Don't buy PCs from companies that have poor support ratings (see the results of our latest Reliability & Service survey). And don't automatically head to an e-tailer's home/home-office pages; you may find identical (or nearly identical) products in the small-business section of the site at comparable prices.
Small product, big box
The problem: You buy a flash drive, a memory card, a Bluetooth headset, or some other small item from a mail-order company, and the box that arrives on your doorstep looks large enough to accommodate a laser printer. But it's no mistake: You find your item inside--amidst a boxful of packing material.
Talk about wasteful! Not only are the oversize boxes excessive, they also consume an inordinate amount of space on the planes and trucks that are used to deliver them. That leaves less space for other packages, meaning fewer packages per delivery vehicle, more overall trips, more wasted fuel, and, consequently, higher shipping prices for you.
What's up with the big boxes? NewEgg didn't respond to our inquiries, but Amazon rep Patty Smith admits that it's a problem that needs fixing. "We know consumers are frustrated by [oversize] boxes, and we're working on it," she says.
To that end, Amazon recently developed software designed to determine which box size is appropriate for any given item, and claims a "significant decrease" in the number of purchases shipped in "wrong-size" boxes. Let's hope other sellers follow suit, because using man-size boxes for mouse-size items is just plain wrong.
The fix: Let your voice be heard! E-mail the offending companies and tell them you're done shopping there until they mend their environmentally unfriendly ways. Of course, you could always buy from a local retailer and avoid shipping boxes altogether. (While you're at it, skip the bag, too.)
Five company habits we love
Not all tech companies and practices annoy us. In fact, we found five examples of downright exemplary behaviour, the kind we wish other businesses would emulate.
1. Credit is due: In February, movie-rental pioneer Netflix suffered a one-day service outage that delayed its DVD shipments. Although probably few customers were even aware of the problem, the company issued all its customers a 5 percent credit on their monthly bill. That kind of proactive service is rare indeed.
2. Feeling Blu: Earlier this year, when Blu-ray Disc emerged as the victorious high-def media platform, owners of HD DVD players were left holding the pricey, soon-to-be-useless bag. Oh, well, that's the risk of being an early adopter, right? Not necessarily. After Circuit City offered to let customers return (for store credit) HD DVD players purchased up to 90 days earlier, Amazon and Best Buy stepped up with $50 store credits, and Wal-Mart issued a full refund to recent purchasers. We're pleased--if puzzled--by the generosity of these stores; after all, they had absolutely no obligation to bail out customers who could simply have waited for a high-def victor.
3. Fab freebies: We continue to tip our hats to software developers that offer fully loaded versions of their programs free for home users, including Avast Antivirus Home Edition, the cross-platform instant messaging program Trillian, and, of course, Google's Google Earth and Picasa. You'd expect an ad-supported company to pack the latter two freebies with, well, ads, but neither program has so much as a banner.
4. Hot for teachers: Much as we love free stuff, we also love companies that help educate consumers without making a sales pitch every step of the way. A fine example is Samsung's HDTV Guide.
5. Download and go: Those of us who buy most of our software online appreciate the ability to download programs again--for example, when we migrate to a new PC. Adobe, for instance, lets you access your online purchases simply by logging in to your account. The same goes for games bought on Valve's Steam site: "Your games are associated with your account, not your computer." That's how it should be for all software ordered and delivered online.
Readers speak: New-PC junk declared most annoying annoyance
What tech company practices annoy you the most? In conjunction with our feature "The 10 Most Annoying Habits of Tech Companies," we invited PCWorld.com visitors to rate a list of candidates on a 5-point scale ranging from not at all annoying to extremely annoying. The winner by far: marketing-oriented software and pitches, aka crapware, on new PCs, which a hefty 63 percent of the 1600-plus readers who responded rated as extremely annoying.
"I reinstall the OS on every new PC I buy just to get rid of the junk," wrote one respondent. "Amazingly, the computer usually boots and runs a lot faster than it did out of the box."
"We bought new computers this past year and had them built rather than deal with the junk that comes preinstalled on HPs, etc.," wrote another.
Several people complained about specific preinstalled applications.
"The Google Toolbar is popping up everywhere. Very annoying," said one of several comments about the ubiquitous software.
"What really makes my blood boil is products that come along without giving you an option, and they are on 'free trial,'" wrote another survey participant, who was particularly incensed about the Norton AntiVirus software that came on his new laptop. "Did I mention that if I decide to keep Norton, the price of purchase is higher than that of the retail package (at least here in Europe)? So, the free trial wasn't so free after all."
We weren't all that surprised by the outrage over preinstalled software with a marketing twist--this has been a hot-button issue for our readers for some time now. Back in 2006, we wrote about how junkware on a Dell notebook prompted one irritated engineer to write software to clean it up. Dell was no longer the worst offender when we addressed the problem more comprehensively in "Junkbusters" last year, but the problem remains. The cleanup software created in response to Dell's junk has morphed into a program called PC Decrapifier, which can work on any system.
The runner-up: Sunset policies
In our survey 53 percent of readers rated sunset policies--the withdrawal of functionality and/or support of old versions of software, presumably to get customers to upgrade--as extremely annoying.
Almost as large a group of readers had issues with rebates, spam from companies they had patronized, and canned e-mail replies that don't address their questions. Each problem earned an "extremely annoying" rating from about 45 percent of site visitors who took the survey.
Less-aggravating annoyances (in descending order of "extremely annoying" ratings) were skimpy tech support for Web services; splash-screen ads that appear on a Web site before you even get to the home page; the inability to recover downloaded digital content (most notably songs from iTunes and other music services) that you've lost; "upsell" efforts, or nags to upgrade a product you already have (or to spend money on additional products); and preferential treatment for business customers over home customers.
One interesting result: While the inability to recover lost digital content received an "extremely annoying" rating from 28 percent of those surveyed, even more people (30 percent) reported "don't know/not applicable" for that issue. This suggests several possibilities: people are being careful to make backups of anything they download; not many people lose downloaded content; or a significant number of people don't avail themselves of download services for software and content.
We also gave readers the opportunity to complain about annoyances that we hadn't listed, and we got an earful. Here are a few of the gripes:
The results of our survey should give overenthusiastic marketers pause. Most of the top annoyances--junkware, rebates, spam, over-the-top Web site ads, nagging--can turn valuable customers into very unhappy campers.