Posted by: inyourheadman | November 23, 2007

Get Creative! Can Do! ROCK ONNNNNN!!!

“whatthe<bleep>motherofall<bleep>stinkin<bleep> was that”?

The first reaction to the undoubtedly expensive propaganda video from our beloved Massive Display of Authority. The first few seconds were deceiving with the black and white turntable. Then the horror starts. Weird old people in different sizes start jumping around. The music is bad and stuck on a loop, the lyrics don’t rhyme and is senseless. Oh, and my eyes! What can be more horrible than seeing aunties and uncles in mid-life crises wearing their suits and trying to act hip with “slick” hand movements? It’s worse than accidentally catching your parents doing the nasty when you’re at puberty. Maybe they can use this as a new torture tool, crank up the volume, darken and fill the whole room with the video and let it rip for a few hours. I know I’ll confess to ANYTHING after 10 minutes.

To add insult to injury, it’s part of my tax contribution that goes into casting this sorry lot of retards for a fubar video. After all, we’re talking about the upper echelons of management here who are obscenely overpaid. They’re not professionals who, if casted, would undoubtedly be paid peanuts, in the spirit of “local talent promotion”. Hmm, then thinking about it again, they probably couldn’t get anyone to do it for peanuts, so if they’re going to pay all this money, let’s get management to do it! Yeah man! 1 point for money, 0 to creativity.

I wonder what was going on in the head of the person who came up with this idea. “Yeah I have to think out of the box. I know! I’ll get old fogeys to do a rap video and promote creativity!” Sorry mate, bad choice. Very bad choice. It just plainly shows the extreme lack of creativity in the agency authority that supposedly gathers and promotes local creativity. From my experience, all the really talented people with quality don’t sit in posh offices with their fat asses resting on 1000-dollar armchairs. Some things just painfully and obviously don’t go together. Try eating your ice-cream with stewed onions if you don’t know what I mean. Here’s a piece of advice, “LEAVE IT TO THE PROS”. Other countries must be laughing their ass off at this lame attempt to promote the country’s creativity.

I’m sure many people within the creative circle would be horrified, disgusted and appalled by this. Maybe the more tolerant ones would find it slightly amusing and view it as a joke. Joke or no joke, I’m staying away from them. For all I know, the next person I meet there might suddenly slap on some bling and start rapping contract terms to me. After all, we’re creative, you know! Can do! Rock on!

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Posted by: explodingman | September 17, 2007

iPhone in Singapore: A Prognosis

Ah, the saviour of phones. Finally someone bothered to make the phone as easy to use as it should have been in the first place. Some early adopters here have paid through the nose, and gone to the trouble of shipping in the iPhone and unlocking them.

iPhones!

Apple’s strategy is to dump the telcos in a boxing ring, and let them slug it out for the iPhone. Read Guardian’s account of the negotiations in UK (O2 wins Apple iPhone deal – at a hefty price).

Throughout discussions over marketing the iPhone in Europe, Apple has played off the UK’s four main networks – O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone – against each other. All of them, at one stage, believed they had an exclusive deal for the British market.

Apple has not officially divulged the cut of profits and other incentives that they pocket from such tie-ups. All that has been claimed by the company’s execs is that they want unlimited mobile data rates for iPhone customers due to the phone’s data-centric features like the Safari browser.

Mobile Safari

Unlimited mobile data

Will this herald the end of the ridiculous $10,000 per gigabyte charges that we are subject to currently?

Unlimited mobile data is really expensive here. It costs from $70+ to $100. And some telcos have weaseled in clauses in their T&Cs to give them the right to charge after a certain number of gigabytes are exceeded. That’s not “unlimited”.

The excuse that “international traffic is expensive so we have to charge high for mobile data” is tenuous at best, when unlimited ADSL and cable broadband rates here are not priced exorbitantly. Hong Kongers enjoy affordable mobile data plans, and AT&T charges just US$20 for unlimited EDGE for iPhone customers.

Green has already fired the first salvo with their unlimited MaxMobile plans, though as usual (like their “free incoming” plans) they are reluctant to commit to keeping the plan attractive indefinitely. (The 50% is only for their cable subscribers, and unlimited data ends when January 2008 comes unless they extend it.)

Red, Orange & Green

Now let’s look at the three telcos here, and allow me some room to make an educated guess based on what we’ve seen of these three in the past. (Bearing in mind the exploitative way almost all telcos worldwide treat their customers. Read my account.)

Red

The largest and most entrenched telco here. Due to their history as a government-owned entity, they have a very bureaucratic corporate culture pretty much like our civil service. It may be hard for them to move away from their “go by the book” mode of operation (e.g. Odex) due to the new way Apple is approaching the iPhone tie-up with telcos.

In the market, they usually take a reactionary stance, waiting for other competitors (especially Green) to make the first move, then following on with their own offers. Unlike the other two, Red is a large company, with more money to burn and more revenue streams, so they can usually turn out acceptable responses to the competition.

For them, it all comes down to how willing the are to break the mold and open their wallets to Apple. Their huge pipes to the internet would allow them to offer unlimited mobile data without taking much of a hit.

Orange

Started out after the mid-90s as a mobile phone operator and still remains one, while desperately exploring other forms of networks like WiMax to make money.

They also have a smack-talking CEO, which when quizzed about the iPhone at the recent CommunicAsia trade show, said:

If the iPhone is as successful as Apple wants it to be, it will only account for less than one percent of the total global phone production. It’s not going to make a major impact from an operator’s point of view.

We tend not to do exclusives because we believe customers should have a free choice, and it can’t be exclusive because you can’t lock phones to networks in Singapore.

Translation: I don’t think the iPhone will be successful. I can sell lots of other phones. I don’t usually do exclusive models.

Howver, just like all other telcos, they do go for exclusive models. (The Sony Ericsson K618i is exclusive to them.) To claim otherwise doesn’t make much business sense. Exclusivity is gold, especially when its a ground-breaking phone like the iPhone.

They are the most penny-pinching among the three (higher prices, less phone upgrading offers for customers, and even downright lying), so it seems unlike they will give in to Apple’s demands.

Furthermore, they are not an ISP so they cannot provide unlimited data plans without taking a hit like the other two (as evidenced in their 5GB cap on their once-“unlimited” wireless “broadband” plans).

Green

The youngest telco, though now bigger than Orange due to their acquisition of SCV. Like the other two, they also do some anti-consumer things, but occasionally, they have shown that they are willing to offer customers something of value to gain market share.

Anyone remembers when they blazed into the ISP market by offering free modem dial-up, when Red was still charging Singaporeans through the nose (time-based phone charges plus data traffic charges)?

They were the first to introduce free incoming calls while the other two were happily gouging customers by simultaneously charging for incoming and outgoing calls when land lines weren’t metered that way. (The other two resisted for a while, but had to give in.)

They also made other pro-consumer moves like per-second billing, free talktime rollovers, and more free SMS for customers who pay by GIRO.

However, internally, the company has a tight control on cashflow, and cannot match Red in terms of “money power”, so this might cause them to pull out of the deal.

If Green is able to stomach the conditions that Apple places on them, they might just nab the exclusive on the iPhone. They also have pipes to the internet, and their “only until December 2007” unlimited MaxMobile offer shows that they can provide unlimited data if they really want to.

Who will get the iPhone?

I would put Green as the most likely telco to nab the iPhone, and Red at second place, if they are able to jump over the hurdles of their legacy. Orange is as unlikely as Creative overtaking Apple in the MP3 player market, unless they get really really desperate.

When sell har?

That’s the question, isn’t it?

Apple hasn’t announced anything concrete besides stating “Asia 2008” in January 2007.

It will be sooner rather than end 2008, because Apple has recently hit 1 million in the US, and has set a target of 10 million iPhones by the end of 2008.

Unless the iPhones sell really well in other markets, they will have to roll out the phones worldwide as fast as they can when 2008 rolls around, otherwise its going to be embarrassing, stock price notwithstanding.

What can I do to prepare?

True number portability is coming in 2008, so we can switch telcos and take our numbers along with us.

In the meantime, do not sign any mobile phone contracts!

To prevent a massive fallout when true number portability is launched and the publicity machine gets underway, the telcos here are moving furiously to entice consumers to sign 2-year contracts by offering discounts on post-paid plans without requiring a phone purchase.

Apple, if you’re reading, bring the iPhone to Singapore quick! The country’s small. There are only three telcos. Its easy to roll it out here.

And by the way, when is the official Apple Store coming?

Posted by: explodingman | September 7, 2007

Of Telcos and Subtle Trickery

Its been a well-known phenomenon worldwide that telcos are not your friend.

They go out of their way to leash their customers by locking phones, charging extra for basic features, enforcing multi-year contracts, and demanding manufacturers remove features from phones if they caused them to lose revenue. (Example: Preventing manufacturers from including Wi-Fi in phones so that they can charge for mobile data at extortion rates.)

Old customer? So?

M1… what can I say about them as a decade-old customer? Nothing much. Since I’m not a high volume user, they have only bothered to send me a phone upgrade offer just once. I’m probably not worth the trouble to keep as a customer. The green and red telcos are more generous in that regard.

I still remember the early days when M1 treated their customers with respect. They would even loan me a phone for free when I sent mine in for repairs. Have you even heard of that?

Getting worse (deliberately)

My personal experience with M1 has been ok until recently, where a few incidents made me think otherwise. These are not accidental, “just my dumb luck”, or “my bad” situations.

These are roadblocks deliberately put in place by the execs in the company to subtly manipulate their customers.

Please fix my SIM card!

SIM cards do get old and sometimes not work. Your phone looks like its working, but you don’t get calls or SMS messages. Most people don’t realize that this problem can be caused by the SIM card.

In the past, I’ve been able to exchange them for a new one by going down to any M1 Shop. (The staff there are friendly in general, though some are more in the “fake friendly” category that’s so often seen in Singapore retail.)

But now you can’t. To exchange a faulty SIM card, I was told that I had to pay a fee for a new SIM card. They will not give me a free exchange even if its spoilt because its my fault.

I have to go to a “customer service center” in some less convenient location, queue up for hours waiting to be serverd, after which the people there will decide if I deserve a new SIM card so that I can continue using my phone line and chalk up more charges in my next bill.

I was kindly warned that it doesn’t look good and I might still have to still pay for the SIM card over there. This is the subtle “fuck with your mind” part, which really means: “Do you want to go all the way there only to find out that you still have to pay? Why not pay us for a new SIM card right here, and save all your trouble?”

Too bad for people who are in the midst of work, and have to get their phones working by seeking help at one of the many M1 Shops found at prime locations. No, you must now go to a “customer service center” to get real customer service. The M1 Shop can only do things that bring in money.

Free (with hidden conditions)

The most infamous technique, is the long-held tradition of giving you some “free” service (like a custom ringtone service), then hiding the * only for the first month fine print in a 6-point, light gray font, at the furthest possible location from the sentence itself. They cross their fingers, hoping that you’re sleepy enough to miss it.

Will they tell you when its up, and ask you to decide if you want to continue? Fat chance. They’ll let it lapse, then “ka-ching”. Call them a day later?

Sorry sir, you have used this service for 1 month and 1 day. You have to pay us for $15 for the 2nd month irregardless.

“Lucky” for me, there was a “promotion” where I could get a new 3G SIM card for free, if I sign up for an “unlimited” video streaming plan. The staff said “You can cancel at anytime by calling the hotline.” Yes, I was lazy, so I signed up.

Rather than giving their customers a flat $5 plan for viewing all their blocky, postage-stamp sized, jerky streaming video, they separated this into three packages: “entertainment”, “music” and “news” which are separately charged.

Another little trick here: Their staff are instructed to sign customers for all three packages without informing the customer. Unless the customer specifies, they will not even tell you that you can actually choose any combination of the three.

And if you forget to cancel all three packages… “ka-ching!”

Update: I went down, NRIC in hand, to the same M1 Shop where I signed up for video streaming. They refused to cancel it for me. The explanation:

M1 Shop provides different services than M1. We cannot cancel it for you here. You must call the hotline.

Great. I can sign up for any service at the M1 Shop but I can’t cancel any of them there, when I used to be able to in the past. I can’t wait to hear M1’s “we have the customer’s interest at heart” explanation.

Free (isn’t very free)

Another trick that was in place when M1 started operation, was to give their customers “free” voicemail service. Which they would then proceed to charge the standard voice call rates when you called the magic number to listen to your voice. If they could, they would make you sit through more unnecessary steps (like “please press 1 to listen again, or 2 to return”) to make your stay on the voicemail system longer.

I’ve tried to cancel voicemail in the past but they gave some bullshit “due to techinical reason… voicemail is free anyway…” excuse. When you get voicemail, you are compelled to find out who called you. Worse, you can’t disable it. “Ka-ching!”

The Password

So I was smart (maybe). I wasn’t going let a telco screw me, so I updated my calendar with the date I should cancel the video streaming. I called them on that day.

Me: Hi, I’d like to cancel the video streaming service.
Operator: What’s your password sir?
Me: Uhh… do I have one?
Operator: Yes sir. You need to tell us your password so that we can activate services for you over the phone.
Me: I don’t recall having one
Operator: Are you adding or cancelling a service, sir?
Me (stupidly): Cancelling
Operator: I’m so sorry sir. We must have the password… we are not authorized to make any changes to your account over the phone without… this is to protect our customers… you will have to go down to our customer service centers at…

For the record, I did not forget my supposed password. I was not issued one in the past. M1 does not send out those computer-printed mailers that tell you your password either. You can’t reset it at the M1 Shop either. You can do it by calling the hotline, which requires you to tell them your original password. Fantastic.

The introduction of the password puts another roadblock, which some M1 exec probably got promoted for this fantastic idea because they now have less people using the call center.

Call centers have a higher service quality standard. The phone needs to be answered within a couple of seconds, and customers shouldn’t be put on hold for too long. The press reports on this now and then, so they can’t look bad compared to the green and red competitor. Especially not when M1 has topped the ranks in many surveys.

In fact, M1 takes this so seriously they send you a SMS after your call to rank the service provided by the particular call center staff. (Another “ka-ching” opportunity, as you are charged for sending one SMS to them.)

They would rather you go down to their physical store, take a gander at the latest shiny phones (which you can get by signing another 2-year contract) and queue for hours waiting for the three and only three people there to serve you.

For some reason, locals are less likely to complain about long queues, than when they are put on hold. By driving you to their stores, they save money. They need not hire more people at the store since you took the trouble to go all the way there, you have no choice but to queue.

The “we care so much for our customers that we go out of our way to ensure that others cannot impersonate and sabotage our customers and subscribe extra services (for which we will charge and earn more money)” song and dance routine sure sounds legitimate, but is hardly made in the interest of customers when a simple checking of personal particulars is sufficient.

The other telcos do that, and even credit card companies dealing with sensitive financial information do that instead of requiring a password which can be easily forgotten. So what’s the real motivation here?

And the fact that I was asked if I wanted to activate or cancel a service, before I was forcefully refused showed their agenda pretty clearly. They’ll let you through with a quick particulars check if they can bill you for more services (happened to me before), but they will make it difficult for you to cancel anything.

Redefining “unlimited”

If M1 could, they’d get the Oxford Dictionary to change the definition of “unlimited”. But obviously they can’t, so its back to the 6-point fine-print technique.

Some of you may know that when M1 launched their “broadband” service (which is actually slow-as-molasses 3G mobile data) they had the word “unlimited” plastered all over their advertising campaign.

They weaseled in a “fair use policy” which stated that even though its “unlimited” the company had the option to charge their rob-a-bank rates if they (at their discretion) decided that the customer used too much bandwidth.

When consumers cried foul (see this CNET Asia post), they weaseled further and said “we don’t enforce it strictly.”

Oh please, if I’m legally liable, then what is the difference? Its like a dictatorship that makes gatherings of 3 or more people illegal, allows people to gather for barbeques, but enforces it when the an opposing political factions tries to organize any event, then telling the people that “if we don’t enforce the law, what is the law for?”

The “unlmited” video streaming service actually has a very convenient little piece of trickery built in too. You will not be charged the standard per-kilobyte 3G data rate when you actually play the video, but when you use your phone’s browser to surf the web site to see the list of videos available, they charge you. “Ka-ching!”

Try questioning them on this point and they’ll avoid the question by telling you to subscribe to a mobile data plan to defray the per-kilobyte charges (which is still subject to additional rob-a-bank rates after exceeding a certain number of megabytes).

How absurd are the mobile data charges in Singapore? How about $10,000 for 1 miserable gigabyte.

Lessons

I believe the only way is to treat telcos like they’re out to squeeze you dry and make your life difficult when you try to do something that causes them to have to bill you less the next month.

Be very careful when signing up for additional services or contracts. There are loopholes where they charge you extra and nicely-worded “fair use” policies that you will be rushed to sign on-the-spot.

True number portability is coming soon, which will allow you to keep your phone number even when your number appears in your friend’s phone (instead of the pseudo forwarding that is currently available).

In the meantime, don’t sign any contracts so that you can give your telco the finger without them thumbing your nose in response.

Once phones get as powerful as the iPhone, and come with real browsers and IP-based VOIP telephony, telcos will once again be relegated to their original role of providing just the data connection.

We can stream video, surf web sites, download ringtones and do many other things on the internet without paying the telcos for additional services. The telcos fear that, and are squeezing their customers, for as long as they can, by playing these anti-consumer tricks. Don’t be a victim.

If you’ve been played by the telcos here, do share your stories here too.

Posted by: explodingman | August 28, 2007

Esplanade’s Three-Second Taps

Ah, the Esplanade. Its nice to see our little red dot aim for something as iconic as the Sydney Opera House. Its touted as a “world class” performance and arts center, and I can personally say that the concert hall is pretty fantastic, especially its excellent acoustics.

Alas, it only takes one misguided committee decision to cause consternation for millions of visitors to the center every year, who are most likely to take a leak in the washrooms.

The way the taps in the washrooms work makes it seem like the Esplanade is in a country with constant drought and water shortage. You’ve got to put your hands in a very precise location before the tap will release the water. Then, you’ve got a mere three seconds to wash your hands.

After that, the water stops. Move your hands around the sensor. Nothing. You got to move your hands away from the tap, wait a few seconds for the electronics to go “hand is gone, allow water again” before attempting another miserable three-second squirt.

This is taking the “save water campaign” a little too far. First we have the twist-it-on, twist-it-off taps, which the third-world-brained nitwits in our first-world country played too many a prank and spoiled it for the rest of us.

(These are also the inconsiderate buffoons who stick so much gum on lift buttons, buses and public benches that the authorities had to ban chewing gum, and make Singapore famous the world over, albeit in an infamous way.)

So the authorities decreed that all public washrooms must use the press-and-hold taps in the name of saving water. These taps are infuriating to use, especially when programmed to shut off in mere seconds. We “wash hands”, not “wash one hand after the other”.

And now the first-world, high-tech, electronic-operated, no-button, three-second tap.

It all comes down to how the general population is and wants to be regarded. Are we sheep to be constantly subject to architectures of control? Or are we people who can be trusted to behave in a civil manner?

I’ll leave the last word to Jerry Seinfeld, taken from his live show “I’m Telling You for the Last Time”:

What is the story on the sinks in airport bathrooms
That they will not give us a twist-it-on twist-it-off, human-style faucet?
Is that too risky for the general population?
Too dangerous? We gotta install the one-handed, spring-loaded,
pain-in-the-ass Alcatraz-style faucet.
You know, those ones you gotta go: “Hey I got a little water there”
“Hey I got a couple of drops.”
What is it they think we would do with a faucet?
Turn them all on full, run out into the parking lot,
laughing, pushing each other into the bushes?

Posted by: flyingman | August 24, 2007

NTUC Income: Who cares? I’m the cheapest in town

NTUC Income

A customer discovered in horror that he was able to browse others’ insurance policies on the Policy Online Enquiry system, using his own id. He reported the problem to the company a few times, but only to be warned not to look at others’ policies. To make matters worse, no immediate action was taken about the security breach.

NTUC Income does not exactly have a good reputation amongst insurers in Singapore. It is perhaps the only insurance company that requires a review panel for medical claims, the same way car claims are made. The usual justification given is that the company does this to ensure that it is able to offer the lowest rates to consumers in the long run. You could almost imagine how difficult it would be, to wait for the panel’s decision when a loved one needs to undergo a critical but expensive surgery.

The company makes no apologies about this ‘pro-business’ stance. Perhaps its ex-CEO had deeply imprinted his personal philosophy and attitude on the way business is being conducted.

Tan Kin Lian

The truth is, cost is not always the most important thing in business and services. Not only such security breaches betray sloppiness and a lack of professionalism, the poor attitude exhibited confirms that the company does not care to put its customers’ interests first.

To echo the advice given by a non-NTUC Income insurance agent: If you value one’s privacy and dignity, you might do better to pay more and take the business somewhere else.

AIA

Great Eastern

Prudential

ManuLife

AXA Insurance

Posted by: explodingman | June 30, 2007

One TV Spigot

It has been a few years since SPH MediaWorks was absorbed by MediaCorp.

Is the situation any better? For the companies involved, probably yes. SPH got out of a loss-making operation. MediaCorp monopolizes the space again.

For one, I’m glad Channel U didn’t degenerate into something unwatchable. Sports fads lament the loss of SportsCity. Who still remembers that part of TV history?

But for TV junkies like me who feed on quality foreign entertainment, we have to watch them at ungodly hours. But that’s not the problem!

After MediaWorks disappeared from the scene, we now have to wait for ungodly months (or years even) just to be able to watch the latest imported shows.

Worse, some shows like Heroes, the latest breakout hit in the US, isn’t available on channel 5. You can guess how Singaporeans watch Heroes. (No, not via the company with the overused “hub” word.)

MediaWorks and MediaCorp used to fight tooth and nail for good shows. They even signed exclusive deals with studios like Paramount.

That’s what competition gets you. Monopolies don’t. I think this logic is crystal clear in the minds of Singaporeans, given the events in the past few months.

Pay StarHub for cable, you say? Then watch as they lament about increasing licensing costs for new programmes? Well, maybe I should try not paying the radio and TV licence.

If a country like New Zealand, with a similar population can sustain more TV stations, why not us?

Will SingTel’s new IPTV service be able to shake up the scene?

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