Monday, 24 September 2007

The Big 18-Month Mobile Contract Scam

If you buy a new mobile phone contract in the UK these days, chances are that the sales person you are going to talk to will try to sell you an 18 month contract rather than a 12 month one. Be extremely careful before you decide to take such a contract. Perks will include a free mobile phone and a slightly cheaper contract than the shorter one. The downside is that you can only upgrade your handset after 18 months rather than 12. Not a major problem you may think if you are not the type who needs the latest handset as soon as it comes out.

Think again. And ask the sales person what is the length of the manufacturer's warranty on the handset. Chances are, the warranty for the handset is 12 months. If your handset starts malfunctioning through no fault of your own while it is under warranty, or once you are eligible for an upgrade, the provider will replace it at no cost to you. However, if your handset plays up after the warranty has expired but before you are eligible for an upgrade, that is during the last 6 months of a typical 18 month contract, then the provider will not replace the handset and you will have to buy one yourself at full market price.

Of course all this is explained in the small print of your contract but no sales person will mention it to you without prompting. So don't forget to ask and if the warranty on the handset expires before you are eligible for an upgrade, don't take the contract.

I just got bitten by that interesting loophole with Vodafone and am now left with a malfunctioning handset for the last 3 months of my contract. Luckily the fault is not debilitating, it just means that the handset occasionally restarts while in the middle of a call, cutting the call short. Not a complete failure then, but still extremely annoying. Evidently, the second my current contract expires, I will go shopping around for a new contract and I will only stay with my current provider if they can offer me a significantly better deal than the competition.

As Vodafone's support told me, everybody else does the same because the handset's warranty is set by the manufacturer, not the network and they have no say in this. Well, maybe they should talk to the manufacturers and solve this loophole. The reason why it should be solved is because the handset is bundled with the contract. You don't buy the handset, you buy a contract to provide you with mobile phone services and you are given a handset as part of that contract to enable you to connect to the service. The cost of the handset is then included in the price you pay for the service and it should be completely covered by the service agreement for the duration of that agreement. In the case where you buy the handset separately, you buy a service and an electronic device to use with this service, there are two separate transactions and it is therefore sensible to treat them separately. Not when the handset is bundled with the service.

I may be barking at the wrong tree but I will definitely contact the Office of Fair Trading and ask them whether this practice is actually fair. I shall update this blog when I have an answer.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Bad Interface Design

Apple Computers are reknown for some of the best user interfaces. Like everybody else, they can occasionally get it wrong. I just had an amusing example of this. If you go to the HSBC web site and download any of their PDF documents such as their terms and conditions, you will notice that there is a slight bug that adds ;jsessionid= followed by a lot of gobbledygook at the end of the file name, after the extension, thus producing a file with an unusually long extension that OS-X doesn't recognise. So the first thing you'd want to do is change that file name and remove all the jsessionid malarkey at the end of the file name. When you do that, OS-X thinks you want to change the extension and are in risk of ending up with a file name it can't handle automatically. So it warns you and asks if you really want to do this, assuming you don't, as shown below:

Error dialogue with inaccessible button

Error dialogue with inaccessible button

In this example, you can just about see the other button pushed all the way left and therefore click on it as you really, really want to change that extension. But if you had just one more letter or if you changed the j in the ID for an M, the right button would be that little bit much wider and the left button would completely disappear. As you can't change the dialogue window's size, you're stuffed and you have no choice but to click on the highlighted button and leave your file name as is. The only way I found around this is to open the terminal and use the command line to change the name. That's one thing that OS-X has going for it: as it's UNIX underneath, you can always bypass the user interface when it gets in the way. On the other hand, that's not something that is very accessible to the average user.

There are a couple of solutions that Apple could apply to their dialogue boxes when such a problem occurs:

  • make the dialogue window's resizable and/or scrollable;
  • extend the window accordingly, although you'd get the same problem if you got to stupid extension lengths as long as the width of the screen;
  • make the buttons stack up and extend the window vertically.

The moral of the story is: when designing user interfaces, test them with very stupid values that make it break. Someone is bound to use such values one day or another, if only by accident.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Big Brother Sam

Wired News have an interesting article about screening at American airports and the type of information they collect. This strengthens my resolution not to fly to the United States until further notice. Not that I have anything to fear from such screening but I really think this is going too far. It looks like Uncle Sam is more and more turning into Big Brother Sam!

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Word of the Day's word of the day is potboiler. No, I didn't know it either. There you go, you learn something new every day.