Check out this issue for tales of customer service in regard to companies like La Cie, FWB, Microsoft, MacZone, and Hayden. We also pass on everything you could want to know about earthquakes on the Internet, a NewtonGifts submission address, news of a major new FTP mirror site at, surprise, America Online, and the announcement of a FullWrite upgrade and demo. Finally, Chuck Bartosch reviews TFLX, which provides voice mail on the Mac.
This issue of TidBITS sponsored in part by:
AOL Mirror Site Opens -- America Online continues to show that it intends to be a serious member of the Internet community with its latest service, a large FTP mirror site. Most of the other commercial Internet providers have concentrated their efforts on providing Internet services to their customers, thus increasing the load on the Internet without giving anything back. We applaud AOL's move to give something back to the Internet; the Internet has always operated on a high level of cooperation, and it's nice to see a commercial service like AOL pitch in.
The AOL FTP mirror site says, "This site is made available for Internet users to access the AOL service remote FTP sites mirror array. America Online users should access these archives through the "FTP" keyword on the service." They also note that if your FTP client uses the "PASV" command for establishing the data connect when getting a file, you risk colliding with their Internet firewall (and hanging the connection).
Current mirrors include:
/pub/cica winftp.cica.indiana.edu:/pub (Windows files) /pub/guitar ftp.nevada.edu:/pub/guitar (guitar info and tablature) /pub/info-mac sumex-aim.stanford.edu:/info-mac (Info-Mac Archive) /pub/mac mac.archive.umich.edu (Umich Mac Archive) /pub/rtfm rtfm.mit.edu:/pub (FAQ files)
FullWrite Update and Demo -- If you've never tried FullWrite 2.0, now is your chance - Akimbo Systems has released a demo version. If you already use FullWrite 2.0 or 2.0.1, now is the time to get the 2.0.2 update. The update fixes an assortment of problems, and from the look of the change history, makes FullWrite an all-around more robust program. The change history also mentions a few extension conflicts and suggests updates and fixes. Akimbo has released the update as a patching program, and you can find it on most online services. The update is also available on a floppy disk for a $7.50 shipping and handling charge.
FullWrite users should also note that last fall Akimbo Systems released a Learn Selection extension, which enables FullWrite to add batches of words to a FullWrite 2.0 user dictionary and to convert FullWrite 1.7 user dictionaries into FullWrite 2.0 user dictionaries. [TJE]
Akimbo Systems -- 800/375-6515 -- 617/776-5512 (fax)
-- <email@example.com> -- <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Peter Lewis <email@example.com> writes in regard to fingering for earthquake information:
You can also just paste Finger URLs into Finger 1.5.0 [Peter's Finger MacTCP-based Finger client], or, if you see them in a Usenet news posting that you're reading with NewsWatcher, you can just Command-click the URL to pass the URL to Finger. A Finger URL looks like:
Carsten Klapp <firstname.lastname@example.org> writes:
Our online service is in the process of starting up a NewtonGifts file distribution system similar to MacGifts <email@example.com>, which forwards freeware and shareware Macintosh file submissions to an interested group of FTP sites and BBSes.
If your FTP site or BBS is interested in participating, either as a re-forwarder or just as a subscriber, please contact me.
Please note that this is only for Internet FTP sites and BBSes with a direct link to the Internet. Our site does not have the facilities for NewtonGifts to be a mailing list for the general public.
If you wish to submit a Newton-related file to NewtonGifts, please send it to <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
by Adam C. Engst <email@example.com>
We don't like to continually pass on tales of customer service bliss and woe, but we do receive a fair number of them, and every now and then it seems appropriate to pass on the more interesting ones.
Chad Magendanz <firstname.lastname@example.org> writes:
I recently received 50 copies of the MacZone catalog. Actually, I didn't receive them directly. They were all addressed to me, but delivered to my in-laws. (Apparently, my last order was delivered to that location.)
I called MacZone to inform them of the error and ensure that they won't repeat the mistake. They told me they were sorry, but they couldn't access the database from sales and they couldn't transfer me to someone who could. In order to ensure that my in-laws don't get another 50 copies next month, I'd have to send in all 50 of the little enclosed envelopes with copies of the back page of the catalog and ask that they remove each entry from their database. (Unfortunately, I've already sent the spurious 49 copies of the catalog to recycling, making this impossible until the next iteration of the error.)
I like to think of this as natural selection at work in the free enterprise system. With outfits like MacConnection and MacWarehouse, survival of the fittest will almost certainly mean death to MacZone with this kind of administration. I find myself wondering that if I should ever again feel the urge to order from MacZone again, will I receive 50 times my order? Will I be charged 50 times?
For the present, I'm going to see how many catalogs I can collect from MacZone until I run out of storage space. Then I'm going to label them all "Return to Sender," drop 'em off at the post office and see if that grabs their attention.
Raja Hornstein <email@example.com> writes:
I bet you've seen the ads for Microsoft Office. I get about one a week in various catalogs or computer magazines. Have you noticed that they are offering a CD-ROM version of the Mac/Power Mac software? I loved that idea back in, oh, September when I first placed my order. I just didn't want to deal with all those floppy disks. Well, I wasn't surprised when they delayed the ship date to December. That's ol' Microsoft, you know. In December, I got a little postcard (very little, plain brown) asking me to call if I was still serious about getting the CD-ROM.
I had an interesting talk with someone about easy it would have been to miss that card and then they would have dropped my order without telling me. He agreed that was dumb, but you know....
So then they postponed 'til February, and my last call revealed that Microsoft won't ship 'til April. The reason was interesting. They don't expect the patch to deal with Word 6.0's lethargy until March, and they didn't want to send out an imperfect CD-ROM because you can't patch a CD-ROM. I pointed out that the program will find its home on my hard disk which wouldn't know whether it came from floppy disks or from Mars and could be patched either way. And since when are CD-ROMs so expensive that they couldn't send out a new one? The person on the phone wasn't into technical stuff, so....
The reason I mentioned those ads at the beginning is to question whether or not it's legal for those catalog companies to advertise something that doesn't exist. Isn't that false and misleading? Wouldn't people be up in arms if Microsoft had placed ads for Windows 95?
[Catalog companies probably fall under the rubric of "publishers;" like MacUser or Macworld, they can't necessarily know if the products advertised are available or accurately described. However, Microsoft has been chastised by catalog companies, resellers, and other vendors (both Windows and Macintosh) for advertising the availability of products and then delivering several months after the promised date or (in some cases) not at all. For instance, just try to purchase Encarta 1995 or Ancient Lands for Macintosh, although they've been advertised as available for months. Although slips seem to be unavoidable in the software industry, Microsoft's product announcement tactics are currently one subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation. -Geoff]
A little story. I ordered some software from a company called Transparent Language. It's a foreign language study program. They were a month late in delivering it. They sent me a check for $6.00 as an apology for not living up to their promise. I was flabbergasted. One month late!
Can you imagine a law required companies to pay a fine to customers when their vaporware doesn't materialize on time? Bill Gates would be squeegeeing windshields on the Bowery.
Michel Donais <firstname.lastname@example.org> writes:
I need to congratulate a company that really thinks customers are important. I completed a WWW survey for Hayden Books a few days ago. I've just received an email message saying they lost the survey data because of a bug, and they'd like me to fill it out again. In exchange, they'll send me a free book.
Now, this is something. Most companies would say "Eh, it's just a survey. We can get more responses where that one came from," but Hayden obviously felt that my survey response was important enough to ask me to fill it out again in exchange for a free book. This is exceptional behavior in these fast food days.
Bill Wing <email@example.com> writes:
Two years ago I purchased a La Cie 3.5" magneto-optical drive for my IIci. After a year and about three weeks, it failed with symptoms that seemed to indicate a bad power supply (it wouldn't power up when I flipped the power switch - no indicator light but the fuse was okay). I called La Cie:
"I know the drive is out of warranty, what do you charge for repairs?"
"We don't offer a repair service."
"Say what? You repair drives if they are in warranty don't you?"
"So OK, I'm not after free service, I want to pay to have the drive fixed."
"We don't offer repairs."
"You mean I can't pay you for a repair job?"
"No, we don't offer repairs."
I eventually managed to convince myself that they weren't kidding, they simply don't want to mess with repair service for their drives. The drive was purchased early enough in the 3.5" magneto-optical technology cycle that I had some concerns about being able to read the disks (I had a drawer full) written on that drive with a drive from another vendor - which was why I had a strong interest in fixing that particular drive. They wouldn't fix it. They would, however, sell me a new drive with the same "guarantee." I said thanks, but no thanks, and ordered a drive from FWB.
It came, I put it into service, and breathed a sigh of relief when I found I could read my old disks with the new drive. This year, three weeks after the warranty expired, the FWB magneto-optical drive went belly up, or rather started making a noise that sounded like a bad bearing. I checked, and it wasn't the fan, so I called FWB:
"I have this 3.5" MO that is about three weeks out of warranty. How much do you charge for your repair services?"
The nice guy on the line gave me a run down on their pricing, but then said,
"Let me see if I can get an OK for a return authorization. We really ought to fix it under warranty."
He did, they did, and I now have my FWB back and in service with a replaced mechanism. FWB has earned a lot of my future business.
by Mark H. Anbinder, News Editor <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Director of Technical Services, Baka Industries Inc.
digitalNation, a FirstClass-based online service operated by Computer Services Group, Inc., (CSGI) is now available locally in the Miami area and worldwide on the Internet.
CSGI is one of the first organizations to take full advantage of SoftArc's new TCP/IP-capable FirstClass Server software, version 2.6, released last year (see TidBITS-252). Users of the FirstClass Client software may access digitalNation at IP address 126.96.36.199 port 3004. (FirstClass Client 2.6 is required; the Mac version is available at the below URL.)
digitalNation is also available for text-based access through the FirstClass command-line user interface at IP address 188.8.131.52 port 3000. Both graphical and command-line access is available by modem at 703/642-0453.
A new digitalNation server is available in the Miami area by modem at 305/859-9287. CSGI president Bruce Waldack says the new system will provide "a highly localized, easy to use point of entry onto the information superhighway," as well as specialized software libraries and discussion forums that have become popular on digitalNation. Each of the digitalNation systems, in Baltimore, Washington DC, and now Miami, also offers location-specific information such as arts and cultural listings, current events, and special areas for local educational and non-profit organizations.
FirstClass 2.6 performs well even on modem Internet connections such as SLIP or PPP services offer. Internet connections by modem won't provide better throughput than direct FirstClass modem connections, but can eliminate long distance telephone charges.
CSGI -- 703/642-2800 -- 703/642-0453 (BBS)
SoftArc -- 800/364-1923 -- 905/415-7000 -- 905/415-7151 (fax)
905/415-7070 (BBS) -- <email@example.com>
by Adam C. Engst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
There certainly seems to be plenty of interest in earthquakes and the Internet. I received a number of requests to reprint last weeks article about earthquakes (TidBITS-261), along with a "Nice Timing!" note from Carl Bowser of the University of Wisconsin, who used the article as a handout about what could be done on the Internet for a class in "Computer Applications in the Earth Sciences." Here then, are some of the more interesting comments and pointers.
Stefan Kukula <email@example.com> writes:
Thanks for your description of what you did after your earthquake. I was reading TidBITS at work this morning, and realized I had one of the affected HP DeskWriters, then read your piece, and realized I hadn't any more. In fact, I don't have a computer or apartment any more. (Our ten story block has become a nine story block.) Having been pretty much smack on the epicentre of the Kobe earthquake at the time, and feeling lucky to be alive, I'll hope you'll forgive my comment that I think a potential shortage of LCD displays is a fairly minor problem compared to the rehousing and rebuilding tasks ahead.
Nevertheless, perhaps such industry repercussions will make people pay more attention to just how fragile our world can be. A big earthquake in the Silicon Valley part of California could mean deep trouble for the computer industry, and such a possibility might be a good argument for firms to consider relocating. I can see the PR now... "Move to Scotland's 'Silicon Glen' - the geologically stable alternative."
Still, it's nice to be able to write with something other than my usual complaints about computer support for overseas users! ("I'd like a new tectonic plate; our current one has a design flaw....")
Ian Feldman <firstname.lastname@example.org> suggested that we also note a Web site that's reporting on the effects of the recent terrible flooding in Holland.
Although we don't want to become a disaster reporting service, I think it's interesting how the Internet, and the Web in particular, has changed the way some of us think about the world. Not all that long ago, disasters were something that happened far away, and few people heard about them until afterwards. More recently, radio and then television brought the latest news and images of disaster into many homes, with that momentary horrifying image or sound bite that squeezes forth emotion but not understanding. Now, with news travelling between individuals on the Internet faster than radio and television crews can mobilize, and Web sites springing up overnight to gather and present real data about a disaster, I think we can start to move beyond that instantaneous upwelling of human sympathy to a more rational and long-lived understanding of what these events truly mean to the inhabitants. [ACE]
Jeremy Crampton <email@example.com> writes:
In reference to your earthquake experiences, some of what you did (taking USGS data and feeding it to the Xerox PARC Map Server) has been set up automatically by folks in the Department of Geography at Edinburgh.
Richard Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org> writes:
My colleague, Jim Macinnes <email@example.com> has rigged up a web page that lists the latest geophysical disturbances in several regions. No knowledge of Finger or arcane reading skills are needed as the data is nicely formatted and presented. The latitude and longitude coordinates are turned into hypertext links by some more "perl-of-hand" and linked to the Xerox PARC Map Server.
All in all it is a smooth and elegant solution. The work has been undertaken as a joint effort by the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology and the David Lam Centre for International Communication, both at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The programming credit goes to Jim, though.
Jozsef Urmos <firstname.lastname@example.org> writes:
There's no need to manually feed the earthquake coordinates info to the Xerox PARC Map Server to get a map showing the epicenter location. You might try
to get maps of epicentral locations generated automatically from the Xerox Map Server. When you connect to these pages they initially finger the Earthquake Information Center to get the latest list of quakes and then generate a page where you can select any of those recent quakes to give you a map showing the quake's location.
I think this is probably one of the best (and neatest) uses of the net. I'm impressed by the manner in which several different information sources can be creatively combined to give something so much greater than any of the parts.
Mary Corman <email@example.com> wrote to pass on the URL of an earthquake information page that has links to just about everything you could want, seismologically speaking.
by Chuck Bartosch <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A company like mine, with more than one location and seven people trying to retrieve messages while out of the office, presents significant phone management difficulties. Possible solutions include hiring a receptionist and hoping the receptionist doesn't call in sick, hiring an external answering service (which I hate using as a customer), or finding another solution. I've looked at some of the software-based options in past years, and had never been satisfied with the voice quality. But, I kept looking because if I could solve this problem for my company, my company could solve similar dilemmas for our clients.
First Impressions -- After seeing a short reference to Magnum Software's TFLX product in a Mac periodical, we called their non-toll-free number for a demonstration of their phone answering system. It seemed to work, so we ordered a copy of TFLX and the associated hardware. TFLX is an interesting voice mail system that can be controlled from a computer as old as a Mac Plus with a hard disk drive and preferably 4 MB of RAM (though it can run in 2.5 MB of RAM).
Our initial experience with TFLX was frustrating. The company's software only works with their own hardware (which is a good thing, I suspect), but you can't buy into the base level system for less than about $500. They offer no free trials, no money-back guarantees. Not auspicious. Nonetheless, they did agree in the end to take the product back, if necessary, in 30 days for a 10 percent restocking fee. We bit. We were so excited, we paid to have the product rushed to us for Saturday delivery.
Things got scary fast. The manual was missing every other page. Seeing myself as a reasonably clever guy, I almost tried to implement the system even with only half the pages. I'm glad I didn't waste my time. I got real scared though, when I called their non-toll-free tech support line and it rang... and rang... and rang.... "Oh no," I thought. "Did they leave town already?!"
Let me say right here, the product is good, and I do recommend it. Nonetheless, it's not a journey for the faint of heart. Turns out Scott, one of the authors, stays around until about 2 AM his time, and answers the phone that late. He forgot to turn the system on when he left the day I needed to leave a message. They got a new manual to me the next day and apologized.
So, I started the "Read Me First" section - and was totally confused. Not only is the manual riddled with (minor) errors, but some of the descriptions were terribly incomplete. Like "Some model Macintoshes have a microphone jack in the back. DO NOT plug the TFLX audio or microphone cables into this jack." OK, fine, they scared me. I had no idea which jack was which, and they never told me what to look for. Yes, we figured it out, but wasted a bit of time doing so. Even a spell checker would have helped the manual (unless "Magilbox" is a new industry term that has escaped me).
The first time I ran the software, I got an immediate, cryptic, error message in a dialog box "Unable to Load STR# 9997,1". Gulp. A call to Magnum tech support identified the error as an unidentified model of computer (a PowerBook 540). Turns out this was important, though I didn't learn that until later.
I had numerous, frustrating crashes, or what seemed like crashes as I worked through the tutorial. When the system thinks it's recording something or in the middle of a call, everything else freezes, even SuperClock and mouse movement. I now think some of my crashes weren't exactly crashes but a jaundiced outlook on my part. In the end, I eliminated all crashes but one by setting an obscure parameter appropriate to my PowerBook. Again, Magnum's technical support led me through the solution. This problem could arise with any new model of Macintosh, it turns out. The other reproducible bug is an avoidable problem with Option-dragging a text box to copy it, and - now that they know about it - Magnum plans to fix it for the next version.
Programming TFLX -- In spite of these problems, development went smoothly, especially after I figured out the program's philosophy. Most important, the tech support was absolutely first rate. I got through every time up to about 2 AM and the help was comprehensive. (They don't advertise tech support to 2 AM and presumably it isn't dependably available.) Even when I was being an idiot they patiently led me through the steps necessary to complete my tasks and showed me tricks to speed my testing. Though it was always on my dime, the support was worth it. The fact that they were never condescending brightened my outlook immeasurably.
TFLX uses icons to program the steps in routing an incoming call. The program has "speak icons" to speak messages and it can construct completely new messages like "the time is 8:18 PM" by stringing together stored words and phrases. You can use supplied sounds or record new ones.
You can easily see (and print) the logic of your program since it's all graphically displayed. For example, to program a voicemail function to retrieve a message, you'd need an icon to speak a greeting when a user calls in, a line drawn to the next icon that accepts keypad input from the phone, a line from there to Accept icons that see the input and determine which branch the program should follow, a Message Retrieve icon, and a Quit icon. A Message Retrieve icon gives you options for listening to messages, deleting them, and traversing them, all without any effort on the designer's part. Once you understand the flowchart-like programming paradigm, it's incredibly easy and you can make changes quickly.
TFLX Hardware and Software -- The TFLX software comes in two sections: the development tool and the runner application. The runner simply runs what you've developed. The cool thing is, the runner can be set to accept keyboard input so you don't have to dial your phone continually to test what you've done.
The software itself comes in various modules. The base module does basic incoming call routing and retrieving. Optional modules handle fax-back, database connectivity, and videophone applications.
Database connectivity offers some especially neat features. Imagine a client calling with an urgent pricing question when nobody is available to take the call. With a supported database and password protection, clients can retrieve prices, issue purchase orders to you, and even use the phone response system to log orders by entering part numbers when prompted. I don't know how practical some of this is, but the possibilities seem endless.
Because TFLX uses its own hardware to digitize sound (one reason the sound quality is superior to others we'd tested), you have to buy a "box" for each phone line in addition to the software. Also, it requires a computer for each line. That would be outrageous for even a four-line office if it weren't for the fact that a Mac Plus can handle the program (by design). A 4 MB Mac Plus with a decent hard drive costs about $250.
In implementing this system, we had to be concerned with the dislike many people have to voice response systems. In our case, a voice response system makes us more efficient and allows us to serve our clients more quickly and less expensively. Even so, we plan to listen to our clients closely as we continue to develop the system.
Magnum Software -- 818/701-5051 -- 818/701-5459 (fax)
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.