Thursday, October 11, 2007

Vista again!

I still enjoy a good laugh every time I think of Microsoft's launch campaign for Vista! Remember that "The Wow starts now"! What wow? Looking back it wasn't even a pop. Or a squeaky bit of wind. (Sorry for being a bit rude!)

Do you know anyone who is using Vista? I don't. I have considered switching to it a few times but within a couple of days come running back to XP. One of the main issues I have with Vista is it regularly re-writes its boot program to my boot sector. I think it is triggered by Microsoft Updates. But becuase I am evaluating Vista I am multi-booting and using a third party boot manager. The fact Vista always screws this up and I have to restore it from CD to get back to my XP installation puts me off trying it!

I havn't mentioned my Dad on here before. He is very clever and is the fountain of all knowledge. But he really struggles with computers. He believes a computer should do what he wants, how he wants. And it never does. The reasoning for pressing the Start button to stop the computer still beats him.

Because he is a computer amateur he is probably one of the most vulnerable users to all the virus and phishing scams. I have set up all his computer security as high as I can. I have explained to him to watch for anything suspicious and tell me if anything changes on his computer. I have also explained to be extremely warey of pop-ups telling him of a problem and telling him to click somewhere or install something. This is how he has been caught in the past by a trojan.

He has a new digital camera and enjoys checking his emails. Someone at work had told him you can put your photos onto a DVD as a movie and play it on your friends televisions and he wants to do this. I can't find any simple software to do this on XP but Vista does it natively. The Vista interfaces for photos and videos are significantly enhanced over XP. I have asked him to try and upgrade. Though it is noticably slower, his PC can run it. He hasn't switched yet.

I have waffled a bit above, but I have two serious points to make:

1) A learning computer operating system.

This is a vision we were promised with XP. That the computer learns what tasks you do most and automatically tunes itself to help you. Problem is it doesn't work with XP. And it has got worse in Vista. Every few weeks when I visit home I have a list of messages, changes or new icons that Dad has noticed - as I asked him to. They are nearly all made automatically by the computer learning or applying updates. They do not help at all. They cause confusion. Why when he is learning how to work the computer do the goal posts keep moving?

There is really no excuse on Microsoft's account. Computers are fast, have plenty of idle processor time and always on internet connections. How can basic self-tweaking algorithms perform such a bad job of knowing what a user wants? And why is it impossible to turn them all off and lock the computer down to a consistent state?

2) Multiple Users with proper roles still not anywhere near implemented.

Since Windows NT Microsoft has allowed multiple users to have a different personal environment. Users can be an administrator or a standard user. I've have discussed Vista security on this blog months back so will avoid repeating myself. What I want is for the standard user to be let alone to work. They can use Word, surf the net and use the applications that are on the PC in peace. Save all the annoying windows nags (which have increased three-fold in Vista) for when an administrator logs in.

Why is it not possible for me to make any change as an administrator and apply it to all the users? If I install a wireless network when I am the administrator it should work as soon as a standard user logs in. When I am setting up the machine I have to log in as every user account and setup things like the networking and Office settings.

I know windows is not meant to be a fully multi-user operating system. Only one person can work on the machine at a time. It is not possible for a less powerful machine to connect remotely and run programs on a powerful machine while someone else is working on it. However on the launch of Windows XP it was claimed that each member of the house could have their own account, own documents, own favourites etc. But it still does not work.

Usability of computers should have moved on by now. Microsoft has had generations of operating systems to make this work. Why have such basic features still not been delivered? And why are amateur users still struggling to learn Windows way of doing things?


Update: I am discussing stand-alone Vista in a home or small business environment. Central management and configuration are different if your Vista machine belongs to a Domain.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Living with an American Express card

Everyone has heard of American Express, and as a company they have an image of providing exceptional quality services to the wealthy. Upon looking at their product range in more detail they have a number of services targetted at the average consumer.

In terms of payment cards, their top of their range product for new customers is the Platinum Charge Card. A charge card works very similar to a Visa or Mastercard credit card used by nearly all consumers. The only difference between a credit card and a charge card is you must pay off the full balance of your account each month. It is not possible within the terms and conditions to make a small payment and defer paying the outstanding balance in return for paying interest.

What's the benefit to that? If you can get a credit limit on your credit card that is suitable for your needs there is no benefit. But the point is the American Express does not have a credit limit. I don't think Victoria Beckham would cope for a month with a £20k credit limit. This is the market for the charge card. Want to buy a house this week, no probs - pay with Amex (if the agent accepts it)!!

Being a sucker for carrying flash plastic in my wallet I applied for one of these Platinum Charge Cards to find how good their service was. At the time I saw a TV campaign promoting their concierge service. It showed someone working flat out who was able to call the card and ask them to track down and send a gift to someone important. I liked the idea of having an American Express personal assistant at my beck and call.

Once I received the card it was very traditional looking. It wasn't a particularly impressive looking piece of plastic compared to some of the better designs of credit cards at the time. The best thing about it was presenting it for payment in the big department stores like Selfridges or Harvey Nichols. You immediately got a look of respect from the cashier. The worst thing about it was being rejected in 30% of stores 'Sorry we don't take Amex - have you an alternative card?'

This is the main reason I no longer have the card. If I am having to pay a Visa bill I got sick of paying an Amex bill as well. Another reason is chip and pin. The cashiers no longer see your card. You just put it in the machine, enter your pin and remove it to your wallet. Call me a poser, but that is why every card is now platinum, because at the launch of the idea they were a status symbol. Everyone wanted one.

Now i've covered the day to day aspects, I will detail the services included with card membership. These can be divided into three categories:

Travel benefits include a travel booking service. Whatever you need, be it a last minute flight or a bespoke holiday of a lifetime the service will take your requirements and arrange everything for you. Problem is in most cases you could save plenty of money by spending 10 minutes searching the internet. You got the offer of 2 for 1 flights but these apply to a very restricted list of airlines. Don't expect to get the offer flying Manchester to London, to New York or to Ibiza or Greece. You get membership to premium hotel schemes but all these provide is complimentary benefits on staying like a massage or an evening meal. In my two years as a member I never booked with them. I did use my access to airport lounges a few times.

Protection benefits or specifically travel insurance for your family and supplementary card holders. They also offer purchase protection and emergency assistance but this is common on most free credit cards.

Lifestyle benefits are basically the concierge service I mentioned I saw in the TV advert. I note that on the Amex website this has now been described much more accurately. This service can send a gift, book a restaurant or special event for you. When I used it to book a restaurant I had to give my full card and security details, and was then asked for nearly the full address of the restaurant I wished to use and details like the time and number in the party. By the time I had done this and waited for a callback in most cases it would have been easier to call the restaurant direct!

These benefits were so restricted as to be nearly useless. I called the travel service to book a ferry to the Isle of Man. They refused saying they only deal in travel by flight. I needed to take my car. I wanted a plumber in Manchester. They refused to help because they didn't have a fully vetted list. Reading their separate insurance I thought they had! I asked for an executive lounge in Greece or Ibiza. Out of a list of 500 there wasn't one. A local worker at the airport told me 'we don't have many executives in Ibiza'! You do but they are hard to spot in shorts!!

There is a loyalty point scheme. I struggled to find anything in their list of rewards that I actually wanted. In the end I settled for Molton Brown vouchers. I also havn't mentioned that there was an annual fee. A very big annual fee of (cough) £275. This has now gone up to £300!

To conclude the overall membership experience was disappointing, especially if you take the charges into account. Except food supermarkets and petrol stations, acceptance of this card is poor. Most stores at the Trafford Centre in Manchester refused it. BMW dealers and service centres do not accept it. Most stores in foreign airports refused it. Don't think of using it abroad as the foreign conversion fees are extortionate. The service was poor, refusing to book anything but run of the mill requirements. The Membership Rewards couldn't be redeemed for anything one would actually want. It was hard to save for them with card acceptance being so poor. If you can find a free credit card for your needs get one instead!