Communication is key in vendor-client relationships

June 21st, 2010 11:57 AM
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An Apple II user recently posted to csa2 his concern over the service he'd received from an Apple II vendor, who took 12 days to ship an order. His complaint is legitimate, but his respondents provided a perspective that he hadn't considered. He followed up later: "I did not know that the company was a one-man operation. That helps to explain the delay."

Despite the proliferation of Apple II software and especially hardware these days, the platform is sadly no a longer financially viable means of earning a living. What motivates those vendors who remain is their enjoyment and passion for the Apple II, with the hope of at least breaking even. It's this spirit that drives them to pursue their hobby in their extracurricular hours, even after a grueling day job leaves them exhausted. As a result, a customer's order does not always receive the attention that both the customer and the vendor want to give it, and delays such as the above do happen.

When this happens, guessing at the vendor's situation isn't the only solution, as some commenters on the csa2 post suggest. Communication from the vendor can help the customer set appropriate expectations. The hosting service with which this site currently resides, DreamHost, is especially good at this. They have a blog and a Twitter feed dedicated to communicating the status of their servers to their customers, so that no one is ever left uninformed of planned maintenance or unexpected outages. It's also an efficient means of communications: rather than fielding the same support ticket dozens of times, they can publish one blog post in anticipation of such questions. And finally, it's honest: DreamHost isn't covering up their outages but posting them for all to see.   Big money
This is about how much money there is to be made from the Apple II these days. Photo by Stavros Karatsoridis.
 

The Apple II community also has many examples of vendors who practice this habit. Eric Shepherd of Syndicomm sometimes falls a month behind in fulfilling orders. When that happens, he usually posts a message to csa2 informing folks of his backlog and his progress. Likewise, I recently placed an order for an issue of 300 Baud magazine. Before I ever handed over my money, I was informed right on the product's homepage, "PLEASE ALLOW 4-6 WEEKS FOR DELIVERY". Even the vendor at the focus of the csa2 thread had updated his Web site last summer to indicate a significant delay in shipping, as some recent publicity had led to a spike in the popularity of his product. Unfortunately, he has no such notice posted today that could've precluded the above complaint.

I'm an Apple II vendor myself, and for each Juiced.GS order I receive, I personally email the buyer to let him know when his order has shipped or will ship. However, my philosophy is a bit more selfish than the principles outlined above. There are so few Apple II users these days that I want to reach out to each one individually and learn their stories: How long have you been using the Apple II? How did you hear about Juiced.GS? Your name seems familiar — did you happen to write that program I used in 1988? Making such connections is vital to community solidarity and growth. That's how Brian Wiser, a first-time subscriber as of earlier this year, came to be someone with whom I now regularly communicate about podcasts, Firefly, scanning techniques, and more. At the least, the more I learn about my customers, the better I'm able to serve them in the future.

So, yes, vendors have a responsibility to their clients and their community — but it is the customers' responsibility to remember that we're all in this together, and though our patience must still have limits, we should adjust them accordingly.

The history of Usenet

May 24th, 2010 1:34 PM
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Last month, I attended ROFLCon II, a conference that originated two years ago at MIT as an occasion to study and discuss the nature and propagation of Internet memes, such as LOLcats. The event afforded me the opportunity to meet many of my heroes, from Matt Harding to Jason Scott (who I'd next see giving the keynote speech at KansasFest 2009). At the first ROFLCon, Scott presented a session, "Before the LOL", on the history of digital communications. The full presentation is available online, as is a four-minute video summary.

ROFLCon: Before the LOL

ROFLCon: Before the LOL

In 2010, Scott returned to ROFLCon and was part of a panel on the history and heroes of the Usenet. His panel consisted of celebrities both lauded and loathed, from Brad Templeton, former chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to Laurence Canter, the Internet's first commercial spammer. Despite the variety of backgrounds and reputations, it was an enjoyable and revealing session for all present.

ROFLCon II: Heroes of Usenet

ROFLCon II: Heroes of Usenet

I covered ROFLCon II for Bostonist.com, but with 13 pages of notes from 11 different sessions, I was able to summarize only a fraction of what I learned that weekend. My writeup unfortunately did not touch upon the Usenet session, which brought back memories of using my Apple IIgs, a 2400-baud modem, and ProTERM to dial into my local ISP and access a variety of newsgroups. Although I was not active in comp.sys.apple2 (aka csa2), I made regular use of the other resources Usenet provided, and I lament its unpopularity today.

I'm talking about the sense of an intimate community that existed before everyone and their mother got onto the Internet. Usenet was also a valuable reference for anyone looking to discuss shared interests. Today, if you had a modern Mac support question, where would you go to ask it — discussions.info.apple.com maybe? For cooking advice, you might think allrecipes.com — but there are no message boards there, only recipes and comments on same. The Grateful Dead? I wouldn't even know where to start. For more esoteric topics, like the Apple II, you have several options, from Applefritter forums to the Low End Mac mailing list — but which one do you choose?

I'm not against diversification of resources or even multiple communities, but there is no standard today. By contrast, with Usenet, you could take a single identity to multiple newsgroups and find all the information you needed. The tools for reading these boards made it effortless to keep track of as many as you wanted — something that modern message boards still have difficulty reproducing. (As a community manager for Computerworld.com, I still long for the powers I had as a CLI sysop.) Scott's session had me yearning to return to the days of the text-based reader tin. (Unfortunately, I can't get the Mac OS X installation instructions to work.)

When I graduated from college and lost my shell access, I never explored how else I might access Usenet. It wasn't until a few years ago, when I discovered Google Groups offers Usenet messages via RSS, that I again started lurking in csa2. RSS is my preferred method of content delivery, and depending on your ISP, you too may need to look into such alternatives, as fewer of them are offering their own news servers to which to connect your NNTP client. Even Duke University, which originated Usenet in 1979, is shuttering its newsgroups.

Regardless of your access method, Usenet is still available, and csa2 has shed its former reputation as a flame pit and has become a cordial environment in which to ask questions, pose problems, and suggest solutions, from the esoteric to the mundane. As long as people keep using it, there will be those dedicated to keeping it alive. Usenet isn't going anywhere — heck, if we're lucky, it could even be the basis of Wikipedia's successor.