Dark Age Messengers

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Maybe I’m missing something, of I’ve been taken in by those TV ads of guys walking across stepping stones made out of frogmens’ skulls, but I expect the big couriers to be somewhat snappier and higher-tech these days. Not based on today’s experience:

  • Call their hotline to get a guy in either Mexico or the Philippines (based on accent, and he wasn’t saying) who scolded me for giving the second line of the address first, and then refused to accept the package as documents when I told him it was a book (it’s actually a pile of edited pages, so I guess it could be either.) Stoopid that I am, I didn’t realise the huge difference (commercial invoice in triplicate and duties for one, nothing for the other) and should have said “documents” when he asked me. So that session was a bust.
  • My colleague, the recipient and courier account holder tried the other end, and we got somewhere, though both of us still had to give the details twice, including something called a “control number” (I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliams’s Brazil so I’m on the lookout for things like this) to “smoothen things out”.
  • Of course when the guy came there were no documents, no smoothing things out, so we had to do everything by hand. All nine sections. Good luck to whoever has to decipher my atrocious handwriting. We’ll be lucky if the package makes it before Christmas.

So, questions:

What happened to those handheld computers that couriers were using a few years ago to do all this? Wouldn’t it be easier? Just type out the details or input them from Central Service — the guy with the van already has my address, presumably, unless he just drove around knocking on everyone’s doors, and as the recipient is the one being billed, presumably all they need is his account number for all those details to pop into the appropriate fields.

And then don’t get me started on the whole “give-me-your-details-over-the-phone-and-can-you-spell-your-name-again-is-it-German-no-it’s-not-it’s-English-like-Shakespeare” (not that I have anything against German names) thing. Why can’t we do this any better?

Off the top of my head, type “Fedex” or “UPS” into Skype and you’re instantly connected to customer service where you can type your details in so they won’t be misheard, and you don’t have to sit on the line listening to “Rhinestone Cowboy” on a loop (actually it was worse; I think it was “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro).

I’d be up for a USB dongle that the guy carries, and the customer slips into their computer (who doesn’t have one sitting around these days?) and a little courier program pops up so the user can fill in the details from their laptop or desktop. He just plugs it into his handheld device and the data zips across and self-checks. Courier guys could carry round free branded ones and hand them out as promotional items and so customers can fill out the fields in advance.

Or if that’s too complicated, going to the website and opening up a chat box with a customer representative. (I’ve just checked Fedex’s customer support page and it involves filling out 14 different fields. And don’t try to sidestep any:

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Yeah, I’m going to fill all those in.

Maybe these courier firms are smarter in other parts of the world, but I didn’t come away feeling impressed. I’m sure their package tracking systems are second to none — i.e. once the atoms are in the system. But it seems that the burden is still being passed to the customer, when it could be so much less painful for both parties if it was electronic.

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Logitech’s Bluetooth pen

Logitech are about to bring out their io2 pen for Bluetooth:

This summer, Logitech will launch a Bluetooth-enabled version of the io2 Digital Pen, designed to address the current data entry shortcomings of mobile data capture devices. Logitech’s Bluetooth digital pen, when used in combination with a Bluetooth wireless handheld device, will help an organization’s mobile workforce more efficiently gather, transmit and share important data.

A press release gives a bit more detail: Using the Logitech io2 Digital Pen with Bluetooth technology, a mobile worker will be able to capture information by using a customized version of a standard paper form, such as for an insurance appraisal or a work order. The pen automatically creates a digital record that is transmitted to a complementary Bluetooth wireless technology enabled handheld communication device, such as a smart mobile phone, PDA or Blackberry. That data can be stored and processed on the handheld device or immediately sent into an organization’s central database for processing. For the mobile worker, it’s an automated process that starts with filling out a familiar form and ends with a confirmation on his or her wireless handheld communication device that the information has been sent and received.

Sounds interesting, although I’m not quite clear about how this differs from the Nokia SU-1B pen, which originates from the same Anoto source. And why aim only at business users with this?

Pocket PC’s Backdoor

Symantec say they’ve found the first Windows CE (PocketPC) backdoor Trojan, which they’re calling Backdoor.Bardor.A: “Once installed, the backdoor allows full control of the handheld system when it is restarted. When the infected handheld is connected to the Internet, the backdoor sends the attacker the IP address of the handheld device. It then opens port 44299 and waits for further instructions from the attacker.”

There are some limits: The backdoor only affects Pocket PC devices with ARM CPUs.

This follows the discovery of the first PocketPC virus, Duts, last month.

News: Protecting the Unprotectable

 However much they spend, Microsoft don’t seem to be able to fend off the hackers. A new version of its Reader — designed to allow users of the handheld device to read copyright protected versions of ebooks, while ensuring they don’t copy the ebooks or do thing with them they’re not supposed to — has been hacked within days of its release, according to my friend Jerry Justianto, who runs a blog on the subject.
 
 
He says the digital rights management scheme (DRM for short) was a major upgrade, but has gone the way of its predecessors, courtesy of an updated version of Convert Lit, a very small program (32K), which was sent to him anonymously. The program, he says, will either remove the DRM encryption or it will explode the ebook into an unprotected version or an HTML file that can be read in a normal browser, complete with pictures.
 
Jerry is scathing about the update. He points out that Microsoft are effectively forcing users to get the upgrade even though it includes no major new features — except the security ones — and will require many users to re-register their hardware in order to keep using it. Check out what Microsoft itself says of the upgrade. Neither Jerry or I condone breaking the law, but this tug of war between producer and hacker has got to stop. It’s a waste of time for everybody, and the money could be better spent not trying to limit what we users do with our possessions. Your views, as ever, are welcome.