Friday, January 11, 2013

Order Prevention Desks


Most people know me for my work on iPhone apps, but this is only a recent event as the iPhone has only been out for 5.5 years and in Canada we've only had it for 4.5 years.  Before this, I'd racked up about 15 years of Windows programming, covering Windows Mobile, Windows CE, desktop versions back to Windows 3.1, and the odd period of Blackberry programming thrown in (but let's not go there).  I still do Microsoft programming when the need arises.

The bulk of my time has squarely been spent in the Microsoft camp, and not the Apple camp that I'm currently more known for.  As well as being a programmer, I'm also a technology consumer.  I carry both an iPad and a Surface RT.  I like both of them for different reasons.  At home, I use both Windows 8 and Mac OS X.  I see both the bigger picture and the smallest detail with both the companies and their products.

In short, I like to think I'm fairly qualified when I criticise something from either Apple or Microsoft.

This week I had to come up with a sports health prototype that involved using a Microsoft Kinect Sensor for Windows.  I thought that this shouldn't be a big deal, but was also acutely aware that anything involving hardware in Canada can easily become a thorny issue.

For the uninitiated, here's how obtaining hardware in Canada often turns out:  
1. First you locate a part number, then you find it's not sold in Canada - but some guy in Ohio or California has the thing you want at a decent price, and they ship worldwide using a service like UPS or Fedex. 
2. After several days you get a ransom note from a brokerage firm that you've never heard of near the Canada/US border that wants you to stump up some import fee, plus an exorbitant "handling or administration fee".  So for example, your $100 widget purchase now has $10 in duty and a $80 fee for administering this.  Without you paying this fee, they won't release the thing you've ordered.
3. At that point, you swear at them and tell them to keep the item, you cancel the order and re-place a new order.
4. After several more days you get a ransom note from a second brokerage firm that you've never heard of near the Canada/US border that wants you to stump up some import fee, plus a less exorbitant "handling or administration fee".  So for example, your $100 widget purchase now has $10 in duty and a $20 fee for administering this. 
5.  You pay the lesser fee and the goods being held hostage are now released back to UPS who deliver to your door.

These "middlemen" run a racket that serves no purpose whatsoever for the consumer.  This is why you normally try to source stuff already in the country.

So back to the Kinect Sensor...

As luck would have it, Microsoft has a new store in Toronto at the Yorkdale Shopping Mall, so I should be able to just pop up to the store pay for a sensor and walk out with it and have it plugged into a development PC in an hour or so, right?  Before going to the store, I thought I'd phone just to make sure they have the part. 

The experience ran like this:
1.  The employee didn't know if they had the item in stock.  This is fair enough.  Not everyone knows the stock levels of everything they sell - this is why they have stock systems they can look these things up in.
2.  I was on hold nearly 15 minutes listening to excuses like their "system is running slow today" which doesn't sound good from a company known for making software, before they eventually knew that they didn't have the part and relayed this to me.
3.  I was then told that I could order the part over the phone for delivery (not to the store), but this required a Live account.

What?

I asked if I could just have the part ordered to the store and then I send someone up to pick it up who has the authorisation to pay for this part (I'm just the programmer in this).  The answer was no.

My immediate reaction was "Why would a Microsoft shop come up with blockers as to why they cannot sell you Microsoft's own hardware?".  This store has by definition an "Order Prevention Desk". 

Needless to say, I let them know this on @microsoftstore on twitter, before the part was then eventually sourced from Amazon.ca.