Reason? Our flagship airline’s website has been sputtering for days, a shocking development for an airline whose brand is built on excellence and customer service and whose future, as they themselves know very well, depends on business flyers. The latter will not tolerate hiccups in booking or changing flights or online check-ins; for them, time is money.
Apparently, the problem has been ongoing since at least Sunday (four days ago — a veritable eternity in airline booking time), as one of the posts on Singapore Airlines’ own Facebook page (below) indicates. The reader who emailed me also noted that none of this has made it to the Straits Times and other media: “Guess its because its SIA that the Singapore press hasn’t mentioned it.”
Frankly, there’s nothing I can add, except to reinforce what Junxiang Wang wrote: “I don’t need flashy graphics.” It’s a common complaint, usually the result of a business manager who knows nothing about infocomm technology (nor about user psychology) being in charge of overseeing a company’s website. He is dazzled by a website design vendor who makes a fancy pitch for the job, and next thing you know, the company has a website that shows off the webdesigner’s skills, but does nothing for the company; in fact it ends up annoying the latter’s customers.
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This morning, I was annoyed by something else — the umpteenth time I have noticed the same absurdity. It was an e-mailer from a government-linked academic institution inviting me to a seminar.
“To register, please download this form and send it back to us,” it says, with a link.
Clicking it, a Microsoft Word document was downloaded, into which I was expected to fill in certain blank lines with my details. Many readers may have encountered something similar. Let me tell you why I was annoyed:
1. It merrily assumed that everybody in Singapore has a Microsoft Word application on his computer. This doesn’t come free; it’s proprietary software.
2. This particular one was a “.docx” file, using the latest version of Microsoft Word and may not be compatible with older versions of Word.
This academic institution is not the only one doing this. Lots of other institutions and government departments do likewise. The effect therefore is that of bureaucratic coercion to buy Microsoft software — and not only that, to keep paying for the latest upgrade. Why is the Singapore government helping Microsoft make money?
There are plenty of free applications out there where you can set up a simple event registration (see http://www.eventbrite.com, for example — it’s even better than Facebook which requires that you must first be a Facebook member to sign up for events on that social media platform). You can even use Google forms that automatically places replies in a large spreadsheet, if you want to do a simple analysis of respondents.
Why is it, after boasting about getting the best brains into our civil service and related academic institutions, they still use Microsoft Word, I cannot understand. My guess though is process inertia: They’ve been doing this for years and no one bothers to ask searching questions. From the smallest inconveniences to the biggest bungles, this is a common thread.
(Oh yes, another government-linked institution not only sends out Word.doc registration forms, they ask invitees to fax the forms back. Fax! Which indicates they have assumed that everybody’s computer is connected to a printer, and that everybody has access to a fax machine. Have they never heard of people doing work while in Starbucks?)
About five years ago, I was consulting with a company when I happened to see a similar thing. They were organising a seminar and asking those interested to register for it by emailing in return a Microsoft Word document. Since it wasn’t related to what I was doing for the company, I didn’t get much involved beyond suggesting they might do it differently. However, what was memorable about that instance was how the office handled the replies. The clerk was printing out the reply forms (in duplicate!), filing them and manually updating a sheet of paper listing the names of those who signed up for the seminar. They were using infocomm technology as little more than substitute for the postal service.
I don’t know whether the same backroom process (printing and filing into arch files) still goes on in the academic institutions or government departments that in 2011 continue to use Microsoft Word for event registrations, but I won’t be surprised if this is the case.
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About two or three weeks ago, SBS Transit’s bus arrival information system was in the news when it went blink on third party applications. It wasn’t a software glitch, but a deliberate denial of access to others. So much for an “intelligent” city that hopes to encourage development of web applications.
For those who don’t ride our buses let me first explain that SBS Transit has equipped their vehicles with a satellite tracking system. The company has an application that outputs the estimated arrival time of a bus at any bus stop. You see this on active display boards at several downtown bus stops. You can also interrogate the system, which they call Iris, by texting to phone number 74744 a short text message comprising <bus stop number> space <bus service number>. Iris will respond with the expected arrival time of the next two buses on that route.
Actually, the system is not all that reliable, although I have not used it often enough to observe any particular pattern of unreliability. Sometimes no bus arrives despite the system telling you it ought to be nearly in front of you; other times a bus pulls up when the system doesn’t know of it.
What hit the headlines however was when SBS Transit suddenly disallowed third party applications from accessing Iris and drawing data from it.
One example of a third party application doing so was the site streetdirectory.com, useful when you’re on the move armed with a tablet or smartphone. Let’s say you’re navigating your way to a bus stop with the aid of a street map. Some distance ahead of you is a bus stop, and you want to know whether you need to walk faster. Is the bus going to arrive at the stop before you?
At streetdirectory.com, the intention was to deliver you the information when you click the bus stop symbol shown on the map. But SBS Transit has now denied access to the Iris dynamic database and what you’re left with is this:
You are now compelled to dial 74744, enter in the bus stop number (which you can see on streetdirectory.com’s inset box) and the bus service number. That’s unnecessarily inconvenient. So what we now have is technology available but cannot be used.
The likely reason, as readers may quickly guess, is that Iris is a paid service (5 or 10 cents per request), and SBS Transit was unhappy that third party applications circumvented it. But hang on, isn’t public transport a public service?