Friday, September 28, 2007

Linux comes of age - Windows Replacement time is here

If you have been considering replacing your Microsoft Windows desktop with a free operating system - Linux in particular - now may be the time, as the latest round of Linux distributions and derivations have finally implemented many of the features that you expect, and need, in order to enjoy the simplicity and compatibility you expect.

I have written about Linux in the past on this technology blog, including most recently a piece about the Debian "Etch" 4.0 release and a link to a neat diagram showing all the GNU / Linux derivations if you'd like to see the lineage of a particular distribution. Since I'll be mentioning Linux operating systems derived from Debian, you may find this interesting and useful as I continue.

One of my favorite Windows-replacement-capable Linux desktop (or server) operating systems is Ubuntu and the KDE-based version Kubuntu (which to me looks and feels most like MS Windows). Ubuntu is a mature and stable distribution now, with a huge following and tons of support from the community and it's primary developer, Canonical. New versions are released twice yearly, in April and October, and we are now coming up on the October release of Ubuntu "Gutsy Gibson" version 7.10, which includes many features that make replacing Windows a real possibility, including:
  • A graphical configuration tool for "X" (X-Windows) which should finally allow you to change your desktop graphics resolution, graphic card, monitor refresh rate, etc. without having to perform some ridiculous hand-editing of a textual configuration file and an X-restart to get it to work. This should finally work essentially like the desktop display properties dialog in MS Windows, and the lack of this ability has been a long-standing frustration I've had with Linux in the past. If it works as advertised, I'm at least 80% of the way to switching my primary desktop to Linux!
  • In addition, full dynamic screen configuration for things like resize and rotate with drives for ATI, nVidia, and Intel graphics chips / cards is built in. Rotation is a nice-to-have, as I am used to it on Windows. Also, support for external monitors and dynamic monitor-detection is quite nice. I'm at 85% now! I know I put a lot of emphasis on video-configuration simplicity, but for a good reason - I have to sit and work in front of my monitor all day, and I want it to be easy.
  • Fully automatic printer installation! Now, that's a rather hefty claim, and I'm waiting to try out my particular printers with the latest Unbuntu 7.10 series. But, if this really works, it should make complete Windows-replacement a 90+% for me.
  • Handling of "non-free" device drives (i.e., non open-source - drives are almost always free for the hardware you buy). To me, this has been a PITA in the past - making me go through extra steps to manually install vendors' driver software just because Linux and open-source "purists" don't consider the drivers to be "free" unless the driver writer publishes source-code. Well, the average desktop user doesn't care if there is source-code, they just want to install their driver. And, this should make is simple - finally. A huge plus for me, and more reason it's time for Linux.
  • Simplified Firefox plugin finder and installer - so installing software like the Adobe Flash Player is as simple as it is on Windows. This never bothered me too much before, but I surely welcome the simplicity.
  • NTFS writing - built in. I.e., you can get read/write access to Windows partitions, which is incredibly important in heterogeneous environments where data needs to be shared between multiple operating systems - like, Windows, Mac, and Linux. Very nice!
  • Fast user switching - though not a big one for me, others may find this nice.
Coupled with some of the great open-source software for Linux that I have profiled in the past, plus many more I haven't had time to cover on this technology blog, I am pretty much set. And, keep in mind, for those rare times you may still require access to a Microsoft Windows desktop, you can always use VMWare's Workstation and/or VMWare Player applications to run a Windows desktop as a virtual-machine from within your Ubuntu / Kubuntu / openSUSE / other Linux desktop.

I mention openSUSE in that prior sentence, which is also a very capable desktop-replacement Linux operating system. It too is on the verge of a significant new release, and I'll try to cover what's new in that soon - in the meantime, check it out if you are curious.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hewlett Packard Rebate Fraud (alleged here!)

In the past year, I have been the victim of what I would best describe as organized and intentional rebate fraud by Hewlett Packard. I purchased two computer systems from them - first, a desktop system late in 2006 that came with (supposedly) nearly $300 in rebates PLUS a free Windows Vista upgrade. Next, I purchased an HP notebook computer a couple months ago that included a $50 rebate.

I should have known better than to purchase another HP product after the experience with the first one, but I thought that perhaps the rebate issues were isolated. In the first case, I did get a partial rebate, for about $100, for one of the system components that was to have a rebate with it. But, the remainder went unpaid even after I re-sent proof of purchase and sales-receipts to HP as instructed in a form-letter that arrived a couple months after purchase claiming that I had not included a detailed receipt (which, I clearly did, since Staples prints separate Rebate-Receipts to include with each product purchased that has a qualifying rebate program - and, I keep photocopies of exactly what I send - and yes, it was all there!).

In addition, this system came with a (supposed) free Microsoft Vista Upgrade when Vista was released, which it was soon after purchase. I immediately went to a website that HP provided for obtaining the "free upgrade", only to have the site repeatedly crash and never complete the process. Of course, HP had outsourced the fulfillment to a third party (I believe it was Unisys), who I contacted by email multiple times, and explained the problem -- they kept saying they "reset" the transaction, and that it should work now. Well, needless to say, it never did. After about 4 emails, they simply quit responding to me. Why should they? What do they care if you get your free upgrade?? They get paid by HP to implement this program, whether they do it right or not, and whether you get your free Software or not. And, Hewlett Packard (and other firms), in my best guess, intentionally push off fulfillment of such things so that you have absolutely no recourse. You contact HP - they say contact the third-party, the one that has no incentive to deliver. It's a win-win for HP, and a lose-lose for the customer. Lovely. I finally just gave up, since nobody would even answer my emails!

Most recently, just a couple months ago, I purchased an HP notebook that was to include a $50 rebate. I purchased it knowing that there was at least some chance I'd never see the rebate after my prior (though hopefully isolated) experience. Well, yesterday, I get the dreaded rebate-denial form in the mail, stating:
"We appreciate your purchase, but your submission for the Stand Up Stand Out $50 Pavilion Notebook Offer was declined for the following reason(s): Submission did not include a copy of an itemized dated sales receipt or packing slip. Please enclose a copy."
Yeah, right! I fully expected this type of crap! I made sure to check and double-check my mailing, and once again, I had dedicated "rebate-receipts" printed by the store at which I bought it. I sent everything asked for and highlighted all the pertinent info (the same info I'm once again being told I didn't send!) I called the included question-line at 1-888-385-5410, which of course went to some Indian call-center. Of course, it's not an HP employee you're talking to, and it's all about having some third-party handle the "customer experience". How do these companies stay in business (and, I'm not talking about the overseas call centers)?

So, I proceed to express my discontent at what I see as organized rebate fraud. I ask various questions to the call-center contact about whether they think HP is committing any sort of fraud. They can't say. They only tell me: "send the info in again, and I'm sure HP will pay", to which I said "yeah, I've been through that before, and they did not pay, so why should I?". The call center person checks the records and says "all you need to send is a copy of the sales receipt -- we have everything else". Once again, I've heard this before and done what I was instructed to do, only to not get paid - not to mention, I sent it once for god sakes, and it seems that only HP can't get me my rebates as promised and continually and conveniently loses the sales receipt I send!

What convinces me HP is perpetrating a rebate-scam!
So, I continue asking the offer-center contact questions, trying to figure out if there is a rebate scam going on here. I finally think I got the answer I expected when I asked, "OK, so can you tell me, are there a lot of other customers who are calling in to complain that although they sent all the required information, they are now being told HP didn't receive it" -- the Indian guy finally replies quite clearly, "yes, others are experiencing the same thing -- a lot of other people".

I can't help wondering if this is how Hewlett Packard's stock (ticker NYSE:HPQ) and financials are outperforming other personal computer and technology manufacturers. With margins as thin as they are in this field, a company could surely pump up their bottom line through an organized program of rebate-fulfillment dodging. Basically, make it as hard as possible for the consumer to get their rebate money... make it not even worth their time to pursue their rebate money... ship the "customer support" (call center) to India or wherever so that it is still much cheaper to field calls all day than to pay the rebates, and voila!, you have just pumped up your bottom line! The temptation must be huge, and corporate bonuses for upper management (performance based) must make it even more likely. Perhaps I've just had a round of bad luck with inept rebate fulfillment personnel, but I suspect the prior considerations dominate the rebate-processing food-chain in HP (and other firms - though, I've ONLY had problems with HP!)

Even if HP is hit with a class-action suit over this type of thing, I bet they have already calculated that it'll still be cheaper than to just pay the rebates. In the end, some lawyers will make a lot of cash, and the consumers will get some lame $50 coupon off future HP product purchases. Isn't this how these things typically pan out?

Did I mention the fact that I used to work for Hewlett Packard? I used to think they were the most upstanding and wonderful company around, with great corporate culture and customer rapport. A lot has changed in the nearly 20 years since I worked there, and now I am thoroughly convinced they have gone down the path of so many other consumer mass-market product companies. Sad. They really did have something nice going back then. And, here I am now, thinking I'll never buy another one of their products again -- especially not in hopes of obtaining the rebate or upgrade I am (supposedly) entitled to as the purchaser. Essentially, if I am to compare HP product prices to other vendors, there is no way I can compare with the rebate included - since it is essentially a vaporous promise.