How not to launch a custom tablet

Philadelphia Media Networks attempts to keep their floundering newspapers current by launching an inexpensive tablet customized with digital and interactive versions of their daily newspapers. But the initial experience of users suggests that PMN got in a bit over their heads.
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor
With their September 12 announcement of digital versions of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily news, along with a dedicated, interactive version of the Inquirer, bundled together with a tablet customized with their newspaper applications, Philadelphia Media Networks (PMN) made a statement that print media was still relevant and had a place in the age of digital media.  But the initial user experience with this self-describer "beta' product launch shows that while PMN may understand marketing they were ill-prepared for the realities of doing business in the digital age.

No Online Ordering

You read that right. Ordering for the tablet was by phone only, with all the potential for problems that brings. In my case the tablet was ordered at 9 AM on the first day of the tablet release.  Four days later we get a phone call saying that our credit card didn't work. Reading back the same credit card number got an order placed that day; it was a debit card and there was no reason it shouldn't have worked the first time, unless, perhaps, the order taker entered the number wrong.

Why didn't they contact us by email when the credit card didn't work? I was told that once the card number was refused the entire order, including the email contact information, was wiped. Yet they retained a phone number to call four days later for corrected credit card information.  I was also told that even thought they had corrected the credit card (and, in fact, had billed the credit card account for the tablet) they didn't have any email contact info since they had already purged that from their system. And the email address that you provided when you ordered was also the email address that would be set up in their system for authorized access to the tablet newspaper apps. So it was necessary to contact them to give them an email address even after they had re-billed the credit card and had been paid for the tablet.

The support forum was full of similar stories, with people placing their orders, getting an email confirmation, and then hearing nothing until they started calling the support line days later. And in a somewhat surreal moment, despite running full page ads in the Sunday newspaper for the tablet, the order phone lines were closed on Sundays.

Poor Customer Service

Since there was no on-line system for the tablet orders, the only way to follow-up on order issues was to call what appeared to be one person that PMN had delegated to handle escalated order problems. This person started off responsive, but I can only presume that the weight of problem solving eventually slowed her down.   At one point, in the week before I received my tablet (which took 14 days to arrive, not the 3-7 days promised when ordered), my account had been billed five times for the monthly subscription, and had two refund credits for the subscription.  At that point I was told that the extra charges would be refunded and that I would be getting a month's service free. And to add insult to injury, customer service hours are from 6 AM to 1 PM. So forget about calling after work, in the evening, or even in the afternoon.   Additionally, the on-line support forum required a waiting period of 24 hours after they verified your registration information, further encumbering customer who were trying to get information about their purchases.

Poor communications between PMN, the tablet seller, the tablet manufacturer, the application providers, and, of course, the customers

The Philadelphia Inquirer (as PMN) , Archos, and Tiger Direct were the parties involved in getting tablets to the customers.  As problems started to crop up the finger pointing started.

1.      Delivery problems were blamed on Tiger Direct. Calling Tiger Direct resulted in being told to call the newspaper. Call the newspaper and they would tell you to call Tiger Direct. Supposedly Tiger Direct was supposed to send shipping information to customers when the order was placed. Many customers, including myself, never received any sort of order confirmation until the tablet had been actually sent to UPS for delivery. A number of users complained on the forum that the tablet showed up with no prior contact, though far more are still wondering where their tablet is.

2.      Actual technical problems generated significant issues. Problems with the newspaper apps would get calls to Archos tech support, who would send the caller to the Inquirer. If the Inquirer support person didn't understand the problem, they would send it back to Archos. A significant percentage of the tablets themselves died quickly, which added yet another issue to getting them replaced

3.       Archos wanted a receipt from Tiger Direct for the purchase of the tablet. No such receipts were included with the product and all payments were sent to PMN

4.       Archos told customers they would be getting refurbished tablets, even though many of the dead tablets lasted less than 24 hours, with some users reporting that they plugged the tablet in overnight on receipt, only to find it was non-functional the next morning.

5.       Replacement tablets would not have the dedicated newspaper applications installed, which are not available for download from any source, so the tablet was no longer useful for reading the newspaper, which was the motivation behind this entire project.

6.       Users who simply wanted to return the tablet needed to do multiple things to one, return the tablet (to Tiger Direct, requiring an RMA from them, even though customers never dealt directly with Tiger Direct prior to this) and two, stop getting billed for the subscription service (contacting the elusive PMN customer service).

Problems with the dedicated applications

Since the basic purpose of the tablet was to deliver a digital version of the newspaper you would think they would have nailed this particular functionality. This has also failed for a number of reasons. The first reason was the lack of instructions.  Since the tablet wasn't delivered configured to properly auto-download the daily newspapers, a small sheet of instruction on how to configure the application and the tablet to accomplish this would have been helpful. Even after users began to post instructions on how to make it work in the on-line forum, it was clear that some features, such as setting the number of days back issues to retain, did not work.

The second reason can be traced to asking the public to beta test your application and pay for the privilege. While the tablet project was billed as a "Beta test rollout" most users don't seem to understand what that means. Continual reports of the newspaper applications freezing up and inconsistent software behavior appear in the support forums on a daily basis.

Lastly, the tablet applications didn't deliver on what was promised. The tablet was sold on the basis of buyers being able to do the crossword puzzle and print out, capabilities found, for example, in the New Your Times iPad app.  Unfortunately, the dedicated tablet app can do neither at this time, meaning that people that want the Sunday coupons and crossword need to also buy a hard copy of the Sunday paper.

Problems with the bonus applications advertised with the tablet

Links on the desktop didn't take users to the free bonus apps but rather to sites where the apps could be purchased. This confused users because the tablet is advertised as having an "Office Suite" and other applications ready to go. The information on the free bonus applications was on a 3x5 card in the tablet packaging along with the directions on how to redeem the codes for the free apps. Having the desktop links not be what users were led to believe has led to much confusion.

Complete failure to understand the user base

PMN succeeded well in one area, the certainly seemed to have gotten the tablets in the hands of the average user, rather than just the early adopter technology types.  And they were completely unprepared to handle the problems that come with dealing with end users. For example, a surprising large number of people posted in the support forums that their tablet wouldn't charge. Even more surprisingly many of them admitted that they had plugged the tablet charger into the headphone jack and not the charging port on the parallel corner of the device.

Many users were unable to get any internet access for their tablet. A common theme with these users was that their wireless networking at home had been setup by the vendor and they were not aware that they had to type a password in to access their home network wirelessly and many of those that were didn't know the password was case sensitive

Configuring email was equally problematical. Depending upon the ISP, many users were unable to get their email configured on the tablet until other users on the same ISP started posting detailed instructions.

Eventually, the companies providing the bonus apps and the tablet vendor assigned personnel to directly answer question on the support forum. This was in addition to the one person that seemed to be assigned to the task from PMN.

To me it seems odd that PMN launched this ambitious project without seeming to take any steps to have the proper infrastructure in place to support the tablet, the applications, or the users in any way that has come to be commonplace in the age of digital media. If this was the late 1990's I would be applauding PMN for the effort they are making to get their newspaper into the hands of as many readers as possible and to take advantage of the technology that can make that possible.

Systemax, Inc, the company that owns Tiger Direct, in conjunction with Archos, the tablet manufacturer, has announced their PubTab solution, a turnkey digital publishing product that includes a customized tablet for publishers looking to repeat the Philadelphia Media Network's project. The solution includes the tablet (apparently still the Arnova 10 G2) preloaded with the applications of the publisher's choice and Tiger Direct for order fulfillment as well as customer and technical support.

While this one-stop solution may be appealing to other newspaper publishers, they should learn some hard lessons from the way that the process has worked, or rather not worked, for PMN. A buggy process that isn't yet ready for primetime with a non-technical user base.

(At this time, PMN has not responded to requests for comment.)

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