Ever wonder what happens to the used iPhones being bought by companies such as Gazelle or San Diego’s EcoATM? When I met with the CEO of EcoATM in June, she was reluctant to answer the question, saying it was confidential.

EcoATM buys back used cellphones from individuals when they trade up to a new model. It’s done using their ingenious machines similar to ATMs that examine and pay for the phone on the spot. Gazelle and other services similarly buy back old iPhones and other smartphones over the Web.

Typically they pay $100 to more than $200 for an iPhone5S, depending on condition, carrier and memory size. Both services are a boon to the environment, allowing a phone to be reused rather than ending up in a landfill.

But why confidential? Such a response made me only more curious, so I have been speaking with industry analysts, phone company employees and manufacturers over the past several months.

I finally got the answer on a recent visit to China, speaking with a senior executive for a major Chinese consumer products manufacturing company that I’ve known for more than 20 years. He said it’s common knowledge there about what happens to the used iPhones bought in the United States.

He said that about 80 percent of the used iPhones are shipped to Hong Kong, where daily auctions are held to sell the phones in large lots. These lots of iPhones are bought by many manufacturing companies that take the phones to their facilities in southern China for refurbishing.

The process includes refinishing the cases and removing scratches from the screens, sometimes replacing the touch-screen surface or the glass. Normally, they don’t bother to replace the batteries.

When the iPhones’ housings have a ding or deep scratch and cannot be repaired, they are replaced with independently manufactured, look-alike housings.

There are two levels of housings: highly accurate copies and cheaper lower-tier copies. Once the refurbishment is complete, the iPhones are categorized by the refurbishers into four tiers of quality varying from “like new” to “fair.”

Each iPhone is put into brand new packaging that’s an exact copy of Apple’s iPhone boxes and sold mostly as new phones to retailers throughout China. While Apple also retails its iPhones in China, the demand is so great that many retailers, particularly those that don’t have a relationship with Apple, will sell whatever they can get. And they typically sell them as new phones.

I asked EcoATM representatives to comment, but they declined. Instead, they explained how “they adhere to strict environmental and recycling standards, and that all the devices they take in are sent to certified buyers.”

They said that “75 percent of the devices collected have found a second life, and 25 percent have been recycled (meaning junked for material).” Of the 75 percent, iPhones represent almost half of EcoATM’s purchases, another source said.

“Their network of international and national buyers are refurbishers and also recyclers,” the company added. “And it’s their documentation that we use during our auditing process, in addition to our own.”

As EcoATM says, creating a way for people to sell their phones so they can be reused rather than disposed of is a major benefit to the environment. I just found it surprising that the phones end up being sold as new phones to unsuspecting Chinese customers. I suspect it’s this secret that most of the companies that sell to refurbishers know or could easily find out, if they wanted to.

However, this practice is not illegal here, as the phones are being bought and not being sold as new in the United States. It may or may not be illegal in China; the U.S. companies are certainly not implicated — it’s the refurbishers that are duping their customers. Still, I think it’s questionable to profit from these sales.

Read More...

Surveying both customers and prospective customers can be an important element of the product development process. Companies use surveys to assess opinions about current products and services as well as to figure out what new products or features should be added. While I would never use opinions from surveys or focus groups to design a product, each are useful ways of comparing and prioritizing features, likes and dislikes.

Survey Monkey, a Palo Alto-based company, is the leader in developing tools for us to create online surveys. I’ve been trying the product over the past six weeks and have found it to be a valuable tool for gathering useful information. While it relies on our judgment to formulate the surveys, SurveyMonkey offers nearly 200 survey templates for almost any topic. They can be sent as is or customized to specific needs.

I used it to assess feedback for a company that’s developed a hardware product. Samples of the product were sent out to about three dozen potential customers, and they were asked to try it over a couple of months. The users were asked to send their comments to a special email address. While that provided useful information, it took a well-designed survey to extract information that could be quantified, and I found this to be even more useful than the anecdotal comments.

SurveyMonkey works by providing an online, Web-based tool to design your survey. You select the type of questions you want, enter your questions and the format in which you’d like a response (multiple choice, descriptive, yes/no, etc.). The tool lets you change the order, insert and delete questions and optionally add space for the survey taker to comment on why they chose the answer they did.

I started out using the free version of Survey Monkey, which allowed me to create basic surveys with multiple-choice questions, ranking choices, and questions requiring a text answer. But I found using the product to be frustrating because when I clicked on many of the selections and options, I’d get a message saying I needed to upgrade to access that feature.

In addition, the free version limits you to 10 questions per survey and 100 responses per survey. Among its many other limitations, you can’t output the results into a PDF document, making it difficult to share with others.

The software seemed to be purposely designed to remind me at nearly every step the limitations of the free version. And it worked. I was going to upgrade to the $26/month Select plan, but the company suggested I try the $300/year Gold level. Both offered all the features I needed and for me, the differences were minor.

Once you’re done designing your survey, you can preview it and test it out by answering your questions, and then edit it. The paid versions let you create more complex questions that branch out to different questions, based on the answers. There are many other additions, such as customizing the reports with your company’s name, directing users to find the survey on your website or at an URL with your company name.

In the survey I constructed, I used my own questions as well as a few recommended by SurveyMonkey. There are lists of questions arranged by the type of business and information you are looking for.

Questions included the users’ opinion of the product’s features; whether the price was high, low or about right; and what they most liked and disliked. I asked questions requiring text answers, such as asking how it was used, and what title they might use if they were to write a review.

Once the questionnaire is completed and tested, you enter a list of those recipients you want to participate and send an introductory invitation. That portion was a little finicky in that the participants needed to be listed in a very specific format. SurveyMonkey then sends an email asking those on the list to go to your special link and fill out the survey.

My technique was to create a survey that could be answered within 10 to 15 minutes. I used 15 questions, many multiple choices and included three questions requiring the answers to be written out. Notably, SurveyMonkey did not promote its company in the survey nor in the reports eventually created.

After a couple of days I had responses from about eight of the original 40. In a week it rose to 14 and in three weeks I got 27. I could go to SurveyMonkey’s website at any time and view the results.

I ran into a little trouble the first time I tried printing a report: The responses to the written questions were not included. I used the company’s help page to email a question, and got an email response in about 10 minutes. I had omitted selecting a small button off to the side requesting the comments to be included. I found it odd that it wasn’t set as a default.

Once fixed, I chose a detailed report in PDF format. The report was 20 pages long, listing my questions followed by the answers. In the case of multiple-choice answers, the report displayed the results in an easy-to-read bar graph. For those questions asking for a written answer, the responses were tabulated one after another. You can also examine the responses of a single individual and identify that person, should you want to follow up.

The reports were fascinating to read, and helpful to look for trends and to draw some immediate conclusions. The reports were professional in well-formatted documents that I was able to share with others by sending it out as an attachment. Overall, I found SurveyMonkey to be a valuable tool applicable to product development and to many other uses. In fact, you’ll probably be using it more often as you learn to appreciate how valuable it can be.

Read More...

Wireless connectivity has come to portable scanners. I’ve been traveling with the recently introduced Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100, the company’s newest portable scanner. It’s a remarkable little package that lets me turn paper documents into digital documents wherever I am, and do it completely wirelessly. There’s no need for a USB connection or power cord. That means it can connect to smartphones and tablets wirelessly, as well as to a computer both wirelessly or with the USB connector supplied.

I’ve been evaluating the product by scanning receipts, business cards, marked-up documents, NDAs, invoices and bank statements into my computer, iPad and iPhone. I’ve used it at home and on the road in China.

With the scanner by my side, I have scanned in travel receipts minutes after receiving them, such as a hotel receipt while in a cab to the airport. I’ve lost or misplaced receipts in the past, but now they are permanently saved in the cloud or device. Once the documents are scanned, they can be saved in a variety of applications or emailed.

The iX100 is the step-up model to the S1100, a similarly sized unit introduced two years ago that is powered from a USB port on a computer. The iX100 adds a built-in rechargeable battery and built-in Wi-Fi that connects locally to your devices using its own local network and doesn’t require access to a home or public Wi-Fi network.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100 wireless scanner is smaller and lighter than a portable umbrella. It weighs 14 ounces and fits next to a keyboard on a desk or in a briefcase on the road. Courtesy photo

The scanner is the same size as the S1100, smaller and lighter than a portable umbrella. It weighs 14 ounces and fits next to a keyboard on a desk or in a briefcase on the road.

Simply open the lid and fold down the front flap and it turns on. You feed in documents using a straight path or a 90-degree path, depending on the stiffness of the document or the availability of desk space. It handles a range of paper thicknesses including flimsy printed receipts, laminated documents, cardboard stock, business cards and even credit cards. Scanning is quick at 5.2 seconds for an 11-inch-long page. It can scan multiple small documents such as receipts at once or multipage documents a page at a time.

Documents larger than legal size, such as charts and diagrams, can be scanned and stitched together. Simply fold the documents in half, scan both sides, and the iX100 will automatically stitch it back together, producing a one-page digital image.

The iX100 is designed to scan documents in full color with 300 dpi resolution, but is not intended to scan photographs. The quality looks exactly what comes off a printer or color copier. The S1100 has 600 dpi resolution, but the perceived differences were not detectable.

In my long use of the S1100 and two-week use of the iX100, it’s apparent that internal software is one of Fujitsu’s strengths. The software can straighten skewed documents that are fed at an angle, and adjust for receipts that are barely readable and business cards on dark backgrounds. Rarely do I get a scan that is not useable.

The included computer software is similar to what Fujitsu provides with its other scanners. It’s robust and easy to use, yet provides broad versatility. After scanning, a window opens and offers a choice of scanning directly to a file folder, Word document, Salesforce, Evernote, a Google Doc, or an email, and can save it as a PDF, jpeg or other format. It works with Windows and Mac computers, as well as iOS, Android and Kindle Fire mobile devices.

The “ScanSnap Connect” app that’s used to scan directly into your tablet or smartphone, can be downloaded from the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store, as well as the Amazon App Store for Kindle Fire.

The scanner comes with other software I didn’t evaluate, such as ScanSnap Receipt, to intelligently and automatically extract data from receipts, and CardMinder, which automatically extracts the information from business cards into editable fields that can be exported to Outlook, Excel, Salesforce and other contact management software.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100 is available for $229 through Fujitsu authorized resellers. Included is a three-month subscription to Evernote Premium. The S1100 continues to be available for $199.

Both of these products are the best portable scanners I’ve used. I’ve had the S1100 for two years, carrying it around the world without a case, and it’s been reliable and trouble-free. I expect the iX100 to be equally robust and much more convenient to use. The $30 premium for the iX100 is a small price to pay for all its new capabilities.

Read More...

When Apple upgraded its computer’s MacOS operating system to Mavericks nearly a year ago, Mail for Mac, which I’ll refer to as Mail, no longer worked well with Gmail.

It failed to retrieve email reliably. Often you’d need to wait for hours, and when the mail did arrive, it could take several minutes to fill in the body of the messages. Outgoing mail could take five or 10 minutes to send.

My solution was to bypass Mail and go online directly to gmail.com, not a very satisfying solution with Gmail’s limited features and archaic user interface. A few months ago, I moved to another computer, and when the problem followed, I began to look for a replacement for Mail.

Now, a bug such as this, while serious, is not all that unusual with a major upgrade, and the issues are often corrected in the next upgrade or two. But in update after update, in spite of Apple saying it has made fixes for Gmail, the problem has continued, and based on reading message boards, many others are still complaining. It’s now nearly a year later and Apple has not fixed the problem.

A senior customer service manager at Apple, referred by its PR department, told me that the engineers are aware of the issues with Gmail, and for now they suggest clicking on the button that takes your Mail offline for a few minutes and then clicking again to reconnect. Didn’t help.

Why should it take so long to fix? Does Apple or Google really want to solve this, or is there some secret plot by Apple to wean Apple users away from Google. Or is Google trying to take revenge on Apple? Or does Apple just not care? As I discovered, there are substitutes for Mail that don’t have the problem and work just fine.

Not by choice, but out of necessity, I’ve been looking for a Mail replacement. I’ve looked at most products and narrowed down my search to three to try: Airmail, Postbox and Unibox. Each does a good job replicating the functions of Mail, and each has its own special features and quirks.

Email programs have come a long way in making it easy to set up your mail accounts — no more manually entering information by hand. Each of these programs figured out all of the settings by just entering my email address and password for all three of my accounts.

Postbox looks the most like Mail and takes the least effort to learn. It uses the same window layout, color scheme and icon layout. Its typography design is excellent, and is easy to read even while displaying a long list of emails.

Airmail also has a similar layout to Mail, but has a jarring black window on the left serving as a background to the files lists. It can be hidden, but the color cannot be changed.

Unibox organizes email by contacts based on the date of the contact’s last email, an approach different from other products. That took some getting used to, because I normally respond to messages in chronological order or by thread, regardless of the sender.

Its sparse clean appearance is unique and attractive. Even message recipients and distribution names are hidden. But I found it too sparse and it required too many clicks to get to the information

There was a big difference in how effectively these programs retrieve, open and send email. I found new email to show up first in Airmail and PostBox. Unibox usually lagged behind, and I would see the spinning wheel on occasion after opening an email and waiting for the contents to arrive. On a few occasions I got an error that the message could not be synced.

But Apple Mail is worse. It’s usually last in downloading new email, sometimes by hours! Opening up the message and contents can take from a few seconds to more than 30 before being able to be read it. While this often occurs for many hours each day, it’s not consistent. Occasionally, for several hours over the course of a day, it will behave perfectly normal.

Over weeks of use, Airmail and Postbox have proven to be the most reliable and trouble free. Unibox occasionally forces me to wait while downloading the contents of some emails, and some units needed to be closed and opened a few times to work. A spokesman said the company is in the midst of an upgrade that should resolve many of these issues. Postbox and Unibox each enable you to switch from a mail view to an attachment view, a useful feature. And Postbox has a clever feature that reminds you to add an attachment should you try sending out an email that contains the word “attachment”.

While I focused on the products’ basic email functionality, each offers features that may cause you to prefer one over another. While Airmail does a good job at matching Mail feature for feature, Postbox seems like the next generation of Mail.

My favorite was Postbox, followed closely by Airmail. A Postbox representative told me that a new version would be released soon with more features.

Each product costs $10 and each offers a free trial. Postbox is also available for Windows.

Read More...

Apple’s announcements last week showed the strength of the company’s product design capabilities. No company can match its skills in industrial design, engineering and the integration of beautiful software and hardware. But Apple is also skilled in its ability to exaggerate. Without taking away from its accomplishments, Apple takes credit without embarrassment for features they haven’t originated.

For example, the introduction of new iPhones with larger displays comes four years after Samsung and others made that leap. For the past two years the most popular size display for other phones has been in the 5-inch range.  Just look at the offerings from Microsoft, Motorola, HTC, LG and Samsung. And Apple no longer leads the industry with the highest resolution displays. In fact, if you move from an iPhone 5S to an iPhone 6, the sharpness drops slightly.

Another example: Apple took credit for a “new” feature that enables the iPhone to dial over the Internet using WiFi when your cellular signal is poor. It announced that T-Mobile would be the first to adopt. However, Apple omitted to mention that T-Mobile has had this capability built into its phones for several years.

One of the most dramatic examples on display was the focus on the little cylindrical knob, called a crown, similar to what’s been on watches for eons. Apple calls it a digital crown and uses it to scroll, zoom and click. While the application is very clever and ingenious, the company’s video expounding it as revolutionary seemed over the top. But all of this is part of Apple’s bravado, originated by Steve Jobs, and plays to their loyal and outspoken fan base.

Now all of this is not to take away from Apple’s business acumen and often phenomenal products. One of its strategies is, in fact, not to be first in everything it does, but to wait while other companies try and fail. Then it comes up with a much better solution that’s fully thought through and well implemented, bringing along major partners to make the solution really useful. Apple takes the long view, focusing on what its customers will want and can easily use. Apple may be slow to adopt, but when it does, it’s well executed and something that resonates with the customer.

That’s what it did with Apple Pay, a way to make payments with your iPhone. Companies such as PayPal and Google have tried and failed or have yet to get off the ground. Apple may be the first to succeed because it brings along hundreds of millions of iPhone users, and the cooperation of banks and merchants.

It appears Apple has thought through security, ease of use and has the support from the major credit card companies. And its timing could not be better, with the theft of credit card information from Target, Home Depot and others.

Overall, I came away with a generally positive view of the new offerings, but intend to wait for more specifics. For example, the new iPhone 6 and 6+ offer sleeker IDs and larger displays. But Apple iPhones have had mediocre battery life, and no mention was made of whether that will be improved in spite of more power hungry displays. The reported use of scratchproof sapphire glass never materialized, possibly because it was not ready. Will that be next season’s upgrade?

Most interesting was the Apple Watch. This is not perceived as a limited purpose device like a Jawbone UP or Fitbit. It’s clearly Apple’s next platform, deserving of a new OS.  It’s the beginning.  It’s a multipurpose device that will start out performing some interesting functions, but it’s also a blank slate (or display) that can go in multiple directions, based on new software and services. It’s designed for the long run, not to be replaced with new models every year.

It displays Apple’s core capabilities such as hardware miniaturization, mechanical design and beautiful aesthetics. It’s likely the first smartwatch that both men and women would consider wearing.

Its timeless design, catering to both function and fashion, represents Apple’s entry into wearable computers. It addresses all that has been wrong with other wearable devices: size, attractiveness and functionality.

Just as few of us could envision the potential of the iPad when it was first announced — the same applies to the Apple Watch.

My take-away from the presentation is that Apple is more formidable than ever.  As Samsung comes closer to matching its capabilities in iPhones and tablets, Apple has raised the bar considerably.

The company is so good at what it does, you wonder why they have to exaggerate — but that’s Apple, and the fans love it.

Read More...