Jason Cochran

Stuff you never knew you never knew

When bloggers attack

Published on: Blog

Aug

30

2010

I recently wrote about bloggers who seek to elevate themselves by launching unprovoked attacks on other writers in their field. As if on cue, someone has tried it with me.

A British writer, whom I have never met nor named in any of my published work, went after me for the warning I wrote for WalletPop about iPhone travel apps, which often require expensive data connections to function. The problem lies, essentially, in 1) exorbitantly pricey international access and 2) apps that suck data from the network without telling you how much you’re actually using. People get routinely slammed with massive bills, and they are taught by AT&T itself to thwart disaster by switching their iPhones into Airplane Mode the minute they board the flight to fly abroad.

The bigger the claws, the weaker the venom (Photo by H. Dragon)

This guy hated the example I supplied of a $3,000 bill because it happened in 2007 — even though I linked to the report of it so readers could fully investigate for themselves. He was fixated on the fact apps weren’t yet for sale then, but the truth is that astronomical charges unquestionably still exist. A friend went to Toronto for two days last week and was charged $300 for just 20MB of usage. (Can you imagine a full vacation’s worth of damage?)  He hated the headline that said a person can spend “thousands” using data on vacation. (They can. You have to know the tricks.) He also didn’t say much about my publication, which is owned by Aol, or post constructive comments beneath the story in question, where true corrections would presumably most help the public, choosing instead go after me by name in a post published on his home platform.

Unfortunately, this man was disingenuous about his primary assault. For one, he neglected to disclose he has a dog in the fight: He makes and sells travel apps. He only admitted, near the bottom as a sort of footnote, to being “an app developer.”

Fortunately, his tirade has not gotten much traction, which is probably good for him, because the unpleasant truth hiding behind the attacks is that his own guide apps work best when they access Google Maps, otherwise, you don’t get to enjoy the entire functionality. (It must also be pointed out that Google Maps was one of the culprits in the $3,000 bill this guy didn’t like reading about.)

This is what my critic told his followers about his apps:

“All our travel apps store content when you first download them. All the images, all the information, it’s all inside the handset and you don’t need a data connection to access it.”

Notice the perhaps-tactical omission of the word maps (and what good is a travel guide without a map?). I can’t locate a clear truth on this one. This screenshot (below), taken from the App Store product page of one of the apps he is associated with, contradicts his presentation of the facts: As you can see, it declares that users “need a 3G or wi-fi connection to view Google maps [sic] or external website links.” Another sales page for another of his products words it as “you only need an internet connection…” for the same features. Still other sales pages for apps he sells make no mention at all of the warning, but I don’t know if that means the maps are stored offline for those. Now, data connection for external sites can be forgiven, but when it comes to protecting the traveler from shocking mobile phone bills, Google Maps is dangerous indeed.

This app needs the Web for full functionality: Its product page from the App Store

I can understand why this man might object to my call on consumers to be smart about their travel app purchases, because he stands to lose money if I drum up awareness about iPhone app design that allows data charges to creep in the back door. Most consumers are not as versed as app designers, and many people have no idea how much they stand to lose by using a travel app that accesses the Internet.

He also didn’t seek any comment from me for his first post despite the fact he repeatedly named me and invented assumptions about my professional practices.

Those omissions, together, raise significant questions about his motives and standards.

Considering the omissions so far (and there are other perceived misrepresentations that reach outside the scope of iPhone apps), it will surprise no one to learn that his three posts about me, plus updates, are selectively presented to make it appear as if it were me who picked the fight. He even published tweets I sent to his personal account to his wider platform, and then claimed it was “defamation.” It is not defamation, however, if 1) it’s true, and 2) you yourself are the one disseminating it.

Regardless, with his third attack post, he’s finally taking a more reader-conscious course by countering with solid information of actual service to the purchasing public. This morning, the guy put up a list of 11 data-use workarounds for using your iPhone while you travel. I must say there’s quite a bit of helpful information in there, particularly if you have bought one of his travel products (of which I have no opinion otherwise) and want to use Google Maps.

But if expensive data connection expense isn’t much of a problem, why did he feel the need to craft a long list of helpful tips, tricks, and hacks?

Having written this, I fully expect a fourth installment in his self-serving vendetta, and more fixation on minor points at the expense of the whole. I know I have played somewhat into his game. But this man’s hyperbolic campaign obscures the truth behind it — a truth that’s obviously more complicated than a rabble-rousing 140-character tweet. His vociferous objections to my consumer reporting remind us that you should never believe everything you read on the Web. Motives are shadowy things.

Update: I was invited to discuss this topic on Arthur Frommer and Pauline Frommer’s national radio show. You can get the .mp3 here; the chat starts about midway through. I encourage everyone who uses apps to make sure they understand the possible expense of data usage, and to be duly appraising of those with vested interests who try to deflect attention from, or blame consumers for, this very costly problem.

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10 comments. Add a Comment:

  1. Cristina Jambon says:

    Keep fighting the good fight, J. Writers with integrity like yours are rare….

  2. Paul Smith says:

    Hi Jason,

    Since it seems I’m not permitted a voice unless I follow your suggested protocol, let me put across a couple of broad points here.

    Your piece on Walletpop was entitled “iPhone travel apps could cost you thousands in data usage fees” – that’s a very different headline to “a person can spend “thousands” using data on vacation.” If that had been your headline, I don’t think I’d have given it a second thought. But it wasn’t.

    Instead the piece roundly criticised app developers and suggested that travel apps were singularly responsible for excessive data bills. Google Maps were never mentioned, and the emphasis certainly wasn’t on how expensive roaming data is, or how travellers can avoid these costs. Even the basics – roaming data tariffs – weren’t mentioned.

    My points were, and remain:

    – the post didn’t give a single example of of how travel apps had been responsible for bills of thousands of dollars, as per your headline; yes, I did hate the example you gave, because you provide it to prove your point, in that travel apps cost a customer $3,000 – when that simply didn’t happen.

    – the post misrepresented how much data smartphones use while abroad

    I made further points after you chose to attack me personally and professionally, something that seems to have slipped your mind in your post above. However:

    – at no point did I criticise your credentials or “invent assumptions about [your] professional practises”; I said you’re a respected authority on travel but that I felt that particular article was poorly researched and I absolutely stand by that.

    – I’m not in favour of apps that mean users receiving excessive bills, despite your comments to the contrary – that was a ridiculous statement to make

    – I don’t develop or support apps that cost people thousands of dollars in roaming charges, despite your comments to the contrary – that’s simply stupid and outrageous

    – our apps don’t require Google Maps to “enjoy the entire functionality”. If they did, we wouldn’t waste our time working with the likes of noted Frommers author and award winning writer Donald Stratchan to provide unique content. Google Maps provides functionality that can’t be built into offline apps – it’s not something we deliberately omit or because we’re poor developers.

    So now you’ve painted me as a person who selfishly attacked you with the sole intention of protecting my own interests, and you “raise significant questions about [my] motives and standards”. If there’s any ambiguity concerning our App Store descriptions – and I’m certainly not convinced they’re as misleading as you insist, I’m happy to make amends. But that is light-years from strongly implying we’re poor-quality developers making apps that cost the user money and we deliberately hide the fact. Seriously Jason.

    iPhone development is very much a part time affair; my day job is writing, so I really don’t have the motivation for criticising people who attack travel apps. We don’t make just travel apps. Our most successful app isn’t a travel app. Meh. The reason I took you to task was because I thought it was plain wrong – and as somebody with experience of both travel and apps, I felt I was perhaps better placed to comment.

    After all, you suggest iPhone users could jailbreak their phones to dodge data charges, but never once mention that simple option of purchasing a roaming data package from AT&T. You repeatedly demand that apps show how much data they use, when that functionality is already built into the iPhone and can be checked at any time.

    Finally, if you’re going to write such a damning character assassination of me, my writing, my career and other matters, at least have the common decency to link to the source material. No, not for Google Juice, but so people can read both sides of the story and make their own minds up.

    Paul

    http://twitchhiker.com

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. As you can see, I did not name you, so none of my readers connected you directly with this issue until now. I am gratified that you are apparently following my work with such vigilance. Your reply does not definitively address the disparity between how you describe your travel apps for your followers and how your travel apps are promoted in the App Store (see the photo in my post), but it appears that you define “offline” far more loosely than I do. I think that a novice smartphone user — and let’s be honest, that’s many users — who calls up Google Maps using one of your products, or any app, is in for a rude price shock. Telling any customer that they should devise a workaround before attempting to use your product is not, to my mind, fair to customers such as my mother or my teen-age niece, who may not learn about those workarounds until it’s too late and they owe huge sums of money. Even the workarounds are fraught with troubles: The starting data plans from AT&T are usually inadequate for all but the stingiest data user ($25 for a mere 25 MB when a single downloaded photo can clock in a 2 MB), or priced as high as $200 for a mere 200 MB, which is painful indeed.

    As a consumer reporter, it is my job to warn the unschooled where budget pitfalls lie, so I stand by my assertion that an app that accesses any information on the Web can potentially cost thousands of dollars in roaming. They can and they do. And yes, the costs can indeed run into quadruple digits without much effort. While you have written very much about how data usage can be tabulated, I believe that travel app developers should avoid requiring data usage at all because of where their products are meant to be used. I also believe in honesty in advertising.

  4. Paul Smith says:

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for allowing my comment onto the site.

    > “Your reply does not definitively address the disparity between how you describe your travel apps for your followers and how your travel apps are promoted in the App Store (see the photo in my post), but it appears that you define “offline” far more loosely than I do.”

    No, I define “offline” in this context, as in all the content we promise to provide is downloaded when you buy it; the app categorically does not need to go online and use data every time you want to use it.

    The app description very clearly states that it will only use data *if* you use Google Maps app, which is *not* part of the app – our app links out to Google Maps, in exactly the same we way we link out to third-party websites. Our app shuts down first before Google Maps opens. It was deliberately designed that way so data can’t inadvertently be used by our app. I haven’t met anybody who believes that third-party websites use data but that Google Maps doesn’t, so I don’t think there’s an obstacle to overcome with respect to that.

    I know the apps you’re talking about; there are shoddy travel apps out there that require a data connection just to download images and place descriptions. Our app doesn’t do that. It never has done. So if I’m telling people that they’ll need a data connection to use Google Maps – a separate and self-contained app – I don’t see why you’re continuing to accuse me of dishonesty, poor standards and deliberately rubbishing my work.

    > “The starting data plans from AT&T are usually inadequate for all but the stingiest data user ($25 for a mere 25 MB when a single downloaded photo can clock in a 2 MB), or priced as high as $200 for a mere 200 MB, which is painful indeed.”

    By AT&T’s own numbers, 200 MB is more than the average customer uses in a month. AT&T also offers 50MB for $59.99, which should mean more than enough data for a week. I’d have thought that probably worthy of mention in a consumer article concerning using data abroad, if that’s what the original article was about.

    My issue from day one with your Walletpop article has been that you insist on placing the blame for big data bills specifically with travel app developers, yet the (very) few examples you’ve given have nothing whatsoever to do with travel apps. Sending a 2MB photo isn’t the fault of a travel app. The most recent example you retweeted on Twitter:

    > “Just got a $500 T-Mobile bill (normally get $115 after travel). Turns out the @UberTwitter upgrade is a WAY heavier app.”

    UberTwitter isn’t a travel app, it’s a Twitter client. Travel apps aren’t the chief suspect in data usage abroad; it’s regular use of regular apps, because plenty of apps use data. It’s people sending photos, using Twitter, updating Facebook, downloading email attachments. But time and again, you keep putting the emphasis on travel apps.

    Continuing to insist “iPhone travel apps could cost you thousands in data usage fees” doesn’t necessarily do a novice smartphone user any favours, because it suggests other apps aren’t an issue, when they categorically are.

    > “I believe that travel app developers should avoid requiring data usage at all because of where their products are meant to be used.”

    Some features need data, it’s as simple as that. You can’t use geolocation features without data. If you want to see where a place of interest is on a map in relation to you, you need data. Plenty of people want that ability while travelling – and that’s why we link out to the Google Maps app – but it requires data.

    As I’ve said, If the app is nothing more than a stylised web browser that needs data before it does anything – I’d agree that’s completely unacceptable and would never argue in defence of them. But saying that travel app developers “should avoid requiring data usage at all” is naive.

    The real issue appears to be that there’s a general lack of awareness concerning using data abroad, and that’s a completely different issue to the one you addressed in your original article. If you strongly feel that the majority of people are savvy enough to recognise that international phone calls may cost more and modify their behaviour accordingly, but never once question the data they use, then surely there’s a better, more consumer-focused article to be written, and one with a less hysterical headline.

    Paul

    http://twitchhiker.com

  5. Thanks again for another lengthy protest. My points still stand strongly for themselves. I also feel no need to defend Twitter posts that have nothing to do with you. Buyer beware.

  6. Ross Cooney says:

    Jason,

    I have looked at your various posts on this topic and Pauls comments and I cant understand why you persist with this.

    You say that “travel apps” can cost $3,000 in data fees but you fail to give a real example. Paul says that while data roaming fees are high it is unlikely that a properly written “travel app” would do that.

    To me it looks like you are more interested in scare tactics and strong headlines. I suggest that your efforts would be better employed by highlighting the high costs of roaming data tariffs rather than this pointless drivel.

  7. John says:

    Seriously you two need to calm down.

    As I will make perfectly clear now – I have not posted a real name or email address and will not post a url as I would prefer to stay out of the shooting line you both are creating.

    However I believe the above posts reminds me of having a playground arguement 20 years ago which no one else cares about, but are asked to hear about all the time.
    Yes I am well aware both of you will say ‘well stop reading it’ which I would normally do. But I can’t help find it amusing to see 2 full grown adults have a well crafted fight online.

    Can I suggest you both agree to disagree as neither of you are coming off as winning.

    Get on with your lives and be the professionals you aspire to be.

  8. Paul Smith says:

    John,

    I criticised Jason’s original piece because I felt it was poorly researched and unfair. For that I’ve been publicly attacked, both personally and professionally. I’m more than happy to defend myself and my concerns with the facts at hand.

    Best,

    Paul

  9. John says:

    Paul,

    No need to defend yourself to me – you both are great bloggers in your own right.

    For that I urge you both to keep writing – just not about each other.

    I would love to read both your blogs in the future and would not want a public arguement to sway my thoughts on this.

  10. Paul Smith says:

    That’s entirely reasonable. I think there’s plenty of reading material above for people to form their own conclusions on this matter.

    Thanks for reading, hope you continue to do so.

    Best,

    Paul

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