Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for July 2017

On Firefox and its decline

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I recently encountered a blog post by a former Firefox insider discussing its declining market share.

When it comes to the important question “why?”, he offers that “Google is aggressively using its monopoly position in Internet services such as Google Mail, Google Calendar and YouTube to advertise Chrome.”—which cannot be more than a part of the truth.

If it were the entire truth, this would mostly show in new or inexperienced users going to Chrome instead of Firefox, those that have not yet grown accustomed to a particular browser.

Then why is there a drop among the long-term users? Those who have used Firefox for years? Those who (like me) first used the Firefox grandfather Mosaic well over twenty years ago and then graduated to its father, Netscape?

Things like that happen either because the competition grows better (or better faster) or because the own product grows worse. Indeed, this is what I have repeatedly experienced as a user: After Netscape, I switched to Opera for a number of years, because Opera actually was a better browser, especially with its tabs. Year for year, Opera failed to add new useful features and tried to force-feed the users poorly thought-through ideas that some manager or developer out of touch with his users saw as revolutionary. Eventually, I gave up and moved over to Firefox, which at the time did a reasonable job and had over-taken Opera—not because of its own qualities, but because Opera declined.

Unfortunately, Firefox has gone down the same destructive path as Opera followed, has grown worse and worse, and the only reason that I am still with Firefox is that I use the “Tor Browser Bundle”, which is based on Firefox and recommended as the safest way to use Tor by the Tor developers.

To list all that is wrong with Firefox and its course would take far too long—and would require digging through many years* of memories of “for fuck’s sake”–memories.

*I am uncertain how long I have been using Firefox by now. In a rough guesstimate, the Opera-to-Firefox switch might have occurred some ten years ago.

However, to list some of the most important (often over-lapping) issues:

  1. The removal of preferences that should be standard, e.g. the ability to turn images and JavaScript on and off. If these remain at all, they are pushed into the infamous, poorly documented, and unreliable “about:config”—the use of which is strongly discouraged by Firefox.

    When such preferences are removed (respectively moved to “about:config”) the handling can be utterly absurd. Notably, when the setting for showing/not showing images in web pages was removed, the Firefox developers chose to defy the stated will of the user by resetting the internal setting in about:config to the default value…

    To boot, config switches that are in “about:config” often stop working after some time, merely being kept to prevent scripts from breaking, but no longer having any practical function. Among the side-effects is that someone finds a solution for a problem on the Internet, alters the configuration accordingly—and has to spend half-an-hour researching why things still do not work as intended. (The reason being that the solution was presented for an earlier version of Firefox and Firefox failed to make clear that this solution was no longer supported.)

  2. Forcing users to download add-ons to handle tasks that a good browser should have in its core functionality, while adding nice-to-haves appropriate for an add-on to the official interface… (The “sync” bullshit is a good example.) Worse: Not all add-ons are compatible with each other (or with every Firefox) version, making this road unnecessary problematic, with results including even browser crashes. To boot, any additional add-on increases the risk of a hackable vulnerability, data being leaked to a hostile third-party, or similar.
  3. Failing to add functionality that would be helpful, e.g. a possibility to disable the design atrocity that is “position:fixed” or a user-friendly mechanism for mapping keys.
  4. One truly great (and expectedly oldish) feature of Firefox is the ability to save tabs and windows when exiting or the browser crashes and have them restored on the next start. This especially since Firefox crashes more than most other applications.

    Unfortunately, the configuration of this feature is a bitch (and probably disabled by default). There are at least two (likely more; it has been a while since I dealt with this the last time) flags that have to have the right value for this to work—one of which should rightly be entirely independent*. The names of these settings in about:config and the description in the GUI are non-obvious, more-or-less forcing a user to search the web for information—if he is aware that the feature exists in the first place. And: In several releases this feature has been so bug ridden that no combination of settings has worked…

    *The one appears to control the feature; the other controls whether a warning is issued when a user tries to close more than one tab at a time. When the latter is disabled, which is very reasonable even for someone who uses the former, the former is ignored…

    Worse, without this functionality a simple “CTRL-q” just quits the browser—no confirmation, no tabs saved. For a power surfer who regularly has dozens of tabs open at the same time, this is a major issue. This is the worse since someone heavy on tabs is almost certainly a frequent user of “CTRL-w”* and there is no good native way to change key bindings—amateurish!

    *I.e. “close the current tab”. Note that “w” is next to “q” on a standard QWERTY-keyboard, making the likelihood of occasional accidents quite high.

  5. The config management is lousy.

    For instance, Firefox started with the Windows style concept of “one user; one configuration” and never added provisions to e.g. specify config files on the command line. Among the negative side-effects is the later need to invent the redundant and poorly implemented concept of a “profile”—confusing, user-unfriendly, and bloating the code.

    For instance, “about:config” provides many, many options of the type normally found in a config file, that could have been edited with a text-editor much more comfortably than over the about:config interface. However, this opportunity was not taken and the users are stuck with about:config. Actually, there are some type of files, but these are absurd in comparison with those used by most Linux applications—and it is very, very clear that users are supposed not to edit them. (Statements like “Do not edit this file.” feature prominently.) For example, Firefox uses user_pref(“ui.caretBlinkTime”, 0); where any reasonable tool would use ui.caretBlinkTime=0.

    For instance, there is so much secrecy about and inconsistency in the configuration that the standard way to change an apparently simple setting is to install an add-on… (Also cf. above.) Where a user of a more sensible application might be told “add x=y to your config file”, the Firefox user is told to “install add-on abc”…

    For instance, copying the configuration from one user to another fails miserably (barring subsequent improvements), because it contains hard-coded paths referring to the original user.

    For instance, it used to be the case that a Firefox crash deleted the configuration, forcing the user to start over… (This was actually something that kept me with Opera for a year or so after I was already thoroughly feed up with it.)

  6. The support for multi-user installations, the standard for Linux and many corporate Windows installations, is weak and/or poorly documented. The results include e.g. that all users who wants to use popular add-ons have to install them individually—and keep them up-to-date individually.

    (Disclaimer: I looked into this on several occasions years ago. The situation might have been improved.)

  7. There are a number of phone-home and phone-third-party mechanisms that bring very little value, but often pose a danger, e.g. through reducing anonymity. This includes sending data to Google, which I would consider outright negligent in light of Google’s position and how it has developed over the years.
  8. The recent, utterly idiotic decision to drop Alsa support in favour of Pulse on Linux. This decision is so idiotic that I actually started to write a post on that topic alone when I heard of it. Most of what I did write is included as an excursion below. (Beware that result is not a full analysis.)
  9. The address bar started of very promisingly, e.g. with the addition of search keywords*. Unfortunately, it has so many problems by now that it does a worse job than most other browsers—and it grows worse over time. The preferred Firefox terminology “awesomebar” borders on an insult.

    *For instance, I have defined a keyword so that when I enter “w [something]”, a Wikipedia search for “[something]” is started. “ws [something]” does the same for the Swedish version of Wikipedia; “wd [something]” for the German. (I have a number of other keywords.)

    Among the problems: If a page is loading slowly and I re-focus the address bar and hit return again, the obvious action to take is to make a new attempt to load this page—it does not: It reloads the previous page! The history suggestions arbitrarily excludes all “about:” entries and all keyword searches—if I search with “w [something]” and want to switch to “g [something]”*, I have to retype everything. Per default, for some time, the history functionality is weakened through not listing the potential matches directly, but preceding them with annoying and useless suggestions to “visit” or “search” that only delay the navigation and confuse the users. Moreover, while there used to be working config flags to disable this idiocy, there are now just config flags (that do not work)…

    *Used to mean “search with Google” a long, long time ago; hence the “g”. Currently, I use duckduckgo.

  10. The layout/design and GUI (including menu handling) have been drastically worsened on several occasions.
  11. Many of the problems with Firefox can be remedied with “Classic Theme Restorer” (an absolute life-saver) or similar “user empowering” add-ons. Unfortunately, these all use the “XUL-framework”*, which Firefox has decided to discontinue. There is a new framework for add-ons, but it does not support this type of functionality (whether “yet” or “ever” is not yet clear). Many of the most popular add-ons, including “Classic Theme Restorer”, will therefore not be able to provide the full scope of functionality and at least some of them, again including “Classic Theme Restorer”, will be discontinued by their developers when XUL is turned off.

    *In a twist, XUL was once considered a major selling point for Firefox.

    My poor experiences with Firefox and the absurd attitudes of the Firefox developers might have made me paranoid—but I cannot suppress the suspicion that this is deliberate, that the add-ons that allow users to alter the default behaviors are viewed as problems, as heretics to burn at the stake.

To this should be added that since the switch from a “normal” versioning scheme to the idiocy of making allegedly major releases every few months*, the feature cramming has increased, with a (very predictable) increase in the number of run time problems. The Firefox makers were convinced that this would turn Firefox from a browser into a super-browser. In reality, this only resulted in hastening its demise—in much the same way that a TV series fighting for its survival ruins the good points it had left and drives away the remaining faithful**. If in doubt, most people who try to jump the shark are eaten…

*I.e. making version jumps of 44 to 45 to 46, instead of 4.4 to 4.5 to 4.6 or even 4.4.0 to 4.4.1 to 4.4.2.

**A topic I have been considering recently and intend to write a blog post on in the close future.

Sadly, the delusional author of the discussed article actually makes claims like “Firefox is losing despite being a great browser, and getting better all the time.”—turning the world on its head.

Excursion on the competition:

Unfortunately, Firefox could still be the lesser evil compared to the competitors. Chrome/Chromium, e.g., has many strengths, but configurability and adaptabtility to the user’s needs are not among them; on the contrary, it follows the deplorable school of achieving ease of use through reducing the controllable feature set—the equivalent of Apple’s infamous one-buttoned mouse. Chrome is entirely out of the question for anyone concerned with privacy; while its open-source sibling chromium (in my possibly incorrect opinion) trails Chrome in other regards. I have not tried Opera for years; but combining the old downwards trend (cf. above) with the highly criticized platform shift that almost killed it, I am not optimistic. Internet Explorer and Edge are not worthy of discussion—and are Windows only to begin with. Safari, I admit, I have never used and have no opinion on; however, it is Mac only and my expectations would be low, seeing that Apple has pioneered many of the negative trends in usability that plague today’s software. Looking at smaller players, I have tried possibly a dozen over the years. Those that have been both mature and user-friendly have been text-based and simply not worked very well with many modern web sites/designs, heavy in images and JavaScript; most others have either been too minimalistic or too immature. A very interesting concept is provided by uzbl, which could, on paper, give even the most hard-core user the control he needs—but this would require a very considerable own effort, which could turn out be useless if the limited resources of uzbl dry up.

Excursion on the decline of open source:

It used to be that open-source software was written by the users, for the users; that the developers were steeped in the Unix tradition of software development; that they were (on average) unusually bright and knowledgeable; … Today, many open-source projects (e.g. Firefox, Libre-/OpenOffice, many Linux Desktop environments) approach software development just like the commercial firms do, with an attitude that the user should be disenfranchised and grateful for whatever features the projects decided that he should like; quality is continually sacrificed in favour of feature bloat (while central features are often still missing…); many of the developers have grown up on Windows or Mac and never seen anything better; … Going by the reasoning used by many Firefox developers in their bug tracking tool, Firefox appears to have found more than its share of people who should not be involved in software development at all, having poor judgment and worse attitudes towards users.

Excursion on Pulse:

(Disclaimer: 1. The below is an incomplete version of an intended longer analysis. 2. At the time the below was written, I had a few browser tabs open with references or the opinions of others that I had intended to include. Unfortunately, these went missing in a Firefox crash…)

The reasoning is highly suspect: Yes, supporting two different sound systems can be an additional strain on resources, but this decision is just screwed up. Firstly, they picked the wrong candidate: Pulse is extremely problematic and malfunctioning so often that I would make the blanket recommendation to de-install it and use Alsa on almost any Linux system. Moreover, Pulse is not a from-scratch-system: It is an add-on on Alsa and any system using Pulse must also have Alsa installed—but any system can use Alsa without having Pulse. Not only will more users have access (or potential access) to Alsa, but good software design tries to stick with the smallest common denominator to the degree possible. Secondly, at least one abstraction already exist that is able to abstract multiple sound systems on Linux (SDL; in addition, I am semi-certain that both Alsa and Pulse provides backwards compatibility for the older OSS, which could have been used as a workaround). Thirdly, if none had existed, the proper Open Source way would have been to create one. Fourthly, a browser maker who tries to dictate what sound system a user should use have his priorities wrong in an almost comically absurd manner. (What is next? KDE only? Kaspersky only? Asus only?) Notably, there are very many Linux users who have made a very deliberate decision not to burden their systems with Pulse—and have done so for very good reasons*.

*Including how error prone it is, a too-high latency for many advanced sound users, the wish for a less bloated system, or Pulse’s straying too far from the classical principles behind Unix and Open Source software. Do an Internet search for more details on its controversy.

A particular annoyance is that the decision is partly justified by the claim that statistics gathered by Firefox’s phone-home functionality would indicate that hardly anyone used Alsa—which is extremely flawed, because many Linux distributions and individual educated users disable this phone-home functionality as a matter of course. Since the users who have a system with phone-home enabled are disproportionally likely to be unlucky/careless/stupid enough to also use Pulse, the evidence value is extremely limited.

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 26, 2017 at 9:51 pm

International Day Against DRM

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Apparently, today is the International Day Against DRM. No, I have never heard of it before either; no, I have not been able to find an official* explanation of it. At virtually the same time, the W3C has very controversial signed of on DRM on the Web. The latter is particularly disappointing, because the W3C continues its trend of prioritizing the interests of the industry over the interests of the users and the original ideals of Internet, thereby contributing to its degeneration.

*That is: I have found explanations of it from several sources (and the name is fairly self-explanatory…), but none that makes it clear that it is the originator, organizer, whatnot.

This being so, I would encourage my readers to spend some time on the topic, e.g. reading up on what the EFF has to say.

My own take is simple:

While an industry interest in DRM can to some part be legitimate, the problems for the consumers are disproportionate, often unscionable. Honest consumers see their ability to use fairly purchased products in a fair manner* restricted, while actually paying more than without DRM, because DRM costs**—and often while being exposed to security threats*** or the risk of privacy violations. Indeed, the presence of DRM is likely often what motivated an otherwise exemplary user to look for illegal copies in the first place… In addition, the (German) customer already pays compensation to the industry over other channels, notably blanket amounts added onto the price of various electronic devices and media directly or indirectly usable for copying, which are then payed out to the industry. This makes DRM at least partially**** an attempt to eat ones cake and keep it too.

*What this implies depends on the product and DRM involved, but common problems include the inability to use the product without (an otherwise unneeded) Internet connection, to move the product from an outdated to-be-retired device to a new one or to use the product non-simultaneously on more than one device, to play DVDs on a computer instead of a stand-alone player, to copy-and-paste a brief quote from a PDF file, …

**Typical costs include developing and implementing the DRM system, license cost for DRM (notably with DVDs and its infamous and useless CSS), computer resources needed to e.g. decrypt something, … Even additional hardware costs are not unheard of, cf. e.g. (the misnomer) Trusted Computing.

***Not only does DRM virtually necessitate new code that increases the risk of new bugs and new security holes, but many DRMs actually interfere with the user’s system in a dangerous and unconscionable manner. In at least one case, the methods used were indisputably illegal and caused severe security problems.

****Nominally, this is intended only to cover some legally protected uses, e.g. backups. However, firstly, the size of these additional fees and the great number of occurrences are not in, IMO, in proportion to what they nominally should cover, especially when factoring in that everyone pays them—even when never engaging in these protected uses. Secondly, a common consequence of DRM is that these legally protected uses are infringed upon, e.g. in that a backup is no longer technically possible for the average user—and might suddenly be illegal (and a lot more effort…) for the advanced user, because the mere presence of DRM illogically invalidates this right.

To boot, DRM often misses the point. Specifically, there are three main types of users that are impacted by DRM:

  1. The average honest consumers, who are worse off without any benefit or compensation—definitely with no price reduction for the reduction in functionality.
  2. The more-or-less professional pirates and deliberate large scale violators of other types. For them DRM is a mere nuisance—they have the knowledge, resources, and a sufficiently good cost–benefit situation that they can just work around* DRM. The actual benefit of DRM through hindering this type is very small and cannot in anyway justify the disadvantages for the average honest users. (Of course, this is the exact opposite of what the pro-DRM rhetoric dishonestly claims.)

    *“How” will depend on the details, but many DRMs are easy to get around with the appropriate knowledge. Many PDF readers, e.g., ignore DRM entirely—switch reader and presto. Many DRM keys have been cracked or leaked and are available to the pros. Tweaked software or hardware can solve much of the rest. In a worst case scenario, the latest Bluray can be played on a screen and re-captured with a camera with only marginal loss of quality—and the result is a superior product, because annoying animated menus, unskippable trailers, and other user-hostile nonsense is removed…

  3. Some set of misguided people, mostly very young and/or poor, who just want to share what they have bought with their friends, e.g. through copying a CD or DVD while keeping the original. (While lending the original for two weeks and then getting it back is (still…) perfectly legal and unremarkable. Ditto just watching the DVD together.)

    The market impact of this is comparatively small to begin with, because the friends are not users who would otherwise all line up to buy the product themselves (again, the exact opposite of what pro-DRM parties claim through the calculations they present). No: Most of them will forego the product entirely, seeing that the world is drowning in other content; get the product from a professional pirate (cf. above); enjoy the one copy of the product in a legal manner (e.g. through borrowing, cf. above); or on the outside wait until the price has dropped to a more reasonable level*.

    *CDs/DVDs/… are often released at very high prices and over time drop quite considerably. The 29.99 Euro movie of today might sell for 9.99 in a years time and a fraction of that in ten years time. CDs from the 1970s are often sold five or ten at a time for 5 Euro… Calculations by the media industry seems to invariably assume that the release price is what everyone would have paid.

    For the small minority of them who would buy a given product (and many who would not), what is missing is not necessarily DRM—but often the understanding that what they do is illegal, and much of the same effect could be reached simply through better information about copyright, intellectual property, and the like.

    Again, DRM by no means brings enough legitimate benefits to outweigh the disadvantages for the average honest consumers. The problem is that the industry reaps all the benefits while the consumers bear the cost…

Written by michaeleriksson

July 9, 2017 at 2:41 pm

Caster Semenya, human irrationality, and fairness in competions

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The last few days, there has been renewed controversy around Caster Semenya (for the umpteenth time).

Caster Semenya is a case that has interested me on an abstract level, because there have been so many proofs of human irrationality around it and a few somewhat similar cases, notably Oscar Pistorius. Again, this is so:

The latest round is a new study (c.f. e.g. [1]) showing that rates of testosterone affect the performance of female athletes—something that even semi-informed people would consider almost* a given without a study. A potential consequence could be that Semenya must undergo a drug therapy to get rid of an “unfair” advantage (or not being allowed to compete).

*There could have been some unexpected quirk involved due to the different way male and female bodies tend to handle testosterone and estrogen, or similar, but that is not very likely in light of existing observational evidence, e.g. that women do not only have a strong advantage from anabolic steroids used as PEDs (testosterone is a natural anabolic stereoid), but, arguably, a stronger advantage than men. Look e.g. at the age and level of the current world records in throwing events vs. the performance level of today.

This is a disastrously wrong approach, which would also imply that other natural physical characteristics, e.g. height, must by analogy be considered: Basket-ball players taller than, say, 8 feet should only be allowed to compete if they have a corresponding offsetting handicap. Ditto sprinters with too high a proportion of fast-twitch fibers. Ditto limbo dancers who are too short. Ditto chess players who have to high an I.Q. or too good a memory. Etc.

That way lies the world of Harrison Bergeron

The correct question to ask is not whether Semenya is an extreme outlier in terms of testosterone and has a corresponding advantage—but why:

If she happens to be an ordinary XX with a (in some sense) normal body, which just happens to have so an unusual* configuration that she is an extreme outlier, then she should be allowed to compete on exactly the same terms as everyone else. She does have an advantage, possibly an immense one, but that advantage is within the realms of fair play—just like a basket-ball player should not be barred merely for being 8 feet tall**.

*Say that she has simply won the genetic lottery—all the numbers just happened to go her way, in that she has a genetic configuration where unusually many stimuli are “on” and unusually many inhibitors are “off”. In contrast, the examples below are more comparable to someone who manipulates the drawing of the numbers.

**However, here too there might be some situation where the reason for the tallness could be a relevant criterion. Possibly, people with a pituitary condition might need a class of their own. (Not implausible; however, this would go against historical precedence.)

If she has gained her high levels through e.g. having male testes*, being a cross dresser or a transgender person**, or deliberately injecting testosterone*** then the reason for her advantage is such that the advantage becomes unfair. (Exactly how to resolve this individual cases is beyond the scope of this post. Whether, when, and against whom genetic configurations that are neither XX nor XY should be allowed to compete, provided that they are otherwise “normal” women resp. men, is something that I lack the depth of knowledge to judge, but they could very well be relevant for inclusion upon deeper investigation.)

*One of the rumors I have heard. The actual investigations made are confidential, which implies that this discussion must be hypothetical.

**Almost certainly not the case, but some gender extremists have actually made demands that biological men who consider themselves women should be allowed to compete against women—which would make a complete mockery of women’s sport.

***Possible, but it is unlikely that she would have gotten away with that for so long with the amount of scrutiny she has been subjected to. However, exactly this accusation has been raised against e.g. Jarmila Kratochvilova (the long retired world-record holder at 800 m, which is also Semenya’s main distance).

Of course, another possible take would be to abolish the separate women’s class in competitions, either entirely or through replacement with some other categorization, e.g. by testosterone level, height, and/or (paralleling many existing sports) weight. Somehow I doubt that the other female competitors would be happy with that solution… (And this could turn out to be impractical.)

The case of Pistorius is slightly different: Here it is clear that if he has an advantage, then that advantage is unfair. In a second step, it is at least likely that he does have an advantage*—and if he does not, then he or someone else will in due time. Determining with certainty when that time has come, however, will be virtually impossible, and there would by necessity be some period of time in which the “blade runners” do have an unfair advantage before being separated—unless they are separated at a time before this determination has taken place.

*Contrary to some naive people who have taken it for granted that he has a disadvantage and have reached his level of performance despite his handicap—rather than because of it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 4, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Follow-up: Some problems for German consumers illustrated by Beyerdynamic and DHL

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Unfortunately, Beyerdynamic compounds its customer hostile behaviour through spam:

Today, I received a rudely* formulated spam message trying to force-feed me additional products.

*Presuming to address me by first name and using the informal “du”, which by German standards is an absolute no-no and a gross breach of protocoll in business (and most private) settings, before a mutual agreement on this point has been reached. It is far worse than e.g. calling a first-time customer “dude” in the U.S.—more on the level of calling the President “dude”.

This would have been an inexcusable abuse of my trust and data, even had the relationship been a good one. This alone would have been enough for me to terminate any further relationships with Beyerdynamic, even without the previous events.

In light of those previous events, its beyond anything and everything that is even remotely conscionable and acceptable.

Unfortunately, this is another recurring problem: Many businesses imagine that as soon as they have sold any product, received any inquiry, or (often) even have just gotten their hands on an email address, they have the right to do anything they want with it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 2, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Some problems for German consumers illustrated by Beyerdynamic and DHL

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One of the greatest problems in Germany (I suspect, in many other countries too) is the refusal of many businesses to honor their contractual obligations in a reasonable manner in a B2C setting. Depressingly often, a contract, an order, whatnot, is seen as a one-sided obligation for the customer to pay, while performance of the service, delivery of the ordered goods, …, are mere nice-to-haves. Quite often, the customer has to spend so much time seeking rectification of even obvious, indisputable errors, that the working costs* exceed the monetary costs for the product at hand or the value-added that the product/service was supposed to give. Deliveries are a particular problem, with third-party businesses performing the actual delivery, without every having a contractual connection to the actual customer. This results not only in extremely poor performance, but also in restrictions in customer recourse, and that customers have to live with whatever terms were agreed between the delivery service and original business.

*In the case below, e.g., the total time investment in ordering, paying, researching the fate of the package, writing complaints, …, is almost certainly more than an hour (this post not counted). This alone is more than half of the price of the product, compared to my working and billing the same amount of time. The form mentioned below could have pushed it up sufficiently to outweigh the entire price. To this must be added the repeated aggravation of my mood. I would have been better off had I never bought this particular product at all.

Below I will discuss a particularly absurd case that has taken several weeks to come to a (highly unsatisfactory, semi-) resolution.

Before I do so, I would like to make the following very strong recommendations (in Germany, the international mileage may vary):

  1. Stay away from Beyerdynamic.
  2. If at all possible, stay away from DHL (but beware that this is rarely an option left to the costumer).
  3. Unless you have a specific agreement with a well-known neighbor, make it very, very clear that delivery to neighbors is ruled out. If you do have such an agreement, make this equally clear. Something like “!!!Nur Eigenhändig!!!” prefixed to the name or address might work.
  4. Conversely, never accept a package for someone else when you do not have an agreement, let alone do not know the recipient personally.
  5. Never, ever pay before delivery—not even when you have reason to believe that the business is not one of the many outright fraudulent web shops.
  6. Consider whether it is not less hassle to just buy things in stores to begin with, even at the risk of higher prices and a smaller selection of products.

Details:

My secondary apartment (for reasons of work, I keep several households) has the advantage that the property manager has offices in the building it self, and when I have received packages when not at home (i.e. on every single occasion), it has been left with the property manager. Coming home from work, I can simply collect it, without having to search for absent neighbors, going to the post office, or wherever my package ended up.

Due to my living situation, I wanted to buy a second pair of head-phones* from Beyerdynamic, and being wary of the problems with Internet orders I (just like the last time) ordered directly from the manufacturer. Considering that this was known entity, I reluctantly agreed to pay in advance**.

*I will not mention the model, because I do not want to make even an indirect recommendation of any Beyerdynamic product.

**While I do not recall the exact set of payment options offered, a typical scenario is that advance payment is the only realistic option. Payment per invoice is very rare and/or reserved for well-known customers. The old German “Lastschriftverfahren” has virtually disappeared online. Credit cards are hardly usable, because most shops demand use of 3D-Secure (or an equivalent technology) and this, in my experience so far, results in two minutes of work and then an obscure error message. Paypal is notorious for its arbitrariness and is arguably a riskier payment method than advance payment…

I suffixed (! cf. above) my address with a statement that delivery to the property manager (NOT e.g. “neighbor of your choice”) was acceptable, even though considering this unnecessary: Deliveries had so far always been left there anyway.

The DHL delivery presumably took place nine days after my order (specifically: 2017-06-09).

To my dismay, it was NOT delivered to the property manager, but to some “Höbel” in the 18th Stock. I live in the 24th Stock, I have no idea whatsoever who this “Höbel” is, and with not even a first name added, this was not a satisfactory identification. To boot, it should have been self-evident that the delivery to a random neighbor instead of the alternative explicitly specified in the address was not acceptable.

It comes worse: According to the name signs, THERE IS NO HÖBEL IN THE 18TH STOCK! (Nor could I find a “Höbel” at all in the door-bell listing at the entry, but with the great number of entries, one might have existed.)

On the 17th, having given this “Höbel” plenty of time to present himself or at least leave a note (he did not…), I sent a complaint to Beyerdynamic, detailing the situation and demanding an immediate remedy, seeing that the situation had arisen through errors by its contract partner.

Despite my full explanation of the situation, the reply was a request that I should fill out and sign a form. There are a number of problems with this:

  1. It causes even more effort for the costumer without adding any value to the process. There was no valid extra information, and even a signature would be worthless, seeing that on the off-chance that someone was lying, he would not hesitate to sign that lie: After all, no-one could realistically prove that he was lying.

    In my case, this effort is quite severe: My printer is in my other apartment and going there just for a one-off print would cost me hours; alternatively, cause a delay until I was in Wuppertal for other reasons. Using the printers at work for such purposes is shady even for employees, for me, as an external contractor, the more so. There is no* copy shop in the immediate vicinity, and finding and using one would cost me a minimum of half-an-hour, quite possibly more—too which the actual printing costs must be added.

    *Actually, there is one, but it is a complete joke. For instance, they regularly fail in printing even PDF correctly, e.g. through mishandling margins or the German umlauts—unacceptable in a business communication. The print quality (in the ink on paper sense) is abysmal and the one staff member I have interacted with on my few visits lacks even basic computer skills and takes minutes to print even a one-page letter.

    Most likely, this form was something that Beyerdynamic needed vs. DHL—and that is simply not the costumer’s problem. Basically, “DHL will not voluntarily do their duty towards us, so we will just refuse to do our duty towards the customer” / “…put the whole burden on the customer instead”, which is of course a grossly unethical and customer hostile attitude.

  2. I have proof of payment. In this situation it is the duty of Beyerdynamic to prove delivery. Not only had delivery (if at all…) not taken place in a manner that could be considered reasonable and a fulfillment of contractual obligation, but there was a more than fair chance that the package was stolen (or otherwise lost/damaged)—either by this “Höbel” (possibly giving a false name) or by the deliverer, faking delivery to this unknown entity. I note that Beyerdynamic did not even bother to give signed confirmation of the alleged delivery to “Höbel”…* Failing a complete disappearance, there was always the possibility that the package would only turn up many weeks later**.

    *While that has so far been the normal next step in my experience, the value is admittedly limited. I recall some ten years ago, when DHL swore that someone IN MY APARTMENT had accepted delivery and “proved” this through an unreadable signature. A week or so later, I received a note from a near-by mattress shop, “reminding” me to collect said package. I very much doubt that the shop keeper had broken into my apartment, signed for the package, and then left with it…

    **I once had a neighbor accept a package in my name, move (!!!) without notifying me, and leave the package in her old apartment, resulting in me only receiving the package more than a month later, when the new tenant moved in…

    In as far as the package was not stolen (etc.), e.g. because “Höbel” had accepted it and gone on vacation or because DHL had made a mistake with the name or stock number, it would equally be the duty of Beyerdynamic to rectify, say by calling DHL and causing an investigation into whoever had actually received it.

  3. Since it is perfectly clear that DHL had not, even by its own claims, made a proper delivery, the question of a form is absurd: The delivery (allegedly) went to an unknown third party, who was not an immediate neighbor, against any reasonable interpretation of my instructions, and with information provided to me that was too faulty and/or incomplete to identify this neighbor…
  4. There is a fair chance (layman’s perspective) that requesting a reclamation on paper and/or with signature would be disallowed by the courts when the original contract was entered without such actions. There have been cases where requests for written termination have been disallowed for such reasons. Even if this did not generalize legally, the same type of reasoning would definitely leave the request unethical: The burden of rectification (termination, whatnot) must not be disproportionally higher than the burden of initiation.

    Of course, there are strong reasons to believe that at least some businesses deliberately puts obstacles in the way of the customers, so that they do not terminate contracts (on time or at all), do not file complaints, do not pursue their rights, …, for the simple reason that the hassle to achieve something is larger than the expected gain or that they just do not have the time.

I naturally refused and insisted on delivery without the need for additional efforts on my part, threatening to rescind the purchase. This just led to a renewed request for the above-mentioned form, spouting nonsense about how DHL would otherwise assume that delivery had taken place*. Firstly, again, what happens between DHL and Beyerdynamic is not my problem: Beyerdynamic chose a partner to do a severely sub-par job and has to live with the consequences; I have no contractual obligations to DHL; and DHL’s position does not remove Beyerdynamic’s obligation to fulfill the contract resp. provide proof of contract fulfillment. Secondly, DHL has no legal ground to assume that delivery to me had taken place: Delivery was not to my hands, even by their own claims. Delivery did not take place according to my instructions, even by their own claims. Delivery did not take place (if at all…), to an entity identifiable through DHL’s own claims. All this even assuming that delivery to an (identifiable…) neighbor is considered delivery in the first place, which might be what the T & C’s of DHL says, but which is obviously idiotic, seeing that I do not have a contract with DHL and have never agreed to those T & C’s—DHL might not need to prove to Beyerdynamic that the next step of the delivery has taken place, but Beyerdynamic sure as hell has to prove it to me! Thirdly, considering the circumstances, the obvious procedure would have been for Beyerdynamic to re-ship and file a claim against DHL, and for DHL to file a claim against/recover the original package from “Höbel”.

*This remains the only motivation ever given, everything else was on the level of “we need”, with no references to anything that could have implied, even on a disputable basis, a duty on my behalf, e.g. a reference to some unethical clause in their own T & C’s.

After several iterations, I escalated the issue, knowing that many of these problems result from low-level employees who are deeply stupid, naive in matters of business/law/whatnot, and/or just follow protocol for some standard situations (being unable to handle anything not in their, literal or metaphorical, script). People higher in the hierarchy tend to be much more able and cooperative. At this juncture, I also rescinded the purchase and demanded my money back (and compensation, personnel consequences, and an email address to the appropriate contact at DHL, for a parallel complaint).

Alas, this was not the case with Beyerdynamic: The answering email expressed all sorts of regrets, but eventually just re-requested the same form… Other issues were ignored (including something as simple and cheap as the email address). The request for the form was at this juncture utterly inexcusable, because this amounted to an intention of keeping my money until I proved that Beyerdynamic had not fulfilled its duties, which is an absolute absurdity.

Shortly thereafter, two weeks (!) after the original “delivery”, the head-phones did turn up, left outside my door for anyone to steal…

I reported this to Beyerdynamic together with my intention to let the purchase stand (returning the package would have thrown good time after bad), and restated my other demands. All these items were just ignored in favour of a congratulatory message… This is the more absurd, as I had just showed a considerable amount of honesty and cooperation, despite Beyerdynamic’s previous behavior: I could easily just have kept the package, sent the form, and had both the head-phones and my money back. Obviously, honesty does not pay…

As an excursion on the unethical and customer hostile blanket approach of many delivery services, DHL above all, of leaving packages with neighbors:

Firstly, for this to be at all acceptable, the list of neighbors must be limited to those who actually know each other in person and the neighbor must be uniquely identifiable. Under no circumstances can it be acceptable to leave a package with someone 6 floors away in a 26 floor building, neighbors in other buildings, or random shops in other buildings. (All of which I have encountered.) Under no circumstances can a mere “Höbel” be acceptable, nor an incorrect claim of stock and/or name. Under no circumstances can it be acceptable to just put notifications on the house door instead of in the mail box of the recipient*.

*This was not the case above, but has been a common problem in the past. In at least one house, the DHL deliverer appeared to just give the packages to a near-by kiosk, without bothering to check whether the recipient was at home, and then slap on a notice for each package on the outside of the house door, where anyone could have removed them. The record might have been as much as five individual notifications at the same time. Of course, the kiosk never checked any IDs, possession of the notice was always enough…

Further, even when a neighbor is acceptable, it is very often not in the interest of the recipient (or the neighbor—just the delivery service):

  1. Collecting a package from a neighbor is often more work and/or requires more attempts than if the package was just left at a package shop/post office, for the simple reason that people spend different parts of the day at home, due to differences in working hours, evening and weekend activities, etc. In extreme cases (cf. above) a move or a prolonged holiday can cause an enormous delay.
  2. This causes a problem when a package is damaged and the neighbor makes a different judgment call than the actual recipient would have done.
  3. There can be instances where the recipient would prefer the neighbor to not know about the package (respectively, who sent the package or what can be speculated about its contents). Note that this is not restricted to contents of a nature normally sent “discretely”. Other reasons can include having an, in some setting/by some standard, embarrassing hobby; the package being intended as a gift for the same neighbor’s birthday; not wanting to rub a better economic standing in someone’s face; …
  4. Not all neighbors are friends, not all neighbors are honest, and there is no guarantee that a given neighbor will ever actually hand out the package.
  5. Delays in eventual delivery can threaten periods of reclamation and the like. Notably, Germany has blanket fourteen-day return right on all online orders. It can be safely assumed that many businesses will refuse to honor that counting from the delivery to the recipient proper, alternatively require proof that the delivery took place at a later date; instead they will just count from the delivery to the neighbor.

    (I suspect that this would not hold up in court, but going to court over the values typically involved would be next to impossible in Germany. Lawyers would not touch the case. The court would try to steer it away, e.g. through arbitration and a compromise. The effort, even with a lawyer, for the costumer would outweigh the value of the goods. And then there is the risk of losing… The lack of a “small claims court”, or a corresponding mechanism, is likely a strong contributor to the extreme attitudes of many businesses.)

In this situation, a delivery to the neighbors should, by law, only be allowed after an explicit opt-in by the recipient. Not an absent opt-out, not an opt-in by the sender, not some T & C claim by the delivery service, not whatever-saves-time-for-the-delivery-man: Only pure, explicit recipient opt-in.

Of course, much of this would be academic if delivery services had the common sense to deliver when most people were home rather than at work…

Written by michaeleriksson

July 1, 2017 at 5:18 pm