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The Mid-Winter Grab Bag

Bogus Tech Support and a Statistical Rorschach Test

I finally got the call.

My phone rang, and the caller at the other end said, “This is Microsoft Technical Support. We’ve detected—”. I cut him off right there. “No, you’re not. You’re a %&@# scammer and should be in jail,” and hung up on him. (I sometimes miss old telephones where you could slam down the receiver.)

I’d heard about this scam before, where someone claims to be from Microsoft (it’s never Dell or Lenovo or Samsung) offering to help you clean up “infections” they’ve somehow detected on your computer. All you have to do is visit their helpful website and download their remote diagnostic tool… You can guess what mischief transpires from there. 

Hilariously, my first introduction to this particular con came several months ago when they contacted my sister, a full-time Mac user. Her machine has no Microsoft products whatsoever, not even Office. “Why would Microsoft be calling me?” she asked, reasonably enough. I sensed a rat and suggested she politely ignore the helpful caller’s advice. I didn’t hear any more about it until much later, when similar stories started appearing online. Apparently it’s the 2014 version of the Nigerian prince scam. And last week they finally got around to calling me. Nearing the end of the alphabet, I guess.

What intrigues me about this scam is what it says about our relationship with our computers. For starters, cold-calling random phone numbers (as I assume they do) runs a high probability of getting a Microsoft customer. That’s remarkable. Dialing random numbers in 1950 wouldn’t have turned up very many IBM customers, nor would phishing for Commodore users in 1980. Will this trick still work in 2020, I wonder? Or will you have to masquerade as “Tesla Technical Support?”

Second, hearing from “Microsoft Technical Support” seems completely reasonable to the victim. Maybe that tells us something about the quality of Microsoft products, but I think it’s more a reflection of peoples’ attitudes toward computers in general. They’re complicated, they break down, and there’s some indistinct body called “technical support” that knows how to fix them. 

Then there’s the whole spooky-action-from-a-distance angle. Nobody thought it strange that Microsoft (or anyone, bar the NSA) was able to somehow detect that their computer is feeling ill? Users just chalk it up to “the cloud” and the vaguely Zen notion that everything, everywhere is interconnected.

The only really jarring part – and it frankly gives the game away – is the idea that Microsoft would call you, not vice versa. Has Microsoft ever called a customer to offer unsolicited technical advice? Has any company, ever? If you’ve ever called Microsoft’s actual technical support line, you know it’s a lengthy and humiliating process before you can, as cartoonist Scott Adams describes it, “confess your inadequacies to someone whose best career option is a job in technical support.” 

Based on the events of the last few weeks, however, I expect the bogus-tech-support scam to grow. It won’t be just Microsoft; it’ll be scammers posing as Maytag, General Motors, Samsung, and other companies. The Internet of Things will spawn the IoT of Scammers.

Milestone 2014

In other news, Apple has now surpassed all the world’s PC makers put together in sales. That’s the conclusion of Andreesen Horowitz research analyst Benedict Evans, who published a brief note on his findings last week. That’s a remarkable milestone, but it’s also an easy one to misinterpret. In fact, Evans’s little factoid has become something of a Rorschach test for armchair analysts: you see what you want to see. Apple partisans see vindication, Windows traditionalists cry foul, and everyone else argues over semantics.

Evans himself says the only rational conclusion to draw from this is that mobile is overtaking traditional computers. It’s not an Apple-versus-Microsoft thing; it’s a mobile-versus-fixed thing.

What the numbers show is that PC sales have been pretty flat for the last five years, at around 25–30 million units per month. No surprises there; we’ve known that for a long time. We’re no longer on the endless upgrade treadmill. New PCs just don’t offer much over existing PCs, so why upgrade?

On the other hand, sales of mobile devices have increased dramatically over that same time span, to the point where mobile gizmos overtook PCs a long time ago. (We’re talking new sales, not installed base.) As an exercise, Evans looked at just one mobile vendor – Apple – and compared its sales to the total sales of all the PC makers licensing Windows, and guess what? The sales figures were neck-and-neck. In the last three months of 2013, Apple sold as many gizmos as all the world’s Windows PC makers combined.

To be fair, Evans included almost everything Apple makes, from iPods to Macs, many of which aren’t portable. But he didn’t count Windows-based servers or Microsoft’s Xboxes because they’re not “personal computing devices.” Also, Apple sales are quite seasonal, enjoying a big boost in the fourth quarter of every year as people buy iPods, iPads, and iPhones as gifts. Extrapolating from Evans’s numbers, I would not expect this statistical anomaly to repeat itself next quarter. Sales of iDevices will drop back, as they typically do, while PC sales will continue on their current plateau.

I’m sure a similar case could be made for Android outselling Windows, or Rice Krispies outselling Wheat Chex, or whatever product-centric axe one has to grind. We all look for data to back up our preconceived notions and conveniently ignore data that conflicts with our prejudices. That’s called confirmation bias. What does seem clear, however, is that mobile devices, regardless of their maker, are overtaking conventional computing devices, regardless of maker. The battle is over the form factor, not the logo. 

2 thoughts on “The Mid-Winter Grab Bag”

  1. New PCs don’t offer much over existing PCs?? Why, they offer Windows 8!! With exciting upgrades, like “charms bars” that invade your screen randomly for no reason. And peripherals that don’t work. And hidden gems… those would be the important functions that you use all the time and know where they are, or where they used to be, and now they’re hidden. And brain death.

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