I remember it well: standing in the Sharper Image store debating between a three-day Bushnell wireless weather forecaster featuring AccuWeather forecasts and an Oregon Scientific model alongside it that offered more detailed information from a competing service provider, MSN Direct. Both weather stations did something unique: They didn’t require owners to hook up outdoor sensors that generate fickle forecast icons based purely on barometric pressure as opposed to a bona fide regional weather forecast. These weather forecast alternatives, unlike the vast majority of weather gadgets on the market, receive a radio signal that automatically displays forecast data from a genuine weather service.
For a weather junkie or just about anyone who doesn’t want to watch several minutes of TV, boot up a computer or drain a battery on a smartphone merely to check the weather, having weather alerts, pollen counts, humidity and UV Index information at a single glance at no cost beyond that of the device itself seems almost too good to be true. And, in hindsight, it was too good to be true. For those of us who chose wrong, the convenience was not to last. MSN Direct, the service provider for Oregon Scientific-branded weather units, powered down its US and Canadian network of FM radio transmitters on January 1, 2012. And yet, weather watchers were not the only ones to lose. MSN Direct broadcast a variety of data including traffic information, gasoline prices, Doppler weather maps, news, stocks, local events, movie listings to a variety of devices, all of which began with the debut of Microsoft’s novel “Spot” wristwatch in 2004.
It’s not clear whether competing AccuWeather-enabled devices, sold through Ambient Weather, are slated for the same fate. Existing products are out of stock as of this writing and I note new products carrying the service are no longer represented in retail stores or on the AccuWeather website. If the company has plans to retire the service they’ve done one worse than MSN Direct: They haven’t even bothered to warn anyone at all from all appearances. And yet, for now, desktop units that display AccuWeather forecasts continue to work. I am eying my mother-in-law’s AccuWeather-powered Brookstone forecaster with envy, and from the looks of things on Ebay consumer demand remains for these increasingly hard-to-find gadgets.
An alternative for a close-but-not-quite weather device consists of choosing from among a handful of La Crosse Technology products that require a considerably more complicated setup consisting of gateway access through a LAN cable connected to a modem with a separate Internet Service Provider (ISP) and a home computer as a prerequisite. Sound complicated? It is. All you have to do on the AccuWeather and MSN Direct devices is to — or was — insert batteries. Having set up many weather stations over the years, it doesn’t get any simpler than this. Nonetheless, a straightforward in-home weather solution is fading for reasons that may seem obvious at first glance, but in fact do not add up for those of us who have had the opportunity to compare modes and methods of ascertaining the week’s forecast with a minimum of time and effort.
It could be argued that the iPhone, Blackberry and Android smartphone weather apps — and the ubiquity of the Internet in general — have displaced the usefulness of the home weather station, and a radio-controlled version in particular. I beg to differ. Vacation homes are often in locations that are not serviced year around by Internet. Internet connections cost money, and not everyone has one in their home — just as not every American owns a television set, smartphone or computer. Moreover, DSL and cable modems are prone to glitches as any MagicJack or VoIP home user — through the likes of FIOS and other broadband-phone services — have undoubtedly experienced.
Current technology on our smartphones and web connections on our home computers are at their best interactive tools. When it comes to simply pushing data one way into a device nothing beats the simplicity and reliability of tried-and-true radio signal (this observation coming from a licensed ham radio operator, incidentally). Not to suggest, however, that broadcast signal coverage is uniform throughout the country. As the bad user reviews on some of these weather products will attest to, it isn’t a perfect solution for those who reside many miles away from the forecast location. Still, like dial tone on a land-line phone, when it works radio reception works very well with minimal hassle and few outages. Moreover, MSN Direct wasn’t just used in home gadgets. It was also built in to scores of GPS devices for use on the road where, again, a broadcast signal is frequently a more reliable solution. For these reasons, I have to ask what motivated MSN Direct to announce in 2009, less than three years after I invested over $100 into an Oregon Scientific weather receiver, to drop a fully operational nationwide infrastructure. In that amount of time, for that matter, why didn’t MSN Direct find someone else — Oregon Scientific, for instance — to which to sell the MSN Direct network technology? Did Oregon Scientific even attempt to negotiate such an opportunity for that matter?
Why have millions of Americans been left to dispose of tons of e-waste that in the flip of a switch have rendered their weather gadgets useless?
Tech service providers and gadget manufacturers’ rush to embrace the next big thing without regard for how many consumers feel an existing technology meets a unique and specific market need undermines the long-term supply of so-called early adopters of future tech as the reputation for investing in a technology and then abandoning it with equal haste gains perceptual traction on the part of shoppers. Translation: None of this engenders my confidence to buy another Oregon Scientific product or MSN service. A 40-percent coupon to buy a new product on the Oregon Scientific website is not a solution to the landfills that will undoubtedly become a dumping ground for Oregon Scientific waste in the days and weeks ahead.
Oregon Scientific scrap should be collected and recycled at the manufacturer’s expense!
I, for one, have lost confidence in both companies, not unlike my decision to stop watching ABC’s new season lineups after I got sucked into “Flash Forward” and “V” sci-fi dramas only to find both television series cut off without a gracious explanation or satisfactory conclusion (not even a continuation online or in DVD form). It’s exactly this kind of corporate decision making that creates a noncommittal consumer. Electronics and the tech that powers them may have come to be viewed largely as disposable novelties and necessities but for the ordinary consumer that’s hard-earned money buyers will think longer and harder about plopping down on the next make-my-life-easier gizmo or must-have gadget.
When one factors in the increasing public awareness of the not-so-green environmental ramifications of easy-come, easy-go — coupled with the rising cost of living — it’s difficult to foresee a market that can or will embrace change as fast as the technology can serve it up over the long term. As a society we remain in the honeymoon phase, enamored by the wonders of a shrinking silicone chip paired to a slick graphical user interface (GUI). And yet, the irony of innovation in the post Steve Jobs’ era is that it just may become too commonplace for consumers to commit to with a high degree of confidence. With a plethora of choices comes the sense that holding off to see if a particular technology “sticks” might be the wiser or more frugal course. To cite an adjacent example, the phenomena of “consumer fatigue” may be one reason Windows 7 smartphones face such an uphill battle against Android and iPhone competitors. A product may, in fact, represent an innovative leap but the more competitors a given solution goes up against the less desirable any one one of them may be perceived — and hence the growing pressure to consolidate for the sake of a sure bet. Similarly, though the Internet is virtually unlimited the demand for MySpace and Facebook to coexist faded. It’s the Beta vs. VHS debate all over again, with the result a decrease in tolerance on the part of consumers for doubt — doubt that diversity perpetuates.
A decision to introduce and subsequently pull a product, service or solution heightens consumer uncertainty.
Whether the subject is a network television station’s debut-it-and-dispense-with-it fall lineup or a weather gadget manufacturer, what a shaky economy needs least are a slew of increasingly skittish consumers, overwhelmed by the multitude of choices and dearth of staying power. Companies have forgotten that in providing a level of consistency — if only to keep a smaller market segment happy — it is a goodwill investment toward the brand or service at large. Keeping the customer happy, even a seemingly small cohort, pays off in ways not entirely accounted for by a corporate balance sheet. It’s one thing to put money into a losing proposition, another to rip away a solution that is already in place and serving its intended purpose. From MSN Direct’s website:
- Thank you for visiting Microsoft MSN Direct product page. As originally announced in October 2009, the MSN Direct service was discontinued as of January 1st, 2012.Discontinuation of the MSN Direct service means your supported device no longer receives the MSN Direct content such as Weather, Traffic, News, etc. Other device features not dependent on MSN Direct content, such as navigation, should not be affected by discontinuation of MSN Direct service.Microsoft customer support is available to answer any questions about existing subscriptions or refund eligibility at 1-866-658-7032 only until January 31st, 2012.
What irks me even more than my own personal disappointment is that phone calls placed to Oregon Scientific before the cessation of MSN Direct weather service implied that there might be another provider to pick up the service. Without a press release to announce as much and with millions of product owners dumping their devices into the trash this week it seems unlikely now, and it suggests that both MSN Direct and Oregon Scientific representatives used the tactic as a ploy to get customers who knew of the impending change off the line by feeding concerned callers vaguely worded but nonetheless false hope. Even less forgivable: brand-new (old stock) MSN Direct devices carrying the Oregon Scientific and Garmin names, among others, are still being sold to unsuspecting consumers on Amazon and elsewhere.
If this decision has been in the works since 2009, why are products carrying MSN Direct still on the market?
There is nothing like bad publicity to solicit a response as consumers have seen on the decision to waive fee hikes at Bank of America and, most recently, to forgo the proposed surcharge on Verizon wireless customers’ credit card payments. At the very least, customers deserve answers as to why a radio transmission network that was already up and running couldn’t be left up and running — or at least aggressively licensed to someone else for the purpose of maintaining it. If making the service profitable was the problem, consumers should have been offered a low-cost subscription option to obtain a more functional feature set from a given device, with existing owners of such products grandfathered in to what their device already displays.
My advice for frustrated owners of these weather prediction gadgets is this: Bypass the script-reading customer service representatives and contact the executives and media relations personnel at MSN Direct and Oregon Scientific. Write a letter. Place a phone call. And don’t throw away your MSN Direct weather receiver just yet.
Let’s hope there is a solution short of chucking our devices.
For consumers who stumbled across this blog in search of a recommendation on a basic home weather station with a minimum of hassles and no loss of third-party service down the line, here’s my top pick for the easiest-to-use-and-read home weather device: Cheney Instruments uses a unique algorithm over a 14-day learning period to more accurately provide 12-24-hour weather forecast. This is a contrast to most units of this type which frequently change the forecast icon with every barometric change throughout the day making it practically impossible to surmise anything about the next day’s weather. Check out the Acu-Rite 75077 Forecaster with Remote Sensor and Atomic Clock on Amazon and select Lowe’s stores.
And with that a parting note for what may very well become the last man standing in the (accurate) home weather forecasting business: La Crosse Technologies, don’t go getting any ideas about dropping your Weather Direct product line.
ResourcesMicrosoft One Microsoft Way Redmond, WA 98052 1-800-642-7676 Oregon Scientific 19861 SW 95th Avenue Tualatin, OR 97062 1-503-783-5700 1-800-853-8883