Planet HantsLUG

September 23, 2017

Andy Smith

Giving Cinema Paradiso a try

Farewell, LoveFiLM

I’ve been a customer of LoveFiLM for something like 12 years—since before they were owned by Amazon. In their original incarnation they were great: very cheap, and titles very often arrived in exactly the order you specified, i.e. they often managed to send the thing from the very top of the list.

In 2011 they got bought by Amazon and I was initially a bit concerned, but to be honest Amazon have run it well. The single list disappeared and was replaced by three priority lists; high, normal and low, and then a list of things that haven’t yet been released. New rentals were supposed to almost always come from the high priority list (as long as you had enough titles on there) but in a completely unpredictable order. Though of course they would keep multi-disc box sets together, and send lower-numbered seasons before later seasons.

Amazon have now announced that they’re shutting LoveFiLM by Post down at the end of October which I think is a shame, as it was a service I still enjoy.

It was inevitable I suppose due to the increasing popularity of streaming and downloads, and although I’m perfectly able to do the streaming and download thing, receiving discs by post still works for me.

I am used to receiving mockery for consuming some of my entertainment on little plastic discs that a human being has to physically transport to my residence, but LoveFiLM’s service was still cheap, the selection was very good, things could be rented as soon as they were available on disc, and the passive nature of just making a list and having the things sent to me worked well for me.

Cinema Paradiso

My first thought was that that was it for the disc-by-post rental model in the UK. That progress had left it behind. But very quickly people pointed me to Cinema Paradiso. After a quick look around I’ve decided to give it a try and so here are my initial thoughts.

Pricing

At a casual glance the pricing is slightly worse than LoveFiLM’s. I was paying £6.99 a month for 2 discs at home, unlimited rental per month. £6.98 at Cinema Paradiso gets you 2 discs at home but only 4 rentals per month.

I went back through my LoveFiLM rental history for the last year and found there were only 2 months where I managed to rent more than 4 discs, and those times I rented 5 and 6 discs respectively. Realistically it doesn’t seem like 4 discs per month will be much of a restriction to me.

Annoyingly, Cinema Paradiso have a 2 week trial period but only if you sign up to the £9.98 subscription (6 discs a month). You’d have to remember to downgrade to the cheaper subscriptions after 2 weeks, if that’s all you wanted.

Selection

I was pleasantly surprised at how good the selection is at Cinema Paradiso. Not only did they have every title that is currently on my LoveFiLM rental list (96 titles), but they also had a few things that LoveFiLM thinks haven’t been released yet.

I’m not going to claim that my tastes are particularly niche, but there are a few foreign language films and some anime in there, and release dates range from the 70s to 2017.

Manual approval

It seems that new Cinema Paradiso signups need to be manually approved, and this happens only on week days between 8am and mid day. I’ve signed up on a Saturday evening so nothing will get sent out until Monday I suppose.

It’s probably not a big deal as we’re talking about the postal service here so even with LoveFiLM nothing would get posted out until Monday anyway. It is a little jarring after moving away from the behemoth that is Amazon though, and serves as a reminder that Cinema Paradiso is a much smaller company.

Searching for titles

The search feature is okay. It provides suggestions as you type but if your title is obscure then it may not appear in the list of suggestions at all you and need to submit the search box and look through the longer list that appears.

A slight niggle is that if you have moused over any of the initial suggestions it replaces your text with that, so if your title isn’t amongst the suggestions you now have to re-type it.

I like that it shows a rating from Rotten Tomatoes as well as from their own site’s users. LoveFiLM shows IMDB ratings which I don’t trust very much, and also Amazon ratings, which I don’t trust at all for movies or TV. Seeing some of the shockingly-low Rotten Tomatoes scores for some of my LoveFiLM titles resulted in my Cinema Paradiso list shrinking to 83 titles!

Rental list mechanics

It’s hard to tell for sure at this stage because I haven’t yet got my account approved and had any rentals, but it looks to me like the rental list mechanics are a bit clunky compared to LoveFiLM’s.

At LoveFiLM at the point of adding a new title you would choose which of the three “buckets” to put a rental in; high priority, normal priority, or low priority. Every title in those buckets were of equal priority to every other item in the same bucket. So, when adding a new title all you had to consider was whether it was high, medium or low.

Cinema Paradiso has a single big list of rentals. In some ways this might appeal because you can fine-tune what order you would like things in. But I would suggest that very few people want to put that much effort into ordering their list. Personally, when I add a new title I can cope with:

  • “I want to see this soon”
  • “I want to see this some time”
  • “I want to see this, but I’m not bothered when”

Cinema Paradiso appears to want me to say:

  • “Put this at the top, I want it immediately!”
  • “This belongs at #11, just after the 6th season of American Horror Story, but before Capitalism: A love Story
  • “Just stick it at the end”

I can’t find any explanation anywhere on their site as to how the selection actually works, so the logical assumption is that they go down your list from top to bottom until they find a title that you want that they have available right now. Without the three buckets to put titles in, it seems to me then that every addition will have to involve some list management unless I either want to see that title really soon, or probably never.

I’ll have to give it a go but this mechanism seems a bit more awkward than LoveFiLM’s approach and needlessly so, because LoveFiLM’s way doesn’t make any promises about which of the titles in each bucket will come next either, nor even that it will be anything from the high priority bucket at all. Although I cannot remember a time when something has come that wasn’t from the high priority bucket.

Cinema Paradiso does let you have more than one list, and you can divide your disc allocation between lists, but I don’t think I could emulate the high/normal/low with that. Having a 2 disc allocation I’d always be getting one disc from the “high” list and one disc from the “normal” priority, which isn’t how I’d want that to work.

Let’s see how it goes.

Referral

I did not know when I signed up that there was a referral scheme which is a shame because I do know some people already using Cinema Paradiso. If you’re going to sign up then please use my referral link. I will get a ⅙ reduction in rental fees for each person that does.

by Andy at September 23, 2017 11:38 PM

September 21, 2017

Andy Smith

Tricky issues when upgrading to the GoCardless “Pro” API

Background

Since 2012 BitFolk has been using GoCardless as a Direct Debit payment provider. On the whole it has been a pleasant experience:

  • Their API is a pleasure to integrate against, having excellent documentation
  • Their support is responsive and knowledgeable
  • Really good sandbox environment with plenty of testing tools
  • The fees, being 1% capped at £2.00, are pretty good for any kind of payment provider (much less than PayPal, Stripe, etc.)

Of course, if I was submitting Direct Debits myself there would be no charge at all, but BitFolk is too small and my bank (Barclays) are not interested in talking to me about that.

The “Pro” API

In September 2014 GoCardless came out with a new version of their API called the “Pro API”. It made a few things nicer but didn’t come with any real new features applicable to BitFolk, and also added a minimum fee of £0.20.

The original API I’d integrated against has a 1% fee capped at £2.00, and as BitFolk’s smallest plan is £10.79 including VAT the fee would generally be £0.11. Having a £0.20 fee on these payments would represent nearly a doubling of fees for many of my payments.

So, no compelling reason to use the Pro API.

Over the years, GoCardless made more noise about their Pro API and started calling their original API the “legacy API”. I could see the way things were going. Sure enough, eventually they announced that the legacy API would be disabled on 31 October 2017. No choice but to move to the Pro API now.

Payment caps

There aren’t normally any limits on Direct Debit payments. When you let your energy supplier or council or whatever do a Direct Debit, they can empty your bank account if they like.

The Direct Debit Guarantee has very strong provisions in it for protecting the payee and essentially if you dispute anything, any time, you get your money back without question and the supplier has to pursue you for the money by other means if they still think the charge was correct. A company that repeatedly gets Direct Debit chargebacks is going to be kicked off the service by their bank or payment provider.

The original GoCardless API had the ability to set caps on the mandate which would be enforced their side. A simple “X amount per Y time period”. I thought that this would provide some comfort to customers who may not be otherwise familiar with authorising Direct Debits from small companies like BitFolk, so I made use of that feature by default.

This turned out to be a bad decision.

The main problem with this was that there was no way to change the cap. If a customer upgraded their service then I’d have to cancel their Direct Debit mandate and ask them to authorise a new one because it would cease being possible to charge them the correct amount. Authorising a new mandate was not difficult—about the same amount of work as making any sort of online payment—but asking people to do things is always a pain point.

There was a long-standing feature request with GoCardless to implement some sort of “follow this link to authorise the change” feature, but it never happened.

Payment caps and the new API

The Pro API does not support mandates with a capped amount per interval. Given that I’d already established that it was a mistake to do that, I wasn’t too bothered about that.

I’ve since discovered however that the Pro API not only does not support setting the caps, it does not have any way to query them either. This is bad because I need to use the Pro API with mandates that were created in the legacy API. And all of those have caps.

Here’s the flow I had using the legacy API.
Legacy payment process

This way if the charge was coming a little too early, I could give some latitude and let it wait a couple of days until it could be charged. I’d also know if the problem was that the cap was too low. In that case there would be no choice but to cancel the customer’s mandate and ask them to authorise another one, but at least I would know exactly what the problem was.

With the Pro API, there is no way to check timings and charge caps. All I can do is make the charge, and then if it’s too soon or too much I get the same error message:

“Validation failed / exceeds mandate cap”

That’s it. It doesn’t tell me what the cap is, it doesn’t tell me if it’s because I’m charging too soon, nor if I’m charging too much. There is no way to distinguish between those situations.

Backwards compatible – sort of

GoCardless talk about the Pro API being backwards compatible to the legacy API, so that once switched I would still be able to create payments against mandates that were created using the legacy API. I would not need to get customers to re-authorise.

This is true to a point, but my use of caps per interval in the legacy API has severely restricted how compatible things are, and that’s something I wasn’t aware of. Sure, their “Guide to upgrading” does briefly mention that caps would continue to be enforced:

“Pre-authorisation mandates are not restricted, but the maximum amount and interval that you originally specified will still apply.”

That is the only mention of this issue in that entire document, and that statement would be fine by me, if there would have continued to be a way to tell which failure mode would be encountered.

Thinking that I was just misunderstanding, I asked GoCardless support about this. Their reply:

Thanks for emailing.

I’m afraid the limits aren’t exposed within the new API. The only solution as you suggest, is to try a payment and check for failure.

Apologies for the inconvenience caused here and if you have any further queries please don’t hesitate to let us know.

What now?

I am not yet sure of the best way to handle this.

The nuclear option would be to cancel all mandates and ask customers to authorise them again. I would like to avoid this if possible.

I am thinking that most customers continue to be fine on the “amount per interval” legacy mandates as long as they don’t upgrade, so I can leave them as they are until that happens. If they upgrade, or if a DD payment ever fails with “exceeds mandate cap” then I will have to cancel their mandate and ask them to authorise again. I can see if their mandate was created before ~today and advise them on the web site to cancel it and authorise it again.

Conclusion

I’m a little disappointed that GoCardless didn’t think that there would need to be a way to query mandate caps even though creating new mandates with those limits is no longer possible.

I can’t really accept that there is a good level of backwards compatibility here if there is a feature that you can’t even tell is in use until it causes a payment to fail, and even then you can’t tell which details of that feature cause the failure.

I understand why they haven’t just stopped honouring the caps: it wouldn’t be in line with the consumer-focused spirit of the Direct Debit Guarantee to alter things against customer expectations, and even sending out a notification to the customer might not be enough. I think they should have gone the other way and allowed querying of things that they are going to continue to enforce, though.

Could I have tested for this? Well, the difficulty there is that the GoCardless sandbox environment for the Pro API starts off clean with no access to any of your legacy activity neither from live nor from legacy sandbox. So I couldn’t do something like the following:

  1. Create legacy mandate in legacy sandbox, with amount per interval caps
  2. Try to charge against the legacy mandate from the Pro API sandbox, exceeding the cap
  3. Observe that it fails but with no way to tell why

I did note that there didn’t seem to be attributes of the mandate endpoint that would let me know when it could be charged and what the amount left to charge was, but it didn’t set off any alarm bells. Perhaps it should have.

Also I will admit I’ve had years to switch to Pro API and am only doing it now when forced. Perhaps if I had made a start on this years ago, I’d have noted what I consider to be a deficiency, asked them to remedy it and they might have had time to do so. I don’t actually think it’s likely they would bump the API version for that though. In my defence, as I mentioned, there is nothing attractive about the Pro API for my use, and it does cost more, so no surprise I’ve been reluctant to explore it.

So, if you are scrambling to update your GoCardless integration before 31 October, do check that you are prepared for payments against capped mandates to fail.

by Andy at September 21, 2017 09:06 PM