A Way Forward For RSS Content

RSS is one of those technologies that’s hard to explain to casual users of the Internet. When you tell them they can have their news and site updates in the form of a feed, direct to their desktop, they usually ask

a) can’t I do that already? I thought I could do that already.
b) you mean like email? I don’t want more programs on my computer. Or
c) OK, sounds good but what kind of things can I get?

Don’t get me wrong. RSS, or something like it, is the future. But it’s a hard sell to folk who haven’t downloaded a program in their life (more people than you’re care to imagine; I wonder what the stats on that look like), or to folk who are so worn out by spam they don’t want to sift through more bits and pieces arriving on the computer. But even if people do like the sound of it, RSS still doesn’t lend itself to grabbing information. It’s great for folks looking to read what other people are writing, or even keeping up to speed on general news, but it doesn’t quite have the customisation necessary to lure ordinary folk. Not everyone considers reading blogs in another format to be their idea of fun.

This may be changing (not the idea of fun, the customisation of RSS.) Klips, an RSS-type desktop feed from Serence, have introduced modules that include feeds of more specific, user-defined data, allowing you to track selected currencies, UPS and FedEx packages and stocks. (While I love the design and simplicity of Klips, I don’t think they work for large bodies of information, such as blogs and news, so expect to see Klips move more and more in the direction of small clumps of changing data, such as traffic reports, flight departure and arrival times, or hot deals, scattered around your desktop.)

RSS could do a lot of this too, but so far hasn’t. You can harvest a lot of information via RSS but most of it is passive: You can’t tailor it too much. Either take the feed or don’t. This will change, and already is beginning to, thanks in part to a guy called Mikel Maron from the University of Sussex. He’s come up with a way to deliver some of the personalized data from your My Yahoo! account to an RSS feed, a neat trick that arose from his university studies. (If you’re interested in the technical aspects, here they are in PDF form.) So far his feed — which is not related to Yahoo! in any way — can handle market quotes, weather and movie listing, depending on how you’ve configured your Yahoo! account. But of course his approach offers great potential for funnelling all sorts of personalized data straight to your RSS browser. Let’s hope Yahoo! support, or even buy, Mikel’s efforts.

(Thanks to Chris Pirillo’s LockerGnome RSS Resource for pointing out Mikel’s site.)

Goodbye To The Browser?

Here’s some more interesting end-of-year stuff from Nielsen//NetRatings: a report issued today (PDF file) says that three out of every four home and work Internet users access the Internet using a non-browser based Internet application, particularly media players, instant messengers and file sharing applications. “With 76 percent of Web surfers using Internet applications, functionality has grown beyond the browser to become a fundamental piece of the overall desktop,” said Abha Bhagat, senior analyst Nielsen//NetRatings. “It’s become harder to distinguish when you’re on the Internet, blurring the lines between what’s sitting on the desktop and what’s coming from the World Wide Web.”

According to the report, the top five applications are Windows Media Player, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger Service and Real Player. Of these top five applications, Windows Media has the largest active user reach at 34 percent. AOL Instant Messenger was next at 20 percent, followed by Real Player also at 20 percent, MSN Messenger Service at 19 percent and Yahoo! Messenger Service, which reaches 12 percent of the active user base.

Interesting. But what does it actually tell us? First off, we shouldn’t get confused by the data. This doesn’t mean that folks are eschewing the browser, just that a lot of other programs are also connecting to the Internet (where is e-mail in all this?). Second, if Real Networks and MSN Messenger are anything to go by, a lot of these programs access the Internet without the user doing anything (or even knowing about it) so does this actually count? Lastly, there’s been plenty written already about how Microsoft is moving past the browser to incorporate similar functionality into its Office and other products — say Microsoft Word 2003’s Research Pane, for example — so it’s clear the big boys would have us move to more proprietary, locked-in environments, which all of the top five applications have in common. We’re not so much witnessing a demographic change as a deliberate shove by the main players.

My wish list? I’d like to see all of these players stop hoodwinking the end-user by loading their programs into the start-up queue automatically (you know who you are). It’s deliberately misleading (read: sleazy), it hogs resources and it skews data like Nielsen’s. I’d also like to see AOL, MSN and Yahoo all agree to share their instant messaging lists so folk like me don’t have to use great alternatives like Trillian to pull together our disparate buddy networks (Trillian will lump all your different Instant Messaging accounts into one easy to view window, minus all the ads and annoying pop-ups).

I see no danger in the browser gradually being phased out for plenty of web-related tasks. But, if the Internet has really become ‘part of the desktop’ let’s try to make it a place where ordinary folk can hang out without too much hassle.

Branded Blogging – The Next Big Thing?

I spotted this a bit late, but thought it was worth throwing out there.

As you know, I’m a big fan of blogging, and while it’s not always easy to convince those higher up the food chain of their merits, blogs and RSS feeds are part of the future and the sooner we embrace it the better it will be for everyone. For an example of how mainstream they are becoming: I read on the blog of one of Jupiter Research’s analysts, Joe Wilcox (most Jupiter analysts have their own blogs, it seems, and they are quite prolific, in itself an interesting reflection of how blogging is seen in some industries as part of your work, not an adjunct) of the official Spider-Man 2 website of how blogging is becoming a promotional tool.

Not only do the production assistants have their own weblog (admittedly, not updated since May 2003) but they have a ‘how to blog’ page and, most importantly, a page of templates for bloggers. These templates, of course, all contain strong Spider-Man themes (templates are the layouts and backgrounds used on webpages, much like a template in a Word document.) The idea: set up a blog, promote Spider-Man along the way.

Good marketing tactic, of course, but also a sign of how, as Jupiter’s Joe Wilcox points out, mainstream blogging has become. If the big studios are starting to spot this niche, can the other big boys be far behind? Expect to see branding creeping into blogging, and creativity pushed a little to the sidelines. Not something I’m crazy about, but then what happens if content on a ‘branded blog’ displeases the brand owner? If I launch a Spider-Man templated blog saying how awful Spider-Man is, or using offensive content, how long is it before Sony Pictures start knocking on my door, or back off the whole branded blogging thing?

Online Holiday Spending Throws Up Some Kinks

I think we might have said this last year (and the year before) but this holiday appears to have been the Big One for spending online. According to a report by Goldman Sachs, Harris Interactive and Nielsen//NetRatings (‘the eSpending Report’) the total amount spent online was $15.8 billion, up a whopping 37% from 2002. (They don’t say this was in the U.S., but I’m assuming it is.)

There’s some interesting ticklers in the details too: While every category went up, a lot more was spent on practically everything except music this year. While folk seemed to spent a lot on clothes ($3.1 billion spent, up 40% over 2002), the biggest increase was in DVD and video ($1.4 billion, up 58%), a jump that could be explained largely by the rising popularity in DVD players, one of the biggest selling consumer items this year.

But it’s the meagre 20% rise in online music spending that gets me. They splashed out only $790 million this year — a bit more than half of what they spent on books or video. Now while some of this discrepancy may be blamed on the rise of the DVD — they weren’t available in such numbers last year, they’re usually sold in the same store as music CDs — it doesn’t really hold water when you compare it to the books category, which has been available for years online (at least 1996, if not earlier) and yet also showed an impressive 39% growth, with folk spending $1.4 billion on tomes this year. Could this either be a sign of the lingering appeal of online file sharing, suspicion about the spread of ‘hobbling technologies’ that restrict usage of CDs, or a growing lack of interest in what is on offer at current prices?

I’ve asked Nielsen for more data, so perhaps there’s another explanation for this.

Some (Not So) Light Reading

For those of you easing back into work after the holidays, or stuck in the office before the New Year partying begins, here are some suggestions for Internet reading.

The future of Microsoft: Is 2004 going to be Redmond’s swansong? Some people think so, including The Inquirer, which says that the company’s flat first quarter earnings are a sign “it is running low on wiggle room, the core customers are negotiating hard, and Microsoft is giving way”. Interesting, if somewhat aggressive, reading. For the usual Slashdot discussion of the topic, go here. Certainly it’s going to be a difficult year for Microsoft, and one way the company may go is to try to further lock in users to its formats — Word, audio, Excel, whatever — and to lock other software companies out.

That’s also the tack that veteran commentator Steve Gillmor believes Apple is taking with its iPod. He points out that what was once a MP3 player is now threatening to be a lot more than that, from a PDA to a video device (to a handphone, as well). But Gillmor also points out that this is part of a bigger battle to try to establish one kind of Digital Rights Management over another. (This basically is a legal and software trick that limits your freedom to copy or alter files, whether they’re music, words or pictures. Say your version of Microsoft Word supported DRM, you may find yourself unable, say, to copy a document you’re viewing, or to save it in another format, or, more insidiously, unable to access a Word document composed in a non-Microsoft program, say, Open Office. DRM effectively removes the kind of supremacy you’ve enjoyed over what you own: In music, for example, DRM would mean you rent rather than own your CD collection.)

Gillmor discusses Apple’s approach, which is slightly different, but with seemingly similar goals: To lock the consumer into using a proprietary format. I think consumers will — and should — fight any attempt to limit access to their files, whether they be music, words, pictures or movies, tooth and nail. Legitimate fears of piracy and security should not allow any corporation to dictate the size or make of wall protecting us (look at e-voting for the lessons we should learn on that.). This year will define where we go on this issue. Or as Mr Gillmor says: “With the election looming as a referendum on issues of security, rights and opportunity, and the Internet emerging as a major player for the first time, DRM may be democracy’s Last Waltz.”

A Cheap iPod On The Way?

If you were one of the few who didn’t get an iPod in their stocking this Christmas, don’t despair: Designtechnica Articles is reporting strong rumours that Apple may launch a $100 iPod next month. While current iPod units start at $300 and are based around a 10 to 40 gigabyte hard drive, the budget priced iPods are expected be Flash Memory based — and so will not store so much. ThinkSecret, meanwhile, says the new iPods will be smaller in size, hold either 2 or 4 gigabytes of music, and come in different colours — including stripes.
 
If it’s true, it will be a smart move for Steve Jobs. While the iPod has been a big hit this holiday — the BBC says UK stores are having problems keeping up with demand — there is still a big market of folk who cannot afford the $300 or more for an iPod, leaving the field open for other manufacturers.

Spam As Revenge?

Is spam being used as a business weapon to damage a competitor’s reputation? Florida-based North American Liability Group, an insurance company, said yesterday it had “become aware that an unauthorized spam email was sent out about the Company by an unknown third party”. A press release issued by the company said it “has discovered that someone who identified himself or itself as “RB” sent a spam email which contained information which did not come from the Company, was never approved by the Company and in fact, contained inaccurate information about the Company.” It seems the company has no idea who RB is (and the company doesn’t say what the spam contained: Either way, given public impatience with spam, it’s not likely to enhance the company’s image.)

What benefit could RB possibly derive from such spam, unless it was to discredit the honest folks at North American? A disgruntled employee? A rival? Certainly spam is a potent way to damage reputations: I recall a year or so back trying to find out who sent out spam in the name of TemplateStyles.com. The company itself denied all knowledge, but some angry respondents were suspicious, pointing to the lack of proper information about the company on its website. A year on it seems the site is now up for sale, so either the doubters were right or the spam killed off the company’s chances. Either way it brought home how easy it would be to dent a reputation by sending out spam in someone’s name.

Then there’s the Spam Slur: A few days back I started receiving an email alleging that some German individual “is a knave” who apparently does not deliver goods he has contracted to deliver. (I’m afraid I foolishly deleted several copies of the email, which was clearly sent out in spam-like quantities.) No one can trace the source of the slur, but the target is bound to have felt some pain at being labeled a knave. I haven’t been called that since school.

Ho, Ho, Ho, Tis The Season Of The Online Scam

Phishing — the art of depriving folk of their sensitive password data and then using it to empty their pockets — has become the scam du jour of the holiday season. The Anti-Phishing.org website says it has seen ‘dramatic’ growth in November and December of email spoofing (emails claiming to be from, for example, your bank) and general fraud activity. (Anti-Phishing is an industry group founded by Tumbleweed Communications, a builder of anti-spam software.) For example:

— More than 60 unique new phishing email fraud attacks have been launched against consumers in the last 2 weeks
— Over 60 million email fraud attacks are estimated to have been sent out in the same period – timed for the peak of the holiday season
— eBay customers were the most highly targeted by scammers, with 24 unique email fraud attacks over the past 60 days
— Online financial institutions, including banks, Visa and PayPal, represented the largest target group with 35 unique email fraud attacks reported over the past 60 days

It seems that phishing has been remarkably rewarding for the scammers involved. The Anti-Phishing Working Group reckons an average of 5% of recipients respond to such emails, resulting in financial losses, identity theft, and other fraudulent activity. And, perhaps worse, this “activity threatens the integrity of companies that do business online”. (I’m assuming they’re talking about banks, eBay and other folk who rely on ordinary folk to maintain their faith in the security of online commerce.)

There are a number of ingenious scams that play on the holiday theme — which also highlight that it’s not just banks and big-ticket items that the phishers are targeting. One example is a fake online Christmas card, designed to compromise AOL accounts. In this scam, the recipient receives a spoofed email from the “AOL Hallmark” team, and is asked to visit a website to pick up his/her card. In order to access the site (which is run by the scammer), the user is asked to log in to his or her AOL account, thereby divulging the account name and password. The compromised account can then be used, anti-Phishing says, to launch further phishing attacks, virus attacks, spam, or other nefarious activity.

Clearly this sort of thing is going to grow, becoming more sophisticated as users wise up to the scams. Recent emails now play upon the growing awareness of scams by claiming to be from your bank, warning you about such scams and telling you to ignore other emails. They then, of course, go on to tell to visit the legitimate website to confirm your password. (The main component of this trick is that 90% of the email is genuine, in that the images are all from the bank’s website, and if you hover your mouse over the link you’re being asked to visit, it may well look genuine too. What you’re actually seeing, is a clever ruse: the real website is buried at the end of the link, hidden after a lot of empty space. So checking that sort of thing is no longer enough. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t react to any email that requires you to do anything with your password. For a good resource on such scams, check out Codefish.)

In the end all this will help educate users about the Internet and improving their own security. I don’t see it doing any serious damage to online commerce, at least in terms of undermining public confidence. I do believe, however, that we’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the sophistication of scammers, and banks and other online institutions must improve their awareness of the threat, as well as protect and educate their customers.

Have a phishing-free Christmas.

The iPod Battery Controversy Hits The Mainstream

The discussion about iPod batteries has entered the mainstream. You may recall posts on this blog a few weeks back about two brothers who took their complaint that Apple would not replace their worn out battery — saying the warranty had expired, and suggesting they buy a new iPod — public, via a video posted onto the net and public defacement of Apple billboards. I tried to get a comment from Apple at the time, but felt they had less of a case the more I looked at the story: It turned out that Apple did replace batteries (for $99, which would give you a refurbished iPod) or alternatively, you could do it yourself with third party batteries, saving yourself up to $40.

Now The Washington Post has written up the experience of the Neistat brothers, and presented it as an example of the disposability of electronics, and of irate consumers fighting back.

It’s a great piece. Trouble is, I don’t think the story is quite as simple as that. First off, there’s some suggestion the brothers haven’t been completely upfront. According to one academic who briefly hosted their video on his server, Dave Schroeder, there are some holes in their version: He says Apple began offering the replacement program nearly a week before the brothers’ website was registered (ipoddirtysecret.com, on November 20; Apple’s replacement program was announced on November 14). As Schroeder acknowledges in his letter to the Washington Post (posted at Slashdot), it was ‘coincidentally close’, but was before Apple had was aware of the brothers’ video. (The Post article says the Apple announced expanded warranties for new iPod owners to purchase for $59, and also introduced a new $99 battery-replacement mail-in service for others “days after the movie made the rounds” of websites like Schroeders. The Neistat brothers themselves are more cautious on their website, saying “After we finished production of the film, but not necessarily in response to it, Apple began offerring a battery replacement program for the iPod for a fee of $99 and an extended warranty for the ipod for $59”.)

But did the brothers know about this before they posted their video? Schroeder says yes, saying he agreed to post their video on condition the brothers post a link on the same site to the Apple replacement program, something which he says they never did. (Schroeder has kept a record of their communications here.) If this is true, I don’t see any way one can link the Neistat’s campaign with Apple’s decision to offer a refurbishing service.

But what about the allegation that Apple is building in obsolescence into what are already pricey gadgets, using batteries that die after 18 months and steering punters into replacing the whole unit for $400, while making it hard to replace the batteries without damaging the unit? not everyone agrees it’s hard to replace the battery: Here’s an example of one user who felt confident her mother could do it without help. But I have to say, I’ve fiddled around with my iPod a bit, trying to get the back off according to instructions, and would conclude that my mother wouldn’t enjoy doing it. It’s certainly tricky, and hard to do without scratching the iPod body.

My conclusion? I think Apple have been remiss in a) not introducing a refurbish program earlier, b) not making it easier to replace the batteries, and c) not immediately guiding the brothers to websites which sell do-it-yourself batteries. While the iPod is beautifully designed, I can’t really see a reason for not including screws in the casing.

But having said all that, I think we must be careful about guerrilla consumer actions such as those undertaken by the Neistat brothers. We may not not yet know the whole story (I’ve emailed both them and Apple asking for more information), but so far it seems that their campaign may have misled hundreds of thousands of users by not including, either in it or on websites where it was posted, information about alternatives to buying a new iPod. Consumer activism should not copy advertising. It should be informative, not deceptive.

Who Are The White Knights In The War On Spam?

I know this appallingly cynical of me, but I can’t help worrying about the most recent development in the War On Spam. That, in case you hadn’t heard, is the news of a ‘fighting cooperative’ as Jupiter Research’s Microsoft Monitor puts it, between Microsoft and New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who have together filed lawsuits against alleged spammers Synergy6 and Scott Richter, among others. Spitzer was one of the key players in the government’s five-year antitrust case against Microsoft.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s good that someone’s going after spammers. And they may well have the right guys. Spamhaus has Richter high up on its list of top spammers, and Spitzer described him as the third largest spammer in the world, delivering 250 million spam e-mails per day. And having Microsoft onside definitely has its rewards: As part of a six-month investigation, Microsoft set up honey traps, capturing 8,000 spam mails in one month containing, according to Spitzer, “40,000 false statements.” New York State will seek $500 in damages for each false statement. Microsoft’s lawsuits, filed in Washington State, seek more than $18 million in damages.

But while Jupiter and others focus on the positive aspects of Microsoft’s improving relations with the government, what exactly is Micosoft doing sueing spammers? While they have the technical muscle to help catch the spammer, (and this is not the first time they’ve gone after spammers in the courts, as TechDirt points out), my suspicion is that spammers are being pursued not because they’re a nuisance to us users, but because they’re getting in the way of making the web a marketers’ dream playground.

Spam is hell for the inbox and is giving a bad name to all forms of e-marketing. That’s bad for us, but more importantly it’s bad for big business, as Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith explains: “Deceptive and illegal spam, like the kind we’re attacking today, is overwhelming legitimate e-mail and threatening the promise and potential of the Internet for all of us. We appreciate the attorney general’s leadership on what is arguably the biggest technology menace consumers are facing. Together we are stepping up efforts to help consumers take control of their inboxes again.”

Indeed, it’s telling that Microsoft has, according to the anti-spamming community, been instrumental in watering down anti-spamming legislation which might have done a more thorough job of stopping junk mail. Of course, I’m not defending spam. It’s ugly, and getting worse. And Microsoft are improving their spam filtering: Outlook 2003 has it, and they just upgraded it again yesterday.

But in helping get rid of it we may unwittingly be committing ourselves to a regimented future online, of standards — IDs, Digital Rights Management, microtolls — controlled by the big corporates. Or at the very least, leave the ground free for spam from the mainstream — mainsleaze spam, as California State Senator Debra Bowen put it: “Microsoft doesn’t want to ban spam, it wants to decide what’s ‘legitimate’ or ‘acceptable’ unsolicited commercial advertising so it can turn around and license those e-mail messages and charge those advertisers a fee to wheel their spam into your e-mail inbox without your permission.”