ZoneAlarm’s Impressive About-turn, Or How To Do Blog PR Right

A day ago I vented my disappointment at a sneaky marketing gambit inside ZoneAlarm’s otherwise excellent free firewall software, which scared the user into running an external spyware scanner in the hope of getting them to upgrade. This morning I received word from their PR department that this promotion “has been turned off. The wording was not optimal, and we sincerely regret any inconvenience or frustrations it caused our users. Also, your story has prompted us to create a new approval process for any outbound promotions including multiple departments, to ensure that we maintain the highest integrity in our marketing efforts.”

I’m very impressed. I’m not suggesting my post prompted this — it sounds like it was in the works anyway — but this kind of close and timely monitoring of blogs is just the kind of iniatitive PR departments should be involved in, and just what I was going on about in a recent diatribe about Nokia, who seem little interested in customers who have less than perfect experience in the company’s ‘Care Centres’.

Good work, ZoneAlarm.

Podcast: Bacteria at Your Fingertips

Here’s another podcast from the BBC’s World Business Report: this one is on how to prevent the gunk in keyboards from killing you, and it derives from a Loose Wire piece I did for WSJ.com and The WSJ Asia on September 30. (Subscription only, I’m afraid.) Here’s a snippet:

The gunk in your keyboard could kill you. Really.

An exhaustive poll of my friends reveals that all sorts of stuff is being spilled over the average keyboard: biscuit crumbs, mango, fizzy beverage, the odd stray cornflake, nail varnish, rice, soy sauce, coffee, wine (red and white), hand cream. Under your keys lie a faithful record of every snack, lunch and beverage break you’ve had at your desk since you joined the company. It’s like typing on a pile of week-old dirty dishes.

This isn’t only somewhat gross (and likely to lead to the keyboard’s demise at some point) but it also makes your main data input device a Petri dish of bacteria and other microorganisms that could kill you before the job does. A study conducted by Charles Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona, concluded that the computer keyboard was the fifth most germ-contaminated spot in an office. (Topped only by your phone, your desktop — home to an impressive 10 million bacteria — and the handles on the office water fountain and microwave door.) Out of 12 surfaces studied the toilet seat came in cleanest, in case you’re wondering where to have your next lunch break.

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Podcast: The Technology of Hotels

I’ve been recording pieces, usually derived from my WSJ.com and WSJ Asia Loose Wire columns, for the BBC World Service’s World Business Report for more than a year now, and they’re a lovely bunch of guys. (Here’s a link to Jonathan’s recent house move. As someone who hasn’t live in London for nearly 20 years I’m jealous.) Anyway, some listeners have requested a podcast type repeat here, and the BBC have kindly agreed to allow it, so here’s the first podcast of my BBC pieces for now: on hotels.

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Hopefully, if I’ve done my sums right, this will appear as a podcast in the RSS feed. Apologies if it doesn’t. More to follow.

ZoneAlarm’s Sneaky Spyware Scare?

(See a more recent post on this for an update. ZoneAlarm no longer has this ‘feature’.)

I’m a big fan, and user, of ZoneAlarm firewalls. Their interface is clean, clear and I like the system tray icon which doubles as a traffic monitor. But sometimes they do things that don’t, in my view, help educate and simplify things for the ordinary user. After all, Internet security is already baffling enough.

I use the free version of ZoneAlarm firewall and usually it works fine and unobtrusively. But just now I got a popup window like this:

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At first glance it looks like an ordinary update reminder, which would be fine. But it’s not. It seems to suggest, to the casual user, that something bad is happening to your computer. To the more experienced user it looks like one of those naff anti-spyware ads that appear on websites with a faux Windows-dialog suggesting you’re infected with spyware. (Notice there’s no option along the lines of ‘Never remind or show me this popup again. I have enough on my plate, thanks.’)

Click on ‘update now’ and you’re taken, surprise surprise, to a ZoneAlarm promotions page. To be fair to ZoneAlarm, if you’re running IE a scan will kick in (it won’t if you’re using Opera, Netscape or Mozilla as it’s an ActiveX application). Once spyware is detected, it’s not quite clear what you’re supposed to do next. Click on a ‘Remove Spyware Now’ link and you’re faced with a pop-up link pitching a ‘featured bundle’ of ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite and TurboBackup for $50. Click on a red button marked ‘REMOVE SPYWARE with ZoneAlarm’ and you’re taken to the same pop-up (Yes, they seem to somehow get around the builtin IE popup blocker.) As far as I can see there is no other way to remove the alleged spyware.

This is all, I believe, part of ZoneAlarm’s new product,  ZoneAlarm Anti-Spyware, which it launched recently. I just wish that ZoneAlarm, which I’ve had quarrels with before, didn’t stoop to such befuddling scare tactics to tout a new product.  

The Art of Ambience

I love this idea. A team languishing near the bottom of the fourth division (Coca Cola League Two) of the English soccer league prepares to take on legendary Manchester United by recording the sound of Manchester United’s supporters and blasting it through loudspeakers, as the BBC reports:

Barnet boss Paul Fairclough says his side will not be overawed when they face Manchester United in the Carling Cup at Old Trafford on Wednesday.”One of the quirky things we have done is train at our stadium with the crowd noise from the United-Tottenham game piped through the tannoy,” he said.”It made it very difficult for the players to communicate.”But they got used to it. Those sort of things get into the sub-conscious and they will be drawn out when required.

Great idea. Perhaps it’s been done already, but why stop there? Why not blast out similar recordings at matches where spectators have been banned because of prior crowd trouble, or where attendances are down, or supporters aren’t being vocal enough in their chanting? You could build a library of different sounds — clapping, singing, booing, chants lionising individual players — for every occasion.

Jeering the other team’s goalkeeper taking a goalkick, for example, could be automated so fans don’t have to wear out their larynxes. Away supporters could bring their own pocket-sound systems to compete.

Then of course, you’d have the soccer equivalent of a Milli Vanilli lipsync  when the guy in charge of the recordings plays a tape at the wrong time — during a minute’s silence for the early demise of the goalkeeper’s cat, say, or chants eulogising a centre-forward who has already been sold — and everyone would be briefly scandalised.


How To Plug PR Black Holes, Or Steal A Rival’s Customers

Why have I become a Nokia Care Center? Because I wrote a nasty blog post about them a year ago, that’s why. In October 2004 I was not happy with the response of my local Nokia centre, which seemed very cavalier and, well, careless about the data saved on a customer’s phone. Basically, there was no straightforward way for the customer to save their data before it was wiped off during a Care Centre repair. Several angry customers were belatedly waking up to the implications of losing all their phone numbers and other personal data. This struck me as dumb and I wrote about it.

Big mistake. Not because I heard back from Nokia (I never did, as I recall) but because I heard from other customers, all seeming to have some problem with their Nokia phone, and, increasingly, assuming I could do something about it. Nearly 40 so far, which is not a huge amount, but more attention than most of my posts receive. This once happened before, when I wrote about Coca Cola doing some online music venture. It ended up being colonised by semi-literate gamers confusing the post with some online game. I appreciated the traffic but after the posts crossed the lines of vulgarity and legality, I figured it was better to pull the post.

Of course, this kind of thing happens because the comments start figuring in the search engine results, not just the original post, and then the page starts climbing the rankings. A search for “Nokia Care Centres” on Google puts me 4th, way above many Nokia corporate sites, while the U.S. spelling puts me 8th: only one non Nokia site is above me there, a complaint from an expat site in Singapore. That, coupled with all the other hopeful requests added as comments (usually along the lines of “Can u send me Nokia Care Centers in Bangalore?”, the most recent comment of less than an hour ago) push it higher up the rankings and make readers assume such previous pleas for help have been answered. They haven’t, at least not by me, but I’m almost thinking of setting myself up as a Nokia Care Centre.

The bigger question here is: Why is Nokia not monitoring this kind of thing and helping out these customers by either approaching me to post something helpful on their behalf (folks looking for answers should go to this link, or call this number, or send an email here, or whatever) or post a comment themselves to reach these lost souls? Surely someone in Nokia has noticed that their own Nokia Care Centres are getting bypassed on Google, as dozens of unhappy customers cry for help or vent their frustration elsewhere online?

Nokia, please pay one intern to trawl the web for this kind of black hole and the problem could be solved, and a PR blindspot fixed, in before it gets out of hand. (Then there are the rivals: Why has Motorola or Samsung not called me up and asked to advertise on this page, realising they could win over dozens of new customers frustrated by their Nokia experiences? No really, folks. I probably need to mull over the ethical aspects of dissing a company so I can woo advertising from rivals, but after that brief Mulling Period is over, I’m open to all offers.)  

The Secret Behind Google’s Success: The Instant Massage

Google’s profits are indeed impressive, and if my local newspaper (no link available, I’m afraid) is right, it’s clear clear why: the company is offering a service no right-minded person could refuse:

But the introduction of new products, such as instant massaging, and upgrades to existing services, such as mapping, helped Google attract more summer traffic than anticipated, executives said during a conference call yesterday.

This seems to have emanated from an AP story, carried by The Seattle Times and Canoe Money, both of which either fixed the typo or else didn’t create the error (no way of easily telling whether the error was in the original copy, or whether my local paper ran an ageing spellchecker over the word to create the fluff.)

Instant massaging is actually not that uncommon.  3G UK’s JustYak Chat “brings the popular Internet Instant Massaging to the mobile world” (a press release that hasn’t been fixed in two and a half years. Does no one proofread these things?) In fact Google offers “about 535” entries for instant massaging, only one or two of which seem to deliver what they promise. (IWantOneOfThose.com points to the USB Massager, which I’ve long touted as a serious peripheral.)

In fact instant massaging has a pedigree. It throws up 27 matches on Factiva, including this comment from Charles Gibson on ABC Good Morning America on June 20 (sorry, no links for these as Factiva is a subscription only service. You’ll just have to take my word for it):

Are cell phones, instant massaging, and multi-tasking giving us all Attention Deficit Disorder? Yes, is the answer.

I can well imagine. Instant gratification always was the enemy of concentration. Or this from the UK’s Birmingham Post on Nov 17 2004 in its Anniversaries section, which goes some way to explain why British workers are using more paper, but still leaves us wanting to know more:

2001: A study showed that paper consumption in British offices had increased by 40 per cent with the advent of emails, faxes and instant massaging.

Then there was the report of a local man exactly a year earlier in the Providence Journal arrested for online harrassment, or “cyberstalking”. The paper explains:

Cyberstalking is a misdemeanor charge that involves harassment via e-mail or instant massaging, according to the state police.

Indeed. People leaping upon strangers in public and on the Internet, delivering instant backrubs should definitely be stopped before it gets out of hand. (Sorry.) But then again, maybe this explains AOL’s difficult times. Back in August 1999, according to CNNfn’s Moneyline, AOL was doing its bit to make online a more pleasurable place to be, as a transcript of the show has host Stuart Varney explaining:

America Online is pushing to make its popular instant massaging feature an Internet standard. And in the process, out-muscle Microsoft. For the first time, AOL will let other Internet service providers use the massaging systems: EarthLink and MindSpring. The deal lifted shares of Earthlink 4 1/2. Mindspring rallied nearly three. And AOL edged up nearly a dollar.

Only a dollar? Microsoft clearly lacked the technique and strength necessary to make backrubs an Internet standard. EarthLink and MindSpring (the names carry different connotations now, knowing they were more focusing as much on massages as messages) clearly were 100% behind this initiative.

One can’t help but wonder, though, what the transcribers and stenographers made of what they were writing when they wrote ‘massaging’ rather than ‘messaging’; take, for example, this transcript from September 1998 Congressional Testimony by John Bastian, Chief Executive Officer of Security Software Systems, a company offering “computer software solutions designed to protect children on-line”. His testimony on the dangers of life online was otherwise impeccably recorded by the Congressional stenographer, except this bit:

Thousands of explicit web sites exist with millions of pages of pornographic material. Most are easily accessed by a few clicks of a mouse. But sites are only a portion of the sexually explicit areas. E-mail, chat rooms, news-groups and Instant massaging can be virtual playground for the sexual predators and pedophiles.

Makes the Internet sound an even scarier place than it already is. Maybe we’re better off that AOL failed in its vision, and that Google may not, after all, be reaping huge profits from instant physical therapy.

Playing around with Flock

I’m playing around with the new browser Flock, which promises to be an interesting new take on browsers. This posting is actually being prepared and sent from within Flock. Some elements look a bit odd, but let’s see how it goes.

How To Trace The Source of a Hard Copy

Good piece by AP on a Electronic Frontier Foundation report saying that tracking codes in color laser printers have been cracked. The report points to dots embedded in Xerox’s color laser printers that appear on the printed page, which can then be traced back to particular printers:

By analyzing test pages printed out by supporters worldwide and by staffers at various FedEx Kinko’s locations, researchers found that some of the dots correspond to the printers’ serial numbers. Other dots refer to the date and time of the printing.

This is done, AP says, to foil currency counterfeiters, but could just as easily be used by governments to track down criminals or dissidents. This is not just the typewriter trick, where a document could be traced back to a particular typewriter, or make of typewriter, by quirks in the typeface and letter alignment. Although that is a part of it: by comparing two documents it is possible to conclude they are from the same printer, which would poleax a suspect accused of being behind a document just by printing something from their printer.

But although the article doesn’t mention it, I assume these tracking codes could also allow people to track down a suspect, by looking at the serial number and following the distribution of that printer. Unless the purchaser chose to cover his tracks, it shouldn’t be too hard to trace the printer through the country, town, retailer and credit card receipt. (With the time stamp included, it should be possible to track down the customer even if the end user is in a public printshop.) I’m guessing here, but it all seems plausible.

It’ll be interesting to see where EFF goes with this. Me? I’m no dissident but I’m not crazy about anyone being able to trace back what I print out.

 

Tamiflu and the Online Buying Epidemic

Sadly, this might be the way of the future: Selling prescription drugs that everyone wants in the middle of a pandemic to the highest bidder. The Register reports that people have been selling Tamiflu on eBay for up to four times its usual price:

Internet auctioneer eBay has shut down sales through it service of Tamiflu, which can help reduce the severity of avian flu, amid growing concern of a potential pandemic that could kill humans. An eBay spokesperson told The Register that the company had pulled a handful of listings from its UK web site, because the sales contravened eBay’s policy over the sale of controlled substances and prescription drugs.

eBay acted as packets of Tamiflu, which comprise 10 capsules, had reached £104 and attracted 84 bids. Tamiflu is usually available through prescription only, for between £25 and £30.

(I’m not quite sure who to credit for this story: A very similar account appears on ZDNet, quoting Reuters.)

Another story from AFP (via Singapore’s TODAYonline), highlights some of the dangers of this kind of thing. It quotes David Reddy, a senior executive at Tamiflu’s maker, Roche as saying he had heard heard of reports of Internet sales “of a drug that was purported to be Tamiflu but in fact was not.” He declined to give details until the matter had been investigated. A Taiwan newspaper, meanwhile, catalogues a Tamiflu buying frenzy since August.
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