Zone Labs to Offer Sygate, Kerio Users a Deal

From a press release emailed to me by Zone Labs, makers of Zone Alarm:

The personal firewall market is currently undergoing a major shift, with Symantec set to retire the Sygate line of personal firewalls tomorrow (including the free version and Sygate Pro), and Kerio discontinuing its personal firewall at the end of December to pursue an enterprise strategy. […] In order to help consumers affected by recent events, Zone Labs will be announcing a new promotion to Sygate and Kerio users later this week to ensure that consumers have essential firewall protection available at an affordable price.

Not clear what kind of offer yet, but I’ll let you know.

“Your Call Is Important To Us. Really.”

Paul English’s website about about getting around ‘interactive voice response’ phone systems (where you talk and a computer listens) is already triggering industry rebuttals, like this one from Angel.com – Top 5 Reasons NOT to Zero Out of an IVR System (via Dan Gillmor):

If you’ve visited Paul English’s website, you’ve learned how to “zero out” of the automated voice systems of many companies. As the market leader for on-demand call center and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) solutions, Angel.com is here to tell you why zeroing out will only hinder your attempts to accomplish your objective for the call.

It’s actually a bit of a naff response (not least because the ‘market leader’ can’t even bring itself to provide a link to Paul English’s site, which displays either the company’s ignorance or its petulance (neither looks pretty). But the argument is also weak:

Automated voice systems, otherwise known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems, can minimize the caller’s wait time by making sure they get to the right person, and if designed correctly, can often answer the most frequent inquiries immediately.

And then goes on to list 5 reasons why you should NOT zero out of an IVR System — starting off with the assertion that

#1 Most IVR systems are good, especially speech-enabled systems. Two-thirds of consumers feel voice automation is efficient and fulfills their needs, whereas 34% of consumers complain that they have dealt with unfriendly live agents.

This according to a “landmark study on consumer attitudes on customer service conducted by Nuance and Harris Interactive” which once again isn’t linked to. I believe they’re referring to this one (PDF only), which was commissioned by a company called Nuance which, er, makes IVR systems like Call Steering. Their ‘study’ reads more like a press release than a ‘landmark study’:

Businesses are choosing automated speech applications because they allow customers to interact in a more natural fashion than cumbersome keypad or touch-tone systems. It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of speech users (61 percent) are highly satisfied with their most recent speech encounter.

(In fact, if one wants to get picky, I believe that 61% — which I’m guessing Angel.com is citing as fulfilling their needs — represents only 61% of 41% of the sample of 326 people, since only 41% of people interviewed had actually used an IVR in the previous three months. So that’s 82 people according to my bad math. The landmark survey is relying on the word of 82 people? And I couldn’t find any reference to 34% of consumers complaining about ‘unfriendly live agents’, although perhaps it’s in another account of the study. )

Anyway, the 5 reasons go on:

#2 Every selection you make in the IVR system will help the system make progress towards solving your problem either in the IVR system or by routing you to the most qualified live agent.

I can’t really argue with that, but of course this assumes that the IVR system is better than a ‘live agent’. If the live agent were qualified and well-trained, wouldn’t the converse be true?

#3 By zeroing out at the first prompt, you give up control over the type of agent you will ultimately speak to. You will likely end up in the most generic queue and, hence, the queue with the longest wait time. Then you’ll explain your problem to somebody who is not qualified to solve the problem, who in turn will place you into yet another queue.

Once again, the assumption is that the staff are actually less qualified than the computer. I can see what they’re getting at — that they have only a limited number of qualified staff, so they need to line up their customer duckies to maximise the usage of those staff — but it all rests on the IVR system being smart enough to understand problems that may not easily fit menu options. My experience is that as many times as this works, it doesn’t, and that you get sent to the back of a queue because the IVR (or touch tone options) pushes you into the wrong part of the maze.

#4 In almost all cases, if you have a request that can be resolved completely by an IVR system (like account balance, order status etc.), using the IVR system correctly will get you results faster than talking to a human.

Of course; I don’t think anyone’s questioning the usefulness of checking a bank balance via this system. I doubt anyone would quibble with that; indeed it’s somewhat creepy having a real person read out your bank balance (‘Dude! You’ve only got $34.23 in your account. Better get a real job”) but the real naffness in this line of argument is betrayed by the last ‘reason’:

#5 The more people that use IVR systems for easy requests (see #4), the greater the number of live agents who are available for complex requests. This leads to better and more qualified service for everyone – the IVR system you are doing a service to all your fellow callers.

In other words, by subjecting yourself to a time-wasting maze of dumb or irrelevant choices you’re helping the company cut down the number of ‘live agents’ who actually provide a service. Or, as Paul English puts it in his rebuttal:

Of course IVR systems sometimes work, and that they can save you time for some very specific simple requests (e.g., check flight arrival) and they can sometimes save you time by directing you to the correct department. However, consumers are not stupid, and they should be given the choice to connect to a human when they want.

Hear, hear.

The Air Guitar

There’s only one thing worse than air guitarists and that’s people who make fun of air guitarists. It’s a hallowed tradition going back to Jagger, Bowie and Noddy Holder. And now it’s technically feasible, thanks to the Finns who have made air guitarists’ rock dreams come true:

The Virtual Air Guitar project, developed at the Helsinki University of Technology, adds genuine electric guitar sounds to the passionately played air guitar. Using a computer to monitor the hand movements of a “player”, the system adds riffs and licks to match frantic mid-air finger work. By responding instantly to a wide variety of gestures it promises to turn even the least musically gifted air guitarist to a virtual fret board virtuoso. […]

The resulting system consists of a video camera and a computer hooked up to an appropriately loud set of speakers. A player then needs only to don a pair of brightly coloured gloves in order to rock out. Computer vision software automatically keeps track of their hands and detects different gestures.

Tags for Sale to Fund a Wedding

Lame gimmick or wave of the future? Entrepreneur Launches Web’s First Tag Directory to Raise Money for His Wedding:

 A Canadian entrepreneur wants to raise funds for his wedding by listing websites on his del.icio.us account for $20 per listing. Patrick Ryan, 37, and his fiancée have been dating for 5 years; he hopes that TagDirectory.net will attract advertisers. Advertisers will be able to list their website under as many categories (tags) as they want.

Ryan hopes to raise $250,000 from the site. So far he’s raised, er, $280, according to the ticker at the top of the directory itself. His initiative has already raised hackles among the del.icio.us community who have questioned, among other things, the size of his wedding.  Turns out he’s hoping to marry in Cuba. That would explain the cost.

It seems a tad lame for several reasons. First off, I don’t really see how the idea would work. Why would anyone visit a paid directory of tags? How do you drive traffic to a site that doesn’t differentiate itself from any other website, except that some advertisers have paid to be there? Secondly, the social web is not about grabbing bucks, especially for a wedding (tsunami/hurricane/earthquake victims, maybe. A quarter of a grand would buy a few cold-weather tents, something I’m sure taggers would be interested in stumping up for. But a wedding?

Thirdly, it raises questions about the vulnerability of such services to manipulation by sleazy marketing types. As one poster to the delicious-discuss users’ group puts it: “It does bring up an important issue, though — who is to say what constitutes “good” or “bad” tagging behavior,” the poster says. In this case, he says, it’s relatively easy because the originator “publicizes his commercial use; but I’m sure there are plenty of guerilla marketing weasels out there who have been doing similar things ever since the service started.” It’s not so much about filtering out the bad ones on an individual basis, but about “the underlying manipulation/distortion of the data for applications like a recommendation or ranking engine.”

Tagging is a great technology and I suppose it would be churlish to abuse someone for trying to make money from it. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that all those tags are out there because the folk behind these services, and those who tag websites to support them, did it all, initially at least, for free. I wish Patrick Ryan a happy wedding.

Extending Del.icio.us

Del.icio.us has come up with a new Firefox extension which includes toolbar buttons, a menu, context menus and search engine:

Delext

Pretty neat, although for some reason my Firefox is behaving and won’t tolerate some popups. More on some alternatives to this in a future post.

Xdrive Responds: Patience, Please

Further to several comments from readers about problems with Xdrive, the online storage service recently bought by AOL, I sought comment from their PR. Here, somewhat belatedly, is what they have to say:

Recently, Xdrive began a system upgrade designed to improve the quality and overall performance of the Xdrive experience. When complete, these upgrades will greatly improve the overall Xdrive experience which will result in unparalleled service and features. Unfortunately, during this process, some of our customers have experienced difficulty while using Xdrive’s services. Xdrive is aware of these issues and is working diligently to resolve them in a timely manner. We ask for our subscriber’s continued patience. For any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact customer support either by email at support@xdrive.com or via phone at 866-GO-Xdrive. –Jose Martinez, Xdrive Customer Support Manager.

These upgrades should be finished any day now, Xdrive says. This comment doesn’t differ hugely from their previous one of more than two months ago, but it’s at least something. One can’t help wondering, though, whether the damage is already done. Why stick with an online storage service that offers such unreliable service for nearly three months? Isn’t the whole point of online backup to be, well, a backup?

Tags for Sale to Fund a Wedding

Lame gimmick or wave of the future? Entrepreneur Launches Web’s First Tag Directory to Raise Money for His Wedding:

 A Canadian entrepreneur wants to raise funds for his wedding by listing websites on his del.icio.us account for $20 per listing. Patrick Ryan, 37, and his fiancée have been dating for 5 years; he hopes that TagDirectory.net will attract advertisers. Advertisers will be able to list their website under as many categories (tags) as they want.

Ryan hopes to raise $250,000 from the site. So far he’s raised, er, $280, according to the ticker at the top of the directory itself. His initiative has already raised hackles among the del.icio.us community who have questioned, among other things, the size of his wedding.  Turns out he’s hoping to marry in Cuba. That would explain the cost.

It seems a tad lame for several reasons. First off, I don’t really see how the idea would work. Why would anyone visit a paid directory of tags? How do you drive traffic to a site that doesn’t differentiate itself from any other website, except that some advertisers have paid to be there? Secondly, the social web is not about grabbing bucks, especially for a wedding (tsunami/hurricane/earthquake victims, maybe. A quarter of a grand would buy a few cold-weather tents, something I’m sure taggers would be interested in stumping up for. But a wedding?

But then again, tagging is a great technology and it would be churlish to abuse someone for trying to make money from it. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that all those tags are out there because the folk behind these services, and those who tag websites to support them, did it all, initially at least, for free. I wish Patrick Ryan a happy wedding.

IBM. It’s About the Service, Stoopid

I’m no great fan of big companies. They’re rarely innovative, their products are lousy, and unless you know how to get around them, they don’t like talking to customers. But some get it. Or at least, they used to.

When I came out to Indonesia a second time, in 1998, I did two things. I got an IBM ThinkPad, and I signed up for IBM.net, a dial-up service. I did this because I knew that IBM had first-rate customer support out here (across Asia, actually). I didn’t care I had to pay a little more for both; I knew that if anything went wrong with my computer, there would be some cool, good-humored, sartorially challenged techie guy to help me out. And if I couldn’t get my modem to connect, someone would walk me through it, helped by some simple but effective dialer software.)

Well, first off, IBM.net is now AT&TGlobal, and has been since late 1998. AT&T have been pretty good at maintaining standards, actually, although I noticed on a recent trip that they still don’t have any local number in Thailand or Cambodia, and when I tried to dial a number in the Philippines, I got some weird error message that the help desk couldn’t decipher either. Or I couldn’t decipher the help desk’s explanation; I have a sneaky suspicion you don’t get local support anymore. In fact, I still don’t understand the message:

 NOTE: Due to Network Restrictions, if you are not a user who is registered for the service in this country, please contact this country´s helpdesk for access authorization. The helpdesk number for this Country can be found by visiting our Contact Us page.

What does that mean? Network Restrictions? Huh? Bleurrgh. (In fact, come to think of it, for a ‘Global’ service, AT&TGlobal’s not that global: couldn’t find numbers for 11 out of 20 Asian countries. Is this a sign of WiFi’s dominance, or just that places like Laos and Brunei don’t matter?).

Anyway, now with Lenovo owning ThinkPad, are we going to see declining service there? David Weinberger recently explained Why I’m taking my Thinkpad, not my Powerbook, with me on the road only to add at the end:

But wait! The Mac has a late surge! IBM received my broken ThinkPad on Nov. 17 but has to wait until Nov 30 to get in a newhard drive. So I’m taking my Mac with me to Europe after all. That is totally sucky service from IBM. It used to be actually good. Is this an isolated incident or are they headed the way of Dell?

Well, I must here put in a good word for the IBM guys here in Jakarta. One guy called Halim in particular is always there way after everyone else has gone home, smiling past a sea of monitors and disemboweled ThinkPads. I have to take one in again to him tomorrow which seems to have suddenly lost all its networking skills. I know the feeling.

Anyway, my point (there’s always a point) is that IBM understood — past tense, but judgement suspended — that you keep the customer happy by keeping the customer happy. It doesn’t necessarily mean a perfect product, but it does mean making them feel that if something goes wrong, their panic attacks will be taken seriously. It’s customer service plain and simple and in this big networked world it’s still possible, because I remember IBM doing it. Once.

Looking for Inventors

I’m looking for inventors who want me to try out their stuff. It doesn’t have to be in the shops yet, but it has to be something I can actually use. If it’s an interesting enough invention I’ll write about it. Write to me at invent (at) jeremywagstaff.com; no NDAs to sign please.

The Lego Scam

A man after my own heart: AP reports that a man has been arrested accused of stealing a truck full of Lego:

A 40-year-old man is behind bars, accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of a toy geared toward the 6-and-up crowd: Legos. To haul away the evidence, agents working for the U.S. Postal Inspector said they had to back a 20-foot truck to William Swanberg’s house in Reno, Nev., carting away mountains of the multicolored bricks.

Swanberg was indicted Wednesday by a grand jury in Hillsboro, a Portland suburb, which charged him with stealing Legos from Target stores in Oregon. Target estimates Swanberg stole and resold on the Internet up to $200,000 of the brick sets pilfered from their stores in Oregon as well as Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California.

When no one was looking, Swanberg switched the bar codes on Lego boxes, replacing an expensive one with a cheaper label, said Detective Troy Dolyniuk, a member of the Washington County fraud and identity theft enforcement team.

Target officials contacted police after noticing the same pattern at their stores in the five western states. A Target security guard stopped Swanberg at a Portland-area store on Nov. 17, after he bought 10 boxes of the Star Wars Millennium Falcon set. In his parked car, detectives found 56 of the Star Wars set, valued at $99 each, as well as 27 other Lego sets. In a laptop found inside Swanberg’s car, investigators also found the addresses of numerous Target stores in the Portland area, their locations carefully plotted on a mapping software.

Records of the Lego collector’s Web site, Bricklink.Com, show that Swanberg has sold nearly $600,000 worth of Legos since 2002, said Dolyniuk.

Interestingly, folk seemed to have been quite happy to deal with Swanberg on Bricklink.com. He’s been registered on the site since 2002, earning praise from more than 6,000 users, and getting complaints from only 11. He was still shipping up until the last minute: Eight folk posted praise about dealing with him on the day or after he’d been indicted. Only one person seemed to harbour doubts: That person wrote on November 19, four days before Swanberg was indicted: “Wish I knew where these came from…”

Actually, this kind of scam is well documented, and may be a copycat theft. Eagle-eyed readers may recall a piece I wrote a few months back about Douglas Havard, a phisher who was jailed in June for conspiracy to defraud and launder money. According to an earlier piece in the Dallas Observer Havard used to steal expensive Lego sets by switching price tags on Lego boxes. The only difference was that Havard was printing his own price stickers.

What is it with Lego that turns people into criminals?