The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

Media’s Future: Retail

(This is a copy of my weekly newspaper column, distributed by Loose Wire Service)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you no doubt know, Rupert Murdoch has decided to put up a front door on the The Times’ website, demanding a modest toll for reading the online content.

Needless to say this has prompted laughter among those who think that content should be free. This is silly: Someone needs to pay for this stuff at some point. And no one else has any better ideas right now, so good luck to them, I say.

Though I would counsel them to be smarter about the way they make folk pay. Demanding a credit card in the age of PayPal, as well as lots of other personal data is old wave. If you want to make light of the pay wall, make scaling it easy and simple.

(Disclosure: I worked, and occasionally work, for another Murdoch company, The Wall Street Journal.)

But what disappoints me elsewhere is the limited range of options being discussed. For most the question is: how do I charge for what we do? This is not the right question—or at least not the only question.

Think about it. We’re in the midst of some of the most exciting viral experiments in the history of the world. Twitter, Facebook, Ning, flickr are all evidence of the extraordinary effects  of high viral coefficients—in other words, the ability to expand users exponentially.

Now we know all about this, especially those loyal readers of this humble column.

But news organizations seem to ignore it.

They have readers. Lots of them. But the only thing that they can think of using that network for is to give them ads, or make ‘em pay.

A better question, then, is to ask: How can we make use of this network?

Well, one way to would be to sell them stuff.

Some news websites do this. The UK’s Guardian website offers books, CDs, gardening tools and holidays to its readers. Not that you’d necessarily know this to look at the website. The “readers offers” link is buried way down on the right hand side of the home page.

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In fact, I was surprised to find that the Guardian has a dozen self-contained mini websites, called verticals, that try to sell their readers stuff. From mortgages to hand trowels.

But I’m guessing this isn’t making a huge dent in the losses the company has been suffering. I couldn’t find anything in their annual report mentioning any of these websites or their contribution to the bottom line. (My apologies if I missed it.)

To me this is an opportunity lost.

Not least because the Guardian, as many English-language newspapers, are developing huge markets overseas. Of the main British newspapers, for example, more than half their traffic comes from overseas, according to Alexa data. For the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and Independent, a whopping two thirds of their readers are outside the UK.

The Guardian website has a quarter its readers from the U.S. For the Times it’s more than 30%. Even the Daily Mail, not known for its global view, has more than a third of its readers in the U.S.

These foreign-based readers are huge opportunities missed. Not for advertising, but for selling them stuff. After all, if people go there to read stuff, wouldn’t they also be interested in buying stuff?

There are signs that this is the case. The Guardian Bookshop, for example, delivers all over the world, and has more traffic from outside the UK (55%) than from within it, with the United States accounting for 17% of visitors.

But the actual volume of traffic is still tiny for these verticals, suggesting that they’re not really part of the Guardian vision of its future. Still, at least it’s trying. I couldn’t much except wine for sale on the Times’ homepage, and nothing on the Daily Mail’s.

To me it’s obvious that if you’ve got an audience you try to sell them stuff. Especially if you’re not charging them for what they are there to see. And ads aren’t filling the coffers. So somehow you’ve got to sell them something else. And if your audience is overseas then that’s a clue about what they might not be able to get where they’re accessing your site from.

Books is an obvious one. Food is another. More than 10% of Brits live overseas, so it’s fair to assume that a fair few of them miss their PG Tips and bangers. Indeed, there are dozens of websites catering to just that.

But of course it’s expensive. At one website I visited $20 worth of chutney will cost you $60 to ship to Singapore, for example. And many won’t ship to far-flung places that aren’t the U.S.

Which is where we come back to the network thing. Newspapers still don’t really understand that they have a readymade community in front of them—defined by what they want to read. So while I may not be willing to pay twice again to ship the chutney, I might be willing to split the shipping cost with others living nearby.

But whereas I may not be willing to take that risk with people I’ve met on eBay or a porn site, I might be more inclined to do so if they’re the kind of people who read the same paper as I. So it’s both common sense and good business sense for The Guardian, say, to leverage its existing network of readers and to use the data it has to make it easy for that community to make those kinds of connections.

The readers get their chutney at a reasonable cost, the paper gets a cut of the sale.

In short, a newspaper needs to think of itself as a shop. You may go in for one thing, but you may come out having bought something else. Indeed, online shops have already figured this out.

Take Net-a-porter for example. It’s a fashion clothing e-tailer, run by a woman who was a journalist and who wanted to be a magazine editor. Instead Natalie Massenet set up an online shop, but which is also a magazine.

A recent article (in The Guardian, ironically) quotes her as saying: “I hadn’t walked away from being editor-in-chief of a magazine – I’d just created a magazine for the 21st century instead, a hybrid between a store and a magazine that was delivered digitally.”

In other words, Net-a-porter goes at it the other way round: It’s a retailer that also informs. Newspapers could be informers who also retail. Of course fashion is relatively easy, and the road is littered with possible conflicts of interest. But probably fewer than the sponsored editorials we’re starting to see even among serious broadsheets.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to sell your readers something, if you feel that something reflects your brand and your commitment to quality. Indeed, your readers may thank you for it. The power of the network, after all, isn’t just about size: It’s about trust.

Skype’s New Dawn?

We talk about Facebook, twitter, MySpace and Friendster as the big social networks but we keep forgetting one that is far bigger than that: Skype. This from a Bloomberg piece on Skype’s vacillating fortunes:

Skype has soared in popularity since it started in 2003 and has about 548 million users worldwide—more than Facebook, MySpace and Twitter combined.

Pretty much everyone I know is on Skype—more so than Facebook—and their investment in it is greater: They had to figure out how to install software, set up a microphone, a webcam, create an account, and maybe even buy credit. More importantly, they can actually estimate its value to them, by counting the money it’s saved them, if they want.

We all know about eBay’s missteps with Skype over the past few years and the software could definitely do with a total overhaul. But now there are new faces involved—including Marc Andreessen, who knows a thing or two—I foresee huge opportunities ahead.

One is a route they’re clearly going to take: the enterprise. That makes sense, but it also means damping down Skype’s huge social reputation, since companies will tend to think of it as at best a frivolous time waster for its employees, at worst a security threat.

Still, it would make lots of sense to go that route, possibly creating a separate sub brand of Skype that built a wall between the existing network of users and the enterprise one.

But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity out there, one that was talked up back in 2005 but never left the ground. That was leveraging the free connectivity to allow an eco system of services to develop atop of it.

Consulting, translation, education, all that kind of thing.

This never really took off, but I think that may have had more to do with its execution, and the fact that the world wasn’t quite ready. Most people signed up to Skype for the free calls. They weren’t really interested in more than that.

And yet since then Facebook and other social networks have. (Taken off, I mean.) Doing, actually, pretty much the same thing. Setting up an account, adding your buddies to it, and then communicating.

But the potential of that network was never exploited. A few memory-hogging applications and a few desultory ads have been pretty much it.

Maybe now Skype can make the most of this. One is the eco system of services I mentioned, but there are also location-based opportunities, mobile opportunities, video opportunities.

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Of course, Skype has some ways to go to do this. The interface needs a serious rethink: It looks so 2000s.

It needs to add—or reintroduce—lots of features, like individual invisibility (being invisible to some people and not others), to encourage those who either don’t have it running or have themselves permanently invisible, to keep it there in their system tray.

It needs to lower some of its walls to allow interoperability with other chat clients, like Google Talk, and with services like Facebook and LinkedIn. Indeed it should throw open all its doors, so I can look up my friends on the Skype app and communicate with them using any or all of those services. Skype is the app is the network.

Then we might be back to those heady days of 2004-2005 when Skype looked like it was not just going to be the end of ruinous IDD phone monopolies, but that it might herald a new era of networking.

Web 2.0 Ain’t About the Technology

Scoble makes some good points in a blog posting about why Microsoft, and more specifically his old boss Steve Ballmer, doesn’t get Web 2.0. I don’t agree with everything Robert says, but he has an understanding of this era of the web born of living and working in its eye the past seven years:

“There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure,” Ballmer said.

When I worked at Microsoft I heard this over and over and over again from various engineers and program managers who STILL haven’t competed effectively with WordPress, Flickr, Skype, YouTube, or any of the other things over the years I’ve heard this “we can build that in a few weeks” kind of arrogant attitude attached to.

Why aren’t they succeeding? Because eBay is NOT about the technology. It’s about the community and unless you have something that’ll convince the buyers and sellers all to switch all at one moment you’ll never be able to take eBay’s market away. Translation: it’s too late and eBay has huge defensibility around its business because people won’t move away from it even if you demonstrate 5x better technology.

I think Scoble fuses two different phenomena here, but the point is a valid one. But a marketplace is not quite the same as a community. eBay is not really about the community, it’s about the marketplace. As anyone who has tried to move a physical market — a wet market, say — from one location to another has found, it’s not easy. eBay (and Amazon) are about first mover advantage. If you want to sell or buy something, you go to the place most likely to sell it.

Facebook et al are different. They’re definitely about community. But community is maybe the wrong word, because it carries with it connotations of permanence that don’t really exist. MySpace, Facebook etc may still be as big in a few years’ time, but somehow I doubt it. They’re social spaces that open and close like real spaces — less communities, more campsites. Campsites may be there for years, but the structures are impermanent and can, one day, move or disperse.

I agree with Robert, too, that people who use these services ain’t just kids. That’s the most interesting thing about Facebook, in my view: the Skype-like opening up to less techie, older users because of the untechie attractions of being able to find and communicate with acquaintances and ex-colleagues with whom they share loose ties.

Social networking has broken out of its narrow confines, and this has huge implications. But we should be careful before we assume that this will evolve in the same way social networking has evolved for the geek community: these new users won’t stick around for ever adding apps of less and less consequence and communicating with all their buddies via Facebook.

Eventually, everyone finds everyone they need to find on Facebook and bores of the services designed to keep them there. Then they’ll want to export the address book and the creative capital they’ve invested in Facebook and move it someplace else. If they are blocked from doing that, their interest in such tools will quickly wane. We geeks are happy to populate new social networks by repeating all the data entry necessary to make the sites worthwhile, but non-tech users will be less patient (or actually have lives offline.) For them it’s about the people; the apps are just a pleasant distraction.

Then there’s the money. Robert is right: Facebook is an advertiser’s dream. But it has yet to be proven that Facebook users (and we’re talking non-tech users here) are going to tolerate too much intrusiveness. Gmail has scared a lot of non-tech users away, based on anecdotal evidence, because of its intrusive ads. I think Facebook will similarly scare people away if it mines that user data too deeply.

This all said, it is a puzzle as to why Microsoft has ignored this new world. All its tools beg for greater interactivity and sharing, but why is it I use Microsoft only when I’m typing this (the free Windows Live Writer), or when I’m writing a Word document, or emailing it to someone? If I want to discuss the document, or collaborate on a spreadsheet, I turn to Google Docs. Nowhere does Microsoft try to make that process easier or more social. Think of all the opportunities missed in those simple actions.

Steve Ballmer still doesn’t understand social networking « Scobleizer

Lost in Transmission

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I dread to think how much eBay is paying Waggener Edstrom to handle press relations for their Toy Crusade. At least I think that’s what is being launched — all the press stuff I received this morning, including image-laden email, attachments was all in Chinese. Oh, except for the headline.

I know I should, but I don’t speak Chinese.

Now, admittedly, the event is about China, it’s being organized in Hong Kong, and the website itself is entirely in Chinese (no English version in sight), but you’d think one of the world’s biggest PR agencies could have managed

  • to have a database of journalists’ language preferences clue: names are often a giveaway), or
  • perhaps an English-language version somewhere in the text, or
  • a link to an English-language version, or
  • an explanation that this is a Chinese-language only event/issue, or
  • a link on the email indicating it was sent by an intern with no idea of what mayhem he may be creating for himself by blasting off emails to all and sundry, or
  • a link in the email to a place where we journalists can complain volubly and ensure we never receive another email like it.

Serious lesson in this: At the very least, this kind of email is likely to end up as spam in a non-Chinese speaking recipient’s email inbox because the Bayesian filters will have been trained to treat it as such. (This is what happened to mine.) So that’s all pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.

But at the most, as a PR agency you’re being paid large amounts of money to target the message to the right people. I’m clearly not the right people. So either don’t send it to me, or send me an English language version, or send me a query about whether this might be of interest. Or expect me to get grumpy, and take 15 minutes of my day to write a grumpy blog post like this.

Update, Aug 27 2007: I’ve just heard from Waggener who have offered an apology and explanation:

In the case of the toy crusade press release, a staff member accidentally inserted the wrong distribution list, and this was overlooked by their supervisor during the checking process.

People do make mistakes and of course the individuals concerned are very apologetic.  To be sure, we have also added more safeguards to the process to minimize the likelihood of this ever happening again.

Fair play. Of course it’s better that these things don’t happen, but they do, and their response is measured and the right one. The proof will be in the pudding — will it happen again?

Sponsoring Theft

Are companies like eBay knowingly peddling stolen goods? Surely not, but I wonder about their advertising strategy.

I get confused about how sponsored results work. You know, those textual ads that appear alongside search results or on a webpage. I mean, I thought I knew how they worked: someone buys a word and when that word appears they get their ad next to it. But when I look for “laptop stolen” on Yahoo! Answers, I get this:

So what keyword are eBay, DealTime and Shopping.com sponsoring here? Or do they really have good stolen laptops for sale? And if so, wasn’t I told? Or these poor folks, whose tales of woe appear right next to these add:

Interestingly, trying the same search but for “laptop vomit” throws  up no sponsored ads at all. So “stolen” must be a sponsored word? (It does throw up, so to speak, cases of people feeling unwell over their keyboard. I guess that’s the Yahoo! Answers type of crowd. )

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Dud of the Week: eBay Anniversary

I shouldn’t boast too much about this, I know, since you’re all going to get horribly jealous, but I just received a very exciting email, courtesy of the nice folks over at eBay, congratulating me on an impressive year (or is it 10?) of dedicated custom:

Now my friend Jim says this is the lamest bit of spam he’s seen in a long while, and points out that since I haven’t actually sold anything on eBay the sentiments expressed therein are as genuine as the Microsoft Office on his computer, but I think he’s just green with envy. Not least because the email contained a picture of the eBay Green-Pants Wearing Party Dude (pictured below for your convenience):

 I think it’s a great idea to send congratulatory emails to your customers on the anniversaries of their signing up. Everyone could do it – ‘This is Microsoft here, congratulating you on the anniversary of buying Windows 98! Oh, and buy the way we don’t support it anymore, so you’ll have to buy Vista real soon! Have a good one!’ or ‘Hi! It’s your friendly cellphone company here. Congratulations on the 3rd anniversary of using our service! You’ll be pleased to know that with all the hidden fees and ridiculous per-kilobyte charges we tag onto your bill we’ve been able to send all our kids to finishing school in Switzerland! Keep talking and downloading and not looking too closely at your phone bill!’ It might clog our inboxes but it’ll be worth it to feel wanted.

And I think I’m going to make the Green Pants Dude my Dud of the Week emblem. After all he’s already wearing a dunce’s hat.

IVR Cheat Sheets, And Dirty Tricks?

The IVR debate rumbles on. Could automated voice phone systems be better than just having a human answering the phone? Is it better to cheat the system? Paul English’s cheat sheet has appeared more than 100 TV and radio stations in a month. One company, Angel.com, has been fighting back, first with a pretty harsh broadside, but now appears to have replaced it (the page redirects) with a more measured ‘IVR Cheat Sheet for Businesses’, figuring, I guess, that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Anyway, I got an interesting take on it this morning as a comment appended to my blog from someone who identified herself as Kate, with a believable-looking email address. ‘She’ wrote:

Paul English makes some great points. I saw his piece on ABC World News Tonight and he’s bringing to light that most companies operating in the IVR space have shoddy systems. In my opinion, Angel.com is one of the few companies in the IVR industry trying to change things, however, with web-based next generation systems that link to CRM systems. Small businesses are finally able to create IVR systems (using a self service model if they wish) that are even more sophisticated than what large industry is using. My Dad uses the system for his online ebay store selling vintage posters and autographed baseballs. He’s able to provide far better customer service using Angel.com’s system than he would ever be able to provide on his own. The boon to small business of using these inexpensive, next generation IVR systems is getting lost in the debate.

That’s one well-written comment. I was impressed (as I imagine, would be Angel.com. Not only can they be linked with the little guy (and who wants to bash the little guy?) but they get to bash some of their competitors too). But not being cynical about the posting, I allowed it through and emailed ‘Kate’ with a request to interview her father. If true, it’s a valid point and one to explore.

What I didn’t expect was for the email to bounce. Not that unusual, especially with comment spam, but not when the given name (‘Kate’) jibes with the email address (‘katerobins@yahoo.com’). Why go to the trouble of putting a believable fake email address, especially when you presumably would be quite happy if someone followed up and got a bit of publicity for your eBay-selling dad? Baffled, I checked the IP address where the comment came from: a Verizon address in Washington DC. Not, coincidentally, that far from Angel.com HQ in McLean, Virginia.

I wish I could say my sleuthing took me further. But I could find no Kate Robins in the phone book, no sign of someone with that Yahoo address on Google, or anyone on eBay who might be her dad (not that surprising; it’s a big place). I’ll keep looking, but if anyone knows Kate Robins, her dad, or could shed any light on this, I’d love to hear from them. I’d hate to think that my blog is being used by anonymous shills to do damage limitation exercises for the IVR/CRM industry. On the other hand, if Kate does exist and just mistyped her email address, I’d love to follow up the angle she suggests.

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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At Last, Some IM Interoperability

InformationWeek quotes AP as saying that Microsoft and Yahoo “Reach Instant Messaging Deal”:  

Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc have agreed to make their two instant-messaging programs work together, a partnership that could threaten market leader America Online, people familiar with the situation said. The deal was expected to be announced early Wednesday, these people told The Associated Press. One of them works closely with Microsoft. The other was briefed on the deal. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details.

A Yahoo-Microsoft partnership, allowing users of the competing services to exchange messages seamlessly, would give the two companies nearly as many users combined as AOL has in total.

If true: Thank God. I use Trillian so have no real use for this but this makes a lot of sense. Not only, as the article points out, do Microsoft and Yahoo lag AOL/ICQ in terms of users, but (as the article doesn’t point out) Skype and Google Talk threaten to steal the rug from under their feet if they don’t get interoperability sorted out. First, because Google Talk is open so you can access it via, say, Trillian; but with Skype mixing voice, telephony, text (and later, video) the old smiley-driven instant messaging software is going to look a tad old fashioned.

Users have long been frustrated with not being able to instant message across platforms. Now they are going to increasingly insist on being able to conduct voice conversation, video conversations and teleconferencing with anyone else on instant messaging. Perhaps Microsoft and Yahoo belatedly realise that. Their enemy on this is not AOL: it’s Google and eBay/Skype.