Tag Archives: Fedex Corporation

Power to the Consumer. (Is That All?)

Akasaka, 2008

Jan Chipchase, roving Nokia researcher, as ever inspires and provokes with this piece on the psychology of the coffee cup:

This Akasaka coffee shop includes a row of accessible power sockets (running a long the edge of the window) primarily to support laptop use – though over the course of an hour a number of people charged their phones (yes people here sometimes carry petite phone chargers). Recharging mobile devices in coffee shops is nothing new – but to what extent does the explicit nature of the infrastructure lead to new behaviours? Like? Well, maybe plugging in a printer? Or setting up a server. Or, or…

Jan points to the issues raised by offering power to consumers:

In some ways customers that don’t use the power socket are subsidising those that do – after all they pay a the same for a cup of coffee. Or do power using power-users spend more money either on more items or on items that will last longer? What if the electricity socket was a stand-alone working micro market? As you plug into the socket your devices authenticates itself to the system, negotiates how much power (or fuel-cell fuel) it needs and charges away. As with the explicit presence of the socket to what extent does the explicit presence of a micro-market for power this extend existing behaviours? And given the relaxed ambiance that this coffee shop is trying to create is it desirable to create a market in this context?

It fascinates me that the average high street these days is as likely to have as many coffee shops as it is other kinds of outlets. And that people work, live, play, cry and get divorced in them. Why do we need the hustle and bustle of others to be productive?

But for me the biggest mystery is why these outlets don’t bother to try to sell something more than just coffee, crappy CDs and bad finger food to these customers. Selling power to them might be a cheap shot, but let’s face it, you’re not really selling them coffee. You’re selling them a place to work. A noise, an ambience. You’re selling them the chance to feel cool. To show off their Air. To furtively check out members of a sexually appealing gender. To have physical proximity. To engage with engaging staff. A chance to get away from the office/family/silence.

That’s what they’re buying. But what about what they’d like to buy, that they just haven’t considered yet? A chance to meet the people around them? A way to build an informal network with other users? To be able to print from their computers? To arrange pick up by FedEx? An ATM machine?

To me, Starbucks is never really about the coffee. Well, it is for the people who go in there, queue and then take it with them (and then, I think for a lot of them it’s about delaying arrival in the office, or having something in their hands as a sort of weapon to take on the day; if it’s halfway through the day it’s a chance to get out of the office on an errand that is acceptable.) But for the people who stay in Starbucks, they’re buying something else. And who knows what else they might buy if you try to sell it to them?

Jan Chipchase – Future Perfect: Behaviours Reflected

Dark Age Messengers

image

Maybe I’m missing something, of I’ve been taken in by those TV ads of guys walking across stepping stones made out of frogmens’ skulls, but I expect the big couriers to be somewhat snappier and higher-tech these days. Not based on today’s experience:

  • Call their hotline to get a guy in either Mexico or the Philippines (based on accent, and he wasn’t saying) who scolded me for giving the second line of the address first, and then refused to accept the package as documents when I told him it was a book (it’s actually a pile of edited pages, so I guess it could be either.) Stoopid that I am, I didn’t realise the huge difference (commercial invoice in triplicate and duties for one, nothing for the other) and should have said “documents” when he asked me. So that session was a bust.
  • My colleague, the recipient and courier account holder tried the other end, and we got somewhere, though both of us still had to give the details twice, including something called a “control number” (I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliams’s Brazil so I’m on the lookout for things like this) to “smoothen things out”.
  • Of course when the guy came there were no documents, no smoothing things out, so we had to do everything by hand. All nine sections. Good luck to whoever has to decipher my atrocious handwriting. We’ll be lucky if the package makes it before Christmas.

So, questions:

What happened to those handheld computers that couriers were using a few years ago to do all this? Wouldn’t it be easier? Just type out the details or input them from Central Service — the guy with the van already has my address, presumably, unless he just drove around knocking on everyone’s doors, and as the recipient is the one being billed, presumably all they need is his account number for all those details to pop into the appropriate fields.

And then don’t get me started on the whole “give-me-your-details-over-the-phone-and-can-you-spell-your-name-again-is-it-German-no-it’s-not-it’s-English-like-Shakespeare” (not that I have anything against German names) thing. Why can’t we do this any better?

Off the top of my head, type “Fedex” or “UPS” into Skype and you’re instantly connected to customer service where you can type your details in so they won’t be misheard, and you don’t have to sit on the line listening to “Rhinestone Cowboy” on a loop (actually it was worse; I think it was “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro).

I’d be up for a USB dongle that the guy carries, and the customer slips into their computer (who doesn’t have one sitting around these days?) and a little courier program pops up so the user can fill in the details from their laptop or desktop. He just plugs it into his handheld device and the data zips across and self-checks. Courier guys could carry round free branded ones and hand them out as promotional items and so customers can fill out the fields in advance.

Or if that’s too complicated, going to the website and opening up a chat box with a customer representative. (I’ve just checked Fedex’s customer support page and it involves filling out 14 different fields. And don’t try to sidestep any:

image

Yeah, I’m going to fill all those in.

Maybe these courier firms are smarter in other parts of the world, but I didn’t come away feeling impressed. I’m sure their package tracking systems are second to none — i.e. once the atoms are in the system. But it seems that the burden is still being passed to the customer, when it could be so much less painful for both parties if it was electronic.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

My PR Pet Peeves

On the whole, I find PR people to be great —  helpful, quick and thorough. But some have their quirks. I know I shouldn’t but I’m going to anyway. Here are some of my current pet peeves, all of them including examples I’ve collected over the past few days. Let me just first say that of the 100 or so communications I have had with PR people in the past week, these represent a small minority. But you know who you are!

The Who Are You And What Do You Intend To Do With My Daughter? Response  I have a stock email I send PR people when requesting information, review units or software to test. This stock email includes a list of the publications I work for and my title. Not everyone seems to read it. Here’s one: “Thank you for your inquiry. xxxxx passed your name onto me and he has asked what your intention is on requesting the device.” Just once I’d love to write back “I fully intend to elope with your device and have many, many children with it out of wedlock” or something less suited to a family paper. Sadly, I’ve not done that yet.

The Yes, There is Google, But How Do I Know You’re Really A Journalist? Gambit Not everyone believes me when I tell them I’m a technology columnist. Is it my name? Does it sound shifty? Neither do they seem to know how to use Google, which other people have found to be an excellent background research tool. One email I got this morning: “In order to do this I will need to verify your credentials. Could you please send me a couple of links to technology articles you have written.” Of course this kind of email also crushes one’s ego: “You mean you haven’t heard of me? Outrageous! Make-up!”

The How Is The Review Going Email? Approach Here’s one I got this morning: “I wanted to check in with you to see how your review of xxx is going.” I try to be a nice guy, but if I told everyone how my review of their product was going, I wouldn’t actually have any time to review any products, or write peevish posts like this. The problem is threefold:
– It’s rude not to respond, but by doing so you invite more.
– If you don’t respond, you get more anyway.
– The truth is I have no idea how it’s going. I know PR people would like to know when the column might be due, and I sympathize, but folk like me may have dozens of columns on the go at the same time, and just because we’ve requested a review unit/copy of your product, doesn’t mean we have a clear date set as to when it may appear. If I see something I’d like to review at some point I fire off an email. Then the device sits in a drawer until the planets are aligned and I feel cosmically ready. Really. Just because you launched your product this month doesn’t mean that’s when I’m going to write about it. Honest.

Only one thing worse than this is people calling me in the middle of the night, unaware of something called timezones (usually PR people who work for watch manufacturers, oddly enough) to ask me how the review is going.
“Right now, you mean? Right now I’m dodging flying furniture from my recently awoken wife while also testing whether your product works when flushed down the john.”
“Oh. Is this not a good time?”

The I’ll Let You Review My Product If You Let Me Review Your Copy Before Publication Response Here’s one I got a few days ago: “We would be more than happy to provide a sample unit for your review. However, we would like to preview any articles that you write based on the unit, before they go to press. If you are happy with this, please reply to the affirmative, and we will have your unit shipped via express FedEx within 3 business days. The reason we ask this is that a previous newspaper article had several minor factual inaccuracies, that could have been easily corrected with a quick review of the draft copy.” Er, no, is this short answer to that. Firstly, my publications frown on this kind of thing. Secondly, who in their right mind would agree? Why would a journalist allow the person they’re writing about approve their copy before publication? Would anyone ever trust that journalist again? Finally, what is this person grumbling about? They got a review, with a few “minor factual inaccuracies”, and they’re upset? Sometimes I wonder whether some people even want people to write about their product. Harumph.

The We Got Amazing Coverage In Your Rival Publication, Isn’t That Just Grand? Email This doesn’t seem like a big problem, and it’s not. But why bother? Are we supposed to be so impressed that we immediately feel the need to write something too? Journalists don’t like to be second to something, and don’t see coverage in other publications as evidence that they should start covering the story. In my case, I usually ditch any idea I had to write the story, unless the other coverage seems off, in which case I feel it’s time to do a “more balanced look”, which is journalist-speak for writing something the PR people will inevitably hate.

The If You Won’t Write About Us, We’ll Find Someone in Your Company Who Will Gambit This is one of those sinister ones, where PR firms cut a deal with a journalist to give them the scoop. It’s usually along the lines of “We’ve got this great story/product/event/announcement/report and we’re happy to share it exclusively with you if you publish it”. I try not to get involved in these. First off, because I’m allegedly a columnist, I don’t need scoops, but I also don’t like the implicit compromises that come with it. Mainly, I feel as a journalist you’ve already become hostage to a PR company’s agenda. They want something out in your publication and you’ve agreed to provide it. I’m too prickly to go along with that, most times. Sometimes these compromises are explicit. The offer often comes with a threat: “We need your response by such-and-such a time, or we’ll take the scoop elsewhere”. That always makes me bristle. (I bristle easily.) Call me old fashioned but I reckon readers deserve more than some cut and dried deal between PR and journalist.  

OK, with that off my chest, I’m now going to promise to try to be a better journalist for PR folk. There are some truly great PR people out there who try to move mountains for journalists, with rarely a thank you or even a nod of the head. They deserve better. We journalists should treat you PR people with respect and civility, and shouldn’t ride roughshod over you on our way to your clients. Actually we shouldn’t ride over you at all, roughshod or not. I just wanted to use the words “roughshod” and “bristle” in the same post. Now I have, so I can stop.

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.

 

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.)

More On Google’s Masterplan

BusinessWeek pick up the theme of Google taking on the world. With the ability to track shipments and airplanes in real time via Google, the search engine keeps eyeballs on its website longer. But “Google is providing this new shipment tracking service even though it doesn’t have a partnership with FedEx. Rather, Google engineers have reprogrammed it to query FedEx directly with the information a user enters and provide the hyperlink direct to the customer’s information.”

But, BusinessWeek point out, “with every new service, Google takes a slice of someone else’s pie. Its ability to find pizza places within any given Zip code ultimately eliminates the use of YellowPages. Using it to find word definitions diminishes the business proposition of online dictionaries.”

The argument goes that “Google becomes the omnipresent middleman and a clear and present danger to just about any company that relies on the Internet for commerce.” But where is the revenue? I think BusinessWeek is right in saying the money will be in providing the gateway to those sites. Most folk I know go to Google first, indeed have it as their homepage. The more you can access from that fast-loading, uncluttered page, the more you’ll use it as your homepage. Who cares where you go next?

It has nothing to do with stickiness in the way we used to think of it. Google doesn’t need people to stay at Google. But folk like UPS and FedEx need to have the link with Google — especially if their competitors have it. For them Google becomes their customers’ first stop. Whether it’s cinema tickets, airline tickets, packages or whatever, Google will act as a kind of fast-searching gatekeeper for other sites. Those other sites may not have much choice — they don’t already, with the site: hack on Google working as a better search engine for individual sites than the site’s search page — but they’ll all draw benefit. And presumably Google will collect a toll, in advertising or something else.

It’s the New Portal: Empty , except for what you need, and fast.

Column: the io pen

Loose Wire — The Pen Is Mightier Than The Computer, Too: Check out the io Personal Digital Pen: It’s a pen that can store everything you write and transfer it to your computer; And you don’t have to lug a hand-held device along with you for it to work

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 27 March 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
This is not the first time I’ve reviewed something that tries to marry your doodling to your computer. Most have been shotgun affairs — forced unions that fail to take into account that you might be away from your computer, or that you don’t swagger about with the iron biceps necessary to lug it around with you. This product, however, makes neither of those assumptions, which is why it’s a gadget I’m actually using. It’s called a pen.

Well, to be exact it’s an io Personal Digital Pen from Logitech. But it really does look and feel like a pen. It writes like a pen, with real ink, on real paper. But it also stores everything you write, and will transfer it all to your computer when you return it to its cradle. I have to say it’s pretty neat, and may mark the beginning of Something Useful.

The nub of it all is a simple problem: Despite typing, despite software that interprets your scrawl on a hand-held organizer, despite Microsoft’s Tablet PC [http://www.microsoft.com/tabletpc], there remains a disconnect between scribbles on a notepad and the computer. I’ve reviewed Seiko Instruments’ SmartPad and InkLink products [http://www.siibusinessproducts.com/], which do a good job of letting you store drawings digitally, but both require some sort of computer, whether it’s a laptop or a hand-held device, which limits what you can do with them.

The io Pen

The technology behind the io pen comes from a Swedish company called Anoto AB. It’s been promising for some time to launch a pen that remembers what you write, but Logitech is the first to bring something to market. [Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications offers a similar looking product called a ChatPen, which also uses Anoto’s technology, but it’s geared to transferring your jottings to the world via hand-phone, rather than your computer.]

Anoto’s technology works like this: The pen writes normally, using normal ballpoint pen ink. But while you’re writing, a tiny camera inside the pen is also taking 100 snapshots per second of what you’re doing, mapping your writing via a patchwork of minute dots printed on the paper. All this information — the movement of your pen on the paper, basically — is then stored digitally inside the pen, whether you’re writing longhand, scribbling notes or drawing complex diagrams. You can store up to 40 pages worth of doodles in the pen’s memory. As far as you’re concerned, you’re just using a normal pen.

It’s only when you drop the pen into its PC-connected cradle that the fun begins. Special software on your PC will figure out what you’ve done, and begin to download any documents you’ve written since the last time it was there. Depending on whether you’ve ticked certain boxes on the special notepad, it can also tell whether the document is destined to be an e-mail, a “to do” task, or a diagram to be inserted into a word-processing document. Once the documents are downloaded you can view them as thumbnails, print them out or convert them to other formats.

It’s a neat and simple solution to the problem of storing, sharing and retrieving handwritten notes, as well as for handling diagrams, pictures and other nontext doodling. Unlike the Tablet PC you don’t have to carry around a laptop; unlike the Seiko InkLink and SmartPad, you don’t have to carry around a hand-held organizer or other device. Just whip out the pen and the special paper and you’re off.

Of course, there are downsides. Those of you hoping to see your spidery writing automatically converted to digital text are going to be disappointed: The best the io pen can manage is to offer a slimmed down handwriting recognition which, with some training, can convert letters entered into special boxes into text for e-mail addresses, document names, etc. [This doesn’t work terribly well, and to me isn’t a selling point.] Others might find the pen a tad bulky: It looks more like a cigar than a pen, though it fits snugly into the hand. It’s also pricey: around $200 for the pen, a pad, and some refills, but expect to pay up to $25 for replacement sets of pads.

I think it’s a great product because it doesn’t try to fix something that’s not broken: It doesn’t force you to work differently — walking around with a screen strapped to your arm, or carting along extra bits and pieces. The pen is light and works like a normal pen if you need it to, while the special notepads look and feel like, well, notepads. The only strange looks will be from people who are curious why you’re writing with a cigar.

It also has potential elsewhere. FedEx, for example, is introducing a version of the pen so that customers can fill out forms by hand — instead of punching letters into cumbersome devices. Once that data is digital more or less anything can be done with it — transferring it wirelessly to a central computer, for example, or via a hand-phone. Doctors could transmit their prescriptions direct to pharmacies, reducing fraud; policemen could send their reports back to the station, reducing paperwork; lunchtime brainstorming sessions could easily be shared with the folks back in the office. It’s not that we can’t do all this right now, of course, but given that most people seem happier with a pen and paper than with a hand-held device, I think Anoto’s technology and Logitech’s pen are a realistic marriage of convenience. Have a cigar, boys.