Tag Archives: Information technology

My Technology-free Lunch

At lunch today, it took me some time to realise what was different. It wasn’t just that my four lunch partners were all quite a bit older than me–15 years, at least, and I’m not as young as you think I am. It was, I realised, that in more than two hours of eating not one of us had answered a phone–or even received a phone call, or text message, or furtively checked our email. I’m not sure any of us were packing a BlackBerry. Maybe my companions weren’t even carrying cellphones. It was extraordinary.

I was going to ask, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment. Here were five men sitting around a table talking about stuff for about 120 minutes, and not one single interruption by technology or modern communications. They weren’t even in sight: Not one of us had put a phone on the table in the usual custom of staking out one’s corner of the table. It felt like a flashback to the early 1990s. And it was great.

A recent survey in the UK highlights how mad we’ve become:

Our liking for modern technology may be disrupting our sleep – and even our relationships, claims a UK survey.

The poll, by The Sleep Council, found that many people admitted checking texts, surfing the internet, or playing games in bed.

It suggests one in four people now regularly sleeps in a different bed from their partner, and many often go to bed at different times.

God I miss the old days.

(And no, it wasn’t a boozy lunch. No alcohol in sight.)

BBC NEWS | Health | Gadgets may cause lonely bedtimes

Tony’s Camera


Tony’s Camera
Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

How many people, I wonder, have had this experience: a nightmare with a smartphone and a return to trusty basics. My friend Tony has a BlackBerry, but this is his phone of choice, and after his N91 died in midflight (literally) he decided he wouldn’t take a chance on a phone being anything more than a phone anymore. This ancient museum-piece is now his main phone and he’s very happy with it. And he being in telecoms too!

User Determined Computing

I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, but Accenture reckons it is: employees are more tech savvy than the companies they work for and are demanding their workplace catches up.

A new study by Accenture to be released next week (no link available yet; based on a PR pitch that mentions no embargo) will say that until recently all the most advancted networks and communication devices were at the office. Now they’re at home. The company calls it “user-determined computing”:

Today, home technology has outpaced enterprise technology, leaving employees frustrated by the inadequacy of the technology they use at work.  As a result, employees are demanding more because of their ever-increasing familiarity and comfort level with technology. It’s an emerging phenomenon Accenture has called “user-determined computing.”

The global study of more than 300 Chief Information Officers (CIOs) will argue that “executive and technology leaders are undertaking superficial improvements in their information technology systems rather than making fundamental changes to meet the growing demands of users.” The research will show that the high performing companies are those that are deploying the new technologies.

So far so good (and until we see the report that’s all we’ve got for detail.) I’d argue that this disconnect has existed for years and only been exacerbated by the rise of Web 2.0. But I’m a little less sure of Accenture’s argument when it says that it has launched an internal initiative of its own — what it’s rather lamely calling “Collaboration 2.0”, which involves

rolling out enhanced search capabilities, high-definition and desktop video conferencing solutions, unified messaging, and people pages (similar to personal pages on social networking sites).

A good enough start, I guess, but hardly an office revolution. And I think the term “user-determined” is misleading; it sounds as if users actually have a say in what computers, communications and software they use. Even Accenture’s own Collaboration 2.0 doesn’t sound as if that’s the case. “User-influenced”, maybe.

What do I think? I believe that most companies’ internal software systems need a major more radical overhaul — of five media companies I have had dealings with recently, one still uses the same editing software it had in place more than 10 years ago, another uses a system that has no major changes to its interface since the early 1990s, and another uses DOS WordStar.

I believe that companies need to be more flexible about how/where/when their workers work. The when and where is being addressed with telecommuting and flexible hours. But I also think that workers should be free to use everything that Web 2.0 has to offer — collaboration tools like stuff from 37Signals, Google Apps, Skype, their own hardware, whatever it takes. I know there are security and legal issues involved, but, let’s face it, what worker doesn’t use their own instant messaging program, log into Gmail on their office computer and other “illegal” moves inside the enterprise?

It’s time to let the worker work as s/he wants. If Accenture has spotted anything, it’s probably that the most productive workers are independent workers — those who set up their own systems so they’re not dependent on and held back by their employer. If that’s true, then the logical conclusion is that those employees are probably not employees anymore, but have struck out on their own either as consultants, freelancers or hitched their wagons to smaller, leaner and more flexible startups.

PS I wasn’t hugely impressed with Accenture’s own website, which didn’t comply with the most basic standards of Web 2.0. For one thing, it’s Flash-based, with no options for a quicker loading, HTML version. And the Flash doesn’t load quickly:

image

Secondly, a pop-up window greets you on your immediate arrival requesting your participation in a survey:

image

Not a good start.

Crying Out for Clarity

Interesting post and thread at Signal vs Noise on the overuse of buzzwords, particularly on job applications. One thing caught my eye, though: the assumption that shorter, briefer is better. One commenter wrote: “I’ve always noticed that the shortest emails come from those with the most power in the organization.” That’s probably because they’re using a BlackBerry. Shorter isn’t necessarily better, although it might be. Clarity is better. Not always the same thing. (Having just read through a dozen award applications I see a crying need for clarity.)

Anyway some horrible buzzwords that crop up in the comments or my head:

  • anything with 2.0 in it
  • ‘space’ meaning market
  • ‘interface’ as a verb
  • stakeholder
  • grow as a transitive verb
  • more buzzwords here.

The Demise of the Considered Response

It’s my rather pompous term for the way that email, SMS and, in particular, the SlackBerry [sic] reduce the quality of our replies. Nowadays, it seems, a prompt one-line answer to an email is considered somehow more productive, efficient, effective and “smart” than actually contemplating for a moment the subject and the best response. However trite, irrelevant or misinformed the response is, it seems the act of responding is more important than the nature of the reponse itself.

Another solution, of course, is just to forward the message to others with a brief one line at the top suggesting they read it. This is how poor communication breeds.

The reality is that the recipient probably hasn’t read it himself. Or read it properly, top to bottom. Out there are millions of people only half listening — their emails only half read, slackly responded to (hence my term for the BlackBerry): an industry riddled with the incompetence of the superficially efficient.

My most recent experience of this (boring technical aside follows, feel free to stop reading here) was from my hosting company, which only ever half-read my emails to them requesting help. Here’s our most recent exchange (of many):

Thanks for this, and www.loosewireblog.com is now working. But loosewireblog.com continues to FORWARD to the typepad address; this is not domain mapping. Is there no FAQ that hostway has on this much demanded feature? If not, can you give me specific instructions as to how to map the ROOT domain to the typepad address I’m seeking? Best, Jeremy

Their response, more than 12 hours later (from a 24–hour support service:

Hello,

We have updated your DNS records to the ones that you previously specified. Please test your site in a few hours and contact us if you still have problems.

Thank you.

In the intervening 12 hours I had figured out how to solve the problem I hoped they might be able to solve for me. So of course their fix — which wasn’t a response to my question, even though I had carefully put the key words in CAPS — actually broke the website. This might explain why those of you trying to access the blog via loosewireblog.com haven’t been fortunate the past few hours. Hopefully it is now fixed.

If only the Demise of the Considered Response was as easily reversible.

The Future of Paper

The Observer has an interesting piece on the future of the book. For some the future of the book is electronic:

[Bloomsbury chairman Nigel] Newton is certain that ‘within seven to 10 years, 50 per cent of all book sales will be downloads. When the e-reader emerges as a mass-market item, the shift will be very rapid indeed. It will soon be a dual-format market.’ That prediction makes a lot of sense. E-books will not replace the old format any more than the motorcar replaced the bicycle, or typewriters the pen.

This 50–50 division may occur largely between genre, where electronic books are largely used by reference and technical publishers. Meanwhile to survive the ordinary book trade will turn to

‘on-demand printing’, in which on-demand printers, installed in bookshops and service stations, will enable the reader to access a publisher’s backlist and make a high-speed print-out of a single copy of a book.

Print on demand already exists, of course: Many of the books you order from Amazon are printed in response to orders. But not by the bookseller: that technology has still to come. But I remember how as a bookseller in the early 1980s we dreamed of that world. If smaller bookshops were able to do that they may yet stand a chance against the big guys. Imagine knowing that any bookshop you walk into, however small, could zip off a copy of some obscure, out-of-print tome while you wait? Bookshops would suddenly become more like a Kinkos or a Post Office: A place where anything can be done. (But then again, the technology to do this in music already exists, so why hasn’t HMV and Tower Records made it possible to burn a CD on demand?)

This all said, the book is not dead yet:

There is every reason to want to see the printed word enhanced by something more in tune with current information technology, but until the geeky entrepreneurs of MIT, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and the rest can come up with something that looks like a book, feels like a book and behaves like a book, those who handle such items every day, and marvel over the magical integration of print, paper and binding, will probably continue to read and enjoy books much as Caxton and Gutenberg did.

The point really is that the book is not just a sentimental throwback to a happier time, but a superb piece of technology that maximises all those things we digital generation hold dear: great screen and easy to read in poor light conditions, indefinite battery life; light and highly portable; cheap; won’t break in water (just put on heater to dry); easy to navigate through content (just flip pages); nice to hold.

The other point worth making is that e-paper is much more likely to catch on in other areas before it catches on with books. Newspapers, magazines, journals, reports and exhibition flyers are much better suited to this kind of technology, because they need to be read while mobile (the newspaper on the train); they have no emotional hold on the user (a book is usually kept; a magazine is thrown away. The user therefore handles a book better and preserves its condition). Newspapers, getting smaller as our lives get more crowded, are an obvious target for a digital makeover, since we rarely keep them and yet every day fill the same space in our briefcase with an identical replacement.

In the case of flyers and reports, the ability to share and broadcast the content is an important part of the process. E-paper would be great at this, since it would be no harder (or easier, for that matter) than beaming what’s on your e-paper to someone else’s. Indeed, wherever reading is not a solitary activity, e-paper makes sense: bring an agenda into a meeting and fire it around the room by Bluetooth to other attendees (rather than printing out copies and stapling them, or demanding bring their laptops). Instead of walking around exhibitions weighed down with brochures and flyers, attendees could carry around one e-paper and receive blasts from each booth they are interested in.

I don’t think publishers need to worry that much. But elsewhere e-paper is long overdue.

Betting on Widgets

An interesting use of the KlipFolio desktop widget thing: Live Soccer Odds on Your Desktop

The free Live Soccer Odds Desktop Alert available now here, is the latest development in a comprehensive Gambling Guru Networks service that helps players more quickly find precisely what they are looking for and gives them access to live soccer match betting odds from the world’s premier soccer leagues.

“With Live Soccer Odds Desktop Alert, punters can now react to live soccer odds as they are published and monitor their favorite team using the integrated alerting tools,” said Dan Campbell, corporate Vice President for Information Technology at Gambling Guru Networks.

In short, this is an example of how these kind of desktop widgets can provide very specific, updating information that is relevant to the user. In this case, soccer betting odds.

Ebay to buy Skype: It’s Official

eBay Inc. has agreed to acquire Luxembourg-based Skype Technologies SA, the global Internet communications company, for approximately $2.6 billion in up-front cash and eBay stock, plus potential performance-based consideration.

Here’s the rest of the release:

The acquisition will strengthen eBay’s global marketplace and payments platform, while opening several new lines of business and creating significant new monetization opportunities for the company. The deal also represents a major opportunity for Skype to advance its leadership in Internet voice communications and offer people worldwide new ways to communicate in a global online era. Skype, eBay and PayPal will create an unparalleled ecommerce and communications engine for buyers and sellers around the world.

“Communications is at the heart of ecommerce and community,” said Meg Whitman, President and Chief Executive Officer of eBay. “By combining the two leading ecommerce franchises, eBay and PayPal, with the leader in Internet voice communications, we will create an extraordinarily powerful environment for business on the Net.”

“Our vision for Skype has always been to build the world’s largest communications business and revolutionize the ease with which people can communicate through the Internet,” said Niklas Zennström, Skype CEO and co-founder. “We can’t think of any better platform to fulfill this vision to become the voice of the Internet than with eBay and PayPal.”

“We’re great admirers of how eBay and PayPal have simplified global ecommerce and payments,” said Janus Friis, Skype co-founder and senior vice president, strategy. “Together we feel we can really change the way that people communicate, shop and do business online.”

Zennström and Friis will remain in their current positions. Zennström will report to eBay CEO Whitman and join eBay’s senior executive team.

Online shopping depends on a number of factors to function well. Communications, like payments and shipping, is a critical part of this process. Skype will streamline and improve communications between buyers and sellers as it is integrated into the eBay marketplace. Buyers will gain an easy way to talk to sellers quickly and get the information they need to buy, and sellers can more easily build relationships with customers and close sales. As a result, Skype can increase the velocity of trade on eBay, especially in categories that require more involved communications such as used cars, business and industrial equipment, and high-end collectibles.

The acquisition also enables eBay and Skype to pursue entirely new lines of business. For example, in addition to eBay’s current transaction-based fees, ecommerce communications could be monetized on a pay-per-call basis through Skype. Pay-per-call communications opens up new categories of ecommerce, especially for those sectors that depend on a lead-generation model such as personal and business services, travel, new cars, and real estate. eBay’s other shopping websites – Shopping.com, Rent.com, Marktplaats.nl and Kijiji – can also benefit from the integration of Skype.

PayPal and Skype also make a powerful combination. For example, a PayPal wallet associated with each Skype account could make it much easier for users to pay for Skype fee-based services, adding to the number of PayPal accounts and increasing payment volume.

In addition, Skype can help expand the eBay and PayPal global footprint by providing buyers and sellers in emerging ecommerce markets, such as China, India, and Russia, with a more personal way to communicate online. And consumers in markets where eBay currently has a limited presence, such as Japan and Scandinavia, can learn about eBay and PayPal through Skype. Skype can also help streamline cross-border trading and communications.

With its rapidly expanding network of users, the Skype business complements the eBay and PayPal platforms. Each business is self-reinforcing, organically bringing greater returns with each new user or transaction. The three services can also reinforce and accelerate the growth of one another, thereby increasing the value of the combined businesses. Working together, they can create an unparalleled engine for ecommerce and communications around the world.

Transaction and Financial Information

eBay will acquire all of the outstanding shares of privately-held Skype for a total up-front consideration of approximately €2.1 billion, or approximately $2.6 billion, which is comprised of $1.3 billion in cash and the value of 32.4 million shares of eBay stock, which are subject to certain restrictions on resale.

The maximum amount potentially payable under the performance-based earn-out is approximately €1.2 billion, or approximately $1.5 billion, and would be payable in cash or eBay stock, at eBay’s discretion, with an expected payment date in 2008 or 2009. Skype shareholders were offered the choice between several consideration options for their shares. Shareholders representing approximately 40% of the Skype shares chose to receive a single payment in cash and eBay stock at the close of the transaction. Shareholders representing the remaining 60% of the Skype shares chose to receive a reduced up-front payment in cash and eBay stock at the close plus potential future earn-out payments which are based on performance-based goals for active users, gross profit and revenue.

The above-mentioned dollar and eBay share amounts are approximate, based on the Euro-Dollar exchange rate and eBay’s stock price as of September 9, 2005. The final value of the stock component of the consideration may vary significantly from this estimate based on the value of eBay stock at closing.

Skype generated approximately $7 million in revenues in 2004, and the company anticipates that it will generate an estimated $60 million in revenues in 2005 and more than $200 million in 2006. For Q4-05, eBay expects the acquisition to be dilutive to pro forma and GAAP earnings per share by $0.01 and $0.04 respectively. For the full year 2006, eBay expects the transaction to be dilutive to pro forma and GAAP earnings per share by $0.04 and $0.12 respectively, with breakeven on a pro forma basis expected in the fourth quarter of 2006. On a long-term basis, eBay expects Skype operating margins could be in the range of 20% to 25%.

The acquisition is subject to various closing conditions and is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2005.

Phishing Gets Smaller, Smarter

It’s intriguing how phishers are targeting smaller and smaller groups. Not only does it indicate that the bigger banks and institutions are becoming more secure (or their customers smarter) but it indicates that the phishers must be employing increasingly sophisticated methods of harvesting email addresses. Or is there something else afoot?

The Bakersfield Californian yesterday reported an attack on the Kern Schools Federal Credit Union which has, according to its website, 140,000 members and 10 branch offices. That’s actually not a lot of people to target, in spamming terms. Still, up to 25 members got the email and reported it to the union. One must assume many more received it and didn’t report it. The Bakersfield paper went on to say:

As large financial organizations become better at fighting off such phishing attacks, scammers seem to be targeting smaller regional banks and credit unions. Smart phishers are finding sources of e-mail addresses and using them to get in touch with bank customers. “They’re figuring out how to beat the probabilities of targeting people,” said Peter Cassidy, secretary general of The Anti-Phishing Working Group. “I guess this is the same discipline that marketers use.”

In many cases, that’s meant targeting people whose e-mail address is public. “In the past, phishers used to go after mainstream consumer Web sites with millions of users, but now the targets are becoming much smaller and more localized,” Dan Hubbard, senior director of security and technology research at online security firm Websense Inc., said in a statement.

An interesting feature of this chapter in the phishing saga. My guess is that these attacks are from quite different gangs than the original East European/ex Soviet groups that started all this. But I could be wrong. But here’s a thought: Could the customer data have been gathered from a data security breach? Clearly these breaches are a growing worry for financial institutions of any size, as high profile cases have illustrated. Indeed, last December Kern hired a company called Ingrian to secure its members’ data:

“As we looked at the NCUA legislation and the ongoing incidence of security breaches taking place, we decided that it made sense to augment our existing security capabilities by implementing encryption inside our enterprise,” explained David DuBose, vice president, information technology, Kern Schools Federal Credit Union. “After evaluating the alternatives available, we became convinced that Ingrian’s approach—providing a centralized appliance that intelligently manages encryption, keys, and policies—gave us the most secure and most cost-effective way to protect sensitive data.”

i think perhaps it’s time for banks to look proactively at how many of its customers are getting targeted and see whether there is a correlation with missing data (the Privacy Rights Clearing House counts nearly 10 million people — Americans, I assume — whose data has been stolen or otherwise compromised this year.) If there is any correlation between phishing attacks and stolen data, then perhaps banks and other institutions need to be more proactive in warning customers, rather than just posting tardy warnings or warning ‘brochures’ that are in a format (PDF) many customers won’t know how to open and way too big (3+MB) for anyone not on broadband to download.

The Moleskine Report, Part V

Further to my postings and column on the Moleskine notebook, here’s one final emai linterview with Patrick Ng, Hong Kong-based host of the upcoming Moleskine Art competition. I reproduce it in its entirely because Patrick has a very fresh and direct way of articulating the problem, and the solution:

There is currently no substitute for pen and paper: Unless the electronics industry goes drastically into certain new direction or comes up with new new inventions, the situation won’t change for me coz I’ve been there.

It all goes back to the “pleasure of writing”. I won’t mention the age before my Sharp IQ-800 but I was a Newton MP user and the webmaster of Hong Kong Newton User Group, Newton drew me because of the stylus and the proximity of true writing and the promise of merging traditional scribbling with digital connectivity. When Newton went dead, most switched to Palm including me. Palm didn’t give me the same “true writing” feeling. Believing that the future is digital, I switched to Psion, Treo and now Blackberry. And all of a sudden, I found that there are too many variables in the playground:

ever changing models -> upgrade or lost data in predictable 6 months because new features are there, old features won’t be supported, I feel very uneasy.
– switching to new gadget -> all the hassle to export/import data -> decide which contact you want to delete due to limited storage or different format -> fax number became mobile phone number etc. In addition, if you use a Mac, sometimes you have to buy more software so that you can export/import or sync properly. Hassle. – PC card, flash or hard disk now have longer life span, but your device stores them in particular format, putting them into other devices won’t save your data unless you do export/import. Isn’t it extremely volatile?
– Run on built-in battery -> carry charger all the time

Simply said, it is too much to put everything into a PDA and rely on one device for everything, we are far from there yet, as I said, unless there is a drastic change or new new invention. You simply think you needed to store all those information, because it is so powerful, but by doing so you increased a lot of the hassle forgetting that PDA is to help you tackle the tasks on hand, right here right now. People compare their PDA by how much new tricks they can do, ask them “do you take notes or to-do list on it?” I bet most would say “it can”.

For me, “pleasure of writing”, scribble freely and under my control, show the notes under sunlight to 3-4 people at the same time, fax, copy, scan, print…. everything is so readily available to support me and my little notebook.

Notebook: Click your pen, write.
PDA: Switch on PDA, pull out the stylus, go to program, File-new, scribble, File-save (maybe auto now). Hassle. Further, I remember where to look for my previous notes by visual memory and flipping. On a PDA you need to rely on the search function, you simply cannot search for scribbles. Now, what if I want to print out that scribble? Do I use connection cable to sync first, or find a printer that support infra-red printing, or connect through bluetooh or wireless network…. Do I need that many options to simple duplicate something I wrote? Most things I needed to jot are short and to the point and temporary, there really is no need to use an electronic device to do that.

All I need to attend day to day mobile tasks are really simple: take notes and followup. I do carry my very useful Blackberry and send/receive email anywhere I feel comfortable including dozens of business trips around the world. That fulfilled my immediate purpose also. The rest of my digital life is Mac.

My Mobile Suit Schedule: Moleskine weekly diary 2005 Notes taking: Moleskine pocket size blank notebook Email/Phone#: Blackberry Word/Excel/Presentation/OfficeNetwork: Powerbook 12″

On top of the above, I love to put things down on paper artistically, especially my thoughts and feelings and dreams. The texture of paper, the way ink or paint behave differently on paper, the millions of possible ways to use one page…. these aspects seems irreplaceable by digital. So after over 10 years of struggle with digital devices, I came back to pen and paper for certain tasks and personal enjoyment, and digital for the inevitable.

Finally, I thought of using CrossPad (IO Pen’s previous incarnation?) but that too added hassle more than practical. So: 1. PDA industry is completely wrong in trying to put everything into one device, people need cup to drink, camera to shoot, movie to go…. not one monster. 2. Merging of paper and digital. I heard that a new class of display in the form of thin film should be out very soon, but the “pleasure of writing” element is still really not there. Besides, nobody steal notebook and I can lose it and replace it pretty easily. 3. Magazine digital. I subscribe to Zinio for MacWorld, PCMagazine and Harvard Business review. It is good that I can archive all issues digitally in perfect condition, but I do sometimes buy hardcopy of Harvard Business Review for my business trip airplane, toilet, hotel reading pleasure.

Thanks, Patrick. And for those of you interested, there’s still a couple of weeks to submit your entry for his art competion.