Tag Archives: IP

The End of Boorish Intrusion

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One of the ironies about this new era of communications is that we’re a lot less communicative than we used to be.

Cellphones, laptops, iPhones, netbooks, smartphones, tablets, all put us in touching distance of each other. And yet, perversely, we use them as barriers to keep each other out.

Take the cellphone for example. Previously, not receiving a phone call was not really an option.

The phone would ring from down the hall, echoing through the corridors until dusty lights would go on, and the butler would shuffle his way towards it.

Of course, we were asked by the switchboard operator whether we’d take a call from Romford 230, but unless you were a crotchety old earl, or the person was calling during Gardener’s Question Time, you’d usually accept it.

Nowadays we generally know who it is who’s calling us: It tells us, on the screen of the phone. It’s called Caller ID. This enables us to decide whether or not to receive the call. And that’s where the rot sets in.

Some of us refuse to accept a call from a number we don’t recognize. It could be some weirdo, we think. Some of us will only take a call from a number we don’t recognize. We’re adventurous, or journalists sensing a scoop, or worried it may be grandma calling on the lam from Belize.

Some of us see a number from someone we know, and even then don’t take the call. Maybe we’re busy, or asleep, or watching Gardener’s Question Time.

The phone has changed from being a bit like the postman—a connection with the outside world, and not someone you usually turn away—to being just one of a dozen threads in our social web.

And, as with the other threads, we’ve been forced to develop a way to keep it from throttling us. Whereas offices would once be a constant buzz of ringing phones, now they’re more likely to be quieter places, interrupted only by the notification bells of SMS, twitter alerts or disconnecting peripherals.

I actually think this is a good thing.

I, for one, have long since rejected the phone as an unwelcome intrusion. I won’t take calls from people who haven’t texted me first to see whether I can talk, and those people who do insist on phoning me are either my mother or someone I don’t really care for.

What has happened is that all these communications devices have erased an era that will in the future seem very odd: I call it the first telecommunications age. It was when telephones were so unique that they dominated our world and forced us to adapt to them. We allowed them to intrude because most of us had no choice.

There was no other way to reach someone else instantaneously. Telegram was the only competitor.

Now we have a choice: We can choose to communicate by text, twitter, Facebook, Skype, instant message, email. Or not actually communicate directly at all: We can set up meetings via Outlook or Google Calendar, or share information without any preamble via delicious bookmarks or Google Reader.

Our age has decoupled the idea of communicating with the idea of sharing information. This is probably why we have such trouble knowing how to start a conversation in this new medium. When the communication channel between us is so permanent, when we know our friends are online because we can see them online, then communicating with them is not so much beginning a new conversation as picking up a new thread on one long one.

We have all come to understand this. We see each other online, we know everyone we’ll ever need to communicate with is just an @ sign away, so we all appreciate the tacit agreement that we don’t bother each other unless we really need to.

And then it’s with a short text message, or an instant message that pops up in a unobtrusive window.

In this world a ringing phone is a jarring intrusion, because it disrupts our flow, it ignores the social niceties we’ve built up to protect our permanent accessibility. It’s rude, boorish and inconsiderate.

Which was probably what people said about the introduction of the telephone. It’s only now that we realize they were right.

HSBC “Rgerts to Onform”

I’m always amazed at how much money companies sink into sparkling advertising and PR, but so little into ensuring the emails their staff send and receive reflect the same sheen.

Especially when they call themselves the “world’s local bank”.

Take this recent email exchange with HSBC. I’m a customer, and sometimes use their Premier lounge at Jakarta airport. I’m one of those annoying people who make a point of submitting comments to companies about my experience, even if they’re not solicited.

A few months back I was impressed enough with the Jakarta lounge to send an email to a generic customer relations email address I found here on HSBC’s global site where the page says:  HSBC customers are invited to email customerrelations@hsbc.com.

I can’t remember now what I wrote, but it was complimentary about the initiative of one of the staff, a guy called Musli. I got this back a few days later:

Thank you for your recent e-message.
I have forwarded your email to Jakarta, Indonesia so that your positive comments can be feedback to Musli and their manager.
Thank you for taking the time to contact us.

Great. Just what I wanted. A slap on the back for the little guy.

But a few months later—last week–I had a quite different experience, so I fired off another email to the same address:

Hi, I thought I’d follow up my earlier message about HSBC lounge in Jakarta. Since my last email I feel standards have slipped a bit and the place could do with some attention.

I then went on to detail the slippage: my Premier card, it turned out, wasn’t in itself good enough for Premier lounge, and the staff seemed keener on getting rid of me than seeing whether I carried the magic card. The lounge felt more like a lower tier massage parlor, with four females sitting around the front desk, chatting, giggling, singing karaoke and exchanging backchat with male staff. It got so raucous I and some other travelers went to another lounge to get a bit of peace and quiet.

Anyway, I fired off what I felt was a constructively critical message. I got this back today:

Thank you for your further e-message. I am sorry you have had to contact us under such circumstances.
I rgert to onform you that I am unable to assist you with your complaint.
As you have contacted HSBC UK, we are only able to access accounts held within the UK.
Therefore may I suggest that you contact HSBC Jakarta for them to investigate the issues you have and provide you with a full response.
I apologise for any inconvenience this may cause you.

I wrote back:

Thanks for this, it cheered me up no end. The first time I send complimentary remarks to this email address, and they’re passed on right down to the staff, but when I send criticism you “rgert to onform” that you are unable to assist me.
Lovely stuff. Couldn’t make it up if I tried.

I’m a bit flabbergasted, actually, but I shouldn’t be. It’s pretty amazing that the global email address for customer relations for what is now one of the world’s biggest banks can spew out ungrammatical and misspelled dross like that, but more important, but that the staff member feels able to shunt responsibility back to the customer is shockingly shoddy.

Repeat after me: Every email sent and received by a member of your staff is an ambassador at large for the organization. Mess it up like this one and your whole brand suffers.

(Also being sent to HSBC PR for their comments.)

Wagging The Journalist Tail

I’m a bit late on this, but if you’re a journalist it’s an interesting glimpse on just how much effort PR puts into spin: Microsoft’s PR agency sends its memo on a Wired journalist to the journalist himself (the dossier is here).

Much has been written about how it is normal practice to have PR closely monitoring a journalist, and we shouldn’t be surprised. True, I guess. What surprises me about the episode is the degree of influence/control those writing the memos assume they have over the process. Take these examples from the emails in the memo:

  • Spin: They are requesting a photo session with Jeff Sandquist {Microsoft’s director of platform evangelism} so we’ve secured the focus of our story. Translation: We wanted them to write about Sandquist and they are.
  • Interference: Fred will be writing early this week and we expect him to finish mid-week and will be in touch with him throughout the process. We should have a look at it early March and it should run late March for the April issue. Translation: We will be exerting influence over the writer as he writes.
  • Influence: We’re pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing. Translation: We are exerting influence over the timing of the journalistic process.
  • Professional pressure: We will continue to push Fred to make sure there are no surprises. Translation: We will exert influence over the journalist to ascertain the content of the article and (implicitly) seek to remove anything we don’t like.
  • Personal pressure: I would hate for them to feel like the story somehow missed the true essence in which Channel 9 and 10 came to be…I know it would be pretty disappointing to them if those elements weren’t captured somehow. Translation: We will use all tools in our kit including personal feelings and guilt to ensure the journalist writes what we want.

We should point out that Chris Anderson at Wired has written about how Waggener Edstrom, the PR company, were not given a draft of the story, they were faxed a proof (i.e. a final version that cannot be corrected.) I can understand the sense in doing this, but I’d say it’s still one step too much (and it doesn’t quite gel with what Wired’s research director Joanna Pearlstein says in a comment, that “we do not share copies of stories with sources prior to publication, period.” Might be worth clarifying this.)

We should also be careful about concluding that just because the PR flaks think they’re heavily influencing the process, they may not be. The proof, of course, is in the pudding. Was the final story what they were aiming for?

Journalistic integrity is the issue. Jeff Sandquist, the subject of the story, has written about how Wired has been trying to apply the lessons of transparency learned from Microsoft to its own institution. This might or might not be true. Transparency is fine, but more important is opacity. PR shouldn’t be granted, or assume that they’re being granted, such extensive access to the journalistic process. That should be sacrosanct.

There’s a simple way of looking at this. Replace Microsoft as the subject with a government. Would a publication and its readers feel happy about this degree of involvement by officialdom in the framing of a story? I’m sure it happens, but as a reader I guess I’d just hope it doesn’t. As a reader I’d be saddened by all this; not because PR is doing something it shouldn’t, but that from the tone of the emails, it sounds as if PR assumes extensive rights to be intimately involved in the story. That means this kind of thing is common.

I’m a journalist, so my interest is simple: to ensure that what I write is what I think is correct and that I have managed to filter out as much as the spin as possible, so that what remains is as close to the truth as I can get it. For the record, I would never tolerate this degree of involvement in the process. Of course I’m lucky; I intentionally live and work a long way from anyone who can personally manipulate me through relationships, and although I write for The Wall Street Journal I’m no big fish. In fact, I have a lot of problems securing even basic stuff like a copy of Office 2007 to review; in the light of this episode I’m quite grateful. I’d rather be ignored than be subjected to this kind of pincer movement.

Bottom line: It’s sad that there’s no sense of irony here that so much effort is put into trying to control the message that is ‘there is no control’.

Phone as Beacon

The idea that your cellphone may become a beacon of your availability took one small step closer yesterday, although you’d be forgiven for not noticing amid all the post-turkey bloat.

The theory is this. Cellphones have gotten smarter, but they still miss one vital ingredient that computer users have had for years: presence. Anyone using an instant messenger, from ICQ to Skype, will know that they can indicate to their buddies, colleagues and family whether they’re at their computer, in a meeting, dead, or whatever.

I’m not available. Leave a message

This is useful information: It’s a bit like knowing whether someone is at home before you phone them. But this only works if the computer is on, connected to the Internet and the user has the software installed and sets their ‘presence’ accordingly.

Think how more powerful this concept would be if you carried it with you: if your cellphone could transmit to friends, colleagues and family whether you were available — and even where you were. This is not that hard to do, via the same instant messaging programs that now operate only on your PC. This is the vision of companies like instant messaging developer Followap, bought yesterday by a company called NeuStar, which handles a lot of cellphone number traffic via its directory services. (Followap press release here.)

The problem remains twofold: how to get all the instant messaging users onto their cellphone, and how to make these services work with each other, or interoperate. After a decade of these services, few still allow a message sent from one service to reach another. NeuStar, according to Frost & Sullivan analyst Gerry Purdy, has been developing the standards for mobile instant messaging, or Mobile IM, not just in terms of Session Internet Protocol (which sets up the communication between two users) but also for interoperability and directory standards.

Clearly NeuStar, positioned at the hub of cellphone traffic, are well placed to see the potential of Mobile IM and to act on it. Followap have the software and the ears of some cellular operators. I should have spotted that both companies occupied booths next to each other at Singapore’s recent 3GSM Asia confab, and were busy singing each other’s praises. (I wrote something about Followap in my weekly column earlier this month, tho subscription only, I’m afraid.)

Of course, it’s going to be a long march to persuade the big players like Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft to share their IM traffic with each other (something they’ve not yet managed to do on the PC) but also with cellular operators, but something like that needs to happen if Mobile IM is going to take off. Says Mr. Purdy in his most recent note (sorry, can’t find this online): “And, maybe – just maybe – the NeuStar-Followap combination will lead to the Holy Grail in messaging – where all portal users and wireless subscribers will be able to freely IM each other. That would be huge.”

It would be huge, but don’t underestimate the power of SMS. Gerry sees SMS as having inherent limitations — 160 characters only, lack of message threading — but these aren’t necessarily downsides. The character limit has never been considered a real burden for most users, who either enjoy the brevity or else can simply send a longer message and have it split. As for message threading, this is a simple software problem that is being fixed in many phones. Mobile IM will only really take off if it is cheaper than SMS and includes powerful features that extend the use of the phone to a device to signal one’s availability, or presence.

For me the best thing about the Followap demo I received was that by switching your phone to silent your buddy list presence was automatically switched to ‘Do not Disturb.’ Immediately, all your buddies/colleagues/family know you not available without having to do anything. Now, that’s a glimpse of the future.

del.icio.us tags: , , , , ,
Technorati tags: , , , , ,

Column: A Lexicon for the rest of us

Loose Wire — At Last, a Geek’s Lexicon: Finally, there’s a word for the act of caressing one’s gadgets in public and for the gooey stuff that gathers in your keyboard

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 1 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
It’s unsurprising, given the kind of people who design and play with computers, but I’ve always felt there to be a chronic shortage of terms to describe what we actually do with our technology. So I’ve come up with some of my own. And, in case I’m accused of merely adding words to the English language, I’ve used existing words, in this case from the villages of the United Kingdom (I make no claim for originality here; the late author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, did it first with a marvellous book called The Meaning of Liff. I also offer a nod in the direction of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter). Here’s my contribution (these are all real place names, so my apologies in advance to offended residents):
appledore (n) Someone who touts the superior benefits of Macintosh computers at parties, even after the dancing has started.

aynho (n) Someone who forwards inane jokes, hoax virus alerts and cutesy e-mails to everyone in their address book, however much they’re asked not to. Usage: Who is the aynho that keeps sending Saddam jokes?

biggleswade (v) The process of scouring through tonnes of Word files, spreadsheets, and e-mails to find a crucial document. As in: I’ve been biggleswading all afternoon and I still can’t find the dang thing.

branksome (adj) A temperamental Internet connection. The Net’s been really branksome today.

chettle (collective n) The debris, such as crumbs, dead insects and lint, that gets stuck inside your computer keyboard.

chew magna (v) When your floppy or ZIP drive, instead of reading a disk, grindingly destroys it.

chipping norton (n) The point a PC reaches when it requires the use of an error-fixing program such as Norton Utilities. As in: I’m sorry, guv, but your computer’s chipping norton.

crackington haven (n) A Web site that is home to ne’er-do-well hackers, crackers and credit-card fraudsters.

cridling stubbs (n) The stunted, misshapen fingers and thumbs of teenagers who have spent too long sending text messages on their cellphones.

devizes (n) Gadgets you bought, used once and then, realizing they took up more time than they saved, threw in a drawer.

fiddleford (n) A person who jabs away on a personal digital assistant in public places.

fladdabister (n) A sore or bruise that appears shortly before the onset of cridling stubbs (qv).

foindle (v) The (usually) unconscious act of stroking a much loved gadget in public.

fugglestone (v) Frustration experienced after failing to master an item of hardware or software. I’ve spent three hours on this dumb program and I’m completely fugglestoned. (Not in polite usage.)

gnosall (n) A person who frequents newsgroups and appears to know the answer to everything, while having no apparent qualifications or job.

hanslope (n) The slouch adopted when text messaging in public.

hayling (n) The gesture made by someone answering his hand-phone during a meeting or meal, signifying it’s important and they’ll be with you in a minute.

hordle (v) The noise a modem makes when it is trying to connect to the Internet. As in: My modem isn’t working. I can’t hear it hordle. (Also see millom)

inchgrundle (v) To assist, reluctantly and grudgingly, a customer with their recently purchased computer.

keevil (n) A small icon residing in your Windows system tray, the purpose of which remains a mystery.

lostwithiel (n) The remote area not covered by your cellphone operator. As in: I would have called you, boss, but I was in lostwithiel.

melbury bubb (n) The noise of people talking on their handphone on public transport, unaware they are driving fellow commuters to distraction. How was your day, dear? Fine, but the melbury bubb on the train home was awful. What’s for dinner?

melplash (n) An annoying window that pops up on your screen when you’re trying to do something important.

millom (n) The period of blissful silence when, after hours of fiddling with settings and wall sockets, your modem no longer hordles (qv) and connects to the Internet.

much wenlock (n) The belated realization that you’ve been typing with the cAPS lOCK oN.

odstock (n) Gadgets and peripherals you can no longer use because you’ve lost the cables, software or power adaptor for them.

padstow (n) The place where all your mousepads mysteriously head for when they go missing from your desk.

puncknowle (n) A geeky teenager who knows the answer to all your computer problems but never seems to actually get around to fixing them.

scrooby (adj) When a computer screen starts behaving oddly for no apparent reason. Common usage: Jeremy can you come round and take a look at my computer? It’s gone all scrooby again.

swaffham bulbeck (n) The pseudo-authoritative spiel delivered by computer-store staff in the hope of browbeating a sale. As in: I tried to find out which was the best computer to buy but the guy just gave me a load of swaffham bulbeck. I’m not going back to that store again.

tibshelf (n) The area near your computer where you keep software and hardware manuals you never refer to.

ufton nervet (n) The suspense experienced upon rebooting a crashed computer, fearing that valuable data has been lost.

upper tooting (n) An insister error beep, the source of which cannot be identified. As in: I have no idea what the problem is, the thing just keeps upper tooting.

wantage (n) The shortfall between your present computer’s capacity and that required to run the program you just bought.

whitnash (n) The pain in your shoulder at the end of a long laptop-carrying trip. As in: The trip went fine, but I’ve got serious whitnash and need a bubble bath. What’s for dinner?