What are the British Telcos’ thinking?

The U.K. phone hacking scandal has been very much in the news this week. The hacking scandal, perpetrated at the News of the World, at first involved just celebrities but has expanded to now include families of murdered children.

Phone hacking is fairly easy and is usually accomplished by misrepresentation rather than code changes. New Scientist has a very good article on how voice mail systems have been compromised and how easy it is to accomplish.  While the motives and actions of the News of the World are deplorable, they were made so much easier by the lax safeguards typically in place at most mobile phone companies (this is not just a “British” problem).

Which brings us to the Guardian, which analyzed the advertising spend at the News of the World over the first 5 months of 2011 using the IBM Many Eyes program.

NoW Advertising

On examining this data further, 3 of the top 5 advertisers are mobile Telcos and all 4 major providers are in the top 10. So my question is, why would you continue to support and advertise in a newspaper that has abused your systems. They appear oblivious to the damage to their brands. I would of thought  that they could of used that money (over 4 million GBP) to put in better safeguards!!.

Friends – who loves ya baby?

I have been thinking a lot about friends lately and the real value of social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo etc. I came across an excellent (if long) presentation on slideshare by Paul Adams of the User Experience team at Google. It looks at relationships (friendships) and the differences between the way your online social networks (such as facebook) work and your real life social relationships and how they influence each other.kojak

Online, people are either your friends or they are not. There is some filtering at a very high level, Plaxo and LinkedIn for example are typically limited to business acquaintances not personal friends, but beyond that everyone is treated the same, from your best buddy to the guy you met yesterday. To paraphrase that wise TV philosopher Theo Kojak, “(online) Who love’s ya baby?” the answer is all your online friends. He uses the analogy of the time and trouble folks take on planning the seating at a wedding in real life and yet how on a social network they are all just lumped together.

Paul provides a view of your offline relationships that can be segmented by groups of people (family, college, neighbours, activities etc. (most people have 4 to 6 major groups)) and the strength of the relationship (strong (4 to 5 relationships), weak (up to 150 relationships) and temporary) and how they influence your decisions. As he points out,

Social Networking is a means to an end.

You need to understand what the end is.

So what does this mean? I think there really is a need to be able to segment friends on social networks to better reflect how life really works. Until then, I for one will continue to be just a casual user of facebook (social networks). As always comments welcome.

Phrase of the Day–“Patent Thicket”

We are all somewhat used to one technology firm suing another for patent infringement but they tend to be treated as isolated instances. (see NY Times). However when you look at the bigger picture as Tech Crunch has done below, you have to wonder how anyone can produce a new phone, let alone a ‘smart’ one.

Patent Thicket

I sort of remember back when Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm and Motorola ruled the smartphone market (2G days) that patent licensing could make up to 30% of the cost (worst case) although 5% was more typical and because of cross-licensing much less than that amongst the big 4. With the mess above – “patent thicket” sums it up beautifully , the barriers to entry and innovation are becoming inordinately high. Of course, as innovation stalls, there will be a silver lining as everyone keeps their phone for longer and the number of phones in landfills is reduced.

The Economist has also commented about this subject. They make the point that the rise of open source platforms throw a spanner (wrench) into the mix and disrupt the proprietary models of other major players (Microsoft, Apple, Nokia etc.)

Patent Thicket image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/floorsixtyfour/5061246255/

Is the party over for mobile data

Article in this weeks New Scientist about the capacity crunch across mobile networks due to the incredible surge in demand for mobile data, in particular video. If network capacity remains as is and the projections are on track, some time in 2013 is the date when the wireless networks collapse under their own weight. year of the crunchThe author examines four different solutions that the wireless carriers could use to address this issue.

  1. Get rid of “unlimited data” plans. When something is perceived as free, it tends to get used a lot  (cf. the internet). This solution is already being deployed by AT&T for new iPhone 4 users.
  2. Increased bandwidth available to carriers. While this seems feasible, it is highly political and spectrum auctions are viewed by governments as very welcome ‘new’ sources of revenue (so very expensive). Plus doubling the bandwidth will delay the crunch for maybe two years.
  3. Deploy 4G technologies, such as LTE and WiMAX, unfortunately while these promise greater speeds, the uplift in capacity is only 50% over 3G, which just delays the inevitable one year. Given the ‘go slow’ mentality of most carriers when it comes to 4G, I seriously doubt if 4G will be deployed except in major cities until well after 2013.
  4. Deploy femtocells in the home to offload the network (they would hook into the customer’s broadband connection). This would reduce the energy needs of cell towers, improve reception and boost capacity by a factor tens or perhaps even hundreds (the major benefit comes from removing the signal attenuation through walls). There are some interference issues that need to be addressed but I think this is probably a non-starter. Why deploy a femtocell when I already have a wireless router?  Most smartphones like my G1 Android phone can switch between a Wi-Fi and 3G network and there is also the Line2 app for the iTouch which effectively turns an iTouch into an iPhone bypassing the carrier completely. The carriers run the risk of exposing their customers to a bypass technology if they aggressively deploy femtocell technology (unless it is perceived as ‘free’ and they seem loathe to do that.)

Of course, we may all get tired of watching videos, but I doubt it…

“Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.”

While I would very much love to claim the above quoteoscar-wilde as my own, it comes from Oscar Wilde. As he so succinctly puts, we rarely acknowledge mistakes but are very good at sugar-coating them.

It was brought to mind by an article in the New York Times about a non-profit group, MobileActive, who are focused on helping improve the lives of poor people through technology. One of the ways they accomplish this is through a gathering called Failfaire where the focus is on developing world mobile/telecom-based projects that didn’t work and discussing why and what lessons can be learned. I, for one, would learn a lot form such a gathering.

Lots of times it is not a failure of technology per se, but unintended consequences. The New York Times’ article uses as an example, a thriving woman-based hammock business based in Guyana that proved so successful that it was viewed as a threat to the local male-dominated culture and the plug was pulled.  So while we typically focus on the technological problem, it is usually the cultural obstacles that can derail even the most well intentioned project.

I do take exception to one quote in the article -

Mr. Walji said he was surprised to find, when he joined the bank from Google last fall, that mistakes were rarely discussed, so different from the for-profit world, where failures are used to spur innovation.

I think that this just isn’t true, mistakes/failures may be acknowledged but the lessons learned are rarely shared and in the for-profit world, there is still a focus on looking for someone to blame. It is usually camouflaged in a “learning from our mistakes” wrapper, as anyone who has sat through a loss-review can attest.

Facebook as the new “walled garden”

I have followed the world-wide-web as it relates to Telecom companies for it seems for ever (surely only 15 years? Ed). They were well positioned to use their relationships coupled with their ownership of the transport part of the internet value chain to become major factors in the internet space. It never happened. One of the criticisms, leveled at the Telcos was their insistence, early on, of operating a walled garden, where the Telcos controlled access and gave significant preference to specific applications (mostly their own or white-labeled from other providers).Walled Garden Consumers viewed this as restrictive and not helpful. It was obvious up front that the benefit of a walled garden was almost all Telco.

So where goes Facebook, in an opinion piece in this Sunday’s NY Times, Randall Stross makes a number of strong points – how Facebook has changed and how its original premise has been lost, in its frenzy to become the de facto web.

The Facebook model of organizing the world’s information involves a mix of personally sensitive information, impersonal information that is potentially widely useful, and information whose sensitivity and usefulness falls in between. It’s a tangle created by Facebook’s origins as the host of unambiguously nonpublic messaging among college students.

The company’s desire now to help out “the world” — an aim that wasn’t mentioned on its “About” page two years ago — has led it to inflict an unending succession of privacy policy changes on its members.

People often talk about the two leading social networking sites in a way that sounds like they’re a single entity: FacebookandTwitter. But the two are fundamentally different. Facebook began with a closed, friends-only model, and today has moved to a private-public hybrid, resetting members’ default privacy settings. By contrast, most Twitter users elect to use the service to address the general public.

As I look at this, I see Facebook building its very own walled garden. I am reminded of a quote by George Santayana

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Photo courtesy of Ell Brown

Social Networking and Web 2.0: Just a Fad?

When MySpace was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp all of five years ago, some people said they were crazy.  $580m was lunatic dollars.  A year later, Murdoch’s minions flipped a deal for $900m worth of advertising with Google that centered on the MySpace platform, and proclaimed that the acquisition was now worth something in the order of $6bn.  Microsoft valued Facebook at $15bn in 2007 with a derisory “strategic” stake, and Twitter’s funding round valued the company at $1bn just last year.  The numbers seem to be hitting something of a plateau, however, and even declining in some places, with a good deal of market cannibalization (certainly between Facebook and MySpace).  Now we hear that Bebo – with only 40 staff, after being acquired by the anti-Midas Internet company AOL for $850m at the height of the social networking boom – could close by the end of May if a buyer is not found.

Add to this concepts like defriending, and I think what begins to emerge is a picture of an outlet or a communications medium that is maturing.  These sites continue to be popular, and useful, but they are fragmenting.  While secondlife had its time in the Sun, and now seems to be beating a hasty retreat back to oblivion, starting with a bank run back in 2007, then a property crash in 2008, followed by a slow creaking yawn factor permeating the genre, the Internet now scratches its head wondering how can we take the weirdness and the fun and the tools and the relationships and connections, and make them useful?

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