Thursday, June 30, 2011

Socially challenged

Google's latest attempt to deal with the Facebook threat will be interesting to watch. Remember, they've had Orkut, Wave and Buzz as their highest profile projects, but there's Google Profile and a lot of other tinkering around the edges besides...

Google+ is the latest project, and it's currently only available by invitation to a limited number of people. Initial reports suggest that the content is a re-packaging of existing function and not much new.

However, there are many interesting questions:
  • Will users migrate from Facebook? There's incredible inertia when you've invested time in building up a network; and it's hard to move unless others do too. But once a trickle starts the network effect helps it become a flood. Google will be betting on that, and on Facebook's increasing frustrations, especially over data privacy.
  • But Google is hardly free from privacy concerns of its own; it has lost trust over the WiFi data gathering it mistakenly conducted. And society loves the underdog; but when a company gets as big and powerful as Google (or Facebook) then the stones start to be thrown. It's quite medieval!
  • Facebook is appropriate for marketing, but not (as an alternative to SharePoint) for business collaboration. There's an opportunity in this space, but does a business really want internal information about products and plans passing through the Google indexing engines?! There may be an opportunity but it's far from obvious that, given Google's advertising-based-on-data-gathering revenue model, that Google is the best company to exploit it!

Yes, the fast-paced technology world is good for lots of things, including the drama of corporate battles unfolding before our eyes. Keep watching!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Amusing ourselves for life

I've reflected before on Postman's important book Amusing Ourselves to Death but I've been thinking recently about a more positive 'take' on what he has to say.

Yes, depressingly, we can see that in these straightened times the products that still seem to sell are those that amuse and distract us from the discomfort around: games, movies, clothes, eating and drinking 'experiences' and the like... Postman was on to something when he asserted that we choose not to engage with what really matters in life, but fill our time with trivia and noise.

However, in Reality is Broken visionary games designer Jane McGonigal 'reveals how we can harness the power of games to solve real-world problems and boost global happiness.'

There are insights there for those of us who design websites and software and products and services ... Put the user 'experience' central to the design process, right from the earliest days of planning. Ensure that the 'experience' is engaging and 'fun' and 'rewarding' so that users want to use the product or service. And think carefully about how risk and reward can be balanced to motivate, and to bring about the results that you're trying to achieve.

Businesses that learn from these trends and build on them will thrive, even in this climate!
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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Plain passwords compromised

Despite the high profile publicity in recent weeks, many household-name web services continue to store user details - including passwords - in the clear. Today I was reading that 300,000 email addresses and passwords for Groupon have been leaked to the Internet, and indexed automatically by Google.

Concerned? You should be! Consider checking your email addresses in the database at; and, anyway,

Read more:

Monday, June 27, 2011

You are what's being sold

"On the web, the rule is: if you're not paying, then you are what's being sold."

I came across that brilliant quotation last week and it leads me to ask how much people care?

We're so used to information and services on the Internet being "free" that we don't notice the personal information leakage and the tracking cookies that increasingly profile us to target adverts in our direction. Just try changing the settings in your browser to require confirmation before cookies land on your machine: no major website is usable without cookies - and many of them place several trackers there before you even get to see any content on the page. I tried confirming cookies recently, and gave up within half an hour in order to get some work done!

I'm betting that there's a minority sufficiently tired of all this that they're looking for an alternative. The question is, if they don't want information about them to be sold, will they be willing to pay? The lunch can't be free, so someone has to pay the costs of service provision!
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Friday, June 17, 2011

Entrepreneurs: don't be afraid to share!

I remember learning that Bill Gates was terrified in the early days of Microsoft that, because he had conceived of the potential and scale and innovation of PC operating systems and associated software, that others would somehow steal a march on him.

It's a common trait in entrepreneurs to 'play cards close to the chest' and yet the reverse is what's needed!

Yes, it's counter-intuitive. But the reality is that, if your idea is any good, as an entrepreneur you'll have a huge struggle to get anyone else to see it that way! Entrepreneurs have many qualities, but one is that they're typically so far ahead of the curve in spotting potential that they rarely find others travelling right along side them. You can share your idea until you are blue in the face and most others just won't "get" it, certainly not enough to steal it and run with it. Because most others who are equally visionary are equally busy and just don't have time to do what you're called to do.

So, share away: as an entrepreneur, you can't do it on your own - you need others to grab the vision and help you in pursuit of it. And it takes a lot of discovery before you find others with the skill and attributes necessary to help you achieve success.
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Thursday, June 16, 2011

How to delete your profile from Facebook

I've done multiple U-turns!
  • First I started to use Facebook (though not very successfully - most people didn't understand my jokes!)
  • Next I 'committed Facebook suicide'
  • Then I re-engaged with Facebook once more. (But I'm still not really 'getting' it and don't spend much time there at all.)
Recently I was asked how to disengage from Facebook. I realized that I hadn't actually noted down the process so here it is, though the important thing to observe is that Facebook naturally doesn't make this very easy: they want to keep you and your data!
  1. First I un-tagged myself from all photos; and deleted each photo one by one; then deleted all comments on my wall and (where I could find them) comments I'd written on others' - However, bear in mind that Facebook Terms say that they will seek to protect the 'experience' that other Facebook users have. This means that it's probably only your access to your photos that gets removed. If others have seen, commented or been tagged in those pictures then they'll still have access to 'preserve their experience' of Facebook.
  2. Next I removed each friend connection, one by one ... You get the idea! Excruciating, and when you finally get to de-activate and delete your account, it all gets restored if you ever log back in again in the next couple of weeks!

    Worse, I recently had to sign back on to Facebook so I could manage a company page and, when I did, it "magically" suggested all my old friends so they'd clearly not deleted all they knew about me!
Remember: in practice, Facebook doesn't necessarily delete your stuff even when you tell it to: their Terms and Conditions give them ownership of what you upload so they can still serve up a photo, say, to a friend tagged in it, even if it was your photo to start with!

Here's a useful and very detailed set of resources on what to do. (Might need a strong drink of cocoa to get through the process!)

And there's a magazine piece this week in The Guardian about it, too.
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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Klout: Another treadmill to run simultaneously

I believe in the use and power of social media and blog about it, along with other topics. But it is relentless, probably capturing about an hour of my day, and difficult to stay on top of.

I've been using Klout for a while as a  measure of my impact and effectiveness so yesterday I was pleased to see that they've started to exposed statistics from LinkedIn as well as my Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Unfortunately, though, my experience is that tools like this just add to the pressures many of us live under: yesterday my Klout control panel greeted me with the ominous words, "Ouch, your Klout score has been falling lately. Share more content and engage with your network and your Klout score will rise!"

There were some crumbs of comfort: "You are effectively using social media to influence your network across a variety of topics...You are more likely to have your message amplified than the average person...You have built a good size network that is highly engaged..." But it's that stinging rebuke "Your Klout score has been falling" that bites and hurts and stays with me!

Marketers and chief executives have been used to living with constant performance measurements for years; but now that culture is spreading to the rest of us, including those who 'simply' use social media for, well, social reasons. Now that social media has become a way to market our personal brand as well as our company's products, the measurement culture will keep us all spinning on a treadmill of activity in pursuit of some competitive gain or advantage over others.

I'm sure that no one will actually commit suicide because their Klout score has fallen; but a good number of us might reach for a bar of comforting chocolate!

It's not just that I have to stay on top of my Klout score; it's that Klout is one of several measures of my effectiveness and I have to make sure that I rank well in whichever measure you choose to use about me! Several treadmills to run, simultaneously.

No wonder that The Guardian is one of several sources of advice on how to disengage with Facebook. Statistics (disputed by Facebook) suggest that in North America and Britain, some of the earliest adopters of Facebook, people are beginning to tire of running the treadmill and are dropping off.
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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Digital recommendations

Are you monitoring your industry, product, brand, company on the Internet?

Last week, someone I follow on Twitter asked for a recommendation for printing business cards.
 Shaun Durham 
Does anyone know a good printer in the South West for business cards? I have artwork. Thanks.

Within minutes, I'd replied to recommend a couple of Internet-based businesses that I've used:

 Mike Schorah 

All well and good. But the interesting part of my experiment was to see whether either of the companies I'd recommended picked up on it. They did, and both Tweeted back their thanks within hours, increasing their exposure, and enhancing their brand, at least in my estimation.

The bottom line is to make sure that you stay on top of what is being said about you and respond appropriately. On the day of the Japanese tsunami I was incensed at the insensitivity of a deli company boasting that they were delivering lunch to a private jet waiting to fly the lunch from England to Switzerland for a wealthy client to enjoy. I thought it crass and Tweeted my upsetness. No response! I've not been to lunch there since.
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Internet centralization

The most chilling thing about the iCloud announcement from Apple is that this will give one company the ability to see, and control, our access to all our digital 'stuff.' To the extent that Apple can persuade us to store our music, movies, photos and docs in their computer servers they'll know almost more about us than we do ourselves.

And the music and other publishers will likely connive in this scenario: the iCloud will know that we've ripped a CD to one of our devices, and for an annual fee, give us access to that content from any device we own - essentially causing us to rent what we've purchased, and giving the music publishers a continual source of revenue to replace some of what they've lost since the birth of iTunes.

These are the first stirrings of the centralization of the Internet under the control of Apple, Amazon, Google and a handful of mega-corporations warned about by Tim Wu in his book The Master Switch.

But it'll likely succeed on a massive scale due to slick marketing, designed-in convenience and the fact that most of us walk blindly where we are led and rarely stop to look back to see where we've come to, and how we got here. After all, how many of us care?
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Friday, June 10, 2011

Still not convinced social media makes a difference?

High profile stories such as Chrysler's Twitter fail are intriguing, even amusing, but they lack the immediate, tangible impact of real numbers. 'All' that happened was the removal of a tweet, an employee and a media agency from the Chrysler account. Within 24 hours. And then a backlash from the Twitterverse against @ChryslerAutos for over-reaction...

There are real numbers in there if you look for them, together with some level of damage to the brand.

But yesterday The Guardian reported a multi-million cut in funding to football group 'Supporters Direct' as a result of controversial, offensive, tweets by their Chief Executive, and his poor response to the critique.

Bottom line: take social media seriously! Think before you post, tweet, Like or link. What might your customers, competitors, regulators and others make of this specific content; and what does the aggregate of all your mini-snippets of social publication reveal about your and your organization's intentions and capabilities?
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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Google guitar: Brilliant branding and marketing


I love the way that Google frequently changes its logo and graphical branding in a quite playful way to mark different days in the calendar.

But today, will I get any work done? The Google home page is marking Les Paul's 96th birthday with a Google logo patterned after a guitar. Put your headphones in and strum the strings to make your own sounds. Cool!
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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Smart meter dangers

Derek McAuley surprised me last night when he declared he'd be ready to "mount the barricades" over smart power meters. He's a full-fledged Professor of Digital Economy at Nottingham University, and lectures at Cambridge University ... His credentials are long and impressive and, tall but mild-mannered, he doesn't come across as a revolutionary.

A great friend of mine had pulled me along to listen to the Professor's talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival on The Future of Technology. All was interesting, engaging, informative and helpful. But then, in talking about the introduction of smart power meters like those being advertised on British TV right now by national utility suppliers, the Prof. declared that he'd be prepared to "man the barricades" if anyone tried to force him to take one!

It seemed an extreme reaction, though I'd heard there's a fear that hackers or terrorists might find a way to take control of smart power meter grids with a virus or something, either shutting off power at will, or causing some catastrophic failure straight out of the plot of a Die Hard franchise movie.

And it's obvious that technology like this is great when it works, but what's the fall-back if there's a failure? Another of the talks at the Science Festival yesterday was about our reliance on GPS...

However, it seems I'd missed equally big issues around tampering and privacy concerns: by monitoring and reporting energy usage every few minutes, smart meters effectively report the likely occupancy and activity levels within a building. The Professor told a story of how his research assistant was accused of not having had a shower that morning when she arrived at the lab: it turned out that the sensor was at fault and she was mortified!

More seriously, it was obvious from his sample graph of a building's energy usage over a week or a day when it was empty and ripe for burglary. The Dutch government had intended to make smart meters compulsory by 2013 but had to back down in 2009 over similar privacy concerns.

It still seems to me that the privacy concerns around smart meters are trivial by comparison with the ever-present mobile phones that track our every move.

The bottom line is the theme that just because something can be done, doesn't mean to say that it should be done. As a global society we have essentially 'bet the ranch' on technology. There's no going back. And there's no Plan B. However, despite the relentless and frenetic pace of change all around us, we need to find a way to think around the issues, and second-guess the potential negative impact of the innovations we create. Otherwise, who knows when and where the tipping point will occur and barricades will be manned for real?
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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Renewed cloud concerns as new cloud services launched

If you're in the UK and reading this before 23:19 BST on Monday 13 June 2011 then you stand a chance of watching last night's episode of BBC Newsnight if you missed it (the segment is 28 entertaining minutes in from the start of the programme). Alternatively, here's a summary of the package from the programme.

The basic premise is that our life online is not safe from hackers and short-sighted companies storing our passwords and other information in their databases in plain text instead of keeping the details encrypted so they're more safe from prying eyes. Using tools like Firesheep others can grab details of our online identity and login as if they were us to Facebook, Hotmail, Twitter and more... I've been concerned about this for some time.

The media is picking up the theme after Nintendo becomes the latest high-profile company to have data on its customer base exposed by hackers. Sony, Google, Facebook, and others are amongst the big-name companies to have hit headlines in recent months after the loss of customer data.

The Newsnight segment concentrates on the introduction last October of Firesheep, a software tool that sniffs wireless traffic over, say, a coffee shop or airport WiFi network to reveal usernames and passwords for Facebook, Twitter, and other services used by unsuspecting users.

There's a call to make 'SSL' encryption mandatory, or at least the default behaviour, for these services. Simply encrypting the wireless portion of the traffic will not be sufficient: for true peace of mind it's necessary to introduce end-to-end encryption and few services today are designed that way.

For example, while it's possible to use https (SSL encryption) for the web versions of Facebook and Gmail and Twitter, the smartphone app versions of their tools don't encrypt the traffic. This exposes iPhone and Android users to a Firesheep or similar attack.

Meanwhile, ironically, Apple's big announcement yesterday of 'iCloud' yesterday envisions a future where increasing amounts of our data and assets, such as songs we've purchased, are stored in Apple's cloud computing service, accessible from multiple devices.

The advice from cloud hosting provider Rackspace, quoted in Newsnight, is to think twice about what information we store in the cloud. Apple's announcement yesterday looks as though it won't give us the option, but will store stuff from our iDevices in the iCloud automatically.

Do we trust Apple not to suffer the same sort of cloud failures experienced in recent months by Amazon and Sony and Blogger and Nintendo? Apple users are smug that they have less trouble with viruses than PC users. Expect that to change as the iCloud begins to store commercially valuable user information. And expect users to search for secure service providers.
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Monday, June 6, 2011

Crowd-sourcing to reduce corruption

While we're used to citing examples like Wikipedia or Foursquare of the power and 'wisdom' of crowds to source information, thanks to the BBC for drawing attention to

What a fantastic project! It allows victims of corruption, anonymously, to report the fact that they had to pay a bribe to accomplish something. Just bringing the corruption into public visibility is sometimes enough to cause the bad practices to stop; alternatively, the web site is able to help to estimate the scale of the problem and the procedures that need to be changed to stamp out wickedness.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Why store passwords, especially in plain text?

The achilles heel of cloud computing seems to be the security settings: so many systems seem to store user passwords, and in un-encrypted form, making the systems a valuable target for hackers. Today there's news of a further 1 million Sony system accounts breached, and in April the company was subject to a hack that stole 77 million account records. Why on earth didn't they encrypt the passwords if they were going to store them?

System designers need to get more thoughtful about the information they record and how they store it. Expect users increasingly to demand assurances of safety.
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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Business interdependence vulnerabilities

Some years ago I ran a business in the UK re-distributing CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software built by a US company. But there were problems: the original company's management sold out and the new team members were less visionary, less communicative and less technically competent ... As a re-seller I had no control over the quality of the product and found myself having to apologise to customers for things that I couldn't fix. Out of control, I intentionally closed the UK business down.

Similarly, the investor's refusal to fund people and technology to support a cloud-based Software as a Service business left me stuck when the service failed and customers complained; and I was powerless to ease their pain.

Today, the Wall Street Journal has reported that pressure to cut costs and downsize after the financial crisis has led many tech suppliers to reduce their manufacturing facilities to just one site; now, after the effects of the Japanese combined earthquake and tsunami and nuclear disasters, supply chains are under intense pressure. And the problem won't get fixed any time soon.

Also today, TechCrunch reports that market leader Twitpic was left out in the cold when Twitter decided to release its own product, talking with Twitpic competitors but not revealing plans to Twitpic. "This is the same complaint that many ecosystem players have had over the past year with Twitter as they continue to “fill holes” in their product. Many have spoken about being blind-sided as Twitter moved to essentially crush their businesses — businesses built on top of Twitter, mind you."

The bottom line lesson, the theme from these four stories, is that inappropriate dependence on a single source leads to fundamental weakness and potential failure. If you can't fix the problem then it may be time to close down, get out or take equally dramatic and costly action. But the alternative can be worse.

Better to reduce dependencies. For example, when Blogger went down the other week it left me unable to communicate via this blog and the business site that we also host at Blogger. But the impact was less than it could have been because we'd got fail-over plans in place; alternate means of communication and separate web hosting that meant that we were still able to communicate even though a single supplier had a (temporary) problem.

What are the choke points of vulnerability in your operation?
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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

To know or not to know?

The government of India passed an IT Act (Amendment 2008) which requires any use of encryption greater than 40-bit to receive written government permission, and deposit of the decryption keys. Google and eCommerce websites regularly use 128-bit; Skype 256-bit; and the government has been in a five-year battle with RIM over access to the traffic being sent via Blackberry devices. Can this tension be resolved?

I'm sometimes nervous about making online purchases as it is; the thought that my credit card information may be open to copying and storing in somebody else's database makes me nervous, especially after so many private- and public-sector databases have been leaked in recent months.

It's not just consumer credit card purchase information that travels over https links and VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology: encryption is necessary to protect all sorts of commercial information flowing back and forth in our inter-connected, flat, world. In fact, though few understand the technical intricacies, it's fair to say that without encryption we couldn't operate the free-flow of information cross-boundary (whether between organizations or countries).

So ideas like the Indian one, or France's recent declaration that they wish to mandate the storing of users' access passwords to online services, are short-sighted and must have a negative effect on the ability of business to compete globally.

The choice is stark:

  • Use weak encryption, or none, and face the possibility that commercial secrets are misused by others.
  • Or use strong encryption and risk being barred from operation in some countries where state surveillance is being promoted.

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