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I am influential on the topic of Lobster

According to the team at Klout I’m influential about Lobster. Not in an achingly cool way like David Foster Wallace, nor in an artfully surreal way like Salvador Dali. No, the arbiters of online authority calculated that I am the ‘go-to-guy’ for marine invertebrates, the Jacques Cousteau of social media.

This is a diabolical case of misrepresentation. A budding marine biologist looking for an expert on all things Nephropidae would be severely disappointed to find me at the top of a SERP, the sum of my Lobster knowledge is: goes great with garlic butter and granary bread.

So how did it come to this pretty pass?

Well, as so many of these things do, it began with a Tweet. Way back in September 2011 I shared a link to an amusing article at Know Your Mobile, a retrospective of the worst mobile phone designs:

Anyone old enough to recall the age before the big black slab touchscreen dominated mobile form factor will wince at the memory of the Virgin Lobster, the most god-awful ugly phone to ever grace a mobile network, although as Philipp Weiser pointed out in reply, perhaps the Siemens Xelibri range came a close second. Anyway, my massively influential bon mot was retweeted a grand total of once and I thought no more of it.

I’d signed up for Klout in early summer when everyone and his dog was raving about the way in which companies like PeerIndex and Empire Avenue were going to change the way we measured online reputation, signaling brands to key influencers and offering the select few their fifteen perks of fame.

After the initial thrill of comparing myself against the superstars of social media I’d quickly lost interest. It was clear that Klout could be gamed by cranking up activity and interaction, an issue the company later redressed in a controversial algorithm update. Though not competitive in a leaderboard sense I was curious, and let’s face it, vain enough to check back occasionally to see how I was getting on.

When I next logged into Klout on the 18th October this was what I found:

Yes, the Grateful Dead, I know, I know, I’m an old hippy at heart. More importantly though: James Barnes’ Influential Topics – Lobster. How did they work that one out?

Klout calculates areas of expertise by scraping nouns from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Quora, and sundry other SNS. You mention it, they’ll index it. Mention something often enough (and get shared) and you’ll become an influencer on that topic. That’s great in theory but in practice, without context, we can’t expect whuffie levels of reputation marking. I’ve tweeted the word Lobster, ergo I’m an expert on the subject? Yeah, right.

Klout sucks up activity and interaction, their model assumes that everyone shares everything and that the act of sharing is in itself some form of approval or recommendation. These assumptions are wrong. This is Social Media Astrology, not Science.

Images: @affenstunde

Exit Planet Dust

Visited a friend’s workshop this week. “Hey James,” He said. “You know a thing or two about computers – can you help us fix one of the PCs?”

Apparently the machine in question was running slow and kept losing connection to the network. This is what I found:

 And after five minutes gentle cleaning with an air compressor.

 Works fine now.

Images: James’ ancient Nokia E71

How not to care for a Whale

A few decades ago an old friend, Chris, worked in an off-license (if you’re not in the UK, that’s a liquor store) to supplement his meagre student grant. It was a job he enjoyed, inspiring a lifelong passion for fine wine and a flair for customer service, which in turn led to a career as a sommelier and then successful restauranteur.

Everyone who has worked the sharp end of retail has their fair share of tales to tell about difficult patrons and Chris is no exception. Stories of his time at the till are screamingly funny and often contain a pearl or two of wisdom, my favourite is a valuable lesson in the judicious use of customer data:

Every day at five o’clock a little old lady would come into the liquor store. Her order was always the same: one bottle of Gordon’s Gin and one bottle of Schweppes Indian Tonic water. She was pleasant, well-mannered and always stopped for a few minutes to chat about some inconsequential news of the day.

Over time Chris came to anticipate her arrival and prepare her order, she appreciated his attention to service and their conversations became longer. They discovered a shared a love of literature and theatre and a mutual fondness for the Romantic poets. Eventually, Chris felt he knew everything about his loyal customer except her name and address, and in that peculiar English fashion we reserve for deferential service relationships, he felt uncomfortable asking for either.

Then one day, as he placed a neatly tissue paper wrapped bottle of Gordon’s in a carrier bag and handed it over the counter, Chris said: “ You know, you come in here every day for a bottle of Gin, you could save yourself a lot of money if you bought it by the case. I’d give you a generous discount.”  The lady took the proffered bag of liquor and replied, “ Thank you, I might just do that.” And somewhat abruptly, turned on her heel and left.

She never came back to the shop and Chris never saw her again.

At first Chris thought he had offended his customer by appearing to place such little value in their daily ritual that he would cheerfully replace it with a fortnightly bulk transaction. It took him a while to realise exactly how he had hacked off his most loyal patron: the little old lady was a functional alcoholic and, albeit unintentionally, he’d made a brutal statement about how much booze she consumed.

Perhaps Chris did the old lady a favour by highlighting this fact, prompting sober reflection and life change? More likely she just found another place to buy her gin, kept calm and carried on drinking. Working in an off license you are already, in some way, an enabler of abuse, leaving moral arguments aside there are more pertinent lessons to be learned from this story.

Chris assumed he had a better offer to make the customer, his reasoning was based solely on cost, not value. He made an assumption about his customer’s liquidity and interest in a cheaper product. His customer had never questioned the cost of a bottle of Gin or Tonic, why erode operating margin on core inventory to please a fiercely loyal customer? There are so many other ways to make a Whale feel wanted.

Generally speaking Reward Programmes are run to grow a customer base and reduce churn in price sensitive segments. Caring for the Whales is a different matter altogether and an area where creative use of available customer data is required.  If Chris had wanted to show his appreciation for the old lady’s business why not offer free lemons? A bag of ice? Or if she liked it pink, Angostura Bitters?

Given the budget (say, equivalent to the gross cost of a 5% retail discount on two and a half cases of gin a month) a small book of poetry would have made a cheap and very personal gift. Heck, a theatre ticket or two over the course of a year wouldn’t have been out of the question. With the massive amount of customer intelligence he had at his fingertips Chris could’ve really gone to town.

Which brings us to the last inference point: privacy. Sometimes we know a great deal more than we need to about our customers just by observing the way they use a service. It’s tempting to derive our own advantage from that data at the expense of an end user (that’s the Facebook model right there); it’s idiotic to treat that data as sacrosanct, surround it with huge walls and consider everything off-limits for fear of ‘compliance issues’ (that’s the traditional Telco model).

Applying basic business acumen we can strike a happy medium where intel is used for the benefit of both parties and the detriment of none. And that’s why Chris tells that story: after all these years he is still kicking himself for not using his own common sense – so use yours.

Image: charlesgrech.com

Everyone needs a 303

I am the lowest denominator of frustrated musicians, one who can barely play a note. To give you an idea of exactly how terrible I sound when in charge of a musical instrument my party piece is the descending dervish riff of Interstellar Overdrive, played on one string. Though I’m not tone deaf, possess a sense of rhythm and can shape a few chords it’s highly unlikely that 10,000 hours of practice will make me John McLaughlin.

Demonstrably a klutz of fat fingers on six strings or a piano, I’ve always enjoyed playing around with synthisisers, sequencers and drum machines, though leading a peripatetic lifestyle I’ve never been able to justify the discretionary expense of buying studio equipment.

Thanks to the iPad I can now hold thousands of pounds worth of bleep in my hand and, for little more than the price of a sandwich, lose myself in a fully equipped recording studio anytime, anywhere, and by pressing buttons, tweaking knobs and sliding faders, create a glorious electronic noise.

Apropos of nothing other than my enthusiasm, and your possible interest, here are a few of the iOS synth emulator apps I have been playing with.

Rebirth

Favourite waste of time has been ReBirth from Propellerhead. This app is something of a dream come true for a lad who lived through London’s second Summer of Love. Consisting of emulators for the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines and two Roland TB-303 Bass Line synths it carries more than enough ‘gear’ to imitate the majority of today’s top 40 dance downloads if one was so inclined to try (and for the record, I’m not). Indeed the entirety of LMFAO’s ouvere could be replicated with this app alone.

ReBirth for the iPad is a port of Propellerhead’s renowned (and sadly, discontinued) desktop app. You can check out the history of that hugely influential  software version at the ReBirth Museum.

I recommend heading over to the iTunes store to try the iOS app for yourself.

Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight was the first commercially available sampler, memorably used to trailblazing effect on Peter Gabriel’s fourth album and Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook. The unique selling point of the Fairlight was the device’s ability to play and manipulate any sound you cared to upload into it. However banal such a feature might seem today, this was the absolute cutting edge in 1979. Case in point: CMI is a three letter abbreviation for Computer Musical Instrument.

For retro-heads looking to recreate Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love the Fairlight CMI iOS app is the only piece of kit required.

Though time has not lessened the required learning curve in any meaningful way, should you have the patience, effort expended on the app is richly rewarded. And it’s a damn sight more affordable than the £20,000 price tag of the original hand built hardware.

Korg iMS20

If you prefer synths of the older analogue school (with patch cables) there is the Korg iMS20 app. Provided you’re willing to suspend your disbelief as you run those virtual jumpers, the Korg iMS20 app does a great job emulating the switched-on sounds of the late seventies. Again, if you’re unfamiliar with the original hardware there’s a lot to take in before you can get going, but perseverance will pay off in spades.

Thanks to the attention of such artists as Ladytron, Stereolab and Autechre the MS 20 is experiencing something of a resurgence. In fact, I’d go as far to say that there’s probably no better iOS product for the discerning hipster – if indeed that hipster would be caught dead using an iPad.

I’ve never been that enamoured by touchscreen games, neither Angry Birds, Infinity Blade nor Osmosis have held my attention, I just don’t get hooked in by the gameplay and swipe off with a guilty feeling of time absolutely wasted.

Tweaking my lovingly home-crafted electronica on the iPad is, by comparison, an absolute joy and affirmation that the tablet can be a creative tool as much as a consumptive toy.

Images: Vintage Synth Wikipedia CreateDigitalMusic

How to make your own fake iPhone in China

News that a group of enterprising Shanghainese individuals had been caught cobbling together fake iPhones from genuine parts and flogging them off on the streets of China reminded me of my days sourcing cellphones from this part of the world.

A few years back I was engaged in a project to buy cheap mobiles from a group of State Owned Enterprises and ship them off around EMEA, where they’d be bundled for sale with VoIP network minutes.

My mission was to find the best featurephones on offer and reconfigure them to provide alternative network calling via some clever little application layer hacks. My objectives were: a) secure the best phones at the lowest cost; and b) ensure that the SOE did all the development work for free. This all took place in an age before touchscreen smartphones, a time when the coolest app you could buy was Worldmate for Symbian UIQ .

As the vendor was a group of SOEs spread throughout the South and East of China I spent a lot of time traveling to many and various R&D centres and OEM factories. At each one I would be shown a range of mobiles and run a gamut of sales directors, account managers and engineers keen for business. Eventually I’d establish a shortlist of suppliers, then settle down with each one to thrash out some kind of deal.

Naturally this devolved into a battle of wits where I sought the lowest position for the stakeholders I represented and the SOEs fought for the highest possible price to maximise their own profit (and no doubt recompense the unwieldy chain of agents and middlemen who had made ‘introductions’). These meetings were painful and lasted many hours.

By way of preparation, perhaps the most useful ammunition to obtain in advance of negotiation was the Bill of Materials. Knowing each and every component and its associated cost was a surefire way to establish a reasonable Factory Gate price for a device. In most circumstances, short of bribery, there’s no easy way to come by such intel.  Fortunately, buying large shipments of cellphones in China there is one great shortcut that can help the novice negotiator discover the base manufacturing cost of a mobile: go out and make your own copy of the phone.

Guangzhou has a great wholesale mobile market located down by the river in the old town, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of hooky goods. I like to think that this is the place the expression ‘fell off the back of a factory’ originated. Because the models that I was interested in were generally in mass production and available in the local mobile and electronic malls it was no trouble to walk into the market with a sample and say, “Hey, I want to buy every component of one of these, enough to make ten pieces please.”

It was the laziest form of reverse engineering you could imagine.

An hour later I’d be on the way back to the hotel clutching a couple of plastic bags stuffed full of boards, housing, screens, chipsets, keypads, ribbon connectors and batteries; a few hundred dollars lighter perhaps but happy in the knowledge that I could sit down and work out a rough BoM list from the materials in my possession.

Before the first contract meeting with one of the OEMs I’d pack up an unassembled mobile in a ziploc bag and make sure the opposing Account Manager saw it, maybe over some tea and cigarette glad-handing. He’d know I had a well-informed idea of the per piece price and we could all forget about any Fresh Off the Boat Foreigner shenanigans.

Many Tier One and Tier Two Chinese cities have a mobile market like the one in Guangzhou. Though prices might vary, stock doesn’t. I haven’t been to one of these places for a few years but on my last visit it was still possible to buy each and every component for each and every late model mobile phone that was manufactured locally. Heck, Nokia chipsets could be bought on a roll.

If you feel like an adventure, I’m sure you could go and make your own iPhone.

Image: Canton365

Jeux Sans Frontières

This month’s Word Magazine features a short interview with Peter Gabriel, ostensibly to plug his soon to be released New Blood album.

Tucked away at the end of the piece the man offers up a few Social Media Marketing tips for struggling young artists:

“What would I say to a new musician? Perseverance is everything. Keep at it. And make sure you farm your database, and build it wherever possible. If you have that direct link to people who are interested in what you do, you can stay alive and build your career.”

Gabriel has been tending his database for years through his Full Moon fan club and the Real World record label. He’s persevered too, almost bankrupting himself supporting WOMAD in the early eighties and funding no end of technology ventures, some failing badly and others paying off Big Time.

So how is he working those direct links to his fanbase? Somewhat suprisingly: not very well.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels are updated on a regular, if not daily, basis but sign-up for any one of Gabriel’s mailing lists and prepare for an untroubled Inbox. The most effective means of marketing to his, let’s be frank, aging demographic is the one least used. In capturing younger ear and eyes one cannot help but think the Signal To Noise ratio of those Social Networks is drowning out new posts, tweets and video.

Might seem very boring to the multimedia minded but the best level of campaign engagement for Gabriel’s audience is likely to be dull old email rather than channel broadcast.

Image: petergabriel.com

Time for the deskphone to die

Over on Quora there’s been a rash of folk asking other folks to answer questions, some kind of beta testing going on I believe. As these things go the estimable Phil Wolff of Skype Journal asked me to answer the question: How many business deskphones are there in use today? In short order I trotted out a reply which has won me a grand total of two votes to date. 

Presented herewith is that answer filled out a bit with some extra thoughts – the deluxe version if you will – leave an up or down vote in the comments if you like.

Tempting though it is to treat this as an interview question, such as how many bottles of shampoo are there in the world, or how many basketballs could fill this room, I think it would be more useful to answer generally. There are too many business desk phones being used today and way too much money being spent on new ones. This is an example of a business area crying out for some disruption.

Legacy systems

Traditionally corporates and SMEs use a Private Branch Exchange (PBX) to manage calls in the enterprise. To all intents and purposes the PBX is an arcane outdated black box tucked away in a switch room. It requires the loving care of a dedicated maintainer, often an outside vendor contracted for purpose at an exorbitant rate. Commonly that maintainer is a telco and equipment reseller of seriously conflicted interest. Managing even a few hundred desk extensions this way is a costly business. Thank the gods of IT, pretty much everything a maintainer and a PBX can do can now be done via software. For a good example of a fledgling alternative take a look at onsip OK, admittedly they sell deskphones as part of their solution but to get the full benefit of the service there is no need for hardware beyond a headset and mike.

Handsets and Headsets

It may seem trivial now but time was when wearing a headset was a mark of Cain in the enterprise, it badged you as a low level worker, a call taker in a cubefarm. These ingrained societal attitudes are tough to shift but thankfully a generational change is taking place that is placing ergonomics before ego, I am sure most Quorans wouldn’t think twice about using a headset. That headset doesn’t need to be plugged into a Plantronics box and RJ45’d to the PBX, it can go direct to the Internet and save the corporation a ton of money on call completion costs.

Unified Communications

Within the horribly named UC space a number of startups are battling incumbents to provide a common communications dashboard for business. If RIM had not been so beholden to maintaining great relationships and traffic generation for mobile carriers they would have been ideally suited to migrate their excellent device fleet management to the desktop, but this never happened and it’s too late for them to try now.

Instead, Cisco and Microsoft (through Skype) look set to provide the required compliant (and no doubt expensive) means of unifying call carriage and communication between desktop, mobile and tablet. This will be an incredibly complex piece to deliver well but deliver it they will, it’s a lucrative business.

Were I starting up in the VoIP space at the moment I would certainly be looking at providing a competing service to SMEs, because far too many people are still using last century’s deskphones.

Image: Cisco

Something wrong with these pictures

Walking through a small market town in Southern England I spotted this sticker in a shop window. Feeling like a Good Social Samaritan I popped in and advised the lady behind the counter that she might attract more followers and fans by adding a Facebook Name or Twitter Handle to the signage.

My comment was met with a blank stare. I wish I was making this up.

The next picture is of another shop in the same town. In the days of my youth this was the local independent bookshop, the new owners sell Lovely Things (whatever they might be).

In the arcade next-door there used to be a secondhand bookstall, that’s been replaced by a Chocolatier.

Sometimes change is not progress.

Images: James Barnes

Does anyone at Google+ own an iPad?

At this stage there’s not a lot to say about Google+ that hasn’t already been said. Is it a micro-blog? A blog? A Social Network? A photo-sharing site? Who knows, these aren’t questions anyone can answer yet.

To sum up the general feeling from the plethora of first posts on the product we’ve been offered: impressive user growth and so-so engagement; a great tool for SEO that’s poor for anonymity; and a less spammy than Facebook that’s not as immediate as Twitter.

In the short time that I’ve been using Google+ my  principle bugbear has been the lack of tailored device recognition.

For example, if I load up the landing page on the iPad using Safari or Terra I’m automatically redirected to the mobile version of the website. I then have to log-in and scroll to the bottom of the page to change my settings to the desktop browser view. I have to do this for every new visit in browser session.

Quite why Google insists on serving the mobile view to the world’s best selling tablet I do not know, given the advantage of greater screen estate and pinch zoom it makes no sense at all. The device recognition required for a better experience would be relatively trivial for the team to implement.

Perhaps it’s all a bit different from an Android tablet? If it is I can’t help feeling that’s the Product Marketing equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Image: James Barnes

Eat The Phonebook

The one feature that unifies each and every Social Network is, rather obviously, making connections. Likewise, regardless of platform or Operating System, the feature that unifies the means by which you communicate from a connected device is an address book. It’s the feature you use without thinking about it. How often have you heard people say that they don’t remember phone numbers anymore? They’re in the mobile, right?

Well, the same is probably true of email addresses, IM IDs, Twitter handles, Skype names and a whole lot of other nom de net. That reeling, scrolling list of friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, followed and followers is your interface to the world. It grows every day and your influence is probably being measured by its size. That digital phonebook of contacts is a battleground in the war over ownership of your social graph and you know what? There isn’t a single company fighting on your side.

First, the fundamental problem: Doesn’t matter how you group, circle, list and/or connect with all those folk, at the moment your buddies are hosed all over your digital footprint. Maybe they’re written in a little black book too. You’ve got numbers on your phone, addresses in your email inbox, a business network on LinkedIn, people you half-care about on Facebook and a bunch of geeks clamouring for your attention on Twitter and Google+. A bunch of disparate contacts spread all over the place.

Wouldn’t it be great if one tool could synchronise all of our contacts and all of their details between mobile, tablet, laptop and desktop?

For everyone’s benefit I spent too much time having a look at the startups that are working to help us solve this almighty headache. There are quite a few. Soocial, Xobni, Gist, Hiya, Connected and Plaxo are perhaps the best known. I’m not going to review them individually, suffice to say they all perform passingly well at gathering contacts from many and various devices, apps and SNS, then providing reasonably good management tools and in most cases, export to csv or vcard.

Unsuprisingly, in their battle for relevance, these companies have a common denominator: they are designed as dashboard destinations, places created for viewing the aggregate activity of your contacts, like some kind of Salesforce Prospects List for social stalkers.

Perhaps I’m reading that wrong but hopefully we don’t all fret about initiating our interactions without advance intel and don’t need to bone up on what someone has been posting online in the moments before we call, message or email.

In short, these services would be ideal for enterprise if, like onsip, they added unified communication. For personal use? Too much work, not inclusive enough and too creepy. All we want to do is keep a list of our contacts in one place, synchronised and safely backed-up (NB: Hats off to Soocial for their sterling work in providing a massive list of supported mobile phones for their SyncML product).

One might have expected a Mobile Operator to take advantage of the opportunity to use IMS/RCS and offer a richly integrated social phonebook experience on the smartphone. Unless the now defunct Vodafone 360 is counted, I’m afraid none of them have. Wandering through the stalls at 3GSM in any of the last three or four years it would have been difficult not to encounter vendors providing perfect RCS contact management solutions. I’m not sure that any one of them made a sale. It would seem as though the Operators have exchanged their on-net subscriber-owning vision for Facebook and Twitter widgets on the Home Screen.

And what of the technological innovation that does away with numbering and addressing? Well, that’s happening, but very slowly, with tiny incremental steps. Sure enough Telnic have been promoting their excellent name-dialing, Voxbone has a great inum initiative, T-Mobile has introduced a natty caller id product and there’s even a scrappy little startup called spelldial that’s worth checking out for a simple over the top solution.

The enum concept is taxiing to the runway but like video-calling, it might be a while before it gets clearance for take-off – and then, to belabour the metaphor, the flightpath might be wholly different from that planned.

Having spent some time looking at this particular problem, it’s plain to me that the answer lies in the Operating System itself, not in some startup, and not in the hands of Facebook. You may never win the battle to own your Social Graph, but here’s my simple advice to help you control it:

If you use a Mac, use Address Book and buy an iPhone or iPad. The successor to MobileMe is going to deal with your contacts quite effortlessly. It will probably do a neat job of integrating Twitter too.

If you buy into Google+, GMail, GoogleDocs, GTalk and Google Voice, then get an Android phone and make sure you set Google Contacts to sync.

If you use Windows and Outlook to manage your contacts, consider buying a Windows smartphone and keep that faith.

Hey, you could always use an excel spreadsheet.

Image: Grist 

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