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.


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

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 

Due diligence and diligent customer service

This one is a little off-topic but the News International ‘phone hacking’ scandal has dominated the headlines over the past week highlighting the twin walking disasters that are British Politics and British News Media. Buried away in the coverage there are a couple of things that are bugging me:

1. In 2007 the Bancroft Dynasty sold their stake in the Wall Street Journal to News International. This week scion Christopher Bancroft has said:

“If I had known what I know now, I would have pushed harder against (the Murdoch bid).” 

There’s a long held legal principle that ignorance is no excuse and it applies equally well here. Had the Bancroft’s done their due diligence they might have found the UK Information Commissioner’s Dec 2006 report “What Price Privacy Now?” Within that document the ICO states:

“Having considered the matter (illegal trade in personal information) further the Information Commissioner has decided that a further disclosure is in the public interest and in the context of a special report to Parliament is consistent with the discharge of his functions under the Data Protection Act 1998. The following table shows the publications identified from documentation seized during the Operation Motorman investigation, how many transactions each publication was positively identified as being involved in and how many of their journalists (or clients acting on their behalf) were using these services.”

Here’s the top of that table:

 Of course, there might be 5.6 billion different reasons why the Bancroft’s due diligence failed to spot this blemish on News International’s sterling record of reportage.

2. ‘Phone hacking’ is a bit of a misnomer, ringing through to some poor sap’s voice mailbox and spoofing their default PIN bears little resemblance to the phreaking of Joe Engressia or even Woz, Jobs and the Blue Box. That notwithstanding the mobile network operators themselves have, arguably, failed in their duty of care to customers.

Granted new mailbox set-up is now a little more secure but to the very best of my knowledge no operator has contacted their customer base, via email or SMS, to advise a PIN change – how many people are still unwittingly using a default PIN? Why was it ever considered a good idea to use default PINs?

Two relatively trivial points of order in this vast calamity but I needed to get that off my chest. On a related note, nice to see the Great British Public fired up about something other than the X-Factor.


A few weeks ago I opened a Tumblr account and created a property for affenstunde within that network. You might think I’m a little late to the Tumblr game, well, I’d played with Posterous and Tumblr before with some degree of anonymity, this time the intention was to try a real usecase. As a ‘Product Guy’ (god but I hate that casually tossed-off term) it behoves me to try every interesting service and app and see whether or not it works; what’s bad and what’s better; and just generally: why?

I thought that Tumblr might be an appropriate place to post things that are too short for a blog post and too long for a tweet – a place for the ephemeral fun stuff, sharing and comment, daft pictures and wild invective. There are some moments when micro-blogging falls short: I’ll tweet a link to something that I find interesting (yet trivial) and wish that I could write a few more accompanying words of explanation; or people get confused and assume that the act of sharing an item/opinon denotes approval rather than suprise, outrage or abject horror.

For a little while there Tumblr did the job. I wasn’t overly comfortable with sticking my content in someone else’s silo but enjoyed the simplicity and ease of use. Then, today, I read these words:

“If you care about your online presence, you must own it.”

Words of wisdom cast down by Marco Arment, former CTO of Tumblr. Message received and understood.

I guess, like many folk, I had some grand idea that my domain should only be used for high falutin’ thought leadership, nothing less than 1,500 word masterpieces of incisive wit and insight should grace these pages. Guess I was wrong. Truth to tell ‘publish and be damned’ are far better watch words.

Image: found on a content farm via Google Images – true source unknown