Monday, April 23, 2007

Radio Shack = The End Of Retail?

These days, it seems like the humorists are smarter than the analysts. Beyond The Daily Show's nightly truth-telling, The Onion has a unique ability to continually cut to the heart of the matter.

This time, they nail the odd and utter uselessness of Radio Shack. But this brilliant slice of satire does more than skewer radio shack. It accurately implies the increasing irrelevance of many brick-and-mortar retail chains in the age of the Internet.

As The Onion puts it:

"There must be some sort of business model that enables this company to make money, but I'll be damned if I know what it is," Day said. "You wouldn't think that people still buy enough strobe lights and extension cords to support an entire nationwide chain, but I guess they must, or I wouldn't have this desk to sit behind all day."

You could say something similar about The Gap, Best Buy, Macy's, and just about any big retail chain. I mean, unless it's groceries you need right away, a unique personalized boutique, or some fancy-pants "shopping experience," actual stores increasingly feel like an over-priced, under-inventoried backwater.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Insurance Technology Is No Accident

I got rear-ended on the freeway last week.

Don't worry, no one seems to be hurt. But my rear bumper got messed up, and the guy who hit me messed up his car's grill pretty well.

The other thing that struck me, though, is that the technology of insurance accident reporting doesn't seem to have changed much over the years. The other motorist had a digital camera, and took pictures of the damage, but it's unclear what will come of that.

And when I called my insurance broker, everything had to be handled by phone or fax. No email. No online forms. It all seemed like a recipe for extra work and unnecessary mistakes, all leading to higher premiums.

I asked the nice lady at the claims center about it, and she sighed and said they were hoping to begin using email soon, but the that the insurance company was worried about privacy issues.

That's a valid concern, but one that many other industries with similar issues -- financial services, for example -- seem to have solved.

It's not an area I hope to have lot of real-world experience with, but I have to admit I was quite annoyed that I couldn't deal with things online. If I ever gather the willpower to switch insurance companies, online access will certainly be a factor in my choices.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Not EVERYONE Has A Web Site

Seems like practically everyone has a Web site these. I mean, I have one, for Pete's sake. And if a real site or a blog is too much work, there's always MySpace, and Linked In, and Facebook and all that.

But according to McNewspaper, only about half of small businesses have their own sites.

I'm guessing that's a lower percentage than for 11-year-olds.

The Keys To Voicemail Jail

This isn't new, but it's still useful.

Go here for instructions on how to short-circuit the phonemail systems at the popular telecommunications carriers.

For Verizon, Cingular, T-Mobile, and Sprint, follow these simple scripts to save messages, skip messages, check your minutes, and get credits for dropped calls without going through the endless menus.

Good luck!

The Boom Is Back. The Bust Must Be Coming.

When I read about this new site, my immediate reaction was that I had stepped into a time warp and it was suddenly 1998 all over again. is all too reminiscent of those valet and butler service dot.coms from back in the day. They all went belly-up, of course, but there were all the rage at the time.

In keeping with the Boom 2.0 zeitgeist, there is a twist. DoMyStuff is primarily an auction site, where "employers" post jobs they need done, and workers (individuals or companies) bid to perform them for a particular price. Unlike on a true auction site, though, DoMyStuff employers can choose any bid they like.

According to Jaqui Cheng at Ars Technica, there's not that much to choose from yet. And according to The Freditor, this is a key warning sign for Bust 2.0. If you start seeing sock puppets, sell everything and run for the hills.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Techno-Grieving: Helpful, But Also Creepy?

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, there's been lots written about how people are coming together online to remember and to grieve. Student leaders meeting in online chat rooms to plan responses. MySpace and Facebook tributes.

I can't deny the value of doing that, especially for people personally affected but separated by distance. And there's lots of discussion that after the first killings, warnings should have been sent by mobile text message as well as email.

But I also wonder if technology is really the best way to deal with this kind of tragedy. If you knew the people involved, and you're close enough to get together in person, that's obviously more supportive. And clearly there's been a lot of that going on. I suppose online remembrances could help supplement that.

But, if you're not there, and if you didn't know the people involved, then to a certain extent this becomes a media event, not a personal one. The wall-to-wall TV coverage and online frenzy could take on a bit of a voyeuristic tone, of people using technology to bring themselves closer to an emotional maelstrom that they're not actually connected to.

I'm just not sure exactly how I feel about that. Is that honoring the loss, or exploiting it?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The 3 Laws Of "Roombotics"

A few days ago I posted a piece on Reworking The 3 Laws Of Robotics For Killer Machines. I thought it was pretty funny that the military was bumping into Isaac Asimov's science fiction.

Well, leave it to The Onion for a different take on the 3 laws. Its version for Roomba vacuum-cleaning bots reads:

1. The device "must not suck up jewelry or other valuables, or through inaction, allow valuables to be sucked up."
2. Roomba "must obey vacuuming orders given to it by humans except when such orders would conflict with the first law."
3. Roomba must "protect its own ability to suction dust and debris as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law."

I think Isaac Asimov would appreciate it. I certainly do.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Twitter: What Is It And Why Should I Care?

OK, The Freditor is offically behind the curve on Twitter. But I don't think I care.

You've probably been reading about this new "mini-blog" service that lets you follow members' "microposts" in real time. It's often updated via mobile phone rather than from a computer, so it's very much in the moment. But the short post length limit means that you can't expect great literature, just a quick heads up.

Anyway, I was having trouble figuring it out - the FAQs on the site aren't much help - but stumbled across this pathetic but informative video from some well-known geeks. For a more straightforward explanation, here's AP's review.

Now that I know what Twitter is, all I need is a reason to care.

Reworking The 3 Laws Of Robotics For Killer Machines

You remember Isaac Asimov's classic Three Laws Of Robotics, right:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Well that kind of simpering do-goodism won't do for today's military bots. So The Register reports that John S Canning, an engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, has come up with his own robotic rules of engagement.

Basically, it comes down to “Let machines target other machines, and let men target men.” But of course, he doesn't worry too much about "collateral damage."

Oh well, it's a brave new world.

Organic HDTV

Throw out your treasured 50-inch Plasma screen. Ditch your 1080p LCD marvel. In a couple years you're going to replace them with a swarm of fireflies.

Well, not exactly, but pretty darn close.

Accroding to Antone Gonsalves at InformationWeek, Sony is on schedule to ship an 11-inch OLED TV set this year in Japan. OLED, or organic light emitting diodes, create images using technology similar to fireflies, requiring no "backlight, color filters or polarizer" and could eventually be cheaper to produce than today's technologies.

Not at first of course, but I still think it's really cool. But hey, the technology is already in use in smaller devices like cell phones and MP3 players.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On The Web, Timing Is Everything

No surprise, people tend to hit TV Web sites during TV prime time, reports Ars Technica's Eric Bangeman. That only makes sense, especially as some shows offer real-time online voting (American Idol), chat (RealTime with Bill Maher), extra clips (BattleStar Galactica) and other enhancements.

But it also implies a larger trend of thinking of Web sites in day parts. As the post points out, cooking (moms making dinner) and kid-oriented (homework) Web sites tend to peak between 5pm and 8pm.

Similarly, in my experience tech news sites tend to peak during the workday, while online shopping sites get a boost at lunchtime.

Despite these tendencies, few sites actively program to the various day parts. It's a lot of work, after all, and it's not like the appropriate content isn't already there. Still, I'd like to see more sites pay attention to the time of day and what people are most likely looking for at that time.

There is a limit though. While I've got a laptop in the living room mostly for getting background movie info from IMDb, I seldom use it for the TV show activities described above. And while I originally thought I'd be all over it for stats and stuff on live sporting events, that almost never happens.


Cuz' I hardly ever watch anything live anymore. The goal is to record everything on DVR and watch it later to avoid commercials and save time. And the last thing I'd want is to find out from the Web whether the White Sox blew their lead in the 9th before seeing it on the big screen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Word For Today: "Wilfing"

The story itself is fairly obvious: lots of Web users waste lots of time surfing the Net.

The part that interested me, though, was that it uses a new - or at least new to me - word: Wilfing, or "What Was I Looking For." The idea is that people start surfing with a purpose, but quickly become distracted and begin wandering the Net aimlessly.

Hence, wilfing.

I'm going to try to use the word in general conversation, since I get distracted all the time...

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Outsourcing Irony In India

That outsourced overseas call-center agent I just wrote about? He may not be living in India much longer.

Apparently, there a looming shortage of high-tech workers in the sub-continent.

Despite graduating some 400,000 engineers annually, only a fraction are actually ready to work in the high-tech industry. And observers worry that competition for scarce workers will push up wages, and drive jobs to even lower-paid locales.

Regardless, it's unlikely those jobs will be coming back States-side any time soon.

This Is Fredric Paul And I'm Writing To You From San Francisco

I'm not usually a fan of pointless, grandstanding bills masquerading as public policy. But this is one attempt to create a ridiculous law that I actually like.

According to Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica, House Representative Jason Altmire (D-PA) has introduced HR 1776, the "Call Center Consumers Right to Know Act."

I just hate it when the obviously overseas call-center drone claims to be named "Ted" and pretends to be located in Iowa.

The bill, like others before it, will never become law. And it probably wouldn't make much difference if it did. But I'm still behind it 100%.

For The Real Story On New Journalism: Ask The Onion

With all that I've been writing lately about how the Net changes the role of journalism and how that affects news and media and content going forward, leave it to The Onion to put it all in perspective with the true story of 'Most E-Mailed' List Tearing New York Times' Newsroom Apart.

According to Times insiders, nearly two dozen staffers, including four Pulitzer Prize winners and Baghdad correspondent John Burns, have requested transfers to the Times' Home & Garden and Travel desks.

To me, the kind of race to the bottom so expertly satirized here is as big an issue as falling newspaper profits.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

F***ked Company Still F***ked

April Fool!

Well, it seems that this time the joke's on The Freditor. According to the AP, the announcement that TechCrunch had bought F***ked Company -- which we dutifully reported -- was no more than an April Fools conspiracy. But apparently so many people took it seriously that it's getting in the way of actually selling the site.

So, maybe the joke's on them, too.

In any case, The Freditor will not be covering this almost-story any longer...

Accidentally Global: Making The Best Of It

A while ago I sent some props to Rusty Weston's My Global Career site. And I mentioned that I might be doing some writing for it.

Well, I did, and it's now been posted. Basically, it's a "lessons learned" from my secondment to the UK last year.

Thanks Rusty!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Slaying The DRM Dragon

Finally, good news for a change.

Apple and giant record label EMI have agreed on a deal to lift DRM (digital rights management) restrictions from music files sold on Apple's iTunes service.

While Apple chief Steve Jobs had previously called for an end to DRM, this is a huge step for EMI -- and for the recording industry. It signifies real movement away from the record industry's offensive paternalism and toward selling online music in ways that actually benefit music listeners.

Without DRM, we can listen to these files on any music machine and/or software we might have, burn CDs as needed, not have to worry about having to buy the music AGAIN if one device crashes, or worry about the format becoming obsolete.

In addition, the songs will be encoded as higher-fidelity 256kbps AAC files, bumped up from 128kbps. (I would still vastly prefer the standard MP3s, but at least conversion should be relatively easy.)

Jobs is reportedly courting other music companies for a similar deal, and claims that half of the iTunes song library will be available without DRM by the end of the year.

Of course, there's a downside. DRM-free songs will cost $1.29 instead of $.99. And The Beatles will not be available, even though the band is the jewel in EMI's crown.

But what does all this mean to the record industry? Some analysts predict it will boost online music sales. For me, this deal makes using iTunes an actual possibility. I declined to use the service because I don't have an iPod and wasn't interested in dealing with all the restrictions. Now, though, I might just change my mind.

But according to The Register, this is the beginning of a tectonic shift in the music industry:

By removing the ludicrous, artificial countermeasure of DRM it's now plain that individual unit sales of songs and even albums aren't sustainable for anyone in the digital world, except as publicity vehicles or loss leaders.

In related news, PC World reports that despite the deal, Apple won't push to pull DRM from video files.

And finally, the European Union is alleging that Apple -- along with the major music companies -- are restricting music sales in Europe by allowing consumer to only buy from the iTunes store in their home country.