Monthly Archives: January 2005

A lot of ifs

An Iraqi voter in the USA, 28 January 2005
If people of good will turn out to vote in large numbers. If courageous officials and volunteers can see election day through without chaos or fraud or a bloodbath. If candidates are not assassinated en masse once elected. If the Americans (and the British) can be trusted not to drop the Iraqi people like a stone in the post-election mess.

If ideologues on either side of the Atlantic (but mainly over there) can contain their infantile unipolar ardour and stay out of Iran (and Syria and North Korea…). If Iraq doesn’t break into half-a-dozen pieces and go the way of Somalia or the Sudan. If the insurgents and opportunists and demagogues can be shown the value of a working democratic culture before they wreck the country. If the electricity and the water and the roads and the telephones and the schools work and keep working.

If Suni voters turn out at all. If the emerging Iraqi media can support the open debate necessary to grow a functioning post-Sadam society. If ordinary Iraqis have the heart to see the election as an opportunity to begin building a new society from scratch. If the elected representatives turn out to be good at the job (that’s a pretty important one). If a real economy can be grafted onto the wrecked Iraqi infrastructure…

Not following nofollow

Ben Hammersley reckons Google’s rel=”nofollow” thingie is a bad thing and won’t work anyway. I’m not sure I agree, at least not with the economics part. email spam is hard to discourage because it continues to produce the desired effect (clicks) in a cost-effective way despite pathetic response rates and increasingly effective filters. rel=”nofollow” will kill comment spam (if widely adopted) because, in principle at least, there will be no point at all spamming blogs with links to your poker site once those links no longer boost Google pagerank.

Spammers may not be the kind of people you want in your hot tub but they are goal-oriented economic actors and they won’t waste any time at all running comment scripts once they realise they are 100% useless. Having said that, I’m sympathetic to Ben’s (and other people’s) concerns about the potential damage to the semantic (and social) web that a new class of weighting for links might cause. We’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with a combination of MT-Blacklist, which works if you keep the blacklist up-to-date, and new kid MTCloseComments, which does something I’ve been whinging about for ages – it just closes comments once they’re a certain age. Of course, MTCloseComments might also contain the seeds of the web’s slow heat death but I can’t imagine how – the only people who post comments to old entries here are spammers (except this one).

How to throw away a natural advantage

The UK cable TV business is a uniquely dysfunctional family, managing to marry epic individual clumsiness with the kind of domestic chaos that continually threatens to bring the whole family down. Having (nearly) overcome the decades of forced disarray produced by its origin in dozens of separate, local companies, the industry’s getting ready for another gigantic misstep – this time into Video on Demand (VoD).

I suppose, when you own a broadband pipe into every one of your customer’s homes, the logic of VoD must be pretty compelling. It must also be immensely frustrating that, so long after Sky‘s arrival in the UK, the satellite firm still owns the multichannel marketplace despite the complete absence of a return path, no way of delivering Internet access or a phone line and the unavoidable requirement to fix a nasty wart to the side of every home covered.

Cable’s response to Sky’s continued dominance, perhaps understandably, is to push ahead with the medium’s natural advantage and try to make a go of VoD (you can’t do VoD without a network infrastructure and a proper return path so Sky just can’t play). There is, presumably, a point some time in the future when owning a fast, two-way data path into every home finally pays off and cable comes into its own but, as far as I can see, you’d need to be criminally naive to think that that time has arrived. This is still very much Sky’s market and the service of the moment is not VoD (or even NVoD – Near Video on Demand – which is a big hit on both Sky and3 cable) but Sky Plus.

The complete failure of the cable firms to roll out their own Personal Video Recorder (PVR) is perhaps partially explained by the announcement of their VoD plans but VoD won’t come close to competing with Sky Plus (or even my five year-old Tivo) any time soon. By contrast, building a PVR for cable would have been a piece of cake – the technology is straightforward, the manufacturers ready and waiting and the kit cheaper than it’s ever been. Rolling out PVRs into the cable network would be no more difficult than distributing, say, a new generation of remote controls. There’d be no impact on the infrastructure and hardly any CapEx – just a marketing and admin cost plus maybe some investment in an improved EPG (although I’m sure the Tivo people would be quite happy to share theirs). Sky has even done half the marketing job already – everyone knows what a PVR is now (“you know, the thing that lets you rewind live telly”).

So, instead of taking the easy win and, not incidentally, boosting ARPU by taking an extra couple of hundred quid a year from PVR subscribers, the cable industry has, once again, chosen the rocky road of rolling out a new and expensive technology into a resistant marketplace while Sky continues to sell PVRs like ice creams in August. Oy.

More divas

Victoria de Los Angeles, born November 1 1923; died January 15 2005, The Guardian, 17 January 2005Renata Tebaldi, born 1 February 1922; died 19 December 2004Now I feel bad. I forgot to mention that, in the last few weeks we lost two of the most important Old School opera goddesses of all time: Victoria de los Angeles and Renata Tebaldi. In their native countries (Spain and Italy respectively) they were practically worshiped. They were contemporaries of Callas and of comparable stature. They’re both in my record collection – de los Angeles on several super-cheap CDs probably given to me by my friend Paul who used to buy that sort of thing from a stall on Whitechapel Waste when he worked over the road at Eastside Books (her lovely Catalan songs seem to be unavailable but you can still get this fat collection of traditional Spanish song at amazon.co.uk) and Tebaldi on heavy vintage vinyl probably bought from the quite amazing and precious Harold Moore’s Records in Great Marlborough Street when I worked next door at Marks and Spencer. Opera divas are no longer glamorous, remote figures, loved by millions from a distance – they’re struggling to retain their relevance, losing a lot of weight (well, most of them), doing Reality TV shows and charity concerts. They should be a protected species.

Xmas toys: good and bad. number 3 – The Incredimobile RC car

The Incredibles Incredimobile RC car
This one looked unpromising. I don’t need to tell you that 90% of movie tie-in toys are depressing play-once-and-discard rubbish and I found it difficult to believe that a plastic RC car could buck the trend (much as I loved The Incredibles) but, dear reader, I was wrong. It’s chunky (doors close nicely, roof snaps on and off properly), it’s well put together, quite fast and fun to play with – it comes with a nice bendy Mr Incredible toy and has good sounds too (although everything has good sounds these days doesn’t it?). Oliver has played with it… ooh… ten times? Fifteen times? That makes it a big hit in our house.

And while you’re thinking about it, tell me why this one is different. Can there really be two models? One for the US and one for Europe?

Divas

Oumou SangareKathleen Ferrier
From the tenuous links dept. (Singers, women, National heroines…). Lovely, long, quite slow-paced and admiring portrait of Mali’s Oumou Sangare from fan and world music expert Lucy Duran on Radio 3 at the weekend (yes, it’ll probably be overwritten by next week’s show so you should drop me a line if you want an MP3). And, if you’re going CD shopping next weekend, remember that everything Kathleen Ferrier ever recorded is now out of copyright (she died in 1952) so you should be able to buy it all in really cheap new editions. This is what copyright time limits are for. The labels have had their fifty years to exploit the Ferrier catalogue and now it’s someone else’s turn. If we’re not careful, record label whinging (remember the fuss about the fiftieth anniversary of Callas’ 1953 Tosca?) is going to close off recent work like Ferrier’s from the public domain forever.

eBay people

Like you (I assume), we spent a lot of money on eBay this Xmas – lots of cheap Lego and Hello Kitty and Geomag plus toys that were unobtainable in the shops. Let’s face it, you can get anything on eBay (except a gun) but the experience is very different from shopping at John Lewis or from a catalogue. Why?

1. You’ll get objectively better customer service. Everything comes the next day. If it doesn’t come the next day you’ll get a personally-addressed apologetic note and probably some kind of compensation.

2. A good eBay rating is a guarantee of good service. You can fake an eBay reputation but not a really good one. Buying something from an eBay seller with a rating of, say, 1,000+ will always be better than buying from M&S or John Lewis or [insert your customer service King here].

3. eBay sellers worry about customer service above all. You get exactly what you were expecting. Full stop. This turns out to be a phenomenally effective retail model and it means eBay sellers can stop worrying about other classical retail success factors like terms of trade and price.

4. eBay people are people people. Grumpy, impatient people needn’t apply – they can’t be bothered to lovingly package and despatch hundreds of low cost items, manage feedback and handle dozens of trivial customer queries. Only nice people do this, so buying something on eBay is almost always a pleasant experience.

Conventional retailers have to worry about a lot of factors: customer service (timeliness, courtesy, quality etc.), terms of trade (return policies etc.) and price (cheap or not) being the big three. eBay sellers worry only about customer service. Price is taken care of by the auction process and sellers’ terms of trade are typically as tough as old boots. The lesson is simple: if your customer service is impeccable you don’t need good terms of trade and price stops being the number 1 factor.

I find myself wondering whether real world retailers could benefit from adopting some of these uniquely eBay values. A clothing retailer who decided to fanatically over-deliver on customer service might, for instance, be able to toughen up on terms of trade and thus reduce the punishing cost of handling returned items. A supermarket who went customer service crazy might find a way out of the price crunch that threatens to wipe half of them out.

eBay sellers are telling retailers: if you invest more in really unflappable customer service you can toughen up those pussy-cat return policies and save a fortune. And, of course, it’s more urgent than you think: a generation of eBay-literate customers is now saying: I’m not really bothered about your remedial, disaster recovery policies. I just want what I asked for.