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Wrapping up at the ODINE project

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For the last two years, I was part of the pool of evaluators for ODINE, the Open Data Incubator Network Europe. The program just ended, after funding around 57 companies doing interesting work with and around open data in Europe. The list of evaluators is now officially being made public. (It should be online on the ODINE website soon.)

As far as I can tell from the more-or-less outside, it was a successful project.

While reviewing multiple times, I think only once did I participate in on a day of interviews with a bunch of applicants and teams onsite. During that day, I was impressed with the overall level of conversations.

Now that the program is being wrapped up, I’d like to congratulate the team and all the participants. Best of luck with the next steps.

Shenzhen, hardware, openness

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Recently WIRED published a brilliant video series on the hardware ecosystem in Shenzhen. It has four parts and starts with this one:

As a refresher, Shenzhen is where most of the world’s electronics are manufactured. What a few decades or even just a few years ago was a place for cheap manufacturing of knock-offs has become a high-tech hub, and a hub of incredible manufacturing knowledge. Shenzhen is also on the way to become a major player for highly innovative hardware and product design.

I believe the Western tech scenes can learn a lot from Shenzhen.

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OpenIoT Design Sprint Anstruther

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Spent a week on at an OpenIoT design sprint hosted by Mozilla and the University of Dundee in Anstruther, Scotland. The themes that emerged were around connectivity (or lack thereof), user research, and working with local communities:

  • Fisheries Museum (community home)
  • Farmers (clever countryside)
  • Teens (covert communication)

Here’s a quick overview of the project descriptions and some photos of the prototypes. My apologies for the quality of the photos; they were snapped on my phone for some quick documentation. You’ll find more (and likely better) photos on Twitter, Instagram, and the participants’ blogs. (Search for OpenIoT and Anstruther.)

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iPad, Wired App, ecosystem. Or not.

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Igor and the iPad

I’m a big fan of Wired. I read it online all the time, I used to have a Wired US subscription (that didn’t work out that well both in terms of shipping times and price, at about 10 times US subscription prices with shipping). These days, I have a subscription to Wired UK that I’m very happy with. So I was really curious about the next steps for the digital version of Wired. The iPad app promised to be just that. So while my Twitter feed starts filling up with posts about the first batch of iPads arriving in Germany, I took the time to read up a bit.

And ended up writing a rant on the iPad’s product philosophy. Please note that I don’t own an iPad, I’ve only ever played around with one on a few occasions.

The Wired iPad ap is like a CD-ROM from the 1990’s

Interfacelab has a great rant analysis of the much-hyped Wired iPad app. The Wired app doesn’t get the best review here. I’d like to quote the whole thing, it’s that good. But I’ll try to stick to the most important parts:

I’m starting to believe that the physical magazine’s “interface” is vastly superior to it’s iPad cousin. However, what strikes me most about the Wired app is how amazingly similar it is to a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990’s. This is not a compliment and actually turns out to be a fairly large problem… ( …) There are certain interactive elements to the articles, but – and I apologize to all of the people who put in a lot of back breaking work into this – they’re pretty lame. Tapping on a button-looking element switches out part of the page with another image. You can drag your finger across certain images to make them sort of animate like a flipbook (and in truth, that’s what it is – a series of PNG or JPEG images). There are videos you can tap on to view fullscreen. There are audio clips that you can play. The interactivity in the Wired application is very 1990’s.

It’s not interactive, it’s a slide show

This is very true – I’m told the whole magazine doesn’t only not feel all that interactive: it just isn’t. It’s just a slide show. Which explains the huge size of the Wired app. Just to do some quick & dirty math: If you own the smallest iPad with its 16GB of memory and pack it with 20 movies (say 500MB each) and 10 magazines (Wired: 500MB), it’s full. You couldn’t even fit any music on then. Just saying.

A side note: The iPad’s main line of defense usually is it’s supposedly inspiring and groundbreaking design. But look at it – is it really that amazing? As Cory Doctorow points out (TWIT #249), it’s really only a “moderately well-assembled piece of south-Chinese electronics.” It’s a classic effect of glossy, fullscreen video that we go “aaaah, ooooh”, but does it really live up to the expectations?

What Apple is building is not an ecosystem, but a zoo

What’s more, of course, is that the iPad is built to be a part of the iTunes ecosystem – if you want to use that term in this context. An ecosystem is a living, breathing thing that can sustain itself; it’s has by definition an element of chaos, of not being controlled. The iTunes system is the opposite. The more appropriate metaphor might thus be: a zoo. You can look, but you can’t touch. (Ok, you can point.) You certainly can’t really interact with the animals except for shooing them back and forth within their cages.

If you buy an iPad, you don’t really buy a device. You most importantly buy into a system of software, services and contracts. The iPad is built around iTunes, which most certainly is an only moderately well-assembled piece of software. You must know, buying content through iTunes, that you will never be able to leave iTunes/Apple and take the stuff you bought with you. You will either always have to depend on Apple, or you will need to leave behind whatever you bought – every song, every book, the Wired app – if you move on to the next new system. Apple won’t be around forever. But maybe you appreciate a fresh, clean plate every now and then.

Maybe you also like burning down your house with all your belongings in them whenever you move.

The points above apply, by the way, equally to consumers and developers.

Jeff Jarvis, never short of a good quote, summarizes it graphically as always (sorry, no penis quote here):

I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

The question is: Can large corporations compete with amateurs?

So what’s at the core of all this this? Why do these “multimedia” (is that term still around?) apps feel so… stale? Maybe economics, pure and simple. As Danny O’Brien points out, technology often makes production of digital goods much cheaper – for amateurs. At the same time, production costs for professional products often skyrockets:

But can you re-gear a newspaper or a publishing house to produce the level of interactive complexity that a $5 app is going to demand, when it is competing with games and films in the same app niche? Honestly, it might be possible. We’re not in the age of CD-ROMs now. Our price-points are all over the shop, and a sealed environment like the iPad permits all kinds of unnatural pricing inversions. We’ll pay more for a ringtone than a full MP3. We pay $10 for a README file on our Amazon Kindle, and a dollar for a pocket application that plays farts. But if you want to play that game, you’re running against the clock. Other applications are going to make yours look ridiculously clumsy in a matter of months (honestly, in a year people will be amazed anyone paid $14 for a bunch of text, a rotating picture of a rock, and a quick Wolfram Alpha search). Plus the seals on that environment get corroded by open competition every day.

The announcement by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to be building a $75 Android-powered tablet for developing countries might just be a point in case. (Their first model wasn’t all that great and not very successful, but arguably has contributed strongly to the mainstream development of netbooks.)

So why does everybody (or rather: journalists) look so enviously at the iPad? Is it really the big hope, or are journalists (sorry for the generalization) really just too desperate to think clearly? In Cory Doctorow‘s words:

I think that the press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff. The reason people have stopped paying for a lot of “content” isn’t just that they can get it for free, though: it’s that they can get lots of competing stuff for free, too. The open platform has allowed for an explosion of new material, some of it rough-hewn, some of it slick as the pros, most of it targetted more narrowly than the old media ever managed.

Or as the Information Architects put it, referring to the iPad edition of Wired:

The future of journalism is definitely not a stack of banners spiced with videos, exported from a paper layout program. You need to try harder.

Don’t get me wrong. By now I’m all infected with the excitement about the form factor of a tablet. I never thought I’d say it, but I do see a niche in my life where the tablet fits in. But it has to be more open. If I use a device to store all my content, if it is my direct way of accessing culture in all its forms, I have to really own it. And I’m not even talking about taking apart (I think it’s important that’s possible, but I hardly dare doing that) or installing Android on an iPhone. But I like a world where that is possible. I mean you should be able to install what you like, and take your music along to the next device you get.

I just can’t have a company being able to pull the plug on me with a software update anytime they choose to do so.

Image: Igor, who doesn’t like iPads the least bit, in the tempting glow of an iPad, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mbiddulph’s photostream

Why The Telcos Are Doomed

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My apologies for the dramatic title. Please let me explain what I mean, and why (drama aside) I think it’s true if the telecommunication companies (telcos) keep operating the way they do.

Since this post is somewhat lengthy, here’s the summary upfront:

  • Telcos don’t act in their customers’ interest
  • Customers don’t trust their service providers (from bad experiences)
  • Lock-in will backfire on a massive scale and drive customers away
  • As soon as a new provider comes along and offers decent plans, fair & transparent conditions, and no lock-in, they’ll easily win the market

Epic Fail by Flickr user Ape Lad

Now that you roughly know what I’m going to say and are still reading, I’ll go ahead and assume you’re interested. So let’s dig in there, and please share your thoughts in the comments.

Nobody Likes Telcos It’s sad to say it like that, but let’s face it: There’s hardly a customer of a phone carrier with an emotional tie to their provider, at least not a positive one. Why is that? Telcos have a (seemingly global) history of ripping off their customers, maximizing their profits, and slowing down innovation. It doesn’t even matter which one we’re talking about: Deutsche Telekom, Arcor, O2, Vodafon, E-Plus, all of them have a track record of very unhappy customers. Just ask any person you know – anybody, really – and they’ll have a horror story to share about their phone carrier over-charging, about incredibly bad customer service, about not getting out of their contracts despite trying hard.

The Problems: Bad Service, Over-Charging, Lock-In If you’ve encountered an ad for one of the major telcos, you might have noticed how strongly emotionalized and moody these ads are. They probably have to be, after all most customers aren’t interested in the products on offer here, or maybe the products offered just aren’t really targeted well at the customers.

We, the customers, have all reason not to be happy with our providers.

Bad Service: The hotline staff is chronically under-trained and over-worked, and briefed to stuff marketing crap down our throats. (I had a series of conversations with the support staff for my E-Plus/Base contract where I got completely different and mutually exclusive, opposing answers depending on the person I talked to. Also, some of them were seriously trying to help, but it was clear in the context that they’d be violating some kind of internal set of rules.) You can’t get a simple, clear & open answer to your questions in any telco hotline I know about. That’s just the way the system is set up. (“We’d like to offer you this Easter Special that gives you 5 extra SMS this month for just $3, plus another 2-year contract, isn’t that great?” Sounds familar? There you go.)

Over-Charging: Phone companies charge too much for what they offer. I’m not even talking about roaming fees. (Which are ridiculous in digital networks anyway.) I’m talking about the prices for very clearly defined, and simple enough, services: 1 text message, 1 minute call time, 1 MB data transfer. All of these are set in a way not to cover the companies expenses (and of course some profit), but based on what the market used to be willing to pay. Remember the days when long-distance calls were so much more expensive than calling within your area code? That’s the model still underlying today’s pricing system. Not even flatrates go uncapped these days. A simple, transparent pricing system without the fine print is the way to go.

Lock-In: Bad idea. It is tempting for a company to go for total customer lock-in: If customers commit to a 2-year-contract it’s easier to calculate, and hey, once we have them we can milk them, right? Wrong. That’s yesterday’s thinking. Openness rules, like everywhere, in the communications arena. If I sign a two year contract with my phone carrier (which I’ve done, again, about 6 months ago), that’s not a sign that I vote for one company. It’s just a sign that there’s no competitor out there who’s significantly better.

If you’re a telco, you shouldn’t be happy about this race to the bottom. You think offering iPhones, the G1 or other mobile devices exclusively through your contracts will make people want to be your customers? Hell no. Maybe they’ll put up with you for their phone, but they sure would rather come and play with you if it was out of choice, not force. Design your contracts so that your customers can leave anytime they want, and you’ll see that if you offer better services they’ll want to stay with you.

Trust Issues Customers don’t trust their service providers. They just had too many bad experiences.

Just a little anecdote I heard the other day to illustrate my point: Vodafone called Michelle Thorne to offer her a new contract and a shiny new Blackberry Storm – she had been a Vodafone customer for 10 years. First, some inquiries brought out that she had an old contract that made her over-pay for her usage by far, so Vodafone offered a new contract, much cheaper. (Why didn’t they offer it without being prodded?) Then, some more oral inquiries about the nature of the data flatrate included in the new contract confirmed that it is indeed a flatrate. A few days later it turned out that the “flatrate” was indeed just “unlimited access” to Vodafone Live, some kind of AOL-style limited portal of Vodafone partner sites that are, frankly, very very useless. A joke, really. Another hotline call and the staffer did have the cojones to claim that yes, the flatrate also included “unlimited surfing” on the real web – “up to one megabyte”. Also, another contract was offered with a (seemingly) real data flatrate for a few bucks less then the original offer.

Notice the pattern here? At every single point of contact the provider tried to rip her off. Not a single time did they act in her interest, but only their own. Maybe that’s not the best way to treat your customers? That attitude, combined with the 2-year contract lock-in makes for a nasty combination.

The very moment a new provider pops up and offers a transparent pricing scheme, decent service (think MediaTemple as opposed to 1&1) and the chance to leave the contract anytime I want, I’ll switch. And yes, that’s even if their network coverage isn’t as good or they don’t subsidize my phone. Not just because they’re new player. But because if you can leave anytime, the company isn’t as likely to try and screw me as a customer.

Change? At Cebit, Johannes Kleske, Steffen Büffel and I had a brief conversation about telcos, where we were discussing most of the above. Johannes pointed out something that should be obvious, but can’t be overstated: Tiny, incremental changes from the status quo won’t help either side here. (“We now offer SMS for 18c instead of 19c! Customers will love us!” That’s not going to fly.)

Telcos, you need to get out of your own shoes and once and for all offer what your customers want, not what you think you can push at customers that they might sign up for if the marketing is done right.

So what is it that we want? Some fairly basic things, really:

  • 100% transparent contract and pricing (forget extra fees hidden in the small print).
  • No lock-in through contract or platform. Allow us (and our data) to leave if we’re unhappy, and we probably won’t. (Because you won’t disappoint us, right?)
  • Excellent service. I’m not talking about funky hotline music, but well-trained, well-paid staff who know what they’re talking about.
  • Act in our interest, not yours. (In fact, our interest should be your primary interest, since we’ll happily spend a lot of money on you if you don’t try to screw with us.)

All of this seems pretty obvious, is it really so hard?

All this is written with my experiences limited to the German market, the U.S. and Australia. Maybe in other countries there are better carriers, or independent ones? If you know any examples, please share in the comments. Thanks!

Full disclosure: I’m not involved in any way with any telco or similar service provider. I’ve worked with subsidiaries of Deutsche Telekom before (see my client list), but on completely different stuff. I’m a customer of E-Plus/Base for my cell phone and data services, and Hansenet/Alice for my DSL at home. I’m not overly happy with either of them, but I’ll live.

Image: Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #539 by Ape Lad, licensed under Creative Commons.