I'm upset today that airlines still refuse to correct customer's honest mistakes. I posted the message below here on the rather fantastic Get Satisfaction. I'll post the follow-up I receive.
No way to correct booking mistakes
I made a mistake yesterday, booking a codeshare flight operated by Iberia, rather than a British Airways-operated sector. With all the fluff about travel insurance upsells and carbon offsetting it was a fairly easy mistake to make, but it was my mistake.
I called BA back less than 24 hours later, hoping to change to an earlier or later BA-operated flight, but was told this would cost £40 per passenger - no exceptions. Apparently the carrier operating the flight is immaterial. This seems a bit hypocritical when they spend money on stuff like this.
I'm a loyal BA customer. I choose them over budget carriers despite a considerable price difference because I value the in-flight service. I don't take that view about many full-fat carriers, and certainly not about Iberia.
Posted at 18:41 UTC, 1st August 2008.
Many websites need to ask users which country they come from, and use a drop-down list of countries to collect the information. If, like me, you come from the "United Kingdom", these forms are often a pain to fill in. The process should be easy, because there is a standard list of countries called ISO 3166. This list contains official names (notified by the country to the UN Secretary General, no less), and is ordered alphabetically.
With the standard list I can hit "U" 4 times to get "United Kingdom". "Uganda , "Ukraine" and "United Arab Emirates" skip right by. This short-cut needs to be learned, but it will work internationally. Those who have not learned the short-cut can find their country in the place they expect it.
The problem: Websites often mess with the country list.
- By changing the name of my country. I have to find "Great Britain", or even England. Time-consuming and not helpful. Did the site owner think I was going to read the full list to pick the best option?
- By sticking United States at the top. In some software (particularly mobile device browsers) this means I can't just hit "U" to scan through the countries. The non-alphabetical order confuses things.
- By also sticking "United Kingdom" at the top. If the "U" key still works, I often spin right past United Kingdom and have to go round again.
A simple request: If you want an international audience stick to the standard list.
No changes, please. Unless you're the UN Secretary General.
Posted at 13:46 UTC, 30th June 2008.
A little something for a Friday afternoon. With thanks to Ashok and wordle.net
Posted at 16:15 UTC, 27th June 2008.
I'm a city person. I can appreciate countryside, but I love exploring urban life. I'm not a typical tourist. I'll skip the museums and the 'typical' dishes. I'll certainly minimise the time I spend with international brands and shopping malls. Instead, I'll search for the stuff that the city does well today. Sometimes it will be food that is grown and cooked well there now, often it will involve a local art or bar scene. Interesting cultures can grow slowly or quickly, but the spirit (for want of a better word) of the residents is always important.
My favourite cities are always large, but fortunately there are a surprising number of large cities in the world. At the weekend I took a look at the largest urban areas by population. Of the 178 listed, I have spent more than a weekend in only 34. I love some of these cities (e.g., Istanbul, San Francisco, Paris, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, Hanoi, Cape Town, Beijing, Berlin, Bucharest), but could easily live without others (e.g., Moscow, Casablanca, Frankfurt, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Changsha)
I want to find the other interesting cities, and I'm taking the search pretty seriously. There are 144 cities still on the list. So far I've loved about 30% of the large cities I visited, but not really enjoyed another 20% or so. If the statistics are applicable to the remaining cities (I've no reason to believe otherwise), that suggests there are around 45 amazing cities left to discover, but also 30 places I would not enjoy. Random visits are unlikely to work out well.
I'm struggling to see any pattern in my preferences, either by eye, or when I draw scatter plots by GDP, area, population, population density etc (I told you I was serious about this…). Recommendations from others don't help much, either. I've heard great things about many of the cities I did not enjoy, and vice versa. I'm sure there is an element of subjectivity in my choices. Perhaps even the circumstances of my visit made a difference. Yet, the cities I feel strongly about are typically places that I've visited several times, or spent more than a week in.
I've got some ideas, which I'm going to follow up when I have some time. I expect a good prediction formula might involve:
- Recent GDP growth rate (or maybe property value growth rate) (a sensible medium level would be good)
- Length of time as an international trading hub
- Diversity of industries employing residents
- Size relative to other cities that the population can easily reach
- Landscape (a city on the sea, and a city broken up by mountains can help)
If you spot the missing pattern in my list, or have ideas on what makes an interesting city, please let me know. I'll update here when I work out more patterns.
 Bucharest is not part of the Wikipedia list because statistics are based on a citizen's official registered home. Re-registering involves up to a full day in a police station. Migration to the Romanian capital is not accurately measured, and likely to be greater than migration in the other direction. A corrected list would have Bucharest at around the same size as Milan or Madrid. I'm sure many other cities also suffer from the same problem. I'm pretty sure Hanoi is one of them.
Posted at 11:19 UTC, 10th June 2008.
I'll be buying an iPhone on July 11th. With 3G, GPS and lower pricing this is now a very attractive product. Apple's ability to make browsing and maps work smoothly on a mobile device is unrivalled now, and I expect I'll still own a leading product at the end of the 18-month contract.
However, there are two significant annoyances that temper my enthusiasm for the iPhone.
Mobile Me, a new data silo
Push updates to mail, calender and address book are helpful, but the world has moved on from desktop apps. It is not very helpful to sync with the data that sits on my computer, because that is going to be more out of date than the stuff on my iPhone. And no, a new set of web apps from Apple does not help, however nice they are. Like many people, I've already chosen apps on the web that look after my data. I use Gmail/Google calendar, Remember the Milk and occasionally Flickr. So do lots of other people, and I share stuff with them. When the iPhone was originally announced, Google and Yahoo were a big part of the party, but there has been no mention of integrating their products with Mobile Me.
I live in hope that Apple will offer great integration with a wide range of web applications. That way they could extend the Mobile Me market to people like me, and probably even bring onboard some new iPhone users.
No background tasks = much worse device for media
3G is of limited use for watching video. A decent iPhone video is at 512kbits - a rate not reliably available over 3G. The EDGE terms and conditions (at least in the U.K.) explicitly forbid audio and video use, so I would not be surprised if some kind of contractual limit was applied to audio or video unlimited 3G bundles too. Therefore, the iPhone should be downloading media in the background via WiFi (and 3g if possible) whenever it has coverage. This would allow me to leave home with a device synced from home WiFi with the audio and video content I might want to consume today. If I pass WiFi at lunchtime I can top up, maybe just with a few news clips that are integrated into the news application, or maybe with a show that has just been released.
I am enthusiastic about the new notification services that Apple announced. They are a hepful extra feature for many applications, but are not enough for audi and video. Notifications allow a developer to push a message to an iPhone, essentially "new stuff available" in various forms, but the user will have to open the application and wait while the 'stuff' downloads. That is fine for an instant messenger client that is downloading text, but useless for audio and video. Webware also pointed out that Apple could do worrying things with the notification data that flows through them.
The announcement was pretty misleading on this point. They explained the perils of allowing applications to run in the background - essentially that they can eat resource that could be needed to complete the current task. That is an important consideration if the current task is an incoming call. During the announcement, the assembled Mac developers had a good laugh at the Windows Mobile solution. It seems that Microsoft allows the mobile user to control resource usage via a series of geeky charts and tables. Of course this won't be included on the iPhone any time soon, but it's not the only way to run background tasks either. For example, Google Android allows background tasks, and has a sophisticated system to ensure that the phone call app can always take the lead when required. It is complex for the developer, but simple for the user. I have heard it works well.
The logic for including proper background process handling seems strong. I hope Apple are working on it.
Posted at 09:42 UTC, 10th June 2008.
Catching up on feeds, I noticed this interesting post from Hitwise about the trend in viewers to the Freesat website. Freesat is a subscription-free U.K. satellite offer, launched by broadcasters the BBC and ITV.
For me, the most interesting analysis is that: "Freesat appeals to an older audience: 43% of visitors to its website last week were aged 55 and over, compared with just 20% for Sky."
If the platform demographic is consistent with this early web data (clearly far from certain), this is bad news for broadcasters. Freesat's unique selling point is subscription-free HD. Most new technologies appeal to a younger demographic, a group that is typically hard to reach, and often captured/intermediated by players like Sky.
Broadcasters will have hoped that Freesat would improve their connection with young audiences. Instead, it appears to be striking a chord with their existing heartland.
Posted at 12:09 UTC, 9th June 2008.
I've been following the Data Portability initiative with interest. There is lots to read on their site, and the sites of many participants. (As you should expect, the debate is pretty portable across sites).
I think about data portability in terms of a simple use-case:
I'm a user on a photo site, and I want to edit my photos. I can configure the photo site to launch a web photo-editor of my choice, and pass the photo to the site. I can edit the photo, then pass it back to the photo-sharing site. Neither site was aware of the other in advance. They just supported a common way of passing data about.
(This is not my idea, but I can't find the website where I first read it…)
It is like a supercharged version of the way that plugins work in desktop software. A very exciting development from a technology and user perspective, but also exciting in terms of industry development.
Taking a macro view, this kind of interaction is bound to increase competition, which means better services for users. As an illustration, I'm struck by the strong support of Strands for Data Portability. Strands are well resourced by start-up standards, with some very experienced engineers and scientists working there. It seems that most of the effort goes into a serious recommendation generation technology, which has every chance of being world-leading. They have a consumer-facing product for recommending music (and music videos), and a newer financial recommendation product. In music, at least, they look like an also-ran compared to the market leader, last.fm. That is a shame because their underlying recommendation engine is probably better.
Data Portability offers the prospect of picking software components in the same way that you pick products at a supermarket. I can choose the last.fm music community, but log in with a Google account and use the Strands recommendation engine. Or I can just stick to Google brand for everything, if that's how I like to do things.
It might sound great for users, technologists and macro-economists, but we're not very far along, and there are many obstacles to overcome. I reckon this world will come eventually, and quicker than we think, because the Internet is fundamentally a competitive place, with barriers to entry much lower, and speed of innovation much higher, than in most physical industries.
So, the question: Where is the money?
The Data Portability group have some initial thoughts, but it is still early days. One of the main participants has a specific interest in broadcast, which looks interesting. Social Times also has an interesting perspective.
I don't have a firm answer to the question, but it is important to us at Meta Broadcast to understand what might happen, so I'm spending a fair amount of time trying to figure it out. I plan to blog my thoughts and join in the discussion.
This is where I got to so far:
The business of running a 'social network' (user accounts and some very important information like links to friends and demographics) is likely to be critical to on-line advertising networks such as Google, Microsoft. Possibly Facebook can also join this gang, if Mark Zuckerberg stops doing things in a careless way. There are likely to be strong economies of scale in this business because ad buyers like to go to one place to buy large audiences. It's no place for a start-up, unless they have a market-shaking idea AND lots of cash.
As for other apps? I wonder how far the supermarket analogy can take us? In a supermarket we choose on distribution, brand, price, perceived quality, and perceived convenience. You can build a nice business if you own a good brand, which you build through a mix of good communication and doing a good job. That suggests that someone with a big brand can market multiple components to consumers. The Internet equivalent of Nestle - a safe but basic choice for lots of products.
What about a niche brand? I'm a huge fan of Tunnock's, a Scottish biscuit brand. They're very successful, and all about their Victorian working-class roots. There will be space for niche brands too. But, just like Tunnock's, a niche brand will need to get good distribution. I wonder whether that will get cheaper or more expensive? Niche Internet brands will also need to ensure compatibility with the consumer's other choices. That is a problem that Tunnock's don't really have. Maybe this is a place where incumbents will be able to trip up newcomers?
Brand clearly won't be the only helpful asset. Some data will also remain a competitive advantage. If you have a nice enough brand you can attract people to give you privileged access to their data, which you can carefully use to build the competitiveness of your service without causing privacy concerns. How far you can go is another big question.
Data Portability could make a massive difference to the way that Internet businesses create value, and bring real benefits to users. Now is the time for businesses to think carefully about how it might affect them.
I'm looking forward to talking to some smart people about this stuff during the next months, and reporting back here. Do let me know what you think.
UPDATE: There's a fair bit of criticism at the moment about the ratio of discussion to action among members of the Data Portability group. I'm inclined to agree that more implementation should come before detailed discussion (that is certainly the approach we are taking with URIplay). However, the principles behind Data Portability are important, and the practical effects are likely to be felt sooner rather than later in some application areas.
Posted at 16:18 UTC, 6th June 2008.
It has been a busy few months, with lots of interesting projects started. I've been lucky enough to work with some amazing people from across the U.K. Internet and Broadcasting industries, including:
- Co-founding Meta Broadcast. We're a soft company aiming to develop interesting new broadcast distribution systems. We're (obviously) focusing on Simple Social Broadcasting, but beyond that we're deliberately unfocused until the right opportunity comes up.
- Lots of work on URIplay, which is the first project of Meta Broadcast. URIplay is DNS for media. We hope it will be a useful service for many developers building online TV and radio services. More soon.
- Leading a really interesting piece of BBC strategy work around mobile media. I can't say much about this, but I'll miss the Future Media Mobile and Business Strategy teams at White City (Maybe not White City itself… Careful how you say that… The Wikipedia photo White City on a foggy day pretty much sums it up!)
Writing interesting blog posts is not on that list for obvious reasons. Must try harder.
Posted at 14:46 UTC, 6th June 2008.