Archive for June, 2007

I dug up a gem on the web, and like the nice person I am, decided to share it with all of you. It is a table comparing how different states in the USA have regulated metering and billing for retail electricity companies. You will see that there is quite a disparity of approaches and that many states are omitted because they have no regulation. This kind of data is handy for understanding benchmarks for bill performance, accuracy and error across comparable industries. Click on the image to see the full-size version.

For those really interested, the table is extracted from an independent March 2007 report on how Michigan’s electricity service quality regulations, as applied to the Detroit Edison company, have fared in comparison to original expectations. See here for the full report.

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Nostalgia seems to be the theme for my blog this week. The other day I was reminiscing about my time at York University; the release of Safari 3.0 reminded me of my old Mac and of browsing the web using Mosaic. Later that day I had another unexpected reminder of those good old days, whilst listening to XFM, the alternative radio station which is steadily spreading from London to other parts of the world. My ears pricked up when the DJ started talking about Northern Ireland indie-rock band Ash. You see, back in the mid-90’s, if you wanted to discover good new bands, you had to do one of the following:

  1. listen to the radio a lot and hope to get lucky once in a while;
  2. go see bands randomly at live gigs and festivals and hope for the best; or
  3. get mates to play their records and/or do little compilation cassettes for you.

So back then there was none of this new-fangled nonsense with Lily Allen and co boasting of how many “friends” they have on MySpace because some kids sit at home alone whilst browsing free music. [Message to the kids: Lily Allen’s not your friend, she is just a corporate whore who wants to make money from you and outdo her annoying dad, Keith, in being really famous without being good at anything]. No, back then you really had to suffer to find out about new music. And the onus was on you to tell everybody about good new stuff. So when a very early ditty by Ash called Petrol got played by some freak accident on the radio, I had no choice but to immediately rush out to a record shop and purchase a great big slab of vinyl. From then on I would spend a lot of time pestering people to come over and listen to their mini-album Trailer. When a group of us when to Glastonbury Festival that year, it was up to me to shepherd everyone to see Ash play live. You had to actually go in person because that was before they televised the event and long before you could see most of the festival via the BBC’s live streams. When they released their next single, Kung Fu, I was the one telling people about the cheeky cover showing the infamous incident where footballer Eric Cantona drop-kicked a Crystal Palace fan. And when they broke into the Top 20 with their next single Girl From Mars it was time for me to remind everyone that I liked Ash first ;) So when some bloke on the radio starts talking about them, and what they have been doing, I still have that urge to tell people how I was there at Leeds Poly the night the bassist jumped from the speaker stack and accidentally broke his instrument in half.

But the wheel keeps on turning. Doubtless some Lily Allen fans have checked out Ash’s page on MySpace only to rapidly conclude they are sad old losers without giving them a chance. There is nothing like a bit of a struggle to teach people to be patient when trying new things. Some really sad news in the last fortnight was that the vinyl pusher of choice back when I was at York Uni, Track Records has just gone out of business. Their story is that they are unable to compete with download sales, on-line retailers and supermarkets, and doubtless they are not the only ones. Other strangely disturbing news (according to the Glasto website) is that Lily Allen has an audience scheduled with Gordon Brown. Taking over as prime minister is not enough to keep Gordon busy, then. Ash have also had their fair share of strange and dark days over the years, but for now they are still going strong. Which comes as something of a personal relief, as they were the first band I liked where the members were all younger than me. Despite well over a decade of service to electric guitar music, they still retain the capacity to set trends. Ash have announced that they will be the first established band to release all new material as individual songs, abandoning the traditional album format. Read here for the Reuters version of the story. Ash’s logic seems pretty compelling. Why wait a year or more to compile, record and package an album when you could get an idea for a song, go to the studio, capture it, then beam it out over the internet the very next day? The format of albums reflected the fact that you originally had a chunk of physical material with a certain amount of storage capacity where songs played sequentially. It made sense to use the physical material efficiently and think about things like the order of songs and how they complemented each other. After all, only a mug like me would be happy to pay for a mini-album like Trailer, the same size and price as a full album but with only 7 songs ;) As the physical medium is replaced by a digital mechanism to distribute music, making albums does not save costs or enhance value, it only adds delay. If people can buy songs individually on iTunes, it just makes good business sense to offer them for sale as soon as you can. And the fan does not really lose out. The consumer can chose to buy songs sooner, or they can wait for the songs to be sold as a discounted bundle of a dozen or so later on, like a traditional album but without the traditional marketing. The chat on Ash’s website suggests an even split of fans for and against the idea. The idea may take some getting used to. My guess is that in 10 years people will find batching songs into albums as strange as going to their friend’s house to listen to music.

Some things have not changed, though. I was down the front for Ash’s set at the Isle of Wight festival, and will be seeing them again in Camden in July. And they still rock. So to keep up my own track record for promoting Ash, here is a little widget that plays samples of their songs.

It is just so much easier these days ;)

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I had a Mac when I was in the Computer Science faculty at the University of York. Never again. Its OS supposedly beat the pants off Windows when it came to multitasking. My experience was that if you tried to do three things at the same time you would soon be doing a fourth thing: rebooting the computer after it hung. Times have probably changed but it will be another couple of decades before I will forgive Apple for all the work I kept having to redo. So, until recently, the only times I have ever used Apple’s Safari web browser was when mooching around an Apple Store. But recently Apple released a Safari 3 beta for both Windows and Mac. As you may have guessed, I spend a fair bit of time on the web. Probably you do too – otherwise you would not be reading this – so the major selling point of Safari should be easy to understand. According to Apple, Safari is the fastest web browser. And since using it, I have to say they were not exaggerating. It is fast. My experience seems to match the boasts that Safari is twice as fast as Internet Explorer and much faster than Firefox too. Given that most of you are reading this with IE, you may want to think about that for a moment. Plenty have already. According to Apple, there were over a million downloads of the Windows version of Safari during the first 48 hours it was available.

Okay, I can hear you sceptics stalking me. But before you pounce like lions on a wounded wildebeest in the Serengeti I want to make it clear I am no starry-eyed Apple lover (for reasons that should be clear from the above). Of course Safari has flaws. Yes, it is buggy. I had to play with the HTML on one of my pages just to workaround an issue peculiar to Safari. Yes, it has security issues and issuing lots of hasty patches suggests a lack of quality control. However, most businesses find that the only sure way to get their software secure is to release it and let the hackers find all the weaknesses for them. And yes, as Steve Jobs said himself, there are a million iTunes downloads and half a million Firefox downloads every single day. So downloading Safari does not mean the same as using Safari. But none of that matters. This is about big business. If web browsers were not strategically important, most of us would still be using Netscape and Microsoft would not have to speak to a judge every time somebody complains about anti-competitive behaviour. I still have fond memories of using Mosaic when I was in York. Those were the days when if you told conventional businesspeople about how they could use the “information super highway” they looked at you like you were an idiot. Now most businesspeople talk excitedly about “web 2.0″ without a clue what it is. But I digress. In a perfect world, your choice of web browser would have no impact on what content you access from the web or where you spend your money; but this is not a perfect world. And with web browsers I think Apple has once again worked out the best way to appeal to customers. Speed is king. Why pay for a faster internet connection when a change of browser can make such a dramatic impact on the speed perceived by the user? In terms of gaining market share, eroding the natural advantage of Microsoft and the stubborn preferences of the more tech-savvy users will take time. However, Apple have shown how fast they will move to do so.

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Fair play to SubexAzure – one of their employees does read the community pages hosted by the TeleManagement Forum. A few days ago I had some fun at the expense of a poor guy who asked the TMF community for help with his SubexAzure fraud system. But just four days later SubexAzure’s US Marketing Manager, Lesly Wagner, was in touch to help her errant customer. Not a bad turnaround time. Perhaps software vendors really do listen to customers. With a bit of luck, the problems will be sorted soon and fraud detection will be up and running. When it is, the telco in question may find that advertising the absence of controls over fraud may have resulted in a disturbingly high number of attacks. But then again, perhaps there is a way to spin this to everyone’s advantage. If there is a high number of attacks, does that not prove the value of the fraud detection system? And if they get countered, does that not prove what a great job the telco’s fraud team are doing? Time to chalk up another few million dollars saved ;) And a pat on the back for everyone involved… because we can guess nobody senior in that telco is going to find out about how their problems were aired in public….

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The relationship between Communication Service Providers, regulators, subscribers and consumer groups varies widely from country to country. In the Netherlands, there is a strong consumer protection environment which makes Dutch telcos very wary of each and every customer grievance. Their approach is a good example for how regulators can foster consumer activism. I prefer that approach to the alternative you see from some other regulators – where they act on behalf of the consumer without trying to involve the consumer. The assumption those regulators make is that the consumer is too dull-witted or ignorant to understand what is going on, speak on their own behalf, strike reasonable deals with telcos or form meaningful pressure groups to force change. If you ask me, the regulators who exclude customers from the process of protecting customers are only trying to make work for themselves. These regulators act as judge and jury, and are as likely to be corrupt as any court which can ignore the will of the people. In my experience, if there is a group of customers that is savvy enough and has the facilities to organize themselves, it is the customers of telcos. All they need is a regulator that sets up the framework for dialogue and then steps out of the way.

Part of the problem is that regulators sometimes do not change as fast as the markets they regulate. Regulators that needed to bash secretive and wasteful state-owned monopolies have faced a difficult transition. They have to adjust to a world where free market competition has shifted the power to the consumer. When the market becomes as fiercely competitive as it is in much of the world today, the regulator needs to stand back and be more objective. The regulator can continue to play the part of the judge, but now has to allow consumers to play the part of the jury. So long as the jury gets the information they need, let them drive the improvement of the telecommunications industry. Of course, that may cost many regulators and so-called experts their jobs; especially when it transpires that the people can do a better job for themselves. But individual consumers and consumer pressure groups are often better-informed, more pragmatic, and much more highly motivated to reach a successful deal than the people whose employment depends on overseeing the telecoms industry. So praise must go to the Indian telecoms regulator, TRAI, for setting an example that other national regulators should follow. TRAI recently facilitated a meeting between CSPs and consumer activists in Chennai which promises to become a quarterly event. It does not really matter what was discussed – the big story here is that CSPs should have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from listening to what the most vocal customers have to say about them. So well done to TRAI for bringing Indian customers and telcos face to face. Let us hope that other telecoms regulators, providers and consumers follow their example and become better at communicating with each other…

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