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August 31st, 2006

Thames Water: how not to fix a reputation

Thames Water: how not to fix a reputation

On the way to work each day, I pass a billboard poster that shows the Tower of London filled with water. The Tower of London is not a small building – it probably takes about ten minutes to walk around it at a comfortable pace. Filled with water (using Photoshop), it’s big enough to float boats on.

The tagline with this poster is ‘Thames Water’s new pipes will save this much water every two weeks’. Makes you think, doesn’t it? That is a lot of water, and it’s good they’re saving it at a time when Ofwat is imposing fines against them and the South East has a hosepipe ban.

But looking at it every day, it wasn’t long before I saw the subliminal message in this, namely: ‘Our current pipes are leaking this much water every two weeks’. I’ve been aware of their troubles and I know people moan about their leaky pipes, but this is such a striking visual image that it really brought the scale of their problem home to me. It made me realise for the first time just how bad their leaky pipes were.

I’m not interested in knocking Thames Water, but I do think this campaign was an error, or at least extremely premature. The money would have been better spent when they could at least use the present tense and says ‘our new pipes are saving this much water’.

Perhaps it’s just me and everyone else takes this image at face value. But I think that giving people such a striking image to associate with their predicament is a PR disaster waiting to happen.

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August 31st, 2006

Old jokes, new tricks

Old jokes, new tricks

This morning I got sent a really naff joke from a friend who still seems to be excited by the whole idea of sending around tired old email attachments. Unsurprisingly I’d seen this particular joke many times before, and for the sake of illustrating my point, here’s the original version:

One day, in the pub, Barry said to Mike, “My elbow hurts like hell. I guess I better see a doctor.”

“You don’t have to spend time waiting in the surgery,” Mike replied. “There’s a diagnostic computer at the local chemist. Just give it a urine sample and the computer tells you what’s wrong and what to do about it. It takes ten seconds and costs two pounds”.

So Barry deposited a urine sample in a small jar and took it to the chemist. He inserted two pounds, and the computer lit up and asked for a urine sample. He poured the sample into the slot and waited. The computer ejected a printout:

You have tennis elbow. Soak your arm in warm water and avoid heavy activity. It will improve in two weeks.

Thinking how amazing this new technology was, Barry began wondering if the computer could be fooled. He mixed some tap water, a stool sample from his dog, urine samples from his wife and daughter, and masturbated into the mixture for good measure. He went back to the Chemist, inserted two pounds, poured in his concoction, and waited for the results. The computer printed the following:

Your tap water is too hard. Get a water softener.

Your dog has ringworm. Bathe him with anti-fungal shampoo.

Your daughter has a cocaine habit. Get her into a drugs clinic.

Your wife is pregnant…twin girls. They’re not yours. Get a lawyer.

If you don’t stop playing with yourself, your elbow will never get better.

I told you it wasn’t very funny. However, the point here is that the version my soon to be ostracised friend sent to me this morning featured a notable difference: In the new version, Mike advises his friend to try the new diagnostic machine at his local Tesco, because it only costs a few pounds and he’ll get Club Card points, the word ‘Tesco’ is repeated throughout the story, and the printout at the end of the joke finishes with “Thank you for shopping at Tesco”. To top it off, the subject of the circulated email is “Tesco Joke” despite the name of the store being largely irrelevant to the joke.

I really hope this isn’t the future of viral marketing, cheesy old jokes repackaged, branded and spread around the web purely for the purpose of increasing brand recognition. If you’re going to clutter up people’s in-boxes with marketing collateral, please, at least go to the trouble of coming up with something new and interesting.

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August 22nd, 2006

Apple clamps down on iSweatshops

Apple clamps down on iSweatshops

Apple has admitted that staff assembling iPods in China work over 60 hours a week a third of the time. A quarter of the time, staff worked six days in a row. Apple says it is now enforcing a ‘normal’ 60 hour week at its supplier’s factory. Apple said in a statement that it had “a zero tolerance policy for any… treatment of workers that could be interpreted as harsh”.

Meanwhile, blog Think Secret alleges that Apple has fired five of its shop employees for downloading a copy of its Leopard operating system, which was given out to developers two weeks ago. Could that be interpreted as harsh?

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August 22nd, 2006

Another year, another Free Energy Machine

Another year, another Free Energy Machine

Not a year goes by that some self-publicising crackpot claims to have invented a machine which generates more energy that it consumes, thus solving all of the world’s energy problems and rewriting all know laws of physics in one stroke. This year’s contender is Steorn, which took out a full page advert in this week’s Economist inviting applications from scientists to evaluate its new invention – a machine which generates free energy by somehow exploiting the interaction of magnetic fields. A generator which produces more power than it consumes, thereby delivering an endless stream of free, clean, safe energy.

Pretty much everybody is understandably cynical about this claim, but if it’s a hoax of some sort, then they’ve gone to a lot of trouble to pull it off. The company has a slick website, and the advert it bought in the Economist was a full colour right hand page close to the very front of the magazine – a high profile and expensive slot.

A little research into the company’s history reveals that until recently it sold itself as a ‘technology project risk management’ consultancy. Although there’s little detail about what this actually means, or any clients they may have worked with. Nevertheless, designing free energy machines seems a radical departure from this business.

So, a company with no discernable experience in this field is suddenly making some extremely outrageous claims and going to a lot of trouble to publicise those claims. What’s the deal? Theories in our office fall into two main camps:

a) It’s an audacious scam – somebody somewhere will be stupid enough to plough a lot of money into the company on the back of their claims.

b) They’re setting up some sort of viral marketing business, and are using this whole thing to demonstrate how good they are at generating interest, although it’s a pretty cheap shot because anybody can make an outrageous claim to get people to pay attention to them.

Of course, while everybody’s maintaining a healthy level of scepticism about it all, we all desperately want it to be real. Which is why Steorn will probably succeed with whatever stunt they’re trying to pull.

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August 22nd, 2006

Sky the limit for televisual technology?

Sky the limit for televisual technology?

Yesterday the BBC reported that researchers in Switzerland had developed new screen array technology that could bring ‘real’ colour to our TVs and monitors for the very first time. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has been working on devices known as ‘electrically tunable diffraction gratings’ which it believes will be able to manipulate light to reproduce the full spectrum of colours on screen, a trick current display technology has failed to master.

It’s important to consider how the human eye perceives colour, essentially with three of it’s own pixels which detect RGB. Most current CRT, LCD and plasma screens reproduce colours using three lighting elements coloured red, green and blue. The reason TVs can’t reproduce some complex colour fields, such as sky, is that the eye can detect blue wavelengths shorter than LCDs or phosphors can produce. Display companies spend a lot of money trying to improve this.

Prompt’s very own screen technology guru Max McConnell is simultaneously cautious and excited about the potential of these tiny ‘super prisms’. “I’d like to know the ‘colour temperature’ and spectral flatness of the ‘white’ LED they use. These would limit the colour reproducibility of this system, because the diffraction grating cannot determine wavelength extremes. Also, the high voltage is certainly a limitation for commercial applications, while pixel size and/or pitch could also prove limiting.

“However, if they really are successfully developing miniature diffraction grating pixels, then I would recommend they make holographic TVs! That would be stunning, but they would need to rotate the grating rather than stretch it…”

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August 15th, 2006

Google bans Googling in newspapers

Google bans Googling in newspapers

According to The Independent (among others), Google has written to media organisations warning them not to abuse its trademarked company name as a verb. Escalator and Aspirin are examples of two trademarks that fell into common usage, and Google could be worried its name might one day be used to talk about rival search engines. It’s already appeared in dictionaries as a verb. Google’s stance seems oddly inconsistent. In 2004, the company started allowing advertisers to use other people’s trademarks to trigger their ads. Google has lost high-profile court cases in France on this issue. The company has also come under attack for caching images and scanning books without the copyright holders’ permission.

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August 11th, 2006

Convergence? Sort of…

Convergence? Sort of…

Since Prompt Communications went multi-national and opened up a new office in Boston, we decided now would be a good time to try out Skype as an internal communication tool. We’ve now got a couple of offices and many members of our team regularly work remotely from their homes, so it seemed like a useful tool.

I remember testing some of the early VOIP technology as a staff writer for PC Magazine in the late nineties, and even though the technology wasn’t quite ready back then I could see the potential for it to be huge. So I was glad to discover that Skype works really, really well. A conversation with somebody the US office turned out to be clearer than a conventional mobile or landline call to the UK – we’ve had a few dropped calls, but apart from that it’s just fine.

I find it more natural than speaking on the phone and am led to believe that this is because Skype uses a broader range of frequency than a standard telephone, which makes it easier to pick up the subtle nuances in the human voice which are so often lost in electronic voice communications. In any event, it’s working out nicely and I can see us using Skype a lot more from now on.

I’m interested in how our communications channels are converging and yet at the same time becoming fragmented. We’re fairly typical of most tech companies in that we use email, telephone, VOIP, instant messaging, and a variety of mobile devices. At the underlying technological level everything is merging together, you just have a bunch of different services running on IP and mobile networks. But from the end user perspective you have all these different services from different providers, both free and paid for, all running as separate entities. There’s some degree of integration at some levels, mobile phones with IM and email for example, or VOIP clients with integrated IM capability, but it’s all very slapdash.

IM is a perfect example of what’s wrong with this picture. We use MSN Messenger in the office for text based IM, but we also use Skype – so we each have two sets of presence management software for two different services, one (MSN Messenger) has good IM and poor VOIP, while the other (Skype) has good VOIP and poor IM. In an ideal world, we’d have one piece of presence management technology to let people know where we are and whether we’re available, and then we’d be able to plug in our choice of IM, VOIP and other communication technologies.

Whether this chaotic situation is likely to be resolved any time soon is anybody’s guess, but there’s no denying that at the moment we have a gaping hole in the market for some sort of unified communications system that brings all of the above channels together into a single, easy to manage platform.

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August 7th, 2006

AOL exposes user search histories

AOL exposes user search histories

AOL has deliberately published the full search queries of 500,000 of its users that were performed over a period of three months, severely infringing the privacy of many of those randomly selected. All screennames were removed but that wasn’t enough to protect the identity of many of the surfers. Some had searched for their own names, local amenities and friends and others had searched for social security numbers and addresses. When personally identifiable data is combined with searches for adult content and drugs, there is great potential for embarrassment and in some cases evidence of criminal activity. Following a backlash from the blogging community, AOL has removed the data. Not before an estimated 2000 copies were downloaded, though.

Quite apart from the ethics of putting this data in the public domain, the disclosure appears to contradict AOL’s own privacy policy, which explicitly mentions information about searches and says it will only be disclosed in a few exceptional circumstances (which do not include putting it all online as research fodder). Now that this data has been given away to anyone with internet access in contravention of the policy, AOL customers will be wondering what the point was of having a privacy policy in the first place. AOL has made a big deal out of branding itself as a company that can be trusted, but appears to have overlooked the significance of the data its users entrust to its care.

Many commentators are contrasting AOL with Google: In March, Google defied the US Department of Justice (DOJ) when the DOJ demanded search logs be handed over. Google won.

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August 2nd, 2006

Children's ID card to make online chat safer?

Children's ID card to make online chat safer?

A new ID card for children costing £10 per year has been launched that claims to make it safer for children to chat online. When children meet each other online, they can exchange virtual ID cards, and go to the Netidme website to confirm each other’s age, sex and approximate location before they begin chatting. Both children must be a member for the system to work and identities are only confirmed when both children agree they want to confirm their identities to each other. There’s a write-up at the BBC.

Application forms must be signed by a professional who knows the child, such as a teacher or doctor. It’s not clear from the site whether these individuals are then chased up to make sure their endorsement is valid on the form, but we would hope that they are because the idea is that the site should be able to provide a verified place to confirm a child’s identity.

The risk with the system is that it creates a gated community within which communications are assumed to be safe. It’s assumed to work because it’s much harder for adults to register false identities. But identity theft is a rising crime and criminals crack much more sophisticated security. If somebody with evil intentions did infiltrate this community, that person would be assumed to be the child whose identity they have taken on. The whole system only works as long as it is completely secure, and it’s highly unlikely any identity system could be said to be complete secure.

An ID card cannot replace parental responsibility, or the need for young people to be cautious when handling themselves online. Even when using systems like Netidme, it’s important that children are taught that there is a risk that people on the internet might not be who they claim to be and that they are taught how to protect themselves. Systems like identity cards can reduce the risk that children might be exposed to, but can never eliminate it.

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