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April 29th, 2008

Bad customer service with Comcast? Go Tweet yourself

Bad customer service with Comcast? Go Tweet yourself

Comcast, a US telecommunications and cable company, which is renowned for bad customer service has started paying attention to the blogosphere in a major way, according to the Seattle Times. The company has a small division that exclusively focuses on monitoring blog postings and Twitter feeds to find out what people are saying about them. It is small (only 5 people) and growing. This represents a realization by a large corporation that it is imperative to be aware of what people are saying in blogs about the company.

They have recognized the fact that social media is, in large part, responsible for building brand image. The users are in control of the message and each and every customer service gaffe is potentially a threat to their image and business. The only reliable way right now to have Comcast hear your complaint and respond promptly is to blog or Tweet about it. It’s a sad fact that Comcast isn’t able to deal with the enormous volume of complaints that come in, but at least they can plug their fingers in the leaks of their sinking ship by monitoring and responding to social media.

Below are some unsolicited suggestions for how Comcast should deal with this issue (we know you’re reading this ;-) ). Speaking from my experience working for Prompt, a company that specializes in monitoring social media as it relates to people’s opinions on companies, it is encouraging to see a company taking steps to monitor the blogosphere and here are several ways to take it a few steps further.

1. Be proactive, not reactive

Too often we see companies address social media only as a form of crisis management. The fact that it is getting noticed that Comcast is monitoring and responding to all of these blog postings is evidence in itself that Comcast is not as active in the blogosphere as it could be.

By creating in engaging campaigns for influential bloggers and having constant positive posts written about the company, the negative ones are much less noticeable. Comcast, I’m sure, has a lot of good stories and satisfied customers that we don’t hear about.

2. Remember that anything can be blogged about

Comcast should train its employees to note that anything and everything can be blogged about. Gone are the days where the public only was able to receive opinions on companies from journalists and people close to them, because now a few bad experiences can completely damage a brand.

Imagine if employees all interacted with customers knowing that anything they say could be talked about by the customer and how that would make them much more motivated to provide better customer service. In a company the size of Comcast, and especially one that outsources call centers a lot, of course not all customer service problems would be solved this way, but surely it would at the very least make employees more aware of their actions.

3. Be a company of bloggers

This starts at the highest level of a company. Think Jonathan Schwartz at Sun. Think Marc Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks/HDNet. In the blogosphere, these two figureheads of their respective companies are very well regarded, and so are the companies’ brands by bloggers.

Have you ever been away from home and met someone else from your home city or near to it? And how much more likely did that make you feel kinship for them? I’m sure a great deal more than someone who didn’t share that same reference group with you. The more a company genuinely interacts with bloggers and becomes one itself, the greater the blogging community will feel a certain kinship with the company. A CEO blogger is a great way to do that, by having a figurehead that bloggers can relate to. Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts would do well to note this trend and create a blog on Comcast’s front page. Many successful companies are doing this already, and for a company that is so concerned with what their customers think about it, it is only natural that is should start to genuinely engage with them and put a face to the corporation.

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April 17th, 2008

A New Power Generation?

A New Power Generation?

Modern consumer gadgetry is sold as much on its desirability as its technical ability. The days when a laptop, mobile phone or media player succeeded because of processing power, features or capacity are long gone. Instead customers want to hear about colour schemes, brand identity and pocketability. One consideration remains constant however, whether you’re interest is in pixel density and platform interoperability or free minutes and celebrity endorsement – just how long will the damn thing last before it needs a recharge?

Power consumption might seem mundane, but whatever your criteria for judging a gadget, it’s a major throttle on innovation and progress. Big clear bright screens, nippy high-capacity smart-drives and multi-megapixel video capture all eat up power, but big hulking power sources don’t fit into sexy form factors. Manufacturers and designers have squeezed incredible life out of lithium-ion batteries to date, but compromises have had to be made along the way and the result is, well, quite exciting toys with pretty good battery life. The ongoing quest for drop-dead gorgeous, ultra-slim, feature-packed shiny slices of technical wonderment will inevitably lead to a new generation of portable power sources.

If you read this week’s Prompt newsletter you’ll notice that MTI Micro is the latest vendor to claim it will be integrating methanol fuel cells into mobile phones, cameras and other gadgets commercially, this time as soon as 2009. But what exactly are fuel cells, why are they expected to revolutionise product development, and are we really going to see them in consumer gadgets anytime soon?

Surprisingly the first fuel cells were invented way back in 1839 by a Sir William Grove (unless you’re German, in which case Schonbein is your man), who understood electrolysis, realised that water could be split in this way into hydrogen and oxygen, and wondered if you could turn the process on its head and make electricity and water out of gas. It turned out you could, he had invented the gas voltaic battery, and had bought scientists around 150 years or so to make ’em small and efficient enough to power electric cars and mobile phones.

Sadly there have been a few stumbling blocks between Sir William’s shed and our pockets that the humble battery has covered up for in the intervening years. Problems vary depending on the type of fuel cell (there are lots) and the intended application (again, lots, from substations to torches), but let’s concentrate on pocket-sized methanol fuel cells. The biggest obstacle has been the research and development time to get the designs to a consumer-friendly level. Then there’s the problem of passing on these costs to customers while remaining competitive with humble batteries, and convincing manufacturers and consumers to make the mental leap from plugging in their gadgets to a familiar power socket, to squeezing fuel into expensive, shiny new equipment. Finally there’s the small matter of travelling a security-obsessed world with fuel-laden devices in your pocket, plus numerous other little considerations that seem trifling to fuel cell developers but are alien to the rest of us.

But back to the good news – MTI says it’s ploughing ahead and we’ve no reason to disbelieve it. The company’s CTO says we’ll get twice as much life out of his fuel cells than any equivalent lithium battery and that a recharge cartridge can be squirted into one of its compatible SLR cameras in a second, rather than waiting three hours for a full battery charge. By-product water is recirculated and never comes in contact with any electronics, while CO2 emitted is negligible to the environment, comparable to say, breathing out a bit. MTI also points out that methanol is only flammable if you set light to it (like most other things) and as such is far safer than a spontaneously combusting laptop battery, for example.

So will fuel cell powered devices be in the High Street next year? Well, three pieces of news came to light this week that might bring that day a little closer.

Firstly, MTI has convinced Samsung to work with it to make its consumer device plans a reality. Secondly, as well as its fuel-cell embedded cameras, MTI has decided to put its efforts into launching a universal charger powered by fuel cells that can attach to a wide range of mobile phones or MP3 player via a USB cord and charge them up. And finally, in its 2008 Portable Fuel Cell Survey, growing niche publication Fuel Cell Today has revealed that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has ruled in favour of allowing fuel cell devices and a limited number of methanol recharging cartridges into commercial airline cabins.

FCT now claims: “The prospect of a portable product being launched on the wider public within the next two years is well within the bounds of possibility.” We’re not sure about 2009 – fuel-cells could make some very exciting gadgets possible very soon, but for now we’ll stay conservative, point you towards the latest news from the leading players and ten year market forecasts, and keep our eye out for any new developments.

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April 17th, 2008

Vista: Gotta get me some

Vista: Gotta get me some

Have you been yearning to listen to a great Bruce Springsteen cover band singing about Microsoft Vista? Well, I’m sure that you, and the millions of people just like you that have been wanting the same thing, will enjoy the following video that I first caught on Matt Asay’s blog today. Microsoft recently had an internal video leak that has just that. Not only is it campy and a bad parody, you just know that it cost them a lot of money. See, this is what I like about dealing with open source companies a lot, there is always a community of people that can say “no, that’s a terrible, horrible idea” to make sure videos like this don’t happen.

Microsoft really needs to get The SEO Rapper involved to make the next video for Vista. Not only are his rhyme schemes solid, his technical knowledge and advice are sound.

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April 16th, 2008

What is Gordon Brown doing?

What is Gordon Brown doing?

For those of you who follow Gordon Brown’s movements as closely as the tabloids follow the antics of Britney Spears, I have good news: 10 Downing Street has launched its very own Twitter service.

Twitter is a service that allows users to communicate through quick, frequent messages by answering the question “what are you doing?”. Users can send these short messages, or tweets, online or from their mobile devices. The service has grown rapidly and recently hit the headlines because of its ability to relay information so quickly. Twitter users were tweeting about the biggest earthquake to hit the UK in 50 years before a peep had been heard from formal news organisations, the BBC included.

When it comes to Number 10, Twitter provides a constant rolling stream of information, not to mention a rather voyeuristic peephole, into the daily activities of Gordon Brown and his government. For instance, I have just been able to monitor the progress of Brown’s meeting with Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, through the following tweets:

Gordon is in a meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as I Twitter. Keep reading the newsblog on the visit site too.

Ban Ki-moon meeting finished a moment ago – Zimbabwe, Darfur, development, Kosovo and others on the agenda.

While dragging government communications into the 21st century with services like Twitter can help provide information and interactive communication channels between citizens and the government, particularly when it comes to often apathetic younger voters, one has to wonder if perhaps we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain. I, for one, certainly do not need to know that “No10 admin in the US is tired, but surviving on strong coffee and muffins”.

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April 14th, 2008

More space than I'd know what to do with

More space than I'd know what to do with

Could flash memory be a thing of the past? Boffins at IBM have created a new type of digital storage that would allow mobile gadgets like phones and iPods to store a hundred times more information than they presently can.

This new ‘racetrack’ memory actually sounds quite promising. The Times reports that the breakthrough in storage technology would not only allow an iPod to store half a million MP3s, and 3,500 full length films, but it would be very cheap to produce too. The research team claims that the technology uses less power and a single battery charge would last for weeks. It also has no moving parts, meaning that it should be pretty reliable. The technology can store information very quickly, faster than regular hard drives, and does not have the ‘wear out’ mechanism that afflicts flash memory drives.

The technology works by storing data in columns of magnetic material arranged on the surface of a silicon wafer. The information moves around the columns at high speed, hence the name ‘racetrack’ memory.

Stuart Parkin, the IBM fellow who led the research, said that “the promise of racetrack memory – for example, the ability to carry massive amounts of information in your pocket – could unleash creativity leading to devices and applications that nobody has imagined yet,” and perhaps he has a point. With such a huge increase in space available, there’s a good chance that it could inspire a creative surge.

Personally, I’m getting excited by the thought of being able to store entire series of television on a pocket-sized device, although the cynic in me points out that it’s far more space than I would ever need.

It may be a moot point anyway. There’s no sign of when the research will yield fully working, commercially available products. It is still in the ‘exploratory stage’, and the only time frame given is the annoyingly vague ‘within ten years’.

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April 9th, 2008

The Death of Mobile Phone Etiquette

The Death of Mobile Phone Etiquette

‘Oh my god, did you see what she was wearing the other night? I know, wait, what did you just say? WHAT? WHAT?!!!? I can’t hear you I’m on the bus…What??!!?.. OH YEAH!!, her outfit was awful!’

No, you did not just read a transcript from MTV’s ‘The Hills’. This was a conversation that someone was having on their mobile phone on the bus on my way into work today. It got me thinking about mobile usage on public transport and more specifically on airplanes.

The EU announced last week that as early as this summer, people will be allowed to use their mobile phones on European aircraft carriers. This new found freedom poses issues not only around pricing, (since most mobile operators will be clambering to charge astronomical roaming charges whilst you are on board) but also mobile phone etiquette on planes. People nowadays have no problem having personal and even business negotiations in very public places. While I’m all in favour of being connected, I think a 40 minute mobile phone discussion on a bus on the merits of someones outfit borders on excessive. The plane was the last form of transport that you could have a mobile free experience – not anymore.

Say for instance you are flying the London to Istanbul and want to get some shut-eye on the flight before the big 10am meeting. You get seated next to chatty Kathy who decides to pass the 5 hour flight by talking loudly and calling all her friends to discuss her latest personal problems. You have to listen to her insipid conversation and there is nothing you can do about it. OK, that’s an extreme example but you get the picture.

One solution is to limit mobile usage,something that Emirates plans to do on its Casablanca route. Other airlines such as Lufthansa are banning usage all together as they felt that ‘people don’t want to be disturbed.’ With RyanAir, BMI, and Portugal’s TAP airlines planning to roll this out later this year, mobile calls on planes are set to become commonplace.

So think of your neighbour and have some mobile phone etiquette next time you are on plane or just remember to bring good pair of ear-plugs!

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April 4th, 2008

Blogs and Brands

Blogs and Brands

A Prompt Social Media report, out this week, has shown us what the nation most likes to blog about. Apple, the BBC and Google proved to be the most popular brand names bashed into a keyboard, thus proving that bloggers like to discuss topical news stories and global brands.

What is interesting about this study, which was completed in January 2008, is that it demonstrates that is not the actual product, company or person that is being written about, but their latest advertising campaign. This demonstrates that big named brands that have established themselves, and who have the cash to throw at their advertising and marketing agencies, will be the ones to receive most coverage in blogs.

Cadbury is featured, which has to be because of its brilliant advert in late 2007 featuring a man dressed up in a monkey costume playing the drums along to Phil Collins’ ‘In the air tonight’. Other popular blog topics included I Am Legend and Transformers, the hit films of the Christmas period, in cinema and on DVD, and Heroes, last year’s TV phenomenon.

All of these have tied in 10th place, as has floppy haired, bespectacled TV chef Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall. He was a heavy target on the blogs due to the ‘Hugh’s Chicken Run’ TV series that aired at the beginning of 2008 in which he sparked debate by setting up his own chicken production line, showing the difference between battery hens and free range.

So much for the myth that a blogger is someone who can talk about nothing but computers…

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April 1st, 2008

April Fools' Recap

April Fools' Recap

As someone who constantly watches tech news looking for big announcements or new cutting edge technology, I can’t imagine a more frustrating day than April 1st. It’s been impossible to read anything online today because everyone wants to take advantage of April Fools’ Day and throw around false information. But now that the day is just about over, it’s OK to spoil some of the best surprises.

First to strike was Google in Australia who announced “Google Future Search“, a tool allowing surfers to find information 24 hours ahead. Google then followed up with Virgle, the “Open Source Planet“, as well as the Google Wake Up Kit, Google Dream Ads, and the “New airplane” functionality of Google Docs.

Not to be outdone by its parent company, YouTube Rickrolled the world by making all of the site’s featured videos link to the same video.

Former TechTV host Chris Pirillo ran a day full of joke posts, including why he is switching back to XP from OSX and “I hate the iPhone“, not to mention his multiple Rickrolls from his newly invisible Twitter page that was “optimized for IE8”.

One of the best Windows Mobile sites, PocketPCThoughts.com had a full day of fake posts, from the New iPhone Running Windows Mobile, to the equally ironic: Windows Abandons Windows Mobile in Favor of Apple OS.

And also there was Techcrunch posted about a fake lawsuit against Facebook for $25m (which was awkwardly posted a day early).

As frustrating as it was to attempt to read any tech “news” today, it just made me excited to get home and work with some real cutting edge technology

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