Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/02/2004 - 09:05
I visited two Web sites this morning that illustrate perfectly two problems that I write about frequently:
The first site I visited was a well-known educational software publishing house. I wanted to order a typing program for one of my kids. For the second time in the past six weeks, I went through the entire order process, only to have the final "procesing your order" screen sit there and grind away without ever finishing the order. I had tried to place an order back in July with the same results.
I picked up the phone and got a nice salesperson who took my order, but I added another item, and she had to put me on hold because her internal company sales system would not show the item. She first had to look on the Web to establish what the product was, and then had to go ask someone how to enter the missing product into the system. She also admitted that the company knew the Web site did not work; "they are working on it," she told me.
It's almost beyond belief. The Web site ordering process has been broken for at least six weeks? This is pretty simple stuff these days. Even more unbelievable is that the in-house system can't even show all their products, and they probably have less than a hundred total. Here's an idea--give your ordering folks a piece of paper with the product names and numbers on it so they don't have to waste time looking on the Web site for it.
This is tyranny of the IT department in its purest form. Everyone in that department should be fired--they are costing the company untold amounts of revenue while they fiddle around with their software. The only possible explanation is "IT bullies;" the IT folks have completely flummoxed the company with jargon, arcane technical mumbo-jumbo, and IT fiddle-faddle. The IT department is running the company, with disastrous results. The IT department serves the company, not the other way around. Companies do not exist to provide full employment and ever-increasing budgets to the IT staff, but many IT departments have managed to pull this off.
Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/02/2004 - 07:39
If you think the Hydrogen Economy (part of the emerging Energy Economy) is some distant pipe dream that your region can safely ignore for another twenty years, think again.
UPS is testing hydrogen fuel cell-powered delivery trucks in three different parts of the country.
UPS says the trucks have power and acceleration comparable to the same size gas or diesel powered trucks, and 10% more space for cargo because of the compactness and efficiency of fuel cells. Even better, the trucks have zero emissions.
Yes, they cost more right now, but UPS has 80,000 vehicles in its fleet. Fuel is a major cost and rising. Over time, the new trucks can potentially save the company money--savings that will go straight to the bottom line.
As Skip Skinner, in the Lenowisco Planning District in southwest Virginia, is fond of reminding me, coal has a lot of hydrogen locked up inside it. Could it be that the coal belts in the U.S. become the hydrogen producers of the future? Could coal become "king" again? If it did, would your region be able to participate in that boom?
Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/01/2004 - 14:34
An Indian researcher has discovered that passing a gas over specially designed carbon nanotubes can generate measurable amounts of electricity.
Windpower is a growing industry that is increasingly competitive with coal and oil-generated power. But current windmills have drawbacks, including the noise, potential danger to birds and wildlife, and complex mechanical design.
The carbon nanotubes are solid-state (no moving parts), generate no noise, and would be much less intrusive than windmills. The system is still strictly experimental, but it's another piece of the emerging Energy Economy. One of the most important things to remember about the Energy Economy is that it will create entirely new businesses, and in turn, entirely new kinds of jobs. Is your region ready?
Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/01/2004 - 09:31
Community portals should be clean, simple, and easy to use. Jakob Nielsen, one of the top Web usability experts in the country, has a new column out on the importance of good, usable Web sites.
I see too many community portals that make the same mistakes Nielsen outlines.
Your community portal is how the rest of the world learns about your community. You want to put your best foot forward, so that you attract Knowledge Economy businesses and entrepreneurs who will want your broadband and your great quality of life. If your community Web sites are the very best they can be, you are missing a lot of economic development prospects. Disclaimer: Design Nine helps communities design and develop high quality community and local government portals.
Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/31/2004 - 09:46
The news is full of stories about USAir's financial woes, which they blame on the airline pilots. Their labor costs are probably too high. But I think there are other contributing factors. I just had to book a flight to Pittsburgh (round trip from Roanoke, Virginia). USAir has a hub there, and direct flights from Roanoke. The other three Roanoke airlines fly you through one of their hubs before getting to Pittsburgh.
You would think USAir would have a natural advantage, since businesspeople don't want to waste time in airports--a nonstop flight is always preferrable to one that requires a stop. Except when the nonstop flight costs two-thirds more! USAir is going broke because they are charging $800 for a single flight segment when all their competitors will fly two legs for under $500. Not only that, the times of the USAir flights are lousy, so I don't really lose that much time with the extra hop.
Another airline got my business, and USAir lost out because of absurd pricing coughed up by hideously complex pricing schemes generated by computer programs that only a bean counter could love. It's obvious that NO human being has ever looked at the Roanoke-Pittsburg pricing and asked, "Does this make sense?" If they had, the prices would be different, and USAir would be making money instead of losing it. Applied over their whole flight network, it's a wonder they have lasted this long. And it explains why the pilots are reluctant to make concessions--why should they if the real problem is not being fixed. Your costs could be zero, but if your prices drive your customers to another airline, it won't make any difference.
In part, this is a natural consequence of the Knowledge Economy. In the old days, travel agents worked mysteriously and invisibly to come up with ticket prices. They had special access to airline fee schedules, and we did not. So we took pricing more or less for granted. We had no information with which to make an informed decision. Today, I can hop onto Orbitz or Expedia and see every price from four or five airlines, and the pricing insanity that USAir calls a "business" is patently obvious.
Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/31/2004 - 08:09
FCC Chairman Michael Powell is on the side of businesses and consumers when he declared:
“This is about ensuring that high-speed Internet connections aren’t treated like what they’re not: telephones. A successful appeal of this case would ultimately mean lower prices and better service for American consumers. Applying taxes, regulations and concepts from a century ago to today’s cutting-edge services will only stifle innovation and competition.”
Powell and the FCC have appealed a 9th Circuit Court's ruling to the Supreme Court. The Circuit Court previously ruled that cable modem service is a telecom service, which would subject new, cost-saving services like Voice over IP to century old regulation and taxes--an anti-business and anti-consumer stance that benefits only the incumbent telephone service providers.
Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/31/2004 - 07:42
USA Today wrote an article about a month ago that I just stumbled across that's worth a read if you live in a rural area. The article details some of the new breed of rural wireless ISPs (WISPs) that are changing the way broadband is delivered in rural communities.
I am constantly surprised at the number of people who believe rural farmers don't want or don't need broadband. It's a myth, pure and simple. An ag agent told me over a year ago that half the cattle in Virginia are sold over the Internet. I met a farmer in southern Illinois last year that had built his own WiFi network to connect up weather and moisture sensors on his three farms. As we sat in his 150 year old farmhouse, he pulled up real time weather information from his sensors; he checks moisture levels every day without having to waste time riding around--he is using technology on a family farm to be more efficient and increase production.
The USA Today articles chronicles the work of big and small wireless firms, with an emphasis on the small outfits. One used an old farm silo to mount the antennas that supplies broadband to his customers. Another got into the wireless business to sell off expensive excess bandwidth he needed to run his own business.
As you read this article, one thing you notice is that these are not typical Manufacturing Economy businesses. They are not building manufacturing plants and office buildings. They are not renting space in business or industrial parks. They are not even renting space in the local business incubator. Many are home-based.
Does your economic development strategy include: a) Identifying these businesses (clue: they aren't relocating to your area and are not in your business park), and b) Providing capital, business planning and management, and marketing assistance?
These are "classic" Knowledge Economy businesses; they don't fit any of the old business stereotypes.
Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/27/2004 - 13:05
The Register reports on a new process to extract hydrogen from sunflower oil. It's potentially a breakthrough technology, because one of the drawbacks of hydrogen-powered cars is the difficulty of storing hydrogen. Using sunflower oil, scientists envision extracting hydrogen in real time from the oil while you drive your car.
The process is still expensive, but now that scientists understand the potential, it's likely that they will find ways to drop the price. It's just one more piece of the hydrogen economy, falling into place. Good news for northern Iowa, among other places (they grow sunflowers there). So rural Iowa may become an important part of the emerging Energy Economy. Who would have predicted that?
Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/27/2004 - 12:45
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Winer is on a cross country road trip, and is choosing his evening stops based largely on the availability of WiFi, like so many other travelers these days.
The TA folks not only have a page of links, but each link takes you direct to more information about each page. Note that the location page and latitude and longitude on it. Why, you might ask? So that the ever-increasing number of cars and trucks with GPS-enabled travel direction systems can use that information to direct you right to TA Travel Center.
The TA folks get it--that travelers and truck drivers are jacked in and want to stop where they can get Internet access. How about your community? Have you mapped your hotspots? Is that hotspot map easy to find on your community portal? Have you provided GPS coordinates?
All this stuff is easy to do, and will provide direct benefits as more travelers stop in your community to spend their travel dollars.
Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/27/2004 - 10:25
There is a mildly partisan op-ed piece in yesterday's USA Today about how jobs are and are not being counted in the U.S. Whichever side of the political fence you happen to be on, it's well worth a read. It does a nice job of summarizing the differences between the Payroll Survey (the traditional measure of jobs growth) and the Household Survey.
Briefly, the growing problem with the Payroll Survey is that it measures Manufacturing Economy growth (or lack of it). It measures only payroll changes. But in the Knowledge Economy, more and more workers are self-employed, and have little or no payroll. Many of these self-employed, if they expand, hire other self-employed workers on a project by project basis. This means that while they are providing employment for others, they are not adding to the Payroll Survey.
The Household Survey tries to take these other employment measures into account. Contrast the results of the two surveys in July of this year. The Payroll Survey reported an anemic 62,000 jobs added to the economy. The Household Survey reported a stunning 629,000 jobs added to the economy.
For communities, it is critical to understand the difference between the two and to adjust your economic development strategies appropriately. These numbers are nonpartisan statistics gathered by the Department of Labor. If you are measuring the success of your economic development program by the local growth of payroll jobs, you are missing (potentially) some 90% of the new jobs being created, based on the July numbers.
Are your economic developers shifting course and reallocating resources to better foster growth locally of self-employed workers, microenterprise businesses, and small business? If not, your region is at a major disadvantage--just look at the numbers.
Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/27/2004 - 09:58
Today, HP put their iPod on sale. This long awaited product is licensed from Apple, and is very similar in appearance to the current, 4th generation iPod. HP has also released "Tattoos," which is an ink jet media that you can print on and then apply as a cover to your iPod.
The iPod continues to be a remarkable product with remarkable sales strength. It has spawned literally thousands of add-on products. Some of the most popular add-ons are small, portable speakers that usually have a dock of some kind for the iPod, creating a mini-stereo system.
Duke, which has given iPods to all 1600 freshman, has apparently created a lot of animosity among the rest of the students who did NOT get iPods.
Longtime readers know that I think the iPod represents the next generation of computing devices. Ten years from now, desktop and all-in-one computers will seem quaint; we'll all have a pocket size device that allows us to carry all our files, work, music, and pictures wherever we go--oh, wait, the iPod does that now.
Lost in the dizzying success of the iPod as a platform for music is the fact that the iPod is a fully programmable computer that comes out of the box ready to use as a calendar, an address book, and a file system (it also comes with some games). Load your desktop files into the capacious iPod, and then plug it into any Mac anywhere in the world, and you have your entire work life ready to use. Once you get back to your home desktop machine, plug it in again and it will automatically sync up all those files.
Submitted by acohill on Wed, 08/25/2004 - 07:33
Dave Winer, who in many ways invented blogging, is on a coast to coast road trip. Guess what his number one complaint is? How hard it is to find hotspots at night so that he can get online and take care of work.
Everyone I've talked to in the past couple of months has laughingly agreed that they no longer care about hotel chains, frequent traveler points, or the quality of the breakfast buffet. One road warrior summed it up this way: "I'll sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, but I want broadband."
Hotels are catching on, and many chains now advertise their broadband access heavily. But others don't, and Winer's complaint is that it is too hard to find public hotspots. He wants local and regional maps he can pull up on the Web that identify where WiFi is available.
How does your community portal measure up? Can visitors quickly determine where the hotspots are in your community? How about your economic development Web site? Can your out of town relocation prospects find broadband access locations easily on your Web site?
A robust community portal, designed to meet the needs of visitors and economic development prospects, sends a strong message that your community "gets it." I still visit too many communities complaining about their lack of jobs and lack of economic development activity, but a quick check of the Web often reveals the following: no county Web site or a very limited one that looks like it was last updated in 1998; no community portal or a mediocre "tourist brochure" approach that is mostly pretty pictures and little information. Or the worst of all--dueling Web sites that all claim to be the "official" community portal. The latter situation is a clear signal that the community lacks leadership and direction.
The community portal is the world's window into your community. How your community portal portrays your schools, your civic organizations, your recreational activities, and the business life of your community counts.
Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/24/2004 - 11:17
Daily Wireless discusses a new NetGear home router product that has voice phone ports built in. NetGear is one of the biggest manufacturers of those cheap WiFi router/hubs that have been selling like hotcakes.
What's important about this is that it reduces the box count (and thereby the complexity) of the network in our homes and small offices. Stuff this like must strike fear into the hearts of the telcos; expect that two years from now, virtually every home router/hub will have phone jacks built in. Homeowners will be able to switch their entire set of home phones by simply unplugging the jack in the NIU (Network Interface Unit--the grey box on the side of your house) and simply plugging that wire into this NetGear box.
So we now have a sub-$100 box that provides broadband data and voice telephony. What's next? In a couple of years, we'll have the same kind of box with a coax connector on it to distribute television programming throughout the home.
Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/23/2004 - 08:54
This article [link no longer available] suggests I was write a couple of months ago when I said that AT&T still planned to offer consumer dialtone, despite their announcement that they were getting out of the consumer local and long distance market.
I suggested that this masked a push by AT&T to become a major VoIP player. AT&T is helping consumers who don't yet have a broadband connection to get one, using CableLabs' Web-based tool. This is a shrewd move, and VoIP may yet save AT&T, which over the past twenty years has made a whole series of poor business moves.
Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/23/2004 - 08:47
Om Malik points to a story in the Tri-City Herald about the benefits reaped by a local small business that is using VoIP. A local florist with stores in both Washington and Oregon estimates that he is saving $100/month by using VoIP instead of traditional long distance services.
Economic developers can help small businesses grow and add jobs by helping them understand the benefits of VoIP and how to pick a VoIP provider. With existing small businesses creating most jobs, one of the best job creation activities ED folks can engage in is saving existing businesses money on overhead like telephone service. The savings can be ploughed into business expansion. How does your region rate on helping existing businesses expand? What programs are in place to educate and train busy small businesspeople in new technologies?
Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/23/2004 - 08:00
The New York Times (registration required) has an article this morning on the FCC's decision to require VoIP service providers to implement phonetapping equipment. There will be public hearings before a final decision is made, but if the Federal government proceeds with this, it will burden the nascent industry with large costs and it will be mostly for naught.
Wiretapping a Voice over IP phone requires much more sophisticated equipment than the legacy phone system, and indeed, the term "wiretapping" hardly makes sense, since with VoIP you tap packets, not a physical wire connection. Those costs will be passed directly to consumers, increasing the cost of VoIP services and slowing the potential cost savings to consumers and businesses.
If VoIP tapping is implemented, bad guys won't use it. They will, instead, use any of a myriad of point to point voice conferencing software packages that are already in wide use. It's a little less convenient, but beyond the control of the government to stop. Outlaw such software (very unlikely), and bootleg software to do that will quickly become an illegal business opportunity.
Like so many businesses and governments, the FBI and other Federal agencies have failed to adapt to a changing environment. One can only hope that the public hearings bring this out and save us from the expense, waste, and lost business opportunities.
Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/20/2004 - 10:31
A New York Times article (registration required) talks about the growth in the worldwide market for ringtones (alternate ring sounds for mobile phones).
Most new cellphones have the ability to download alternate ringtones, which typically sell for $2-3 each. I've never understood the appeal of them--it's a phone, for crying out loud--all I want to know is that it is ringing. I don't need a long, noisy dirge to let me know that.
Nonetheless, I'm clearly a curmudgeon when it comes to this particular little piece of IT gadgetry. Worldwide, ringtones are now a $3 billion dollar market, and growing fast as more phones are bought with this capability. In a small bit of good news, perhaps Americans are a bit more sane than the rest of the world when it comes to this stuff, as the U.S. market for ringtones lags behind Europe and Asia.
The ringtone industry is in a major lather right now because the newest cellphones have polyphonic capability (meaning they can play snippets of real songs, rather than a tinny melody of the song). The music industry is gearing up to license huge chunks of their music archives as ringtones, including some downright foul and/or insulting recordings.
There is a larger issue behind all this. Who could have predicted even three years ago that a major, multi-billion dollar market would have emerged around ringtones? As dumb as they may be, the ringtone industry is creating jobs and revenue streams across whole industries.
It's creative destruction at work. Yes, some of our factory and low level office jobs are being outsourced to low wage countries. But whole new industries are replacing them. Would you rather work in the music industry as a ringtone and license manager or work in a satellite TV call center making cold calls? Which kind of job would be better for your region?
Trying to preserve the jobs and economic development strategies of the past is an exercise in futility. Communities need to be looking ahead, and planning in a futures context, instead of the context of what worked well in 1970.
Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/19/2004 - 12:12
If you use Windows, here is some scary information for you. Wired reports on a study that shows an unprotected Windows computer becomes infected with some kind of malignant virus or malware just 20 minutes after being connected to a broadband connection (e.g. cable modem or DSL).
Wired wryly notes that that is not even enough time to download a typical set of patches from Microsoft.
I get asked all the time why I use Macs. One answer (I have several reasons why) is that I have not had a virus on any Mac I've used since 1993. Yes, there are fewer viruses written for Macs, and that plays some part, but the Unix operating system is both more resistant to infection and has much stronger controls than Windows. And out of the box, the default settings on a Mac are designed to make the machine very resistant to attack.
I still get asked all the time about compatibility. It's never been a problem for me. Microsoft Office on the Mac is virtually identical to the Windows version, and I open, read, and edit Office documents created on Windows on a daily basis. Bottom line--I get more work done with less effort and less cost.
Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/19/2004 - 11:03
Design Nine outgrew our old office space, and over the past week we moved into new, larger quarters--we're still in Blacksburg, Virginia, though.
I had to completely disassemble my desktop computer, something I have not had to do in over two years, when this machine was brand new. I ended up with a box of some 30+ cables for a computer and office phone, which on the face of it seems absurd for an otherwise entirely straightforward desktop machine used primarily for email and writing. In part, much of the problem has been the extraordinary success of the USB protocol as a peripheral connectivity solution.
In the "old" days, about three years ago, you typically had a couple of serial ports and two or three SCSI devices. You had a limited number of peripherals you could have hooked up at one time, and your ambitions for connected gagdets was low.
With the advent of USB, you could stick a hub on and fill it with as many things as you liked, and they would all actually work very well (most of the time). I have a seven port USB hub, and six ports are in use. Combine those USB cables with phone cables, Firewire cables, and power cables for all the devices, and you end up with a mess. It is incredibly ugly, difficult if not impossible to keep neat, and amazing that it works at all.
Firewire, in theory, should solve many of these problems. Firewire devices can be daisy-chained, so you don't have the multiple cable problem of USB, and Firewire is capable of providing more power than USB, so you can actually eliminate the AC/DC voltage converters entirely. Apple's iPod is a perfect example of this. You connect the iPod to your laptop or desktop with a single, thin Firewire cable that recharges the battery and transfers data several times faster than USB.
But Firewire has yet to reach its potential. Many PCs still do not come with Firewire (it's standard on all Macs), and even on the Mac, it does not always work as expected. My Firewire video camera (no power cable, thank you) does not get along with my Firewire hard drive (big AC power cable), and I have to unplug the camera when I back up files to the external Firewire hard drive.
Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/16/2004 - 09:22
Millions of people now have Paypal accounts, online access to bank accounts, and other online access to financial transactions, typically protected only by the passwords they pick themselves.
If you are still using your dog's name or some other simple four or five letter word for your password, you may want to read this short article on the various ways bad people are using to steal passwords.
The best passwords are at least eight characters long, and consist of an apparently random string of mixed case characters and at least one digit. My bank also requires a special character (like an ampersand or a dollar sign).
If you pick four or five good passwords and use them consistently, you can protect yourself and still not go crazy trying to remember them. For example, use one or two passwords on all your insecure sites (e.g. news sites, etc.) and don't ever mix the passwords you use for financial sites.
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