Category Archives: Technology

Dear Microsoft, please get it right next time.

Microsoft currently have a mountain of a task ahead of them.  The number of Windows versions in use at present displays a level of fragmentation that would make Android sit up and take notice.  Despite the dropping of support for XP earlier this year it still accounts for a quarter of computers according to Micromart this week.  This is not surprising considering that large enterprises that use hundreds or thousands of XP machines are able to pay extra to extend support.  There are also a large number of home users that are not too keen on spending over a hundred pounds to get a new OS.  I have a computer that still has XP on a partition because it is far more convenient for the support of older software and hardware.  It also means that the computer in question cost less to buy than simply the disc for a new Windows 8 installation.


Anyone who has been a regular purchaser of computers will know that Microsoft have a reputation for releasing dud operating systems inbetween every decent OS.  At the turn of the millenium they released such a dud that it has all but been forgotten.  Ask most people what came before XP and their answer will probably be Windows 98.  I have seen some machines that are still running the millennium edition.  Perhaps they will have massive value for rarity, it certainly won’t be for memorability.  After XP came Vista, an OS so universally hated that it currently only has 3% market share.  I had one of the first laptops running Vista and it consistently took 15 minutes from pressing the power button before it would recognise that there was anyone present who wished to do any computing.  Windows 7 was the rebound to an OS that was once again pleasant and useful.  As I have aged it feels like no sooner was Windows 7 released than they brought out the current atrocity that is Windows 8.


Atrocity may be a bit harsh as the OS has been significantly improved since it was first released.  It is actually the sort of OS I would be quite happy to use now if it weren’t for the fact that upgrading would cost me more than my desktop computer cost to buy.  When it was first released it only cost £20 for the upgrade.  Cynically I think that may be because it was so bad that they would really have needed to pay people to take it on.  Certainly charging a cheap price wasn’t enough to stimulate take up as only around 12% of users are on Windows 8 compared to approximately half of users on Windows 7.


Microsoft are aiming to fix all this with Windows 9, which is due out late next year.  It will be the unification of computer and mobile operating systems.  It will also reverse all the mistakes that were made with Windows 8.  Fingers crossed.  Despite running betas and doing huge amounts of consumer surveys MS somehow managed to completely ignore everyone’s concerns with their last attempt at a new OS.  It is almost as if they deliberately tried to create the worst possible OS because they knew that the Microsoft curse of the alternating success/failure would ruin it anyway.


It must be frustrating for MS when they see Apple release a new OS every year and the whole mac using clan clamour to get it so fast that the Apple servers clam up for the whole day.  Once Windows 9 has been released it is my hope that Satya Nadella will learn from the past and will start releasing new operating systems in the same way that Apple do.  Instead of releasing an OS so different that everyone hates it and no one knows how to use it.  They could release new versions every year which change only just enough to include new and helpful features that people want to see.  Instead of releasing an OS that has taken four or five years to develop for a week’s wages they could release an OS that has only taken a year to develop for the amount of cash you might spend in a couple of hours in the pub.  That strategy seems to work for Apple.  That is why almost everyone gets each new update.  People even deliberately go and buy new machines just so they can get the new software update.

If the Windows user base started taking up new updates that consistently, MS would reap the huge benefit that almost everyone would be using just one version of their software.  That has got to make support easier.  The problem in the first place is that Satya Nadella is essentially beginning a new era for Microsoft software.  In order to make it work he needs to get everyone on the same starting line.  The people who are still clinging to XP are not going to drop £100 or more for Windows 9 if they didn’t for Windows 8.  There are rumours that Windows 9 will be offered as a cheap upgrade for users of 8 but really it needs to be offered as a cheap purchase for all PC users.  If it was £20 across the board then MS might succeed in getting most users to adopt the new OS when it is released.  If it was free then they would have even more success.  Once the vast majority of users have been converted the wise thing to do would be to adopt a release schedule closer to that offered by Apple and not try to reinvent computing with each new release.  We may all benefit from change but it is in human nature to resist it.


A tech utopia could be possible in a different world.

Having just read the Guardian article ‘The tech utopia nobody wants‘ it occurred to me that laying the blame on the nerds was unfair.  To some the idea of feeding the poor the artificial food stuff ‘Soylent’ in lieu of food stamps is a mark of a repellent future, just as there are people who rebel against the idea of Google glass becoming ubiquitous.  The problem is not a problem with the technology though, the rapidly changing nature of technology merely highlights flaws that have existed in society since the enlightenment era began.

Certainly there are solid reasons to allow the developers of technology to have less control over our lives.  Almost every piece of software I use has a feeling of being a beta version.  Some software is released in permanent beta; much of the software we use is supposed to be a finished polished version but is far from perfect.  Bugs and flaws are a common experience while we work on our computers; imagine if we had to put up with bugs and flaws in every aspect of our lives.  In fact we do have bugs and flaws running through many aspects of our daily lives because so many things are based around very modern technology.  The hidden pollutants and costs that frequently appear in our power sources, or the health problems caused by food additives are two examples of how technology exists throughout our lives and is not just the domain of silicon valley.

A very broad definition of technology would probably take in much more than the electronic world.  Stephen Fry, who is known for his love of technology once gave the example of the lighter as being the most important gadget ever invented.  We are so used to the lighter that we barely recognise it as something that hasn’t always existed, but almost everything around us is technology embodied.  Go back a thousand years and the average person might only have owned half a dozen things.  They would have had their clothing, which would have been barely more than what we might think of as a potato sack; they would have owned a bowl and maybe a knife; they might have owned a stool to sit on and a scraggy straw mattress to sleep on.  Aside from that there were not a great many possessions for most people; they were lucky to own themselves.  In the time since then technology has furnished almost everything around us.

When we live in what is arguably a tech utopia, or dystopia, already it cannot be fair to complain that the chaps in silicon valley are only now creating a tech utopia we don’t want.  We have had it for years already.  The complaint that it is only just happening now is simply fear of change.

However, it is not change in my view.  It is more of the same that we have been getting throughout the last few hundred years.  Many people are not happy and those who are happy are fully aware of reasons for the others to not be happy.  My opinion is it all comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of utilitarianism.  Jeremy Bentham was one of the most influential proponents of utilitarianism, which is basically the belief that the greatest happiness of mankind should be the ultimate aim of all effort.  Naturally there are trade offs and under a strict utilitarian view it would be acceptable to sacrifice the happiness of the few in order to guarantee the happiness of the many.  The cruelty of nature prevents more humanistic philosophies from being practical as we simply are not able to prevent all unhappiness, misery and harm.

Bentham’s philosophy has had a strong hand in the dominance of the free market system.  According to the understanding of the free market we should be able to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people by allowing competition to bring prices down and increase efficiencies so that eventually everybody will be able to afford all the luxuries they could possibly wish for and live in nice warm houses with big screen TVs and plenty of food.

The flaw in this of course is glaringly obvious but often overlooked; the output of the free market does indeed make people happier but as anyone with the most basic understanding of physics can tell you:- for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and, matter and energy cannot be created from nothing, only transformed.  There may be many other ways of saying it but essentially the free market doesn’t only create output, it also uses input.  The output makes people happy but it is often very much overlooked how much the input can make people unhappy.

There are minorities who are unhappy about many of the effects of the free market; unregulated industries creating pollution and other environmental problems comes to mind immediately.  Utilitarianism allows for the misery of the minority so long as the majority becomes happier; for this reason it takes a lot of impetus before many of the complaints against the free market are dealt with.  Often the solution itself is an effect of the efficient operation of the free market in that customers deliver a message by altering their buying behaviour.  There are many different and overlapping minority opinions that eventually become resolved in this way like direct democracy in action.  There is an area where there seems to be an increasing problem that is being overlooked which offends against the principles of utilitarianism and the basis of why we wish to use a free market system – the input that is needed to create the output that benefits us.

When the original English economist Adam Smith travelled through Europe as a tutor he met the French economistes whose ideas inspired his later book, ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and kick-started our modern approach to economics.  The economistes grew to be known as physiocrats as economics developed on account of their view that the wealth of nations depended upon the agriculture of the nation.  It was agriculture that fed the horses and fed the men and thus allowed work to be done and allowed development to occur.  Prior to this, wealth was largely considered to be how much gold and silver a nation possessed.  Since those days, changes in technology have caused the wealth of a nation to be defined more by how much oil it can access.  The more oil a nation possesses the more machines it can power and the more plastics it can manufacture.  The majority of the input needed to create our output is therefore provided by oil fields and coal.  The problem is that there is still a link in the chain that has more in common with the early days of economics when Smith was travelling through Europe.  We may not make great use of horses anymore but production still relies a lot on people.

So while we take out all our products in the hope that we will create the greatest amount of happiness, we must still input our own efforts to produce them.  We find we are not as happy as we wish because we are not producing enough wealth and enough products, and our solution is to streamline our processes, and become more efficient.  We must work our factories harder and create more output in order to create this greatest amount of happiness.  In theory this should work but it seems that at a most basic fundamental level the powers who oversee this process have overlooked the fact that the consumer is also the creator.  The streamlining makes the overall amount of happiness decrease as men become automatons working in streamlined production lines, always aiming for greater efficiency.  The reward for achieving greater efficiency is to be challenged to achieve even greater efficiency by the next appraisal.

Societal happiness decreases.  The solution: push harder to be even more efficient.

This is not the approach in all nations of the world.  Many countries and many companies are well aware of the absurdity of this approach, but often they only have this luxury while wealth is abundant.

To bring this blog around full circle to my beginning point I think one of the major complaints that can be levelled at a technological approach is that we have become so good at inventing and building machines and computers that we have forgotten that not everything runs like a computer.  Our technology may be very advanced but our understanding of medicine, psychology, politics, and economics among other disciplines is nowhere near as advanced.  Our mistake is to think that the lessons we have learnt in technology can be applied across all disciplines.  The analogies do not work.  Society cannot be run like a machine because the happiness we are aiming to create exists outside the physical processes of creation and consumption.  Everyone is aware that as consumers we are not machines, but the thing that legislators seem to have forgotten is that as producers we are not machines either.

Today’s blog has not been optimised for Search Engines

Search Engine Optimisation is an unusual art.  Do you remember the days when you would do a web search and the first page you would click on would simply be a list of all the words you could think of that just happened to include your search terms.  Nowadays of course you can present a website of any sort of content and then simply put your wordlist in the metatags; a mild improvement.  I recently started ditching my independent websites when one of them, a wiki, was taken over by what must have been content introduced by bots.  I assume it was bots because otherwise someone really had too much time on their hands and too little talent to spend it creating anything original.  I am sure there was some esoteric reason for filling up gigabytes of space with complete garbage but I have no idea what it was.   Of course, filling up gigabytes of space with complete garbage is a trade for some people, usually attached to an income from advertising.  A recent trend has been to draw in people with click bait, such as ‘you will never believe the totally amazing thing that this girl does with her swimming costume’, ‘List of the top ten most awesome ways to get your perfect job’ or ‘Scientists discover that using toothpaste has been linked to death in your sleep’.  Most of the times the titles are misleading, not totally amazing, not difficult to believe, etc.  People still click on them though and for that reason the web is becoming overwhelmed with them, especially when the popularity of a link is part of what pushes it up the search rankings to make it more easily visible and therefore more often clicked so that the problem self perpetuates.   A lot of the time the people writing these articles are probably talented writers but like everyone else in the modern world have had to put their ethics and morals to one side in order to obey rules blindly in the short term rush to grab profits.  Websites claiming to be focussed on business are likely to be doing top tens of skimpiest bathing costumes and websites claiming to be focussed on technology are writing misleading headlines that show a complete misunderstanding of an underlying scientific discovery.   The overall effect is a lowering of quality on the internet.  Little wonder that newspapers are disappearing behind paywalls when they find that their quality journalism is being ignored 9 times out of ten by people who have latched onto a ridiculous story that looks like it should have been printed in the Sunday Sport or the Enquirer.  Little wonder that the quality of journalism in the quality press is also dropping.  There are a few quality magazines/papers left and they seem to be as big in paper as they are on the web.  To be on the web is a great way to become lost in an electronic forest amongst the noise of a billion digital trees of rapidly changing cultural memes.  There is no way to really know what will rise to the surface but in general it will be whichever items have made the greatest use of SEO.   Things will change though.  Just like the height of SEO sophistication at the turn of the century was to simply fill a webpage with the contents of a dictionary, we will find that the tricks being utilised today will eventually be picked apart by advanced search algorithms.  Even using a few fresh ideas of how to aim searches could radically alter the way in which we search the web.  As computers become better at filtering out the garbage a lot of the unworthy rubbish that wastes our time will begin to disappear.  Even learning to really use the search boxes in our browsers a little better could allow us to banish a lot of the things that annoy us.   In ten years we may be able to create our own filter bubbles to let us see only the things we want to see.  Much like we can now ask Google to show web results or news results or video results perhaps we will be able to set up our own advanced tabs where we simply click once and suddenly all the cats in boxes are gone and they have taken with them all the candidates for America’s funniest home videos and every mention of what Miley Cyrus did last week.  We can already have a lot of control with advanced search on Google.  Some of the other search engines also offer differing degrees of control but it all takes trouble and thought to craft every search. One day all the trouble that has been take with choosing all the right SEO terms and putting in links to pertinent places may all have been for nothing.  In the short term the sites have certainly gotten the attention they wanted but maybe the tarmac of dross that covers the surface of the internet will begin to crack as weeds start to find their way through into your searches, soon grasses and trees will start to push the tarmac apart and maybe the dross will be replaced by a flourishing ecosystem of information and data, the way the internet should have been, the kind of internet that can change the world.  Perhaps this blog might even be read by some people then instead of them spending their time watching Ray William Johnson telling a dick joke.   Today’s post was inspired by this page from ClickZ –

Google’s purchase of Nest may be a far better idea than it seems.

I have found myself drawn into the debate over the recent acquisition of Nest by Google.  As Nest is a maker of thermostats it is not a subject I would have paid the slightest attention to if it hadn’t been so extensively covered on the Tektalk podcast; by covered I mean panned, slated, poopooed, belittled, you get the drift.  A lot of people seem to be somewhat shocked by the purchase as it cost Google 3.2 billion dollars.  When Google itself has just under 60 billion in spendable assets then it makes 3.2 seem like a lot for a company I had never heard of until this week.  Playing devil’s advocate I intend to defend the purchase.  It seems to me that this is a lynch pin in the Google game plan.

My initial reason for looking deeper is that my wife feels the cold really badly.  I mean Really Badly, with capital letters.  When I am walking around the house in a Tshirt she will be wearing two cardigans and two blankets with a hot water bottle and the central heating on.  The idea of being able to turn the heating on when we are still ten minutes away from home is something that we would want to have asap.

My second thought is that this is a perfect additional tile for Google Now.  I have installed Google Now on a couple of occasions but aside from its excellent speech recognition it is of little use to me.  I work at home, I don’t drive, immediately a lot of its use disappears.  I also feel like an idiot talking to my phone in public and if I did I would find that it couldn’t find a 3g signal so I was wasting my time.  Such is the problem of living in the countryside, if I use anything other than an ancient nokia I have no hope of getting 3g.  If my heating could learn to control itself according to my motions then I would have a lovely toasty home all the time and my wife would be far more happy.

The best reason for my optimism in the purchase of Nest though is the money it will be able to save consumers.  I have heard the opinion that this is an expensive purchase, and wasted money but when your heating can learn how best to save electric in doing your will then you are going to save a lot of money.  Nest themselves reckon the saving will be about 20% of your heating bill.  This will pay for itself in no time.  Aside from the benefit of saving cash for your pocket you will also have the huge benefit of easing a great deal of stress on the environment.  Climate change will be reduced, air will be cleaned, customers will save money, which they will probably spend on tablets, phones, and any number of things in the google play store.

The big problem with the whole deal is that everyone expects Google to misuse the information gleaned from these sensors.  Everyone thinks that there is a wealth of advertising opportunities to be had from being able to monitor every movement of the owners of these devices.  Of course everyone is right about this, but Google have promised not to take any sneaky peeks at this data. Google have said that they will only use the data for purposes in the operation of the devices themselves, heating related, etc.  Given the billions spent on heating I am inclined to believe this, why alienate your customers to sell adverts to any other kind of business when you can use your knowledge to influence the sale of contracts that far overwhelm the amounts spent on mobile phones or broadband?

Another key in the puzzle that makes me think that Google will not look at the data is the even more recent news that they are going to be investing in Deepmind AI.  They will not need to look at any data, if they take the AI in the right direction they will be able to rely on the devices themselves knowing exactly how to use the data to maximise profit and there will be no human to see any of the data at all.  The data could be misused and noone would ever know because it could all happen inside the machines.

3.2 billion is a lot of money but in the long term it is less than most of use realise.  Naturally if you or I had this kind of money we would most likely become overwhelmed by the possibilities and disappear off on a long holiday/spending spree that would never end.  In multinational business dealing in the kind of devices that everyone can make use of it seems like a smaller amount.  All the same it is still a lot.  However as stage number one, the opening gambit of a far longer play, it might seem far less.

Nest is run by a team that have Apple pedigree.  This is valuable.  This is part of the legacy of the insight of Steve Jobs.  He may be gone but some of his decisions live on, and his decisions hold a mystique when compared to the decisions of all other CEOs.  There are a number of teams doing similar things with sensors and the ‘internet of things’ but they are all unknown quantities.  When a company has access to the resources of Google and has a serious game plan then there is no point skimping over the odd billion and risking getting stuck with a bunch of numpties who have been mismanaging the company you are buying.  If you buy tried and tested Apple veterans then you know you are getting quality.  That is a weight off your mind because the odds severely suggest you have made the right choice.  It is probable that there were some key patents involve in the acquisition.  Home automation seems like it was the natural next step in Google Now’s design, they could have been balked by the patents held by Nest.  There are other companies doing similar ‘internet of things’ tasks, but of them all, the combination of factors in Nest make it a no-brainer.

It is obvious that Google are playing a long game.  In a way they are far more able to get away with this than most companies.  Most companies have to worry about the next shareholder’s meeting and reporting the maximum amount of profits because they are always in competition with others and therefore need to cut costs all the time.  Google is currently free from this rat race and is still able to dream.  They have always been a very adventurous company willing to innovate to a massive extent and no matter what happens they can fall back on the massive profits brought in by being the go-to search engine, an actual verb in the dictionary.  This allows them freedom from the usual constraints of short term operation that usually control the decisions of companies.  Asimov wrote of a mathematician who predicted a thousand years of future in the foundation trilogy.  Although a thousand years is excessive it is my belief that Google are focussing on the distant future.  They probably have intentions of occupying a particular position in 2035 but in order to get there it is imperative they make this purchase now.

With most companies we all know what they are planning.  We might not know the specs and the design of the next Blackberry or Ferrari, or Conran, but we know roughly what they will be doing.  We know roughly what they are working on at this very moment.  Google is not that kind of company.  They could be working on anything.  Is it software?  Is it a phone, tablet, car, computer?  Are they working on giant robots, drones, space craft?  Nothing would surprise me with Google and for that reason I think that all the criticism of this purchase is looking at this all from the wrong angle.  Nest is an expensive acquisition but it may not be long before it begins to make a lot of sense to the rest of us.  The future is always coming and often it takes us by surprise.  We ought to keep our eye on Nest to see where the next surprise comes from.

The Future of Podcasting

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century setting in motion the process of releasing the typewritten word to the general population that eventually developed into webpages such as the one on which you are probably reading this.


Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 setting in motion the process of recording sound that eventually developed into the podcast.


The internet grew from the written word on bulletin boards and in an echo of technological development through the centuries gradually incorporated pictures, sound and video.  The podcast was named for the ipod and was one of the best reasons to have an ipod.  Podcasts took off.  As is so often the way on the internet everyone was talking about podcasts and everywhere you looked there were companies setting up podcasts.  The podcast was the future; a way of delivering content to a different audience, the people who listened rather than reading or viewing.


The problem was that everyone read on the internet, especially once the internet became filled with the communications of their friends on social networks.  Those who didn’t read wanted something like the television that they were accustomed to watching through the evenings in the pre-internet world.  The people who liked to listen to podcasts wasn’t such an attractive audience for whom to produce content, the profit wasn’t there.  Gradually the podcasts have begun to disappear.  A lot of people who spend time on the web are fans of technology; for these people the disappearance of Stuff magazine’s podcast, followed by Cnet’s main podcast, and most recently by T3 magazine’s podcast has been notable.


These 3 big companies of technology have decided that podcasting is not worth the effort involved.  In times of austerity the natural way to save money is to cut back on those expenses that are not profitable enough.  Is this the best plan.


Companies are ruled by their shareholders and at regular points they must release details of their profits.  The problem with this is that if they do not continually try to save money and build up good dividends then they will lose value in the shareholder’s eyes with the result that funding will become harder, expansion will become harder, even staying afloat will be harder.  Lose too much value and you risk being bought out and liquidated.


However the internet has been with us for a while and there are many people who are beginning to feel swamped by the intensity of information that is delivered.  A short while ago Facebook was developing into something massive.  It was so massive that when it made its initial public offering on the stock market its value ballooned to ridiculous levels that were totally disproportionate to its ability to earn money.  Even though this has now died back Facebook is still left with having to sell a lot of advertising to create the necessary profit to maintain its value.  The result for Facebook users is that newsfeeds are filled with sponsored posts.  Chosen pages are having their posts suppressed if they don’t pay to promote them.  Facebook has become chaotic and time consuming to read.  Those who love facebook are finding that it is eating up too much time to justify its place in their life.


Facebook is only one example but in general the web demands too much of those who live there.  200 years ago the average reader would own a few books in their lifetime which they would read and reread, eventually memorising them.  There is now more information uploaded to the internet everyday than any one individual could hope to read in a lifetime.  A lot of it is tripe but a lot of it is stuff that we want to read, in fact most of it is designed specifically to pull all the strings that make us want to read it.


A lot of us spend our working lives sitting at desks interacting with computers; we carry phones which have the same functions; it is possible to spend hours conducting a social life under exactly the same conditions.  For the first few years of the internet it was an intriguing mystery.  When the world wide web was created it started to become something that ordinary people would use.  As more people have begun to use it the web has become a potential target for corporate profit.  The result has been the explosion of exciting and enticing content crying out to be seen.  If television was ever the drug of the nation then the web is the crack cocaine that was even more addictive.


I am not saying we should all become Amish and reject modern technology but when we find it stealing our lives we have to take something back for the sake of our health.  However we can learn from the internet and besides, we enjoy the information.  The beauty of a podcast is that we can run in the woods while we listen to them; we can go shopping; we can travel to work or to visit friends; we can sew and paint.  All those things that we have lost to the internet can be given back to us by the podcast.  As people start to become disillusioned with the theft of their time they can take it back but still enjoy the benefits of news, reviews and opinion.


It seems to me that we are just reaching the point at which the podcast is going to be the solution many of us are looking for.  The demand for profit of corporations is going to drive us away from the internet that we have been enjoying for the last few years, but ironically the demand for profit is what is taking away the refuge that the podcast offers.  There is a future for the podcast but the companies are throwing it away ahead of time.  Like so many things that have come before it, the podcast was invented a little bit ahead of time.  With the right approach the podcast could make a comeback with a vengeance.


Having lost three of my favourite podcasts, Stuff, Cnet and T3, I am glad to say that when the Times newspaper decided to shut down its hilarious Bugle podcast the presenters thankfully took matters into their own hands to seek sponsorship and create merchandise to keep it running.  The people who will profit when podcasting again attains a height of popularity will be those people like this who do it because they enjoy it and because it is who they are.  The companies that were only doing it because they smelled a profit may all have ducked out by that point.  There is still a future of great content to be developed and it will be developed by the real enthusiasts, and perhaps that is the best way it should be.

Future PriceSpy gadget guru?

I have recently been placed in the line up for becoming the UK gadget guru for PriceSpy.  It is currently being put to the vote on Facebook.  As far as voting stakes are going I am currently not in the top running but then neither am I at the bottom.  It is unfortunate that friends and connections can be a bit slow at clicking through to things and on Facebook there is always the problem that nobody wants to give any permissions to a site they’ve never previously heard of.

There are eight of us in the running and we have been told to be ready for interviews up in London next week.  They have also asked to see a piece of our writing, naturally focussed on gadgets/technology.  I am planning to write about the Neo900, which I think is a particularly interesting phone soon to be released that has received hardly any publicity due to its opensource origins.  I am being limited to 500 words so I will not be able to say everything I wish to say; I will therefore be likely to publish the full length impression I have been given of the Neo on here for you to read.  In future of course, if I get the job, I will be writing anything technology based on the pricespy blog primarily.

Pricespy themselves are a Swedish outfit I believe, Prisjakt Svaerige.  Their umbrella company is one of the leading Norwegian media companies so they are not a small outfit.  They have successfully entered a number of European markets but this is apparently the first foray into the British technology world.  It is fairly well known that Norway and Sweden are amongst the most advanced nations on the planet.  The economist has named them as some of the best governed countries in the world.  Things are done differently up there in Scandinavia and even with the distrust of big business I usually have, I must say I would feel far happier working for a Norse/Swedish company than I would for most.

Ultimately I am here blogging to blag for your vote.  I don’t know how many people are likely to read this piece of text but if you do then please go to the UK PriceSpy Gadget Guru voting page on Facebook and put in your vote for Ro Atkinson.

It is time for companies to grow up

I am going to go out on a limb here and make a radical statement with this blog post.  At least radical for a tutor of business management and business law.   There may be many people who agree 100% with what I am about to say but amongst educators there seem to be depressingly few thinkers.  The task of the teacher seems to be largely a game of playing it safe.  The college or school will buy into the right to teach a certain subject and the examining body will provide a set of materials which will then be decanted into the minds of the students.  I am not one of the types who say those who can, do, but those who can’t, teach.  However, I do recognise that just as there are many who practise in their  fields with no idea what they are doing, there are also a great many teachers across the world who are simply seeking to earn a paycheck and never develop a full understanding of their subject.


Personally I am not saying I have a greater understanding, indeed everything I write whilst making my point today may well be complete garbage.  I have noticed that in general most ideas seem to be split down the middle between those who hold one view point and those who hold another.  Half of these people must be wrong.  In fact the people who stand on the fence and agree with some elements from each side would probably say that both sides are wrong.  A lot of the greatest experts we have ever had in many areas have ultimately been proved to be wrong.  It would seem that I can therefore take as extreme a viewpoint as I like because if it turns out I am a complete asshat then I will be in illustrious company.


I have been provoked to write today by the appointment of John Browett as senior VP of retail by Apple.  Browett has had a great deal of experience in setting the strategy of large electronic retailers in Britain.  American readers may not be so familiar with his work.  On the English side of the pond those who know his name are largely critical.  Those who don’t know his name are also largely critical, they simply do not have such a specific target at which to aim their ire.


I have had the benefit of working in an organisation that has been guided by Browett’s ministrations.  I spent approximately a year working in an electronics store which came under the general Dixons umbrella.  In our store the staff were pushed to speak to customers in a certain, almost scripted fashion.  For instance there were certain openings we were meant to use which would guide a conversation down a set path designed to maximise sales and ensure the purchase of add-ons, insurance schemes, accessories, etc.  Many of the staff resented this as they would not be allowed to improvise to the extent that they wished in order to achieve rapport with the customer due to the understanding that certain boxes had to be essentially ticked during the conversation in order that a mystery shopper would see that we were doing as we were told.


Naturally the customers could see right through this.  We knew the customers could see right through this so we would try and avoid appearing scripted at all costs.  We did have a lot of good conversations with a lot of happy customers but we would also have an overwhelming amount of customers who would say “FFS” and roll their eyes as soon as we opened our mouths.  I remember one customer whose hatred of the sales technique was so severe that a standard trick with the newbies was that as soon as he came in, a member of staff might suggest to them that they go and serve him.  Perhaps this was largely because they didn’t want to go anywhere near him themselves but at the same time it did also generate some amusement as newbie was left open mouthed at the tirade of abuse he received over heavy handed sales techniques.


We were a national joke and we knew it.  Searching through forums online would turn up pages and pages of abuse at the staff in our stores.  I am quite pleased to say that most of the usual complaints were for levels of customer service that fell far below that which was seen in our store.  We were both lucky and unlucky to be in a high street store.  Unlucky because high street stores have a difficult job coming anywhere close to getting the level of profit that could be made in an out of town superstore, this meant that for us ‘a bonus’ was a mythical beast that may have once been encountered by a lone employee 5 years previously.  We were lucky because we sought to be as helpful as possible and tried to ensure that every customer who needed help would get as much help as was humanly possible, whenever I have shopped in one of the out of town superstores I have been lucky to get assistance if I have gone looking for it.


And of course that is the crux of the issue with John Browett taking this position at Apple.  Apple have developed a fantastic reputation for customer service.  The Apple Genius bar is praised across the world.  They might not turn the profit that is usually desired from a retail chain but that is not really their purpose.  Everyone knows that those who are most tech savvy will usually turn to the internet to purchase their goods.  The advantage that Apple stores have is that the prices in the store and their prices online are not radically different.  Other stores are in competition with so many online retailers that they really have to cut corners to survive.  Apple stores are not really about sales though.  They are about the Geniuses and they are about customer service.  That is why it is worrying that Browett is taking this position of authority over them.  Browett’s philosophy is one of cutting costs and maximising profit.  Store members are being laid off and methods are being streamlined.  I imagine that down the line sales techniques will become more forceful and it won’t be long before Apple stores start to develop the reputation that Browett drags behind him like the rotting carcass of a hunted deer that he refuses to discard until he has taken every bit of protein off its bones.


Milton Friedman said many years ago that the purpose of a company was to seek maximum profit.  That is the free market system that we have been living with through the decades since his statement.  I am told that Keynesian thinkers like Stiglitz consider this approach to be one of the causes of the economic collapse we are currently trying to escape.  Even government has tried to do something to change this dangerous point of view.  The 2006 Companies Act in the UK kept the main element that directors should always seek to maximise profit but added that when doing so they should have regard for the implications of their decisions.  Essentially they should consider how their decisions might affect the environment, the economy, etc.  Not exactly a brave direction to take with legislation but then governments are timid creatures that know if they push too hard then all those lovely corporations with their lovely profits will go and cosy up to some other government.


The immediate problem with seeking to maximise profit is that while it may help the consumer to buy bargains at low cost it is inevitable that many of these bargains will be shoddy goods that are poorly designed and will soon need to be replaced.  The consumer will have little choice about accepting them though due to the fact that so many members of his family have been made unemployed by cost cutting measures that the family are unable to afford the quality goods anyway.  It is not all bad though.  At least if you are unemployed then you do not have to work in one of these corporations that are so keen on cutting costs.  That is not a great deal of fun as you are regimented to follow precise procedures designed to maximise profit, and doing so the whole time at the lowest possible wage the company can get away with paying you.  In addition you know that you have to reach certain impossible targets or else there are huge numbers of unemployed people put on the streets by other cost cutting companies who will eagerly take your place.  I am glad that I left after only a year.  Thankfully I now have a full head of hair again.


Of course cost cutting measures do maximise profit so this must be a good thing.  Lets see where this profit goes.  It doesn’t go on buying in quality stock.  Stock is kept to a minimum to ensure that nothing is left unsold.  As a consequence we had to turn away dozens of people everyday who wanted specific items.  Mostly those made by Apple.   It doesn’t go to the staff.  They are operating on a wage so low that they need to supplement their income with government handouts.  It somehow doesn’t seem right that a person should work in a miserable job yet not even earn enough to live on.  If tax payers money is being given out to support those who are working then there is something seriously wrong with the system.  It doesn’t go on the company’s infrastructure.  Out of about 7 tills our shop had there were many times when we would have a shop full of customers but only one till that was in operational order.  The touchscreens would break down or the OS wouldn’t load or the scanners wouldn’t work.  There was always something.  I cannot speak for the example of my store or chain but in general I know that profit also doesn’t go on paying taxes.  I was reading yesterday about Walmart paying rent for their property and therefore claiming tax back on the outgoing.  The people to whom they were paying the rent were a subsidiary of Walmart.  This subsidiarity also claimed back tax on the rent that they paid for the property… to another subsidiarity of Walmart.  I could go on but this would become quite tedious because there were over half a dozen subsidiarities of Walmart claiming back tax on rent that they were paying to each other.  Some of them did not even have a single employee.


So the profit will go to the shareholder.  With many of these shareholders one can not blame them for trying to get some profit out of a business that they have no hand in supporting through hard work.  They are trying to keep their head above water in similar industries a little higher up the chain.  They may get paid enough to invest in shares but they kind of have to invest in shares as they are the ones who the government is not paying out money to.  They have no choice other than to invest or they are going to have just as much trouble making ends meet.  Their companies are also governed by Milton Friedman’s idea that a company’s main aim has to be the making of profit above all else.  Indeed the only reason that companies care about the health and safety of their employees is because the law started making them pay out some of their precious profits as compensation when employees fell foul of dangerous working conditions.


We all know where the profit substantially ends up.  It ends up with those who are probably sitting on their own private beach sipping cocktails in some exotic country right now.  The reason we accept this is the vast majority of us live in such a hell at the hands of profit obsessed companies that the only thing that keeps us going is the belief that one day we too might be able to sit on a sunny beach sipping cocktails instead of slogging away on a production line while our body wastes away from standing in one position for eight hours a day while only being nourished by a diet of fried trimmings of the otherwise delicious food that is currently being cooked up for someone to eat outside their beach house after they have had their cocktail.  We imagine that if we play the game and work hard then maybe there is a slim chance we too might get there as well.  Some do make it of course.


I wonder how the exact figure compares to those who get there by simply winning the lottery.


This is the free market system.  While it is obvious that too much government control does not work, as we have seen from the failings of communism, it must be dawning on people by now that perhaps the free market may have its failings as well.  Naturally the best way to do anything is to find a balance between too much control and too little control.  It can be difficult working out exactly where that is and when the most powerful and influential people in the world tend to be those who personally make a profit from one form over another then it would be foolish to imagine that the balance is going to be any easier to perfect.


For me the conundrum comes from the fact that those people sipping cocktails in their luxurious beach houses let it happen.  In fact the conundrum lies with the fact that anyone lets it happen, that anyone plays their game.  We all know the saying that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven.  I can imagine how those who hold a secular viewpoint could ignore this wisdom as the mention of heaven suggests it has no implication to affect anything of substance that they might believe in.  This is not the case, as psychology and our understanding of conscience has successfully proved.  I certainly cannot understand how those who are religious continuously ignore this wisdom.  They purport to believe it fully yet they still seek to compete for the ability to buy things like shiny translucent stones when they know for a fact that there are people across the world, or even in their local inner city centres dying of diseases that are easily preventable with a little monetary input.


Personally I have had difficulty playing the game myself.  I have certainly had the dreams of becoming wealthy myself but since then I have begun to understand my conscience.  I am in a job now that I enjoy.  I do not make enough money to pay all my bills but I am constantly learning and the work atmosphere is friendly.  That is how I continue to live my life.  If I had to return to working in the minimum wage conditions of those who support the shareholders I would not do it.  The cost is too high.  Time is our most precious resource, followed by our health and happiness.  All those things would be taken from me if I were to submit to being the pawn of the free market system.


Neither would I seek to be one of the ones who sit at the top of the ladder.  If I were to make money as a shareholder in one of these profit driven companies then the things I have experienced combined with what I know of the world would not let me do it.  I would feel constant guilt and would not be able to feel happy.  Not to mention that too much comfort makes you flabby and robs you of your health anyway so you still cannot escape that unhappiness.


I know there is a better way.  I have not fully engineered all its intricacies yet but the way that we are doing things at the moment is broken.  If we actually got to simply choose where we were in the system we would realise that most people would get a choice between working hard in poverty or growing fat in opulent surroundings with the disdain of the rest of the population.  There are obviously exceptions.  Starving with a bloated stomach in an African scrubland would be an exception.  Getting a little education and managing to afford to take on a twenty year mortgage or pay enough rent to live somewhere that is not horrible but not affording to buy a huge mansion would be another exception.  I am not even happy with that one though.  I guess I am cursed with being a worrier but it feels like living like that is an equivalent to putting my fingers in my ears and closing my eyes and hoping that the world will sort itself out.


I am happy to accept less if others can have more.  Of course I would like them to put in a decent amount of effort to achieve what they gain but I do not think their failure to work is their own fault.  That lies with the cost cutting companies refusing to employ them whilst also putting anyone who would employ them out of business by undercutting them.  This does not mean I am anti company.  I think that the company has the potential to be the most powerful force for good we have.  In order to do this though I think it is time that the company grew up.  The concept of the company is largely around 500 years old.  Its petulant adolescence is over now.  It is time to start taking on some responsibility.  It is time to develop a community spirit.  The time has come to stop squabbling over who has the most toys or gets the most sweets.  As companies approach adulthood they must start taking care of their environment.  If children were left in a house to look after themselves indefinitely we all know that it would not end well.  If these great big children called companies are left in a world to look after themselves and they fail to grow up then this will also not end well.


As I mentioned earlier,  I have another blog besides that of the college.  It is my PcMakto blog.  So named after the Toruk Makto of James Cameron’s Avatar film.  I do not ride a Toruk but in much the same way that a Toruk Makto is part of their steed I often feel I am part of my laptop, hence PcMakto.

Over on the PcMakto site I tend to post all my tech related blogs.  Some of them can be a bit dry, e.g., my blog on how to create a static date macro in Word 2010, but a lot of them are very interesting if you are into tech, especially the business side of tech.  I will probably not be linking you to a great deal of stuff over there as it is very much focussed on one area while here is my mindsplurge area where I essentially catalogue my thoughts and my life whenever I have the time.  Unfortunately time seems to be in ever more short supply day by day.

The blog I have posted the link for above is basically just to show you the way there but you will have noticed it is on a specific topic.  So if the case of Google v Samsung is of interest to you then you will find that actually PcMakto is linking through to my college blog which I mentioned earlier.  Incidentally if you are looking for a cheap, indepth, concise alternative to retaking A levels then the college, Capital School of Business and Management is a good place to go.  The advantage we offer is that our courses are vocational alternatives of about the same length, though a little bit more intense, and they offer the opportunity to bypass the first two years of most degrees, sweet.  Anyway I don’t want to bore you with an advert.  That is not why I am here.  I just thought I would let you know that if you have not yet read about it the Google v Samsung case is not your average court case.  As far as court cases go it is actually pretty funny.  Of course if you are on the internet I will assume you know this already.

If you are interested go check the other blogs out.  If not then just chill and enjoy your Thursday.  I can’t believe it is Thursday already.  I don’t know where the time goes.