Should we trust technology?

At the risk of sounding Asimov-ian, should we trust “the machines?”

Take my retired mother-in-law. She uses a computer daily: e-mailing her children and grandchildren, researching her frequent travel plans online. She’s relatively advanced for being introduced to the personal computer after sixth sevenths of her life has gone by.

Her issue is less one of technical savviness than simply of trust. She almost lost her hard drive once, including some digital photos. She’s now so afraid to download them to her PC and delete them from her camera’s storage card, that she’s convinced my father-in-law to purchase multiple storage cards to store all their photos. When one gets full, they just start another. In her mind, it’s the lesser of two evils.

I laughed at first, then got annoyed that she didn’t trust technology and wasn’t taking advantage of it (my tech snobbery bubbling over). You’d think Google, Facebook and Twitter would be on my side, but in fact, they’re validating my mother-in-law’s fears.

In less than a week, Google’s Gmail suffered two mass outages, as frustrated users sent sales of replacement keyboards and Rogain up sharply. Google burned up some goodwill this week, and reminded everyone that nothing is failsafe. Worse, it hurt its credibility promoting the next big thing – cloud computing – where people use applications and software, like office applications, over the Internet instead of being hosted on individual PCs. When the cloud gets hazy or disappears, or the connection is broken, and there are multiple fail points, then the justification and cost savings for cloud computing goes up in smoke.

Ironically, much of the complaining about Gmail’s outage could be found on micro-blogging application Twitter, which itself is approaching legendary status for its frequent outages. A VC cash infusion to Twitter operators this spring was supposed to correct the technical flimsiness, but hiccups and whining persists. Twitter’s infamous fail whale is becoming the poster child for unreliable technology.

As more people live their lives online, posting personal videos and photos and information on social networks, is there any confidence that the content will be available, always, when we need or want? Or should a small company or entrepreneur trust cloud computing, leaving business-critical functions partially in the hands of someone else whose servers may or may not collapse or be hacked some day?

The $5-billion boo boo

Many companies I consult with are still unsure about influence of  “social media” and the online world. Mostly they’re unsure about the degree of impact on them, their people, products/services, brand and ultimately, their reputation.

In short, I tell them the online world, and the rise of social media, is a phenomenon they ignore at their own peril. And that the impact is real and tangible. Glaring examples pop up frequently. The latest involves one incident with two “boo boos:” the first refers to a heart attack, the second, more importantly, refers to the fact it was misinformation.

Apple Inc.’s share price plunged, shaving $5 billion its market capitalization in three hours, in early October when someone anonymously posted a story on CNN’s iReport citizen journalism website. The post said a “reliable source” (does anyone quote unreliable sources?!) saw Apple CEO Steve Jobs admitted to a hospital with a heart attack. With Apple’s success largely dependent upon Jobs (and with his appearance and health the subject of speculation in 2008), skittish investors responded by bolting from Apple stock. It took a few hours before the notoriously closed-mouthed Apple (and Jobs) confirmed that the post was not true, but by that time, word spread quickly online. The SEC has since identified an 18-year-old as the poster, and are investigating to determine if it was a prank or if he profited from the post.

The veracity of the story is less relevant than what it demonstrated: the speed and reach of the online world can have dire consequences to your business or organization. Here’s why:

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Immediacy. The Internet operates real-time. You don’t have to wait for the newspaper to be published or for the reguarlly scheduled 6 p.m. TV broadcast to get your information. The posting of information is instantaneous and 24/7, as connections to the Internet become more ubiquitous and simpler (from PCs, wireless devices, iPhones, smart phones, etc.). At the same time, accessing the information (blogs, discussion forums, etc.), photos and videos is just as immediate and can quickly gain momentum in seconds and minutes, not hours and days.

Reach. Unlike a local newspaper, the online world is not restricted by physical geography and distribution. Information in a newspaper will reach only as far as the paper carrier can throw it; a movie or video only to those in the theatre. In the online world, anyone connected to the Internet globally can access that information. People you didn’t expect, or even want, to know about certain information are only a mouse-click away. Consider that a local newspaper column is read by thousands, but an influential blog or video-sharing site, with it’s “social” component, can be viewed by tens of millions. Your information is not just in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

 

Live by the blog, die by the blog

Interesting social media effort from Globalive, the new upstart in the Canadian wireless telecom scramble. Globalive snapped up some significant access to wireless spectrum and plans to offer a national service in the first half of 2009.

In the runup to this launch (and while they seek out a Sugar Daddy to pay for the venture), Globalive also launched Wirelesssoapbox.com, a social media effort designed to get people talking about what they’d like in a new wireless company.

It’s a smart concept that the existing wireless players simply can’t successfully duplicate: the discussion forums and comments would be flaming with disgruntled customers instead of the constructive discussion or positive conversation building that Bell, Telus or Rogers would want. You only have to look at the rocket-like popularity of the online petition railing against Rogers’ initial plans for its exclusive iPhone launch. Ruinediphone.com garnered nearly 60,000 names, along with some nasty comments, in just a few short weeks.

Globalive is hoping to tap into that discontent and build some brand awareness and loyalty in a market that analysts have roundly decried as lacking more robust competition and lower prices. Wirelesssoapbox.com provides a neat online kickstart to Globalive’s marketing/PR/customer research efforts with basic applications like comments, discussion forums, videos — all hallmarks of a good social media site.

But eventually Globalive will have to pony up with a service plan. Virgin Mobile, Koodoo, even Rogers, started out as the upstart to long-time incumbent Bell and basked in an initial “we’re going to do things different” glow with Canadians. In the end, no one has demonstrably stood apart from the crowd. And so all the goodwill built up through Wirelessoapbox.com and its conversation-building efforts will go ‘poof’ if it raises expectations and doesn’t deliver.

And that’s the beauty — and curse — of social media: all those loyal subjects you’ve successfully courted and nurtured can become equally disloyal and disruptive when you mess up. Live by the blog, die by the blog (or any social media venture).

One other note: Wirelesssoapbox.com is appears to be crowdsourcing its infrastructure:

Very importantly, we want to hear from tech-savvy armchair engineers who are interested in sharing their advice on network architecture and design, and wireless suppliers and vendors.

Would I sign up for a phone service that was partially built by “armchair engineers?” Heck, my dad is an armchair engineer (you should see him put up a fence or fix my washing machine). I hope Globalive can find the investors to leave that to the experts.

Travel checklist: clean undies, clean laptop

There’s been some, but sporadic, media coverage about the risk of traveling into the U.S. and having immigration and customs agents seize your computer laptop and download the information. It’s a result of 9/11 and was designed to allow the U.S.’ Homeland Security to search and seize terrorist information.

As unlikely as it sounds, it has happened, and is expected to escalate as the U.S. has adopted guidelines that allow even less suspicion to search any and all electronic devices and download them.

Besides the implications on personal data (uh-oh, don’t want that floating around…), there are business-related ones involving your company’s or your customer’s proprietary, confidential information stored on laptops and other devices. Many companies are now providing “blank” laptops for staff to travel with, already wiped clean of information. Business travelers then use web-based e-mail applications, so no e-mails or other data sits on the laptop.

There are ways to minimize the risk and prevent prying eyes from seeing stuff that could damage the integrity of your data, your firm or your customers and suppliers. Take advantage of them.

And from the “hey, get your own black kettle” file comes word that the U.S. government this week issued warnings to Olympic athletes and travellers flying into China about their electronic devices being compromised or seized by Chinese authorities.

Rich…

Get on the ehPhone bandwagon

Wayne MacPhail may have coined it a year ago, but consider this the official kickoff to my subliminal propaganda campaign to infect all telecom analysts, gadget reviewers and media headline writers in Canada with the niggling urge to refer to Apple’s game changer as the “ehPhone.”

Donuts and the power and peril of social media

Was a time when news, issues, disputes, trends and the like bubbled and percolated before gaining momentum. The world was a seemingly quieter, albeit less informed place. The printing press started us down the path. Skip ahead to Marshall McLuhan and his prognostications about the “global village.” Then Vinton Cerf gives McLuhan’s revolutionary musings a technological boost and voila: paradigm shift (apologies!). How people express themselves and learn is exponentially accelerated.

Which is why Dunkin Donuts and Tim Hortons have been on the online firing line in recent weeks.

Suggestive Starbucks?

A Dunkin Donuts ad campaign featuring celebrity cook/talk show host Rachel Ray wouldn’t appear to be terrorism related. But the speed and reach of social media and can quickly spark enough momentum to influence a company to yank a multi-million-dollar campaign. The charge was led by right-wing pundit and blogger Michelle Malkin, who also supports a group railing against Starbucks for promoting family-friendliness with suggestive photos on their new coffee cups (ed. note: can a mermaid really spread her legs?!)

Society for a Free Timbit!

Coffee and donut shops were taking it on the chin in Canada before that. Tim Horton’s ran afoul when one its overzealous managers fired a part-time employee for giving a 15-cent Timbit (small donut) for free to a child of a regular customer. The blogosphere lit up with complaints and, coincidentally or not, the woman was rehired. Even the re-hiring story posted on Yahoo! Canada recorded thousands more comments.

Advocacy groups for whatever cause — charitable, political, disruptive, you name it — can quickly gain momentum online. Using all the tools of the trade — blogs, discussion forums, wikis — and spreading their gospel through feeds, trackbacks and the like, an otherwise innocuous issue or comment can take on a life of its own.

For organizations or companies, that has ominous implications. Customer complaints or product defects are immediately and widely communicated. That means companies must be monitoring and reacting to online communications before they reach a critical mass.

Consider the opportunities:

  1. Build up some goodwill (that you may need to call upon later) by engaging in ongoing conversations with customers now.
  2. The Internet is one giant focus group. Reach out to customers with new ideas or changes that might help confirm or contradict assumptions in advance of costly product or marketing development.
  3. Just as bad news can spread like wildfire, so can your promotion. Buzz building happens faster and more broadly than ever before. Use it to be pro-active. Or else others may fill the vacuum.

Is RIM scared of losing employees?

Is success going to RIM’s head? I invited a former colleage who now works there join my LinkedIn network. But apparently LinkedIn is now verboten at RIM. When she tried to link to me, this is what popped up:

Access to this site is restricted

Restricted Access Note – All RIM Employees

RIM places a high value on security, safety and intellectual property. All RIM employees share in the goal of safeguarding our assets and keeping the best interests of RIM in mind.

The use of internet access is governed by the Acceptable Use of RIM Systems and Data Directive, as well as the Employee-Consultant Confidentiality and Intellectual Property Agreement, which is included in the RIM Business Standards and Principles. The RIM Business Standards and Principles must be adhered to at all times.

A quick check of LinkedIn found that hundreds of RIM employees have posted profiles there. I told her she was being singled her out because RIM doesn’t want recruiters poaching her. ;-)

Seems a bit artificial to restrict access to LinkedIn. RIM’s success and employee satisfaction should naturally be enough to retain talent. If you have to put fences up, what does that say?

I guess announcing blockbuster partnerships and continuing stock price strength isn’t enough for the co-CEOs. Now they want to hoard all the good people to themselves…



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