Click to Start – The Need for Speed

Since the dawn of time Mankind has been dominated by the need for speed. And every little boy at some stage dreams of the double-overhead cam-turbo-charged-fluffy-dice-and-go-fast-striped racer.

Back in my sailing days we used to live by the equation ‘G2B2’ – or translated ‘gotta get a bigger boat’. Come to think of it, we also used to describe our hobby as the equivalent of standing under a cold shower tearing up one hundred dollar notes.

It’s instructive to note my current involvement with information technology produces similar sensations. But I, like many technology users, remain committed to the notion of bigger, better, faster.

In my younger days the G2B2 theorem would likely not have produced much better results – I simply wasn’t a terrifically talented sailor when it came to cut-throat teenage weekend racing. But sitting in front of my computer, I enjoy a level playing field. The only talent I need is the ability to click my way across the Internet, and seek out and enjoy all the entertainment it offers.

At the beginning of the nineties my trusty 2400 baud modem helped me navigate, via a simple text interface, through library catalogues, online discussions and email.

Then the revolution came, the barricades were thrown across the town square and the laneway I so happily meandered down became the world wide web superhighway.

The web was a revelation, but eternally frustrating, turning off the image display option in my early version of Netscape was the only way to view sites at anything approaching a comfortable speed. It wasn’t long before a 28k modem took pride of place, quickly supplanted by a 33k, and by the mid 1990s, a 56k version.

Unfortunately web developers are a little like car thieves; as soon as the car manufacturers find a new way to protect a car, the thieves up the ante. So it is with the web. Every month the technology the web delivers becomes more sophisticated, more complex, and more entertaining.

The bottleneck between all of this content, and our computer screens, remains our internet connection and how fast the information can travel across the connection.

Enter stage left the latest buzzword ‘broadband’.

Broadband basically means the internet at really fast speeds. In fact it’s been around for quite a while, mostly if you worked in a university or some other institution which enjoys a big, fast connection to the Net. But for us mere mortals the cost of an Internet connection worth thousands of dollars a year rendered broadband a pipedream.

Enter stage right cable internet.  Telstra and Optus spent the equivalent of the GDP of a developing country on laying two, duplicate pay television cables through the more heavily populated areas of Australia in the mid 1990s. (Don’t get me started on ridiculous political  telecommunication policy decisions).

The cable doesn’t just carry endless re-runs of the Simpsons, but the internet as well. So if you are one of the lucky households, cable internet would have been a revelation. Speeds of up to 1 mega bytes a second, not bad compared with the old 56k modem. Plus you don’t need another telephone line, and it’s always on, no more dialing up and waiting for the too-often busy signal. Cable does have its drawbacks – the speed is affected by how many people in your area are using the Net at the same time. It’s a little like the old ‘party line’ telephone connections. Too many people talking simultaneously renders conversation unintelligible.

Enter stage centre ADSL. ADSL is basically the answer to everyone’s prayers. Try this for size: it uses your existing phone line, BUT you can be on the telephone at the same time. You don’t ‘share’ the connection, so top speed is, theoretically, always available. Speeds of up to 1.5 megabytes a second are possible, meaning you can watch crystal clear streaming videos. Indeed, with a variant called SHDSL, which is little like ADSL on steroids, speeds of 6 meg are possible (although the cost is high). Like cable ADSL always on, no dialing up.

The problem is, despite all the positives, ADSL has copped some bad press since its launch a year or so ago – mostly disgruntled Telstra customers who for some irrational reason found it unacceptable to be unable to log into their internet connection on a regular basis.

To Telstra’s credit a great deal of the early troubles have been ironed out, and the PR problems smoothed with refunds of monthly access fees.

Far more interesting is the explosion of companies now offering ADSL internet connections. Big retailers like Harvey Norman, and possibly Dick Smith Electronics, have weighed in, both to offer packages on-sold from  prominent telecommunications companies.

For business users there is also the RequestDSL (www.requestdsl.com.au) network, who offer a range of high speed products through their network of resellers.

Here at The Dramatic Group we use a 1 meg RequestDSL SHDSL connection. It’s  performed flawlessly since its installation, and as well as providing high speed internet access to our eight staff, handles the more than 20,000 emails a week sent out for the dramaticonline.com, and now screenhub.com.au, web sites. All at a speed some eight times faster and a price 10% cheaper than our old 128k ISDN connection.

For a complete list of ADSL providers see http://whirlpool.net.au/. Originally established as a gripe site for Telstra broadband customers, Whirlpool has grown to be an invaluable source of ADSL information, including comprehensive descriptions about the technology, services and ADSL companies.

There are a couple of caveats – mainly that ADSL is dependent on your distance from your telephone exchange, and it is only just becoming available outside the capital cities, meaning relief for regional and remote users may not be so close, although it is actually possible to have satellite based internet access for the truly desperate.

The world has shifted on its axis in the past six months. For more than half of the life of the web we’ve been constrained by our trusty 56k modems.

The new breed of broadband access will inevitably change the way we use and interact with the web. For arts organisations it opens up a marketplace capable of viewing multimedia content – performance, music, and information – in ways and at speeds hitherto impossible.  At present the marketplace is small. The early teething problems mean that of the more than half of Australian households which have internet access, at best less than 200,000 have broadband connections.

The early content providers, such as internet radio stations, struggled to find a business model which could work in a tiny marketplace. Now new players are entering the marketplace, If you had been wondering what radio personality Doug Mulray has been up to lately check out thebasement.com.au, his video radio station based at Sydney’s popular music venue of the same name which broadcasts live concerts, along with a 24 hour music video station.

Beyond Online’s arts web site redkarpet.tv was launched earlier this year, and although initially only available to Telstra broadband customers, paid subscriptions are planned for later in 2002. Redkarpet.tv has access to the AFI library of films, plus other terrific content, and is leading the way showing what is possible.

With television broadcasters unlikely to reverse their inability to spell ‘arts’, and the ABC still constrained by budget and politics, broadband internet multimedia offers an unparalleled ability to deliver the arts to an audience remote from a venue.

And with the telecommunication heavyweights like Telstra spending millions on advertising ADSL, and a multitude of smaller players creating a competitive supply arena, growth in the available audience will be exponential, as Australians again jump on the new technology bandwagon and demonstrate their need for speed.

‘Click to Start’ is a regular column covering arts and technology issues, appearing fortnightly on dramaticonline.com and screenhub.com.au.

Postscript

Figures released on 21 June 2002 from a report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission say ADSL connections have soared 206% between July 2001 and March 2002 to a total of 85,800, while cable connections increased 71% to 157,000.

Click to Start – The Gift Which Keeps On Giving

In Australia there is a terrible tendency to equate service with servitude. Perhaps it’s too much ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, or a natural extension of the jingoistic creation of the larrikin Australian lacking respect for authority and his colonial superiors.

Whatever the cause, there is no question that Australians have a lot to learn about providing truly effective customer service.

The web site www.notgoodenough.org, established early in 2002 to track bad service, recorded 12,000 gripes in the first 30 days. Top of the list are the usual culprits: phone companies and the banks.

The only slight comfort I take is in knowing that even the largest businesses have succumbed to the syndrome. And those which include customer service concepts in their key branding messages are often the worst. Coles supermarkets have spent years trying to convince shoppers they are ‘Serving you better’. News flash, they’re not. (What is it about the deli counters which particularly embrace this dichotomy? It’s a war zone in the early evening, and coincidentally, is the only time of day when they don’t utilise the electronic ‘take a number’ system).

These days incidences of good service are notable, and we seem resigned to the normality of poor service. It’s a depressing scenario, but there is an upside – get your customer service right, and, however unfortunate it might seem, you’ll stand out.

There’s lots of talk in the marketing world, including the arts, about buzzwords such as ‘relationship marketing’ and the like. Whatever the jargon, it’s new words for an old concept – be nice to your customers and they’ll be nice to you.

Some of things which annoy the crap out of me:

  • I once spent 15 minutes hacking away at the web site of one of the largest performing arts centres in Australia, trying to find their phone number so I could call a friend who worked there. The ONLY number I finally found was for the carpark contractor;
  • Web sites which not only don’t give a contact details, but restrict what little contact there is on offer to me filling out a form.
  • People and organisations who don’t return my phone calls or emails. The implications are simple – either you don’t want to talk to me because you have a problem with me personally (can’t think why), or you just don’t want to talk to me full stop. (A recent survey of Australian businesses found that 25% never replied to contacts made via their web sites. How stupid can these businesses be?)
  • Automated phone systems – ‘Push 1 for the Box Office’ – my question is simple – "Why can’t you just ANSWER THE PHONE!"

    We’re all human, and we by nature crave contact with other humans. Dealing with a technological interface is the diametric opposite, and inevitably the machine always wins (tried using Telstra’s automated directory assistance service recently?). With technology like the web, we need to be careful to remember human needs.

    The crime is that technology is very often capable of a terrific support role in providing human to human customer service.

    One day I’m going to write an article about how easy it is to merge personalised emails using Microsoft Word, Outlook and Access – software tools ubiquitous on desktops in many arts organisations. Which is why I get seriously cranky (and make it known) when arts marketers persist in sending me emails with 500 names in the CC or To field (next time use the BCC field  PLEASE).

    And on a related subject, why is it that small (and big) arts organisations continue to post media releases to us? There’s one which sends us sometimes three a day, all in different envelopes, $1.35 down the drain. A big tick to the people who email their releases to us. A black mark to those who continue to fax the releases, often from interstate paying STD rates (they don’t even wait for off peak evening).

    Oh and I mustn’t forget the envelopes which arrive each day, containing just a DL flyer for some show or other. No letter, no explanation, no ‘sell’, no nothing. They’re usually the ones which ring our editor a few days later complaining about how we haven’t written a story.

    Without exception every arts organisation bleats about a lack of money, then a bunch promptly choose the most expensive way of communicating their information, and ignore the basics of personalisation.

    Without question, my absolute favourite example in recent times of a company which quite clearly doesn’t want to have anything to do with me is the Commonwealth Bank.

    They recently junk mailed me with a brochure advertising business banking services. It started badly with the brochure, and went downhill rapidly. The brochure was conceived as a childrens’ story book, with a character discovering the ways Commonwealth Bank could help finance his business activities. The idea of portraying small business owners as ignorant children clearly required a long lunch in the advertising agency’s creative department.

    But the cream, with cherry on the top, was the form inserted into the brochure. Entitled ‘Request for Contact’, it was a long form for me to fill out, so that one of their business bankers could contact me. Amongst the ‘minimum details required for contact’ were all of my contact details, business turnover, staffing numbers and previous history with the bank.

    Once I had completed the form, and faxed, mailed or handed it in ‘at any Commonwealth Bank branch’, presumably someone would, eventually, make contact with me – at their convenience rather than mine. And no, the form did not have a contact phone number so I could call and tell them how stupid the form was. That’s a bank which won’t be enjoying our company’s patronage any time soon.

    Small businesses are the largest segment, and employer, in the Australian business world. That the Commonwealth Bank takes us so seriously that a prospective customer needs to fill out a form just to make contact, is an unfortunate demonstration of why some Australians have a long way to go before they stop confusing service with servitude.

    We all have our favourite restaurant or cafe, which sets itself apart. Where the staff call you by your first name, remember how you usually have your coffee, and take a genuine interest in your needs and wants. We reward that service by returning day after day, and if you are anything like me, you experience withdrawal symptoms when the overworked owners close for their annual Christmas break.

    Good service is about communication, whether delivered in person, on the phone, or via the Net. Good service is an artform in itself – and funnily enough, as most artsworkers who have had the obligatory secondary career in hospitality will know, can be as pleasurable to give as it is to receive.

    Call your customers by name, remember their past history with your organisation; communicate with them they way they want, not the way which is easiest for you; respond to their feedback honestly, genuinely and promptly; NEVER ignore a customer, however they make contact; and always remember, good customer service is the gift which keeps on giving.

    ‘Click to Start’ is a regular column covering arts and technology issues, appearing fortnightly on dramaticonline.com and screenhub.com.au.

  • Click to Start – How would you like to pay for that?

    The customer walks up to the box office, selects their seats, the ticket seller calculates the total price, the customer reaches into their bag to pay and pulls out their …. mobile phone. The customer keys in some numbers, and presses ‘send’. The ticket seller hands over the tickets and the customer leaves.

    Fiction? Well no. mCommerce has arrived, and it’s set to be the next ‘big thing’. Sydney train commuters have already had a taste, with soft drink machines at railway stations as part of a mobile phone payment trial. The vending machines display a telephone number, you dial that number on your mobile phone, your telephone bill is debited for the cost of the drink, and the can is released by the machine.

    Mobile phones are ubiquitous in Australia. The marketplace is virtually saturated, with mobile phone companies now concentrating on extracting more value from their existing customers rather than seeking out new ones – explaining their recent moves to reduce the subsidy on mobile phone handsets, opting instead, as Telstra has done, for loyalty based payment plans, where you may still receive a discount on the handset at the time of purchase, but are penalised heavily if you swap carriers during the life of the payment plan.

    Theatre, concert and cinema tickets are a logical choice for mCommerce. Mobile phones are often a lifestyle tool, not just a device to chain us to the office. We plan our social outings, stay in touch with friends, and frighten the heck out of other drivers on the road as we execute hair raising manoeuvres, steering wheel in one hand, mobile plastered to our ear.

    The ‘killer application’ to date on mobiles is SMS – ‘short message service’, the ability to send small text messages from one mobile to another. We’re mad for SMS, Australia’s 12.5 million mobile phone users sent 2 billion SMS messages last year – that’s 150 per person.

    The canny marketeers have already cottoned onto this new way of reaching the media shy, cynical customer. Hamburger companies promote competitions where you SMS a code number from the back of a salt and vinegar flavour chip packet to win a prize; radio stations run SMS requests (song requests sent in by SMS). The latest is proximity marketing, where a retail store uses a system which detects you walking past the front door, identifies you in the database as being interested in a certain type of their product, and sends you an SMS discount offer, all before you’ve had time to bend down and tie your shoelaces.

    So far I’ve only seen one cultural organisation use SMS to effect. Melbourne Comedy Festival ran an SMS system this year, to communicate special offers –  discounted tickets ‘on the day’ and so on. As a marketing tool to manage last minute promotions SMS is perfect. Email is a fast way to reach a customer – but it presumes the customers are near their computers. We’re always near our mobile phone, so when a message arrives offering 50% off tickets for a show later that evening, it says two things – there might be a few more seats unsold than the theatre company would prefer …  and they are doing everything they can to shift those seats.

    The notion of spam SMS has also arrived – unsolicited text messages promoting a product. It doesn’t seem to have taken much of a hold so far – but only because SMS hasn’t really captured the imagination of the (generally) technologically illiterate marketeers, and the technology hasn’t necessarily been affordable and easily used.

    That incompetence is rapidly changing, to the point where some larger companies have moved beyond promotion and use it for more mundane tasks – a big hotel in Melbourne has trialed SMS to broadcast work roster information to its hundreds of staff. At any time they can issue a request to off duty staff if the hotel is caught unexpectedly by a higher level of business, and needs extra staff on duty.

    The naysayers have threatened brain cancer, impotence, bone disease and a multitude of disabling health nightmares, but to no avail. Australians are mad about mobile phones, we’ve all got one, and we’re not scared to use them.

    mCommerce is about moving beyond communication, and converging the convenience of an easily portable electronic device, with the already well accepted idea of phone banking. We’ve embraced the ease of online and phone banking – what my bank amusingly terms ‘convenience banking’, named so because it’s much more convenient for them if I stay away and do battle with a multitude of electronic gizmos, rather than actually walking in the door of their branches and requiring service from a real person.

    The problem is, much as I love to bank bash (and after a particularly horrendous week negotiating with our bank I confess I’m ready, willing and able for a good stoush), there is actually something in all this ‘convenience’ stuff.

    A few years ago to pay our staff we used to have to go to the bank, stand in a queue, and cash a cheque for quite considerable sums of money. Then walk, with trepidation, back to the office, divvy up the spoils amongst a bunch of envelopes, then distribute these amongst the staff. Who then in turn had to travel home with a bundle of cash burning a hole in their pockets – not a recommended activity particularly if you are privileged enough to enjoy the travails of travel on the public transport systems of many of our capital cities.

    Today, we process the payroll through our accounting software, dial up the bank’s web site, log into our online business banking account, access a pre-saved list of our staffs’ bank account details, and push a couple of buttons to transfer the money from our account to theirs. No mess, no muddle, no security concerns, and instant gratification, although I still puzzle about where the money goes between leaving our account in the afternoon, and turning up in the staff member’s bank account later the next day – where does it go for those 24 hours – Bermuda for a quick holiday? I know we’re not earning interest on it, nor the staff, could it be the bank is, on some far off currency market? I really must restrain these unkind thoughts.

    We use the same system for our suppliers, we pay online, often accessing the B-Pay system used by many utility and service providers. A push of the button, the power bill is paid, a click of the mouse and Telstra has their pound of flesh for another month.

    If you’re still using a million cheques a month, and standing in queues all over town each day to pay the bills, your organisation needs to seriously consider the alternatives.

    Online and phone banking have changed the way we deal with our suppliers and service providers. The final frontier is the way we deal with our customers.

    The predominant payment method for most theatre and entertainment tickets is still the humble credit card, that little flat piece of plastic which has been around for years. Try as we might, we still haven’t found a more efficient way of paying for things we want, without handing over actual cash. EFTPOS and debit cards filled the gap temporarily, but the theory remains the same – a plastic card with various details encoded (and barely encoded at that) on a magnetic strip, which we then swipe at the box office. The bank then takes its cut, the card company takes its cut, and whatever is left over finally wends its way into the theatre’s bank account, sometimes a few days later. And as the Reserve Bank has shown recently, it’s becoming increasingly clear why the banks would like the status quo to remain – they’re all busy paying each other vast sums of money, through something called ‘interchange fees’, as part of the credit card payment system.

    We’ve dallied with smart cards, but other than American Express with their funky new clear plastic credit card, no one has made a serious attempt to get smart credit cards into the marketplace. Not that the Amex card’s fancy features are much use because no retailers have the systems to interact with the cards. It’s just another way of endeavouring to prolong a comfy, and lucrative, oligopoly.

    If mCommerce can make a mark, quickly and in a way that our customers can easily understand, and find reliable and secure, it will not be long before we all have a large sign at our box offices displaying the payment phone number, and our customers reach for their mobiles instead of their wallets when it comes time to pay.

    Click to Start – Lights, Camera, Action

    I’m constantly asked about using the Internet as a marketing tool: there’s no question people think the Nets’ multimedia capability is the greatest thing since pre-packed boiled rice when it comes to communicating with customers, but remarkably few seem to find a way to turn it to their advantage consistently.

    There’s a constant stream of marketing materials walking through my Internet gateway, and I often use them in training seminars and workshops – usually as a way of opening eyes to their potential, rather than simply providing examples for replication. The bottom line is that marketing on the Net is like any other marketing, it plays by the same fundamental rules. Ignore anyone who uses the words ‘new paradigm’ in the same sentence as ‘online marketing’. Most of Australia’s major advertising agencies experimented with establishing separate ‘funky’ online marketing businesses, and not surprisingly, after spending large amounts of investors’ money, most have fallen by the wayside.

    Marketing is marketing is marketing. The Net is nothing new. You need clear, simple communication, which ‘cuts through the noise’, so people take notice. You need to put in front of people messages they can understand, and which will entice them to take action.

    In response to some recent requests, here are some of my favourite online stories, which in one way or another fall under the ‘marketing’ banner. They range from the stratospherically expensive to the completely free. This is not supposed to be a definitive list by any criteria, they are simply examples I have continued to enjoy long after the initial discovery.

    Stratospherically Expensive

    BMW Films ($US9 million)

    You have to give the car marker BMW credit: when they decide to do something, they include all the bells and whistles, and deploy a budget equivalent to the GDP of a small country – and that’s just to design the cup-holders in one of their very expensive motor vehicles. BMW is great at selling tin boxes on wheels, and there’s no better example than when they decided to go into film production as a brand awareness exercise.

    In 2001, BMW launched The Hire, a series of short films showcasing some of the world’s top film makers. Each of the films features a professional driver (appropriately named ‘The Driver’) who specialises in high-risk trips – from transporting a rock star (played by Madonna in a film directed by Guy Ritchie) to delivering a load of stolen diamonds. Coincidentally, each film rapidly degenerates into a car chase, with ‘The Driver’ piloting… wait for it… a BMW. Actors appearing include the aforementioned Madonna along with Mickey Rourke and Forrest Whitaker. The directors include Ritchie, Ang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Lee, John (Ronin) Frankenheimer, Wong (Happy Together) Kar-Wai and David (Fight Club) Fincher.

    BMW put up a reputed $US9 million to produce the five films.

    http://www.bmwfilms.com.

    John West Salmon (£1 million)

    It’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t seen this cult video, distributed via email around the world from one friend to another since its launch in December 2000. It’s a commercial for John West’s tinned salmon, produced at a cost of £1 million.

    Using the magic of special effects (with help from Jim ‘Muppet’ Henson’s company), the ad shows a John West fisherman engaging a large, and very angry, grizzly bear in fisticuffs, culminating in the fisherman kneeing the bear in the groin and running off with the fish the bear had previously caught. The message is easy – John West will do anything to get their hands on the best quality fish, even if they have to box a bear.

    You can watch the ad, using Real Video (yes, you’ll need the Real Player) from our server by clicking HERE

    TheBasement ($A1.6 million)

    When Telstra was looking for a way to sell its customers on the merits of broadband Internet (irrespective of its unreliability), they decided to back Doug Mulray, wild-child Sydney radio host and holder of the dubious honour of hosting the only Australian television show cancelled while it was actually on air (hands up those who remember Australia’s Naughtiest Home Videos?).

    TheBasement launched in November 2000 with a $1.6 million helping hand from Telstra. It’s just like any other radio station – it features music, interviews and DJs, including Mulray himself. But the station takes advantage of its broadband Internet presence to create a highly interactive relationship with its audience, and to extend its offering beyond that of a normal radio station. Telstra has sweetened the pie by making TheBasement an ‘unmetered stream’ – it’s not included in the monthly data-limit for Telstra broadband subscribers.

    You can watch the DJs at work in the studio, see the music videos for the songs being played, and enjoy concerts broadcast from the adjacent Basement music venue in Sydney. As one computer magazine puts it: “It’s like old-school MTV meets somebody’s cubicle web cam.”

    TheBasement claims to earn revenue from activities such as advertising, leasing its additional studio space and selling CDs and DVDs of artists who perform in the nightclub. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Telstra’s largesse expires, but there’s no doubt TheBasement is probably the most effective, practical way to illustrate the benefits of broadband (and preferably Telstra’s offering) to a key target audience.

    http://www.thebasement.com.au

    An honourable mention should also go to the suite of sites produced by Beyond Online, including the arts and cultural site redkarpet.tv. I’d write more about it, except that, unlike TheBasement, which is available to anyone, redkarpet.tv and its compatriots are only accessible by people connecting via Telstra’s broadband service – which, here at The Dramatic Group we don’t (if you’re wondering, we use an SHDSL connection from requestDSL).

    Completely Free

    Thunder Stars Talent Showcase (Nil)

    A little while ago I invested the princely sum of $109 and bought a web cam from Harvey Norman. It’s a small video camera which perches on top of my computer monitor, pointing at my face, and designed for video conferencing. The excuse was so I could talk with friends and family overseas without running up enormous telephone bills. Combined with my computer’s speakers, and a microphone, I can chat with anyone on the Net with the same set up.

    The quality ain’t Academy Award-winning, but it is surprisingly good for the financial outlay. Just to satisfy my ego, here’s what a snapshot looks like:

    It’s one of those toys which you buy, then try and find a use for. In the process, I ran across PalTalk, a web site established to allow people to talk to each other with audio, and in many cases, video. Essentially, PalTalk runs a huge number of online discussion forums, which you can participate in using text, audio and video. As with public discussions anywhere on the Net, the breadth of topics is breathtaking.

    Be warned, PalTalk hosts a considerable number of forums devoted to the Internet’s favourite subject – sex, which explains the exhortations to ‘keep your clothes on’ when you enter some forums. But there’s a surprising number of discussion areas for all sorts of mundane themes – including one devoted to Australian country music.

    And the concept has been extended further, by establishing forums which occur at scheduled times – essentially programs broadcast to a published schedule. My favourite is ‘Thunder Stars Talent Showcase’, broadcast each week on a Tuesday evening (US time). As the promotion says: ‘If you’re a singer, musician, or songwriter… THIS IS THE PLACE FOR YOU!’

    The showcase is essentially open-mic night, where anyone with ‘talent’ can get up and perform, in the hope talent agents and scouts are also watching. It’s free, fun and rivetingly bad on many occasions, but strangely fascinating (no, nothing like Celebrity Big Brother).

    http:// www.stardustent.com/thunderstars.htm

    http://www.paltalk.com

    What’s Wrong With This Picture? (Nil)

    This is an instructive exercise in how to get six million page views a month to your web site, when you don’t even really have a web site. (Six million page views a month for any Australian web site would place it in the top ranking sites).

    A while ago an Illinois-based computer programmer named Jaybill McCarthy created a silly photographic puzzle and sent it to some friends. He woke up one morning to find his web site handling 5,000 page views an hour (which wound up causing some friction between him and his web host).

    He took advantage of the popularity the puzzle had created by establishing a web site with various forums and other features. As Jay explains on his site: “In my delusions of grandeur, I like to think I’ve invented a new model for web sites: traffic == community == content. The community is the content.”

    In April 2002, the site had racked up more than 3.6 million unique visitors.

    Click this link for the puzzle: http://www.jaybill.com/article.php?articleID=49, and to see how one extraordinarily simple idea can turn your web site into a phenomenon.

    Click to Start – The currency of content

    There’s nothing worse than arriving at a website, avidly starting to read through information on the site, only to pause when it strikes you that the content is out of date. At the minimum it’s annoying, frustrating and a complete turn off. At worst, it can be compromising.

    At The Dramatic Group we’ve learnt from hard experience to take care when researching information from certain websites, because we’ve been stung once or twice. These days we have a double-checking process in place to ensure we can be confident about the material we bring into our site. Otherwise, we do our members a disservice, and ultimately harm our reputation for providing timely, current industry information.

    I’m constantly asked how our company manages and produces so much information each day, and brings it all together on publication days into our email bulletins. So this Click to Start is a little peep behind the scenes, and some pointers to keeping content current on your website.

    Information may be power, but for us it’s currency – and this is how The Dramatic Group, the company which operates dramaticonline.com, screenhub.com.au and artshub.co.uk, earns a great proportion of its income. Our information is our passport into the cultural industry marketplace, and the commodity we trade with our members in return for their subscription fees.

    So, how do we make it all happen? The ‘secret’ is a sophisticated content management system, or, as they are called in the IT trade, a ‘CMS’. What’s a CMS, you ask? Basically, it is a combination of a database of information; an interface that enables you to add and edit information in the database; and a program which makes the information available to the public via a website.

    A few years ago, CMS were expensive, horrendously difficult to implement, and required a degree in rocket science to manage. The remarkable leaps forward in online technologies, and the resulting increase in the community of computer programmers and companies online, has resulted in vastly reduced prices and complexity in the CMS world. Of course, you can still fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there are now many small and medium sized systems at very reasonable prices. And if you are an aficionado of the open source operating system world (like Linux), there are even free software systems available.

    Why is a CMS so important? Many sites are just collections of ‘static’ web pages – each one is a HTML file, created individually and posted. If you want to update the information on one page, then it’s not too difficult. But if you need to make a wholesale, site-wide alteration, the labour required becomes much more intensive. For example, if your organisation changes its logo, and you have 100 pages on your site, you’d need to change 100 individual pages.

    Perhaps that’s not such a big deal, but spare a thought for sites like dramaticonline.com – I just checked, and at the time of writing we have 32,593 items in our news system (well, 32,594, when I add this column). Changing 32,594 individual files is, quite obviously, not feasible. Notwithstanding the sheer amount of hard disk space we would need on our web server to accommodate it.

    So, we have all the news items in a database. Each record in the database is a news article, and includes data – like the date the article was entered, the name of the author, the name of the person who approved it for publication, and categories, such as ‘Performing Arts’. Then we have one single page on the website, laid out with all the logos, colours and menu items, which acts as a template. When you click a link to view a news article, the system then goes to the database, retrieves the corresponding news article, and inserts the information into the template, before displaying it to you. All this happens so quickly you usually don’t notice.

    We use similar database systems for our Jobs, Events and virtually all the other information on our websites.

    In order to manage all of this information, we use a set of web pages in our Administration System – essentially a private, staff-only site. The Administration System allows us to add new content, edit existing content, and search and interrogate the databases. One of the key benefits of using an online administration interface is we can operate the system from literally anywhere in the world, just as long as we have access to an internet connection. Our staff can easily work from home, or out on the road. I’ve used the Administration System while in San Francisco, the UK, and even in an Internet café in Bali during a family holiday a couple of years ago.

    The Administration System also creates the News and Jobs email bulletins we send out each week. I know some of our subscribers have visions of hordes of staff diligently cutting and pasting news stories into emails. The reverse is true. With one click we can create the whole bulletin, complete with advertisements, headlines and other components; and with another click, it can be sent to thousands of subscribers. It hasn’t always been quite this way, but over the past couple of years we’ve spent quite considerable time and resources refining and developing our CMS to create solid and reliable systems and processes. One of the immediate and obvious benefits is our writing staff don’t need any level of technical literacy to do their job – just the ability to use a web browser. They don’t need to ‘know’ HTML, nor how to code web pages.

    I must confess that we do not use an ‘off the shelf’ commercially available content management system. This is due both to the cost when we first needed the system back in 2000 (prior to the low-cost systems becoming available) and the specific requirements we had. Instead, we wrote the software ourselves, drawing on experience from building website systems for our consultancy clients. One of the very positive benefits has been that the knowledge we’ve gained is now often applied to client projects. For example, every time we build a website for someone, we invariably include a CMS, even just to manage news snippets on the client’s home page. We can do this because of the skills and software we’ve developed for our own websites, and we pass that expertise on to the client projects.

    It’s important to reinforce that, irrespective of this CMS technology, none of it is worth a pinch if you have nothing to say! Back in my rock and roll days as a sound technician for bands, it was a standard line that ‘a microphone just makes a bad sound louder, not better’. So it is with a website and a CMS. If you have nothing to say, a CMS will just make it easier to say nothing.

    Click to Start – Define or be defined

    I bought a new mobile phone the other day, my previous handset having succumbed to a couple of years of being dropped, bumped and banged, and the occasional temporary duty as a hammer for my young son. In keeping with my general philosophy of buying technology with as few bells and whistles as possible, I managed to resist the temptation of phones with cameras and other multimedia add ons.

    However, I confess I was torn. Torn by the promise of the latest entrant to Australia’s mobile market – Hutchison’s ‘3’. Those of us living in Melbourne and Sydney cannot help but notice the marketing campaign for the latest mobile telephone technology. Known as ‘3G’, it enables high speed data connections over the mobile network – fast enough for video and audio to be transmitted.

    The bottleneck to a true ‘wired world’ is the bit of wire which connects us to the world. Until recently we experienced the world in slow motion with dial up internet access modems. Then broadband internet came available – mostly via ADSL (read more about ADSL in my previous Click to Start). Once you have broadband you won’t go back. Now broadband data is available on a mobile phone handset.

    The ‘3’ advertisements are replete with ideas for this new gadget – a father working back late singing a lullaby to his baby; a young woman phones her boyfriend to show him the couch she wants to buy. And the public relations machine is in full force, with newspaper pieces describing how landscape contractors are using 3G video phones to monitor the work in progress on their building sites.

    Hutchison is spending up to $3 billion rolling out the new 3G service in Australia – that’s a lot of dough in a saturated marketplace. There are 13 million mobile phone users in Australia. I just checked the population clock on www.abs.gov.au, and as of now there are 19,880,103 people in Australia – 65% of everyone, from babies to grandparents apparently are mobile users. There are around 7.5 million households in Australia – so we’re close to two phones per household (three if my daughter wins the war and gets her own).

    Like microwaves, video players, CD players and personal computers (and, I’m reliably informed, electric toasters), Australia has maintained its reputation as a world-leading adopter of technology. The big question is, is 3G a new technology, or just an enhancement of an existing technology. The difference is important. In the US – a fast technology adopter – it took radio 38 years to reach 50 million people, personal computers took 16 years. The Internet only took four.1  New technologies, in fast adopter countries, are both revolutionising the community, and taking exponentially shorter periods of time to do so.

    It’s fascinating to watch ‘3’s competitors launch their ‘spoiler’ campaigns in a concerted attempt to hoodwink us that they too can offer you the new miracle.  It’s instructive that these are the same companies which have taken an age to make broadband access available, and still do so at prices which persist in blocking access for many users.

    Telstra has been particularly active – capital city residents may have seen a major press campaign, with full colour advertisements for ‘3 wishes’. It was some vague attempt at tempting you with discounts on services, and a competition or two. The reality is it was nothing to do with promoting Telstra products, and everything to do with positioning the number ‘3’ in your minds as associated with Telstra – just weeks before Hutchison launched their ‘3’ network.

    Now Telstra and Vodaphone are promoting their ‘multi-media’ mobile phone services, which lets you take photos with your mobile phone and send them to someone else either via SMS to their mobile, or email. Sounds great. But tell me this – what do you reckon would be cooler if, side by side, you compared a phone which can send a photo to someone, to a phone which allows you to have, in real time, a video phone conversation? I know which one is going to suck me in.

    Telstra and Vodaphone are using ‘current’ technology – ‘2G’ – although yet again they seek to run interference on ‘3’ by coining a new phrase – ‘2.5G’, to try to close the gap in your mind. Hey, it’s only .5 difference, cool!

    If I was feeling terribly uncharitable, I’d wonder which PR spin doctor was behind the recent media beat up of the banning of mobile phones in swimming pool change rooms, because of privacy concerns. I’m certainly not arguing that privacy isn’t an issue, but seeing as we’ve had picture-taking mobile phones for a while now, the coincidence with the launch of ‘3’ was curious.

    Back to my question – is 3G going to be a ‘new technology’, or just an upgrade?

    In terms of sales, one would be forgiven for thinking it’s an upgrade. Sales are slooooowww. I read recently ‘3’ had only achieved sales of 1,000 connections in the first couple of weeks, despite their marketing blitz, including attractive pricing structures which do their darndest to convince you this video technology won’t cost you anymore than your current mobile. At that rate it’s going to take a while to recoup $3 billion.

    And the uptake in Europe is also slow. I quite like the chutzpah of ‘3’, advertising how you can make video calls overseas. What they neglect to tell you is that the only other countries you can make a call to are the UK, Italy, Sweden or Austria. As opposed to virtually every developed country in the world with the current technology phones. According to Telstra’s web site I can use my mobile in over 100 countries with their international roaming.

    ‘3’ is desperate to convince you that your new video phone handset brings the world to the palm of your hand. It doesn’t – yet. But the potential is incredible. Access to the internet and data at the same speed as broadband internet. Video and audio in real time. It’s this unrealised potential which does it for me, so I think it’s a new technology. It’s just desperately unfortunate it is being launched into a saturated marketplace.

    Some signs from overseas that others agree with me:

  • Endemol Entertainment, the Dutch based TV producer of incredibly popular shows around the world, has announced it intends to shift half its business to supplying content for mobile phones and the Internet within three years.2
  • "Once the 3G rollout is complete and terminals reach critical mass and over, those Media Companies who are not in the mobile game, will start facing even more problems as they hang on to their declining traditional business areas."3 

    ‘3’s illustrative examples of the potential uses of their 3G network phones are lightweight, and clearly pitched at the early adopter consumer, giving them easy excuses to splash out. It takes me back to the early marketing of personal computers as the ultimate recipe filers and personal cheque book balancers. Hands up everyone who files their recipes on their PC, and can get their cheque book to balance, with or without a PC? I suspect few of us.

    It took a couple of really clever people to have inspirations like the web browser, word processor, spreadsheet, and email. We then developed practices and tools, drawing on these innovations, which have ensured PCs are now ubiquitous. We all followed along behind these clever people, albeit as, my new favourite phrase, ‘fast followers’. So, in reality, I think there were a few early adopters, who all showed us the way.  They defined the technology, and we hung onto the tailgate for the ride.

    With the greatest of respect to the green thumbs, I’m not entirely convinced that 3G’s future lies in landscape gardening. And my children certainly don’t want me singing them to sleep – indeed, they don’t want me singing at all, because I can’t. These are just the ‘recipe filers’ and ‘cheque book balancers’.

    What I’m looking out for are the early adopters, and what they come up with. How will they define the technology for us? How will they create the ideas, applications and uses which will unlock the potential that ‘in your hand’ broadband data must hold?

    If I were ‘3’, I’d be giving a free handset to every artist in Australia. I’d engage the minds of the most creative of our community, and let them, this time, define the technology, instead of the spreadsheet and word processing inventors from the PC generation. And if Hutchison’s largesse doesn’t extend that far, then let’s make sure our creatives are still encouraged to explore and engage with this new technology.

    Whoever defines ‘3G’ will determine the tailgate us fast followers grab hold of. If we sit back, someone else will do the defining for us, and we’ll lose our moment. Define or be defined!

    Check out ‘3’ at www.three.com.au.

    ‘Click to Start’ is a column covering arts and technology issues, appearing on artshub.com.au and screenhub.com.au.

    1. http://www3.optus.com.au/content/1,1463,84,00.html

    2. http://uk.gsmbox.com/news/mobile_news/all/73365.gsmbox

    3. http://www.cellular-news.com/story/8590.shtml

  • Click to Start – Tinkering Around With New Technology

    Did you know it’s the thirty second anniversary of email this year? Today many of us take email completely for granted. Some of us are addicted – hands up all those who regularly rise in the middle of the night ‘just to check the email’? We don’t just rely on email, we actively wait for messages to arrive. And our use has moved beyond the purely functional. Email is a communication medium in its own right, with its own grammar, language, etiquette and rules.

    In my last Click to Start I explored the notion of the next big idea, the next big leap forward. Email was such a leap, and after stumbling across information about the first ever email the other day, it threw into relief again the question of new technology, and those early adopters who set the pace for us fast followers.

    In late 1971 a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson sent what is acknowledged as the first every email message. The email was sent on ARPANET, a network of computers that was the precursor to the Internet. Tomlinson says he sent a number of test messages, "The test messages were entirely forgettable. . . . Most likely the first message was QWERTYIOP or something similar." You can read a good article about Ray and his invention of email here.

    Tomlinson is also the man who put the now ubiquitous ‘@’ sign into the email address, separating the user name from the name of the destination computer.

    We never looked back from Ray Tomlinson’s first emails – sent, incidentally, from one machine to another in his office, albeit via the Net. Over the past thirty years email has spawned a culture of communication which has changed the way we live and work.

    Email is fundamental to transacting business each day, many businesses would grind to a halt without the ability to instantly send messages and computer files across the street, and across the world.

    Email has, I’d argue, changed family interactions as well. I remember my boarding school days in the 1970s and 1980s, the weekly obligatory letter writing home, under the watchful gaze of a prefect or teacher.

    Nowadays families stay in touch around the world, not just with email, but in moments using later tools like the incredibly popular ‘instant messaging’ programs from companies like Microsoft and Yahoo.

    My own family, which at varying times has seen my various siblings in a number of countries, uses email constantly to stay in touch, from arranging Sunday lunches to checking on the welfare of our eldest brother, a journalist who spent the Iraqi war in Baghdad, communicating via email, laptop and sat-phone. Clearly a worrying time for us, but occasional emails to us were comforting. Having just read another journalist’s book, giving an account of those weeks earlier this year, I now appreciate just how difficult the circumstances were. I’m slightly sheepish at having emailed my brother to ask him to download, sign and fax to me a document – an email sent without a thought from my comfortable, not-under-American-tank-fire Melbourne office.

    The best tool, we found, incidentally, to track his progress, was the quite marvellous Google News system. By searching on my brother’s name, we were able to see, virtually in real time, the articles he was writing, appearing on the web sites of newspapers around the world.

    Our reaction is typical, a new technology arrives, and people discover their own applications and uses, most relevant to their particular circumstances. They create their own rules and parameters. And so a new language and etiquette evolves.

    Thus it is with email, there is no ‘instruction manual’ for email, but, like the other forms of written language, guidelines have emerged, developed, and been adopted. Some are practical, some whimsical, some simply good sense.

    What’s also interesting is how, as a universal communication tool, email, with its commonly accepted styles and forms, actually causes problems. It ignores the fact there are real geographic, cultural and linguistic barriers. It assumes everyone knows why you don’t type in ALL CAPITALS (it’s considered to be ‘shouting’); or what an ‘:)’ symbol means (a ‘smiley face’).

    I’m rather a fan of the smiley face, and other ’emoticons’ as they are known. Check out my favourite technology writer, Dave Barry’s web site for everything you ever wanted to know about these little symbols.

    One of the Arts Hub staff, who corresponds by email every day with people in the United Kingdom, commented to me recently that she’s stopped trying to be funny in her emails – because they weren’t getting the jokes! The English interpret written humour in a different way to us, and we in turn interpret it in another way to Americans, and so on.

    When deliberately or maliciously conceived, email can cause great harm. Like the Scottish law firm, the target of an email hoax which saw thousands of emails, purportedly from one of the partners, threatening all manner of devious tactics on behalf of a client.

    Or the very widely publicised case of, supposedly real person, Claire Swire, whose private exploits with her boyfriend reverberated around the Net in 2000. Without wanting to explore the intimate details, and taking the story at face value, an email, apparently from Claire, was forwarded by her boyfriend to a few workmates, detailing an encounter the previous evening. It quickly ‘escaped’ and went into extremely wide circulation. If the people were real, it was very damaging. If it was a hoax, it was a remarkable example of the power of email. Make your own mind up.

    It’s even rumoured George Bush Jnr sent emails to a number of close friends just after his election as President, saying he wouldn’t be able to email them again, because of the security implications.

    An article in England’s Guardian newspaper a while back caught my eye, quoting research (by Microsoft’s Hotmail service), that "email is promoting rampant illiteracy". The article’s author goes on to say "Netiquette is a touchy business. Not least of all because no one can agree on what it is." Nicely put. And that’s rather the beauty of it, and the danger as well.

    Sometimes the danger is avoidable, because it becomes plainly obvious what is silly. Ever wondered about those ‘disclaimers’ you see at the bottom of some, particularly professionals, emails? Try this one for size.

    Sometimes it’s just plain common sense. For example, the next person who sends me, along with 100 other people, an email with all of our email addresses in the ‘To:’ field gets a big fat raspberry. It’s a breach of my privacy, chews up bandwidth, takes up space on my email screen, and is bad manners. For those of you out there who haven’t cottoned on, use the ‘BCC’ field instead – it stands for ‘Blind Carbon Copy’, and means what it says. Any recipients’ addresses in the BCC field won’t be revealed to the other recipients.

    I did want to bring this article’s arc across to the Arts, but that will have to wait until another day, because we need to explore, amongst other things, the earliest forms of email art – ASCII pictures. (I’ll give the first reader a free Arts Hub or Screen Hub membership, or a 12 month extension on their existing one, if they can send me an example of ASCII art they created themselves – email it to david@artshub.com.au).

    However, I will bring the article to a close by returning to my opening theme, new technology. Over the past thirty years there’s been surprisingly few innovations in email. Sure, lots more people have an email address, and some uses and tools have entered the lexicon – Hotmail for one, instant messaging another (‘I’ll message you later’).

    The biggest advance, in terms of email as we know it, has been HTML email – moving from sending simple text messages, to ones with images, fonts and colours. Instant Messaging is, really, just another form of email.

    Where’s the next leap forward in our communication? That was the question I thought I answered with the last Click to Start, and its description of the new ‘3G’ mobile phone video and communication networks. I hinted in that article that not all was well with 3G – and I’m trying not to get too depressed about the recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald which describes in agonising detail the birthing pangs.

    My prediction of the ‘new technology’ is being sunk by poor equipment and bad business. That’s what sparked my revelation for the day. The first email was sent by a computer engineer who was ‘tinkering around’ with a new piece of software. He didn’t even realise what he had created, and his name is almost unknown. Thirty years later, there’s no tinkering around with new technology, it’s launched as a fait acompli amidst multi-million dollar public relations and marketing campaigns.

    And that’s where I can’t help but feel we’re going wrong.

    ‘Click to Start’ is a column covering arts and technology issues, appearing on artshub.com.au and screenhub.com.au.