Could the Liberal Party’s opposition to the NBN be in part driven by TV broadcast lobby?

google-fiber

Google has been rolling out its Google Fiber internet connections in communities in the USA. Google Fiber offers a 1Gb internet service for $US70 a month, $US120 including tv channels. It’s basically akin to a Foxtel cable connection to your home, but with blisteringly fast internet.

An article on the Forbes website caught my eye this morning “Online Video Soars As Traditional Broadcast Collapses“. Apparently in areas where Google Fiber is available video on demand services delivered over the internet are booming, and traditional broadcasters are suffering badly:

Demand for VOD is growing even more quickly than analysts expected, as traditional broadcast audiences shrink and the market for traditional broadcast content implodes. As consumers spend increasingly more time on their mobile devices, revenue from broadcast advertising has suffered. Broadcasters have cancelled 18 programs from the 2012-2013 season so far, according to Entertainment Weekly.

Also interesting is how it’s spurring other internet providers to take action:

Google Fiber’s influence is impacting other carriers as well: within a week of Google’s announcement of expansion to Austin, Texas, AT&T announced a 1 Gbps plan for Austin and Time Warner Cable  announced new city-wide wireless service for its Austin customers.

In Australia we’re staring down the gun barrel of a change of government, to a Liberal party that wants to neuter many of the benefits of the National Broadband Network, the Labor Government’s plan to install fibre to the home internet – and which is already up and running in some suburbs.

The simplest way to express the difference between Labor and Liberal is speed. Because the Liberal plan does not delivery a fiber connection to your home (or business premise), instead replying on a ‘last mile’ of copper or wi-fi, inevitably speed is comprised. Tony Abbot is on record as saying that 25Mb is “is going to be enough, more than enough, for the average household”. If you want the full 1Gb potential you’ll have to pay for the fiber to be extended to your home. In contrast the NBN brings the fiber directly into your home, just like your pay TV cable.

The Liberal’s argue their plan is cheaper and better. The problem is almost no expert or commentator seems to agree with them, based on my probably biased survey of news stories.

Their policy is all the more stranger because the person in the driving seat is Malcolm Turnball, the Shadow Minister for Communications. Malcolm made his considerable fortune from innovation online – especially as one of the early backers of pioneering Australian internet company Ozemail. I’ve long been fascinated at Malcolm’s opposition to the NBN, it just seemed against what surely must be his past experiences of how innovation in internet connectivity can stimulate a community and economy.

The Forbes article piqued my interest. The local television broadcast companies have long been loud and effective lobbyists in Canberra. Their mega-rich owners always happy wheel and deal – and on occasion threaten and cajole – our politicians. And traditionally they’ve opposed innovation and competition in their very lucrative,

So it made me wonder if the broadcasters have been reading the tea leaves and realising just how much of a threat the NBN poses to their cosy oligopoly – and whispering in the ears of the Liberal party power brokers? Rupert Murdoch, who owns a serious chunk of Foxtel, doesn’t hide his distaste for the Labor government, and though his Australian newspapers has been relentlessly pushing the Liberal cause.

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Unfortunately we may have no choice, the campaign has been successful and the polling says we face the proposed of a Liberal government come the end of the year. I did enjoy this article suggesting it’ll be the NBN that saves Labor, but to be honest I’m not holding out much hope.

No honey, I didn’t buy a TAG Heuer watch on eBay using PayPal

The phishers are getting better and better, and it’s fascinating how, by playing the law of averages, inevitably they strike it lucky. This is an email Fiona just received:

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It looks perfect, exactly like a PayPal/eBay purchase confirmation. And the kicker is, I already have a TAG Heuer watch, and we’re extensive users of PayPal, so Fiona came asked, ‘hey did you buy another TAG watch?’.

I showed her how, if you View Source on this email (or indeed, in Mac Mail hover your mouse over the links) the actual URLs are in Russia, with a .ru address.

Of course we did not try any of the links. But I’ll bet my last dollar that the pages will be excellent copies of the PayPal log in pages, and thus the scammers would have access to our PayPal account, and our linked bank accounts and credit cards.

Here’s PayPal’s page on spotting fake emails:

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The fake email Fiona received doesn’t ask for personal information. The only thing that triggers an alarm at first glance is the lack of a personal salutation – notice it just says ‘Hello,’, not ‘Hello Fiona’.

And not everyone knows how to check the URLs behind the links of an email, and to realise they are not pointing to the real PayPal web site.

Another blogger has also seen this email and pulled it apart some more to reveal the type of nasty Javascript exploit you could be exposed to by following the links.

Be a brave and nimble entrepreneur in your business

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I’ve just finished reading PayPal Wars, Eric Jackson’s 2012 recounting of the growth of the online payment company from inception to its purchase by eBay. The story is remarkable for the long list of challenges and cliffhangers the company negotiated in a short time in order to achieve success.

If you look at some of the great dot com boom failures like boo.com and webvan.com they are characterised by leadership unwilling or unable to read the tea leaves and react quickly. PayPal’s tale is a strong counterpoint, showing how acting nimbly and decisively wins the day.

To some extent the PayPal story is not one of a technology company, rather a group of people brought together by circumstance (one college friend bumps into another college friend); but united by a shared vision to change the world – in PayPal’s case, their founders saw how the ability to easily send money from one person to another could achieve political and economic change around the world. They saw PayPal as a force for good, for the disadvantaged, for small businesses who otherwise were at the mercy of behemoth financial institutions. It is also a story of the challenges any entrepreneur faces when they plunge into the great unknown to create a new business.

The entrepreneur’s journey is almost always rocky. I haven’t had a real job since 1996, and in that time I’ve faced poverty and riches in almost equal proportions. Along the way my partner and I have built and sold a couple of internet businesses, started and failed at a couple more, and started yet another that is still in its infancy, shows early potential, but will require much effort to properly realise its vision. Sometimes I find myself questioning whether I have the ‘right stuff’, the energy and will to invest my time and emotions into a venture that may or may not succeed.

We’ve had a business almost die due to a key database and its backup crashing. We’ve run out of money to the point where I couldn’t afford a tram ticket. I’ve personally made decisions that in retrospect were poor, and financially harmed my family. Working long hours without the safety net of a salary and under constant financial stress is destructive to personal relationships.

Sometimes I wince at the stupid things I’ve done, yet in the process I hope I have learnt some of the same lessons as the PayPal team.

You must be brave. You need the courage to act in the best interests of the business, even in the face of opposition from those around you. PayPal’s management and staff staged a coup against their CEO Elon Musk and forced him to resign because they were unhappy with the strategic direction, especially halting all web site feature development in deference to an attempt to build a whole new version of the site in what was believed would be a faster, more scalable packet of technologies. Yet by doing so the company sacrificed the ability to respond to the daily challenges from competitors.

You must be nimble. PayPal started as a way of sending money between PalmPilots. Eric Jackson, who was leading the direct mail efforts, identified an opportunity with auction site users and started to target them. Eventually that became the company’s main growth driver before later diversifying into activities such as enabling all web site owners to capture payments and the PalmPilot application was quietly retired. The entire business needed to pivot on a pinhead. In contrast, PayPal also owes a great deal of its success to eBay’s inability to quickly enough deploy and develop its own payments system BillPoint.

You must know when it’s time to bail out. PayPal took the deal with eBay because otherwise it was possible their prime competitor BillPoint, owned by eBay would shortly be in a winning position. In contrast the management of  boo.com and webvan.com should never have even allowed the companies to progress as far as they did. But arrogance or an inability to understand and accept the signs of failure led to implosion. They should have bailed earlier – sure, they would still have failed, but the losses would have been more contained, the impact on staff and customers lessened. Instead they waited until they were overtaken by the inevitable.

It’s one of the great attributes I love about business in the USA – the permission to fail. In the land of opportunity it is expected you simply bounce back, dust off, and try again. A notion I wish more of the Australian business world would embrace. Too often I think bravery is confused with recklessness; nimbleness with flightiness; and understanding when to bailout with piking (as leaving a party early is colloquially known in Australia).

Some entrepreneurs seem to have an innate understanding of these qualities, others like me need to learn by experience. There are other qualities of course – humility is one I suspect I struggle with. But for me if you are going to succeed in your business you need to embrace them, and learning the lessons of the past from people like those who built PayPal is essential.

Image: _dakini_

Paying the price of being a self-employed technology worker in Australia.

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As someone working in technology and living in Australia yet with a high degree of involvement with tech companies in the USA, I’m reminded of the massive cost differences every day between the two countries for geeks like me. So Peter Martin‘s article Soft Touches Pay the Price in today’s Age/Sydney Morning Herald simply just rubs even further a sore nerve with me.

Peter explains how companies use price discrimination to maximise profits. For example, supermarkets that manipulate the merchandising of vegetables to ensure the well-heeled pay a little more.

Price discrimination has been alive and well in technology and online, and as the technology improves, so does the discrimination become more pronounced. Amazon can display different prices for the same book depending not only on where you live, but your past purchase history. Regular buyers are charged more than new customers, presumably operating on the presumption that you’ve become comfortable with the idea of online buying and don’t require additional encouragement.

Terry Lane covered the technology price differences between Australia and the USA more than a year ago in his article Software prices defy comparison across borders. He offered up several examples of software that Australians pay more for than US residents. I know this pain first hand. Here are a couple of examples I checked today for software I use every day to earn my income:

Microsoft Visual Studio (it’s a key tool in a software developer’s armory): In the Microsoft US online store it costs $US499. In their Australian store the price is $A724. Given our exchange rate is almost at parity, and to keep the math simple, that’s a 45% premium – for exactly the same product, probably downloaded to my computer from the same Microsoft server.

Adobe Creative Suite monthly subscription: costs $US49.99 in the USA and $A62.99 to mugs like me in Australia. Not quite as eye-watering a difference as Microsoft but still a 26% premium.

What is particularly irksome about Microsoft is they deliberately penalise people ‘in the trade’, technology workers like me. Purchasers of consumer products such as the Windows operating system, and the Office suite, appear to pay the same – I compared prices and the $US and $A price tags were the same.

The cost of doing business as an Australian technologist is not confined solely to the software we use of course. Another key expense (for those of us working from home or our own small business office) is internet access. Whenever I chat with US tech friends about the cost of internet and telecommunications in Australia the conversation usually ends with them rolling around on the floor laughing silly. Because Australians pay through the nose for internet access.

I just checked the Comcast web site in the USA, one of the mainstream internet, phone and cable TV providers. I can buy a 30Mbs (=pretty darn fast) cable internet connection, plus a big bundle of TV channels, for $US49.95. Here in Melbourne, I’m paying Telstra $99 a month for my ADSL connection, and another $100 a month for my cable TV. Oh, and Telstra caps my downloads to 200Gb a month – Comcast does not appear to have any restriction. Americans historically, I believe, have not had ‘caps’ or usage limits on internet and phone plans, so again my US colleagues convulse when I explain how my son or daughter has racked up a big ‘over cap’ bill for exceeding their data allowance for the month.

All of this presumably feeds into the serious cost of living differences between the USA and Australia. I found this Cost of Living Comparison Between United States and Australia, and I compared Melbourne and San Francisco, which shows an astounding cost differential. For example, basic utilities (Electricity, Gas, Water, Garbage) are 90% more expensive in Melborne.

This is the last time I’m paying any attention to my geek friends in San Francisco moaning about how it’s such an expensive city. Because if they feel ripped off they ain’t tried paying the price of being a self-employed technology worker in Australia.

Image from Flickr artist in doing nothing

The weird and wonderful world of Microsoft’s Exchange Server

The weird and wonderful world of Microsoft’s Exchange Server comes back to haunt me once in a while. We have been heavy users in the past in our ventures, but these days tend to use Google Apps.

However, one member of the family still has an Exchange-based account. Primarily because she a) doesn’t like using Gmail; b) doesn’t like using Mac Mail (we’re all Mac based).

She has had Mac Office 2004 with Entourage running happily on her MacBook Pro for several years, until last weekend when Entourage started to stall and hang a few moments after it started to check for mail from the remote hosted Exchange service.

Here’s some sense of the saga I embarked on to resolve the issue – and how I completely failed. I document it here, like many other such trials and tribulations a) so I have an archive to refer to in the future; b) in case others have experienced the same problems. I researched and came up with a list of ideas to try to fix the issue, it’s clearly similar to other peoples’ experience. So everything listed below came from a forum or other online resource.

Here’s how it panned out:

  • Rebooted the machine. Opened Entourage. I had the Progress window open, it started to to talk to the Exchange server, then after about 5 seconds the pinwheel started to turn and Entourage froze. Had to Force Quit. Tried that a couple of times, including leaving it frozen for half an hour or so in case it just needed more thinking time.
  • Move the machine off the wifi to an ethernet connection in case wifi was a hassle. No dice.
  • Held down Option key when starting Entourage, to open the database manager. Used the Verify feature, which reported the database was fine. No dice.
  • Used the database manager to turn off background database checks. No dice.
  • Started Entourage, and before it hung, went to Preferences and disabled Spotlight indexing. No dice.
  • My personal favourite – locate the oldest message in the Inbox and delete. No dice.
  • Used the database manager to rebuild the database. Left this overnight (because it has to pull a fresh copy of the data down from the remote Exchange server). No dice.
  • Installed all outstanding software updates – I noticed there was a firmware update, and also had noticed that the screen on the MacBook Pro was flickering once or twice every couple of minutes). No dice.
  • I found a reference online that Entourage doesn’t like more than 1,000 messages in an single folder. The main Inbox had 4,400 emails, so I created a set of ‘Archive’ folders under the Inbox and shifted 900 to each folder until I had less than 1,000 left (I was using the web acess (OWA) interface on the Exchange server, so didn’t need Entourage for this). No dice.
  • By now was getting the irrits. I found a copy of Mac Office 2008 in my box of tricks, and upgraded, so we had Entourage 2008. I went to configure a new identity so as to start afresh, lo and behold an error message saying Entourage 2008 Home/Student edition doesn’t have Exchange support. Great. Now I don’t have any email program on the Mac that works with Exchange.
  • Checked online and the current software is Mac Office 2011 – with Outlook 2011, because Entourage for Mac has been replaced by Outlook for Mac. I ran down to the Apple store (so much easier now they opened an Apple Store close by me at Southland) and picked up a copy of Mac Office 2011 for Small Business – because Outlook 2011 Home version doesn’t have Exchange support either.
  • Installed Outlook 2011. Configured it for the Exchange server … and a big fat nothing. Called technical support at our hosting company, who tell me that the particular Exchange server the account is with, is still running Exchange Server 2003, and that Outlook 2011 is not compatible. The only option is to set up IMAP access from Outlook 2011 to Exchange. But this will only cover email, not her Calendars, Contacts etc. I ask about migrating from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2011 and am told I need to speak to my ‘partner manager’.

And there as of today it stands. I haven’t had time to call my partner manager. We have email running happily, and the user has her iPhone for Calendar and Contacts.

My overall plan is to shift this Exchange account over to Google Apps, and use the Google sync tool so she can continue to use Outlook. But that will take a bunch of time so will have to wait.

Online businesses requiring offline goodbyes

This week we decided to cancel our eFax.com service. A few years ago eFax was a brilliant solution for us. It enables you to have a virtual fax receiving and sending service, with a phone number in your city, but without all the bother of actually installing and paying for another line in your office.

Reality sank in the other day when I wondered aloud just how many times we had used the $18 a month service in the past year or two. Answer? Pretty much none. Email surely has killed the fax.

We mostly only maintained a fax number for the odd occasion when we needed to exchange formal documents, for example exchange a signed contract. Nowadays for most minor documents people are happy if I just drop a scan of my signature onto a PDF. And for anything important there are brilliant services like DocuSign.

So I logged into my eFax account and cast around for the option to cancel my recurrent billing and close the account, without success. I emailed the support address and received a reply saying I needed to call eFax. I dutifully did this, and spoke to a friendly woman who after ascertaining I wanted to cancel my account immediately offered me a free three month subscription. This was AFTER I had answered her question “why do you want to close the account” by saying “because we haven’t used it in at least a year”. Which I thought was pretty clear.

The support person handled it perfectly gracefully after I declined the free subscription, and within minutes the account was closed.

But I got to wondering, just how many people actually take up the three month subscription, and when the recurrent billing kicks in again, don’t just ring again to cancel the account?

What’s the strike rate? How many customers does eFax retain as a result of putting us through this offline process? My guess is not a huge number. If I’ve rung to cancel the service it’s because I’ve decided to cancel the service. Not because I’m torn, or undecided.

I wonder if it’s all worth the effort when online businesses like eFax force us to deal with them offline when we want to end our relationship?

So I log into

It’s no wonder Australian retailers are losing business to overseas web sites

The lack of competitiveness in many areas of Australian retail were thrown into stark relief for me today. Our eldest daughter is a math whizz, a trait I hasten to assure you inherited from her mother rather than me. She's in Grade 9, but currently chewing her way through the Grade 10 maths syllabus.

As part of her Grade 10 course, she arrived home yesterday with an order form for a fancy 'bath the baby' graphing caculator that is a requirement. Cost? $188, coming from a company in Melbourne.

But even the teacher had worded our daughter up to check eBay for a second-hand version.

Out of idle interest I checked Amazon. And there it was, for $US149. Add $US11 delivery on, convert to AUD and grand total of $A155 delivered. A $33 saving. AND I didn't have to fill out a form, and make sure our daughter took the form to school. My credit card is already saved on Amazon, sign in, one click, agree to everything, done in a minute without moving from my desk.

Amazon exemplifies the challenges facing Australian retailers. The caculator is a globally available Texas Instruments product – exactly the same in the USA as it is in Australia.

Amazon makes the purchase process simplicity itself; and at an extremely competitive price. My experience is that Australian retailers, on the whole, do neither.