Web 2.0 according to Mitch Benn (and I’ve given in and signed up for Twitter)

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

According to The Guardian, primary school children in England are going to be taught about web 2.0 technologies. This is probably a good idea, but I have some reservations too… after all, I’m the head geek in our family and it’s only a matter of time before my son tells me that blogging is passé and that I really should be doing something else that I haven’t even heard of yet!

Fans of The Now Show may have heard Mitch Benn‘s ditty from a week of so back, which highlights all the key points of web 2.0 technology in about a minute:

“A blog is just a diary you post on the Internet so everybody in the world can read along.
It means you’re under the impression that your every waking thought is a source of fascination but you’re wrong.
Then there’s MySpace which is mainly full of dreadful Indie bands who want a record deal although it’s a lost cause.
Then there’s Facebook which is mainly a way to reassure yourself that your buddies’ lives are just as dull as yours.

A podcast is a radio show you make and post yourself so it doesn’t matter if it’s really crap.
MP3s are just a clever way of stealing people’s songs which is why the record industry’s collapsed.
Wikipedia is a site where you could have looked all this up for yourself if you weren’t such a lazy git.
And twitter is for messages that last 140 characters or less and I’m the King of it!”

[Mitch Benn, The Now Show, 27 March 2009]

I thought it was worth sharing… and if you like to hear Mitch’s irreverant musical satire then you might be interested to know he has a gig in London this June which could be a giggle.

Anyway, if my son (who is due to start school in a few months) is going to learn about Twitter, I thought it was about time I got an account… I can’t promise I’ll update it (any more than I do my Facebook status) but, for those who really are interested in the minutiae of my life (are you? really?), I’m @markawilson and Mitch Benn just got a new follower…

If you still haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about, this video explains Twitter in plain English:

Is this the latest method of boosting profits at bigcompany.com?

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’m starting to wonder if I’ve uncovered their latest method of boosting profits for a large UK-based retailer with an international presence. As much as I dislike the company in question, I’m familiar with their product range and they considerably less expensive than where I would prefer to shop. Every couple of weeks I place an order with bigcompany.com* and it feels like every time I have to ask for something to be refunded (not counting the normal substitutions, which they always deal with at the point of delivery). At this point I’m faced with calling them (at my cost, admittedly local rate, but last time I tried, I was placed on hold for 22 minutes before I gave up because the call had cost more than the mistake was worth) or e-mailing (and, confusingly, the order confirmation comes from customer.services@bigcompany.com but the online customer service desk is at online@bigcompany.co.uk!).

We’re not talking large sums here – typically between 1 and 3.5% of the guide price for my order but if extrapolated over many customers (who may or may not notice the error) the figures could potentially become quite large.

Order date Order value (guide price) Value of error Potential increase in bigcompany.com’s revenue (if I hadn’t spotted the mistake)
3 July 2007 £116.14 £1.94 (meat which went off before it’s use-by date, despite being refrigerated from the point of delivery onwards) 1.67%
17 July 2007 £215.22 £6.41 (mistakes with substitutions and multiple charges) 2.97%
14 August 2007 £180.46 £1.85 (missing bag of potatoes) 1.03%
29 August 2007 £113.98 £3.99 (missing box of breakfast cereal) 3.5%

To be fair to bigcompany.com, they always respond with an apology and a refund but at what point does a series of mistakes (which I may or may not have noticed) become a pattern? And when does a pattern of mistakes become accepted business practice?

Of course, this post is based almost entirely upon speculation (together with my customer experience) and I’m sure that such a reputable retailer would not seriously consider defrauding its customers but I don’t imagine there are many online businesses that could sustain such a poor inventory/delivery/billing effort.

* Name changed to protect the potentially innocent. Despite the preceding paragraph, I don’t fancy being sued for libel and the retailer in question’s resources to pay for legal representation are almost infinitely more than mine, so I’m avoiding using their name here; however bigcompany.com is a pseudonym for the online business of an extremely profitable company.

Coding horror

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I just stumbled upon Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror blog and it’s very interesting reading (even for those of us who write very little code). The article that I found was commenting on Jakob Nielsen’s latest tome on web usability. Although Nielsen makes some valid points, the comments are worth a read as they highlight some of the real compromises that website designers and website developers have to make.

I’m sure I could lose many hours reading Jeff’s writing but they all seem well-informed, to the point and interesting… these were just a few of the posts that grabbed my attention this afternoon:

  • When in doubt, make it public looks at how Web 2.0 is really just creating websites out of old Unix commands and that the new business models are really about taking what was once private and making it public!
  • SEOs: the new pornographers of the web looks at how much of the real search engine optimisation is just good web development and that many of the organisations focusing on SEO are all about money and connections – whether or not the assertions that Jeff makes in his post are correct, it’s an interesting view and certainly seems to have a lot of SEOs fighting their corner.
  • Why does Vista use all my memory? looks at how Windows Vista’s approach to memory management (a feature called SuperFetch) and how grabbing all the available memory to use it as a big cache is not necessarily a bad thing.

Happy birthday to the world wide web

This content is 18 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post highlighting the 35th anniversary of the Internet. Today it’s the turn of the world wide web – for which Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim Berners-Lee) posted a message on the alt.hypertext newsgroup encouraging people to try out the concept on 6th August 1991.

At that time, I was studying for my BSc in Computer Studies and this is just one example of how irrelevant that degree was (I’m still struggling to think of anything learned in my studies that has been useful in the subsequent 12 years that I’ve been working in IT). Although there was some object oriented programming in Modula-2 (along with some C/C++) we were still learning COBOL. Up and coming operating systems (e.g. OS/2 and Windows NT) were ignored in favour of Unix and the low level language I used was 68000 assembler (not 8086). In my final year of studies (1993-1994) I did at least have the opportunity to study distributed computing but there was no mention of such concepts as hypertext in my classes. Perhaps all of this is a little harsh at it would have been difficult back then to forsee the effect that the world wide web has had on our lives.

It was not until 1995 that I first used a graphical web browser and was introduced to the delights of Yahoo! and Altavista. My first online service was a CompuServe account and later I migrated to dial-up Internet access before finally getting a broadband connection in 2002. Today, in common with many others, I rely on the world wide web for an increasing number of services – at home and at work.

Read more about the creation of the web.

Web 2.0 is being mis-sold

This content is 18 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’m not sure if its a good thing, but recently, I began to read more computing magazines. Many years back, when I was learning my trade, I used to read PC Plus but since then I’ve avoided the publications found in your average WH Smith because I found them to be far too consumer-focused and I consider that much of the advice given is far to simplistic and only tells half the story.

Recently, I’ve found that whilst reading trade publications such as IT Week will give me what I need to know from an industry perspective, I’m using more and more of the consumer-focused functionality built into the software on my PCs. I’ve also been relearning my trade as I try to become familiar with two non-Microsoft operating systems (SUSE Linux and Apple OS X) whilst rekindling my lost knowledge of PC hardware, so once again I have been reading the magazines that I shunned for so long. The trouble is, with their £6 cover prices (to justify the accompanying DVD which rarely has anything I want on it (or that I can’t download for free on the ‘net), I only really want to buy one a month and it seems to be difficult to get all I want from a single publication.

I did read Linux Format for a few months, but soon got tired of the Microsoft-bashing that took place (often from journalists who either run Windows under duress to work around a specific issue or never run Windows and associated applications because they can get all they need from an open source platform). I don’t believe that everything Microsoft does is good (far from it), but I do get annoyed when I see someone slating a perfectly good product because it was written by Microsoft and therefore it must be “evil”. Recently, my purchase of a Mac has led me to buy Mac Format and iCreate but by far and away the best general (cross-platform) PC magazine that I’ve found has been Personal Computer World.

One of the advantages of PCW is that it’s published by VNU business publications, so many of the writers are also contributors to the same trade publications that I respect already. I also like PCW because it has a mixture of hardware and software articles, just the right amount of advertising, and covers developments for all PC operating systems (although there is a slight bias towards Windows, representing its market position and therefore the largest chunk of the magazine’s readership); however, I still get annoyed by half-correct advice (often edited to save space, losing its full meaning in the process) and articles that have jumped on one bandwagon or another and seem to have lost the plot on the way. One of these was an article on Web 2.0 technologies in the July 2006 edition of PCW.

Web 2.0 is the current buzzword used to describe web services (rich websites that provide a service, that is consumed either by another application, or directly by a user via a web browser). I first came across the concept back in 2001 when Microsoft announced their .NET vision at a TechEd conference but others have extended the web services vision to include LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-Perl/PHP/Python) applications and other platforms, in the process generating much media hype about the next Internet.

And that’s exactly my point. It’s all hype. There is no new Internet. Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web and browser-based applications have become widespread. Now that same platform is being used to develop new, rich, server-based applications and people are heralding a new dawn (or even worse, building up for a second .com frenzy). What has become known as Web 2.0 is not the next web, it’s simply a development of the vision that Berners-Lee had 15 years back, but now we’re all ready to use it (back in the early 1990s many business applications were character based and ran on an expensive server, whilst PC users were only just getting used toward processing and a GUI interface – we were only just getting used to the move from standalone PCs to LANs and would have struggled with the concept of massively connected systems at providing and consuming services from one another).

In fairness, Tim O’Reilly’s description of Web 2.0 is an interesting and thought-provoking article which I agree with in many ways but for every O’Reilly article there are a bunch of journalists who herald Web 2.0 as the “webtop”, replacing the desktop and even suggesting that Windows Vista will be the last edition of Windows. Whilst I have no doubt that Web 2.0 services will win the hearts and minds of consumers (hence why Microsoft is developing the Windows Live platform to complete with the giant of web services – Google) we are not about to see the death of the PC, to be replaced by a “dumb” browser terminal (anybody remember how thin clients were going to displace rich applications on the desktop?). Why not? Read on and I’ll explain why not.

Web services are a great idea, joining islands of information to enhance the Internet experience. We’ve already seem the development from static information pages to transactional data and web services take this to the next level; but despite the altruistic intentions of many Web 2.0 companies they also have to represent a viable business proposition. That means driving a revenue stream and (eventually) making a profit. If the venture capital that finances the web service (which is hemorrhaging cash until it gains sufficient presence to establish a revenue stream) dries up, where does my data go? I’m pretty sure it won’t find its way back to me but it may well end up at the next clearance sale of used IT equipment. My personal data may not be significant but if it was to fall into the wrong hands, it may include information that allows someone to steal my digital identity. Potentially worse, if one or more small businesses rely on the failed web service to operate, what happens to their data (and their business)?

I like my data to live on my computers – where I control it. Sure, maybe I’m a control freak, but I’m not alone in this view. I might put a few digital photos up on Flickr but I keep the originals where I know they are safe. I may trust my ISP to host a website for me, but I have an offline copy too. I don’t use my Google Mail account because I don’t want Google using my data to build a profile of my interests. And, if I fail to take backups, then I only have one person to blame when I lose my data.

Those are just a few examples from a tech-savvy consumer point of view but what about the corporate or government environment? You might accept that your bank, local council, and major government departments outsource their IT operations to an IT services company (they almost certainly do) but they will also make sure the necessary controls are in place. Their website might include functionality consumed from a web services provider but I wouldn’t expect confidential documents to be edited using Writely (the online word processor, now owned by Google), or financial data to be controlled using the Google Spreadsheets, any more than I would expect a business associate to contact me using a Hotmail e-mail address. Corporate and government organisations may consume some web services and will almost certainly provide more but they will not turn their internal operations over to the webtop.

Web 2.0 supporters claim that because all applications run in a browser then there will be less application support issues. Hmm. What does the browser run on? Yes, a lightweight operating system could well be developed to support just a browser but haven’t we all experienced buggy websites using dodgy scripting?

As long as corporates still use PCs as we know them today, there will be a market for Microsoft to sell Windows and Office for the desktop, along with supporting server infrastructure and application development platforms (including .NET – which is, after all, Microsoft’s vision for web services). Web 2.0’s webtop may well be on its way up, but it’s certainly not a replacement for the desktop.

Phenomenal growth in UK e-commerce

This content is 18 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Every year, it seems that retailers put out dire warnings of falling sales on the high street and Christmas 2005 was no exception. We’ve grown used to retailers starting the “new year” sales in late December (and I was amazed to hear a friend admitting to being one of the many reported to be queuing outside Next when their sale started in the early hours of the morning on 27 December 2005). BHS was discounting in mid-December this year – I bought one item at a 60% discount (reduced to half price from £12 and then another 20% off making it just £4.80 on the day I happened to be in town and making my final Christmas purchases).

It strikes me that falling high-street sales are only half the picture, and last Friday’s BBC Working Lunch programme confirmed that for me, outlining some amazing statistics on Internet shopping growth over the Christmas period, with online sales up 50% on the previous year to a total of £5bn in the 10 weeks up to Christmas 2005.

Whether or not people really are deserting the high street (I suspect it is all hype designed to get us into the shops), the Internet has become a core part of our lives (and therefore a significant channel to market for retailers) – unfortunately, not everyone is ready to take advantage of this.

In fact, according to Working Lunch, if you look at the growth in UK online shopping as a whole the e-commerce market has grown 2600% from £87m in April 2000 to £2.26bn in December 2005. Some high street retailers (e.g. Boots) are now taking more business through their website than even their largest brick and mortar stores (up 40% in Q3 2005 alone).

For those who doubt that people really do use the Internet, research by Forrester indicates that 33% of of people enjoy spending time online. Working Lunch reported that when asked “which of the following do you enjoy doing in your leisure time?” the results came back as follows:

  1. Listening to music (60%).
  2. Watching films (54%).
  3. Walking (47%).
  4. Travelling (45%).
  5. Gardening (41%).
  6. Restaurants/bars (35%).
  7. Surfing the Internet (33%).
  8. Watching TV soaps (31%).
  9. Sightseeing (29%).

(Maybe I’m not such a geek after all – I enjoy 8 out of those 9 activities, only finding watching TV soaps to be a bit dull).

To those who think that not that many people have fast enough Internet connections to take advantage of e-commerce sites, think again – the UK is third in a table of European online access levels and second when looking at how many people shop online regularly – both figures well above the European average:

  • Sweden: 77% have online access, 49% regularly shop online.
  • Netherlands: 73% have online access, 33% regularly shop online.
  • United Kingdom: 67% have online access, 48% regularly shop online.
  • Germany: 62% have online access, 37% regularly shop online.
  • France: 52% have online access, 28% regularly shop online.
  • Italy: 47% have online access, 12% regularly shop online.
  • Spain: 35% have online access, 7% regularly shop online.
  • Europe as a whole: 56% have online access, 29% regularly shop online.

Looking further at the UK, 60% of those Internet connections are classified as broadband.

It seems that the initial barrier to Internet sales – worries about online security – is no longer inhibiting consumers (my view is that it was always an issue of perception – people are perfectly happy to read their card details over an unsecured phone line) and the figures seem to confirm that it was more of an issue of unfamiliarity; however, as Working Lunch highlighted, there are still some issues for online retailers to overcome, for example:

  • Delivery times (how about evening deliveries?).
  • Quality of service (returns are often at the expense of the purchaser – even if the wrong item is shipped).
  • Product type (people want to try clothes/shoes for size, smell some items, and feel others).

Even if at first some items don’t seem to fit logically with the Internet, the statistics don’t seem to bear that out (and after all, catalogue sales were popular for many years) – when asked “which products have you bought online?”, consumers responded:

  1. Books (52%).
  2. Leisure/travel (41%).
  3. CDs (40%).
  4. Clothing (37%).
  5. Event tickets (36%).

Often, it is the items which have a personal touch that fit best with retailers who also have a shop front, allowing unsuitable items to be returned in store.

So, even if brick and mortar sales are slipping, Internet sales are looking extremely healthy, but as Lorraine Branch, of IT and business consultancy Conchango, says:

“Success will hinge on offering customers as many different ways to buy as possible while maintaining a consistent retail experience [and] retailers who fail to provide a fully integrated channel approach will find themselves left out in the cold”.