Wednesday, 29 February 2012

At The End Of The Rainbow

It seems we can finally answer that eternal question:

What lies at the end of the rainbow?

No, it's not Manic Miner. If anything that may be what lies at the beginning. And before Commodore 64, BBC Micro, and even ZX81 (or even ZX80, and not to forget Altair 8800) fans jump at my presumption that affordable home computing began with Sinclair ZX Spectrum,I'll just say - I could care less, but I don't. Also, if you think I'm insisting on Spectrum just because that was what started me on the weird and wonderful path, let me tell you that it didn't. And that I won't dwell on this any more.

On the other hand, and I think anyone will find it hard to really argue otherwise, the rainbow stripes of ZX Spectrum were in many ways the rainbow which lit up enthusiast home computing. So, indulge me, suspend disbelief, and follow the rainbow arc from that golden time of thirty years all the way to the present.

And the ride was just like along an arc. We all, very excitingly and very excited throughout, shot into the beautiful world of making computers do what we wanted, as opposed to what some company wanted. The high was exhilarating, even if the ride was necessarily bumpy. But then, those bumps were part of the magic, and we loved them, too.

Then, somehow, things got out of hand. Or rather, the prices. What was a cheap little computer which most families could afford, and probably one for each child, morphed into thousand dollar beasts that were IBM compatible PCs, not to mention even more expensive (and still even more expensive) Apples. Suddenly the computing revolution not quite ate its children as priced them out of the market. Now most people could not own a computer, and if their parents did they probably weren't very keen on their kids messing around them.

Worse still, and a lingering problem even now when a lot of computers are actually affordable again, programming of the beasts became much more complicated. And even if it didn't (and I don't really think it did, at least for the real enthusiast) it got progressively harder to really get to know your machine. They became both much too complex for an amateur to comprehend fully, and there also wasn't nearly enough reference material from which to learn eve if you could afford the time. While it was - and is - definitely still possible to mess around a personal computer it became just too time consuming for someone with other things to do or other interests to pursue.

A few abortive attempts were made with cheap computers for developing nations, but most of them failed for various reasons and in various ways. Netbooks started cheap and simple only to mutate into too expensive, but too underpowered little things good only for use under duress. It seemed all hope is lost.

But then, there came Raspberry Pi. They promised a basic computer the size of a matchbox and a price to match (excuse the pun). A quite decently specified Linux machine for $25/$35? It sounded like just one more failed idea. Fortunately, in that venerable spirit of British back room boys, it actually happened. As of this writing a first batch of 10,000 units has sold out in just a couple of hours, and in the process effectively DDoSed the web sites of electronics giants RS Components and Premier Farnell!

Talk about pent up demand and sheer excitement! If this doesn't prove that there is a huge grass-roots interest for truly affordable - and intellectuality graspable - creative computing then I don't know what does.  And it just has to be creative. The Raspberry Pi is really of no use to anyone for anything unless they want to spend time and effort and build something useful out of it. This is not demand for a $35 computer which will be used to surf the web and watch (porn) films. This is demand for a device that is cheap enough to warrant spending time, effort, and some extra money, too, so that it can be cajoled into doing something interesting, if not necessarily useful, which general purpose computers, regardless how complex or affordable, just cannot do.

And so, travelling up and down the arc of the ZX Spectrum home computing revolution rainbow, we reach the other end where, instead of the proverbial pot of gold, we find a sweet little fruit - not an Apple! - which reinvigorates the same forces and elicits much the same excitement and feelings we all had thirty years ago. Mind you, this is not (just) nostalgia of a bunch of old timers. The excitement may be the same as the one of old, but the excited ones are most definitely the young 'uns of today.

This end of the rainbow need not be the end at all, either. Hopefully, it will be a lesson learned. A lesson that teaches us two things, really: yes, you can always build a truly affordable computer - you just need to try hard enough, and yes, there always is interest among the kids to build stuff of their own, and to challenge themselves and everyone around them.

Now, there's only one way to end this (overlong - as usual) post - with a question:

What will you build today?

You may have to hold your horses until batch 2, or even 3, is ready.
Unless you are obsessive-compulsive F5 hitter, that is.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Bricks? Mortar? Or Both?

By now, we've all seen the ugly decline of the High Street shop. A good part of it is, of course, due to the recession which just does not seem to want to let go. Another part, however, clearly has to do with the unstoppable march of the on-line shop.

Does it have to be like that?

Do High Streets have to lose the colour of their various shops?

I don't think so.

To be honest, I am as guilty of robbing the bricks and mortar shops of their business. There's little I hate more than prowling shop after shop in search of whatever it is I wanted to buy. It is way easier to click-click-click and have it delivered to the door, usually within a day or two (go Amazon, go!).

But, in the very last sentence above lies also a pitfall of on-line shopping - and a chance for brick and mortar (also an opportunity for postal services, but more on that later).

It should be obvious, really: 99% of deliveries - especially free and cheap kind - will arrive between Monday and Friday, and within business hours. Which is really not good at all. I mean, the reason I can buy stuff in the first place is because I have a job. And, like a vast majority of others, I have a (sort of) 9 to 5 job. So, I am usually not at home when the delivery comes. So, I usually have to either take a day off - which is expensive and relies on knowing the exact day of delivery - or I have to go pick up the package from my local delivery depot. You don't even have to be unlucky and have yours open only between 7am and 1pm on workdays and 7am and 11am on Saturdays for it to be an inconvenience. And you have to be lucky and have your employer happy for you to use their post room facilities for your personal shopping needs.

Let's now take stock and see what we've got here and how it can be reshuffled to everyone's benefit...

I love shopping on-line. It's quick, easy, convenient, and not least you can do it in your undies (or even out of them if you're that way inclined). But I also like to touch and try at least some things before I buy them - and I don't just mean shoes and clothes. For example, when buying a laptop it can be essential to try a few different keyboards in order to avoid disappointment (and endless typos). So, there's definitely a place for brick and mortar shops where you can do just that. They could or could not hold or even sell stock. I'd be happy for them to just be built around the need for a customer to play with products and then either complete the sale from home or, even better, use an in-store secure terminal to do it there and then. Especially for bigger and more expensive items this would be a good thing?

When it comes to delivery I think a brick and mortar shop of the see-and-play type described above can be handy, too. While it may not necessarily hold stock that's available to buy on the spot (an expensive exercise in itself), it could act as a delivery depot for stuff you buy from them on-line. If nine times out of ten I need to go to my Royal Mail delivery depot on a Saturday I may just as well make the trip to my local store. It's more fun for me (delivery depots are usually in quite drab places devoid of any other facility), and it can be good for the shop which could try and make me buy something else if I have to pass through its display department. Maybe pick up and accessory for whatever I bought. While it may be silly and expensive to stock 100 inch TVs in a High Street store, it should be cheap and easy to have cables and other consumables you'll need with them.

Of course, the TV example is a bit silly and strained. With the sizes in which they come these days you really do want them delivered to your living room. Which is where we come to the promised postal services bit. If these want to enhance their business - and get more of it - they really need to seriously consider making more and cheaper outside-of-business-hours deliveries. It may be that the wages are higher for these hours, and it may be that the uptake could be slow, but surely once the volumes picked up it would be profitable for all. Have shops and couriers share the early pain, and they'll end up sharing the increase in volumes and profits, too.

In summary, and probably apart from the last bit about delivery services, these changes should be relatively easy and cheap to implement. The shops and staff are already there. Re-purposing stock rooms to hold customer orders rather than unsold items should be simple, and may even reduce the storage space costs as the space required may even be reduced. The point of sale systems are mostly already general purpose, networked terminals so converting them to on-line style shopping in store should be easy. Most would really only need turning 180 degrees to face the customer. Even the existing Chip and Pin terminal can say as a payment system increasing customer security. Probably the most difficult part would be to bear the pain of the increased overtime payments for postal delivery staff. But, with a bit of luck, and a lot of determination this should eventually pay dividends, too.

So there you go. This is what I think can, and should, be done to save the High Street and at the same time make shopping an even better experience for the customer. And it should be obvious that customer convenience leads to increased sales. Which is what we all want, don't we?

Friday, 3 February 2012

Privacy, Please!

(or: how I stopped worrying and learned to love Google)

Call me stupid, but I honestly do not understand the brouhaha surrounding the recent Privacy Policy changes announced by Google.

For one, there doesn't seem to be much that's changing at all in the ways Google is either collecting or using the data from its users.

The main change is that from 1 March 2012 any data Google may have collected about you can be used in its provision of a service other than the one from which the data originally came from. To use an already abused example, your YouTube watching history may affect the search results and/or ads you see on Google's home page. No more data will be gathered by any of the Google's services due to this change.

When I first read about this, my initial reaction was along the lines of:

What? Are they not already doing this?

I mean, when you think about it from an average user's perspective. Whatever Google service I use surely I have an impression I am dealing with the single business entity. What does it mean that Google owns and operates both Picasa and YouTube than they are integral parts of the same business entity. And business entities tend to share internal information freely. And not only that. The ones who are better at sharing internal information tend to be better at what they do. And I mean it both for their bottom line and for their customers. Because, and regardless of what someone may be trying to tell you, companies live and die on how successful they are at satisfying their customers' needs.

So, it seems at least only natural for Google to want to do so. It's a survival strategy.

But, you may ask, what about the users and how their data is being used? And you'd be excused for asking that question because every journalist and politician - and their collective dog - are currently up in arms about just that. The problem is, as hard as I concentrate, and as many such articles I read, I cannot quite see what is it really that they are complaining about.

To be honest, the best articulated complaint I've seen so far is about how this will affect serving of ads in various Google services. I'd even dare to claim that this is the only thing everyone seems worried about. OK, apart from the politicians who are (well, may be) genuinely worried about potential for abuse. Which is probably due mostly to their not quite understanding of the issue, but having to do something because the press is up in arms.

Maybe we should remind ourselves what is going to happen. Repeat after me:

The information Google already holds about me is now going to be more widely used throughout Google's products and services. Whenever I am logged in. No more information is going to be gathered. No existing privacy settings and mechanisms are going to be affected.

So, setting aside for the moment the issue of Google accidentally losing your information (or giving it away to law enforcement), the only thing that really changes for you - the Google user - is that you may see a bit different ads and/or search results while going about your business on a Google operated site. Some would - probably correctly - even argue that you will be seeing better ads and/or search results. After all, the more you know about a person, the better you can guess what they might want in the future. Stands to reason, really. And if you want unbiased search results just log out of your Google account and go for it. And if you don't like seeing ads that's easy as well: AdBlock works on most browsers you care to name. And if it doesn't work on yours - you should change your browser. (And if you want to know why I still carry ads on these pages, please head here.)

Therefore, I must repeat: I honestly do not understand the brouhaha surrounding the recent Privacy Policy changes announced by Google.

Even if we now go back to that possibility of your data being leaked, lost, and/or handed over to law enforcement we are still no closer to comprehension because this issue is not affected at all by these changes. Nota bene: I am not saying this issue does not exist or that it gets any better with these changes. It doesn't. But it doesn't get worse either. All the data is still there - it's just a few extra links between the databases.

And let's be clear: exactly the same argument is valid for any other company that holds data about you (Facebook comes to mind, natch). The fact that some of them have less tentacles down which to spread it is beside the point. Just you wait for Facebook to branch off into something or other in a few years' time. After all, now that they went public (interesting analysis of Facebook IPO here, and do follow the links therein, too) investors will sooner or later demand they "diversify".

So, I think you should stop worrying, too. Which is not to say you should not read the new Privacy Policy - and up sticks if you don't like it. Of course you should read it. And up the sticks if you don't like it. The only problem is: there's not (m)any places where you'd get substantially different treatment. And remember: that's not necessarily a bad thing either.

Stay safe, stay sane, be reasonable.