Friday, December 24, 2010

Google and Santa, perfect together

I've been lucky enough to do some Christmas caroling this season with members of my a cappella chorus. During one of those evenings, one of my 20-something fellow singers did a stand-up job of explaining why everyone in her family is still a Santa believer: "You have to believe to receive."

More seriously, Santa is the No. 2 man of the hour on Christmas and Christmas Eve, so I got to thinking about what the word "believe" means. Here's one of the definitions I found:

"to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so"

All this is by way of introducing the subject of today's post, the Google Santa Tracker. I am not blessed with children, so I didn't know about this site, but it apparently has been around since 2004, according to this post by one of my fellow bloggers with ZDNet. Actually, Norad has been tracking Santa's annual trip since 1955, when a Sears ad actually misprinted a phone number for a "Santa hotline." Unbelievably, or believably, the number was for the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. He turned out to be an awfully good sport, creating radar updates for children who called the line.

I defy you not to feel a little misty about that. The NORAD video explains what's what.


It makes me a little sad that we only take the time to do stuff like this for one night/day per year. Imagine if we took the time to create other applications of wonder for the children in our lives. Personally, I think that technology will help them get there -- with the appropriate adult supervision over time.

Merry Christmas to everyone.

If you like my occasional ramblings about technology and its impact on society and cultural beliefs, your big Christmas present to me would be to "like" my Facebook fan page (which aggregates all of my daily writing about technology issues) or to follow me on Twitter.

I believe!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Feds no longer neutral on the Net: The government will start regulating Internet traffic

So, it has come down to this. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to let the federal government play a role in regulating Internet traffic.

Do I have your attention?

The apparently contentious decision by a divided FCC specifically gives the agency the power to prevent broadband services providers -- all your local cable company or fiber-optic service provider -- from messing with an online service. The big example everyone has been citing was the recent issue between Comcast and Netflix. The claim was that Comcast was blocking access to the Netcast video streaming service, a situation that the cable provider put down to a technology-based issue.

From a consumer standpoint: The decision would, in theory, mean that your Internet service provider (ISP) would have to provide you with much more specific information about the speed of their service and the availability. And that you ISP couldn't block certain Web sites (provided they were "legal").

The good news for the service providers is that the FCC decision opens the door to their ability to better tier their levels of service. In essence, forcing Internet sites to pay the telecommunications providers on which they rely more money for faster speeds. 

The idea is that the new rules will prevent companies that have both contents and content distribution networks from discriminating against their perceived competitors.

But if you think this one is over, think again. Apparently Congress has the ability to block this action. And, since both Republicans on the commission voted against the measure, I'm guessing there will be more to come.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Privacy versus convenience: Feds mull a federal policy that would guide personal data collection

I read somewhere recently where privacy actually isn't a guaranteed right in any of our founding documents, although internationally speaking, there are other laws and conventions that have got us covered. Theoretically speaking, of course.

I found this page, which does a great job of explaining what's what. I also got to hear a great debate about the business ethics of what is collected  -- or not -- by businesses on their Web sites and through all the other electronic links that that they now have into our lives. This is a big deal when you consider the build out of all the sensors that are collecting information about us and our surroundings. We as Americans love convenience, but some of these new conveniences are made possible through systems that subject our lives to more surveillance.

Couple that with this whole Wikileaks mess, it isn't at all surprising to hear that the Obama administration has called for the creation of what is currently called the Privacy Policy Office. Legislation hasn't been proposed yet, but the U.S. Commerce Department is calling for guidelines to cover all the personal data gathering to which our lives are now subjected. Those guidelines are discussed in a new 88-page report.

Here's the position of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke:

“America needs a robust privacy framework that preserves consumer trust in the evolving Internet economy while ensuring the Web remains a platform for innovation, jobs, and economic growth. Self-regulation without stronger enforcement is not enough. Consumers must trust the Internet in order for businesses to succeed online. Today’s report is a road map for considering a new framework that is good for consumers and businesses.  And while our primary goal is to update the domestic approach to online privacy, we are optimistic that we can take steps to bridge the different privacy approaches among countries, which can help us increase the export of U.S. services and strengthen the American economy.”

At the very least, it it time for all of us to understand which organizations collect which information. For that, I strongly recommend the "What they Know" investigative series that the Wall Street Journal has been running about the whole Internet privacy topic.

But, I'm curious: Are you willing to give up some element of privacy for a higher level of customer service convenience? Are you the type who fills out product registration forms? What do you make of this whole Internet privacy debate? Is it overblown or undercovered?


Friday, December 10, 2010

Why would you want to use Twitter, anyway?

The Twitter-verse was atwitter this week with some new research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project that puts the percentage of adults who use the Twitter microblogging service to share updates about themselves or the world in general at around 8 percent.

Most of my personal friends are still puzzled by the phenomenon, even though most of those same friends use Facebook to broadcast their status and random thoughts throughout the day. To me, it's the same sort of idea, except with Twitter, you have "followers" who may or may not know you, whereas with Facebook you have "friends" (in theory, if not reality) who might claim a closer kinship.

As a journalist, I rely heavily on Twitter to help share information about my latest stories and blog posts. So, I actually was most curious about what people are sharing -- and how often.

First, here's the "what":

  • 72% are posting updates about their personal life, activities and special interests (much like they would on Facebook)
  • 62% are sharing work-related information
  • 55% share links to news stories
  • 54% post commentary about life and or politics (believe me, the political thing is big, at least among the people I follow)
  • 53% retweet other people's posts. (If you're not a Twitter person, aka Tweep, that means you are sending out someone's updates, sort of like forwarding it to your entire e-mail address book)

As to the "when," Pew Internet reports that about one-third of those who use Twitter (according to their surveys) check in multiple times per day to read what's going on. Far more check in much less often, though, maybe once every few weeks. So, very sporadic.

As of this morning, I have just south of 2,220 Twitter followers, which pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of followers that some of the journalists I read can claim. My friends frequently ask me whether or not I think they should use the service. For many of them, I personally think the answer is "no." But here are just three ways in which I think Twitter could be useful to the average adult (aka, someone who is not as technology-obsessed as me):

  1. Because tweets (aka Twitter updates) can be read on your mobile phone OR on an Internet site, managers or administrators can use the service to share brief news about sales activities, product updates and so forth. Why not send them in e-mail? Because not everyone will necessarily receive them or find them in their inbox.
  2. You can use Twitter to spread the news about your business. I follow the woman who cofounded the momAgenda company (which sells personal organizers) because she regularly sends out product updates AND she also sends out fun observations about the world at large. It has made her business much more personal to me. Twitter can be an invaluable customer service tool.
  3. You can use Twitter to create your own custom news services, receiving updates about the specific stuff you care about. I follow lots of hockey-related news services and fans so I can keep up with my favorite team, the Montreal Canadiens. 

 That's just three ideas off the top of my head.

Incidentally, if you're not following ME on Twitter and you have an account, you should. Or, if you'd rather lurk on my Facebook fan page instead, that's another option and you can "like" it at the link.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Social media, smartphones create new breed of shopaholic

OMG, I haven't started my Christmas shopping yet and suddenly there are less than three weeks to go, or just 18 shopping days till Xmas, as the retailers like to say.

I'm probably going to wind up being one of the people that market analyst firm IDC along with research partner National Retail Federation describes as a mobile shopping "warrior" or a mobile shopping "warrior wannabe" -- a category of consumer that it predicts will generate almost 28 percent of the spending during this holiday season. That's roughly $127 billion.

Truth be told, most of my personal spending will probably be via online sites that I already frequent and some of the independent retailers in my local community because I get seriously clastrophobic at major shopping malls.

But IDC Retail Insights says that shoppers engaging in informed and aggressive mobile commerce, in which people shop via their smartphone or haggle on prices with information they've been able to search, now represent about one-quarter of all U.S. consumers. Retailers who don't budge on a deal will watch those disgruntled shoppers walk out the door.

Let a new age of haggling begin!

Speaking of those would-be customers, think about how easy it is for one of them to tell all their Facebook friends that such-and-such store is charging more than it should for an item. Or that it has poor inventory. Or, to think positively, that one particular retailer is the ONLY ONE in town with a much-coveted item. Come on down!

Got smartphone? You can do some smarter shopping this Christmas.