Stunted By Reality Just another know-it-all talking about life, business, technology, sports and music.

12Apr/11Off

Frustration on Freecycle

Yes son, it is the thought that counts. But your mom would appreciate an expensive thought much more!

Like most people who go through a lot of stuff, when I heard of the idea behind Freecycle, I thought it was brilliant. Advertise any stuff you wouldn't mind giving away for free, or post a request for stuff you're looking for and anyone can offer you their own unwanted but useful items.

I signed up about a year ago after moving home because I fell into both camps. I wanted to be a giver but I could also use some stuff that I didn't need to buy brand new. Well today I'm cancelling all my subscriptions because in a year, I haven't completed one freecycle either in responding to a wanted ad or when I've wanted to pick up the stuff advertised by others.

My biggest frustration is that all the stuff is always taken. That's not a bad thing in itself of course. However, I only get to know that an item has been taken AFTER I have clicked on a posting, been forced to log into the site, and then filled out a message to the advertiser. Only when I've clicked send does the system tell me that the item is no longer available! Well, if they knew that the item isn't available, why am I forced to jump through all the hoops just to find that out?

There are other annoyances too, like

  • the huge number of 'freeloaders' who seem to use the site as a source of free stock to sell-on. A scan down the wanted ads can be disheartening, though there are of course some genuine people.
  • the huge number of emails you get (mostly of said wanted items) even when you're only getting a digest of site activity. Invariably when you come to click on an ad, the item will be taken, thus rendering all those notifications useless.
  • The broken nature of the website. You can't freely move from one group to another without signing up and logging in to each group. Groups are based on area you see, but of course most people are near enough to 2 or 3 groups and to want to join them all. There's no free movement in freecycle, because the tech is really quite outdated.
  • The fussy posters on the wanted ads. I've responded to some wanted ads only to be told that my item is not exactly what the poster is looking for. Ah, dude I'm offering you something that would suit your needs and is in good condition, for free and you still wanna be fussy about it? Man, whip your card out and go to a store!
  • (Updated) People are also pointing out that it's very common for someone not to turn up and collect items they have requested. I guess the fact that items are free, means that people can't be bothered really!

It does make you wonder whether this is more reinforcement for the idea that freemarkets (pun intended) are able to solve society's problems better than some of these utopian ideals. There are certainly a lot of moderators as a result of the disenguonous swamping the genuine. Ironically the moderator involvement on Freecycle only serves to put off the genuine people. It's as far removed as you can get from Laissez-faire, but it still lacks the order of a highly structured, social utopia which I think was being aimed for.

Even as an ardent capitalist, I still like the idea of social utopia, but I  just don't think it would work on any sort of big level. However I would have thought it would work in doing something as simple as redistributing unwanted goods. For me that hasn't turned out to be the case, and I'll be cancelling my subscription today. So long freecycle.

4Jun/10Off

Me and my nokia n900

The Nokia N900 showing system information in x...

N900. A handheld computer.

I got a Nokia N900 two months ago to replace my old Nokia N770 internet tablet. Just like the old tablet, this one has been one of the best buys I’ve EVER made.

I’m a media junkie. I like to consume as much of it as I can on any medium, and for me that used to consist of watching a lot of TV (no it’s not bad for you), listening to radio, reading newspapers and books. A LOT. Like most information junkies its a masochistic thing isn’t it? Its the thrill of possibly stumbling onto some stuff I absolutely disagree with and just going mental about it. I’m that guy you see shouting at the radio when you’re stuck in a traffic jam!

Nokia 770

N770. Finger not required.

Anyway, the N770 when it came out, was my way of extending my media consumption. It came out in 2005 and I got it towards the end of that year. On that device Nokia realised early on what other tech companies are starting to get now. Modern portable devices have to combine the function of two to make them worth carrying. As well as being an internet tablet that did internet and email very well for it’s day, the N770 also did satellite navigation.

I’ve had a great five year run during which I used it quite a lot at first; Mostly by reading books and feeds whilst listening to music. It has great battery life and was able to multi-task way back then in 2005. Who would have thought it eh Apple? After two years I was not a using it as much; but then lately I have once again been using it a great deal since last year. During the current online music craze I found a Last.fm app for the N770 and that was what got me back into it.

In March this year my mobile phone contract expired on the Nokia E71 I carry. For me it doesn’t make sense not to have a mobile contract if you’re going to be spending anything upwards of £15 per month on phone calls. You might as well get a free phone on a £15 or whatever contract. So it was logical I get the N900 just so I could keep it at home as an always on internet device.

Nokia have put phone capabilities on the N900 but to be honest that’s not what it does best. I’m really please with it because it does internet the best of any similar sized device I’ve used. It has proper Flash in the browser and doesn’t squirm when someone posts a video of a 2 year old kid in Indonesia puffing away on a cigarrette to my Facebook wall.

The slide-out keyboard is very good despite only having three rows. It’s like someone building an eight bedroom house and thinking that it would be good to save space by having three instead of four bathrooms! That doesn’t make sense because the N900 is already on the big-ish side. Nevertheless is still pocketable though I wouldn’t carry it if I wore skinny jeans.

Apps are there though not as much as for that other phone or on Android. In fact apps on the N900 are mostly functional stuff and some games. I’m not really a games person but I get the feeling there are'nt too many native ones for N900. To compensate it does run a good number of emulators.

The one thing missing so far is the free navigation that Nokia has given to all the newer phones. I hear that this will be corrected sometime and I look forward to that day. When that happens I will probably no longer carry my Sony digital camera because the N900 shoots decent daytime pictures. Night time pictures are better than you’ll see on most phones because of the dual LEDs and Carl Zeiss lense; though they are nowhere near as good as a decent digital camera.

Overall there’s enough on the N900 to make it the best gadget I’ve ever bought simply because it’s so usable. It’s not as big as an iPad which I think it’s actually more in competition with than the iPhone. The weight and portability are just incomparable making it useful even when lying in bed. I know there are better things to do in bed, but hey…

Of course I’m yet to play with an iPad, but the thought of a beautiful, 1.5lb ‘portable’ device that doesn’t do anything unique is not appealing to me. Convergence is what it’s all about nowadays and the N900 does that very well.

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4Mar/10Off

Patently mad. The absurdity of patents continues

The idea of patents is a good one. In theory. You invent something and apply to get it registered so that what you have made is exclusive to you for a period of time. During that period you can recoup the costs of coming up with your invention whilst copy-cats are barred from profiting at your expense. To qualify a patent has to be new, inventive or useful.

I say in theory because, it turns out you can apply for patents on ideas and also on software (which pretty much is a logical application and something of an art too). This is where things get muddy, because patents apply to everything in the modern world. From the medicine that the poor countries badly need to the cell-phones on which billions of people depend.

A couple of things in the last week have served to highlight the massive change needed to bring the system up to date if the technology world is to be prevented from going into a race to the bottom.

It started with Facebook being awarded a patent on the ‘newsfeed’, that page you see on logging into Facebook which tells you who poked who, and other ‘newsy’ stuff in your friends circles.

Then Apple sued HTC who make tons of phones for just about everyone in the industry apart from Apple and Nokia. Why, because HTC is said to be infringing on Apple’s patents including one for “Unlocking A Device By Performing Gestures On An Unlock Image.” Awarded on February 2 in 2010! You couldn’t make it up if you tried. In simple terms that means any phone company using that system where you unlock your phone by swiping it has to pay Apple for the right to use it. Absolutely ridiculous, especially when you consider that I have had a phone that does exactly that since before the iPhone was around. Step forward Neonode.

                          Is that an icon based menu? Quick let's patent it!

 

I bet Neonode didn’t apply for the patent because they thought it was too obvious to be granted! Anyway the whole thing has a lot of geeks shaking their heads whilst lawyers can’t stop salivating at the prospect of more long and drawn out litigation.

Ultimate blame however, has to lie not with those who are granted the patents, but with those who look at these applications and say “Yes, that is novel, it’s new, it’s inventive and it’s useful.”

For an illustration of the ridiculousness BusinessWeek featured this invention in their ‘Most ridiculous patents’  article.

Bear right dad! Double saddle coming on!

Dad Saddle

Patent awarded: 2002
Patent says: “A number of devices have been devised for carrying infants and young children. Such devices often are not appropriate or useful for carrying larger children. Nor are known conventional arrangements adapted to support a standing child.”
Business Week say: If your child is too big for a stroller, it’s probably time he or she learned to walk.

28Jan/10Off

Who needs marketing when you have fans in the media?

If you’ve just come back from Mars, then you may not know that Apple launched a new gadget yesterday. Please have a good look at my browser screenshot of VentureBeat (one of my favourite tech blogs) by clicking the image on the right. It’s ridiculous and illustrates the hype that is constantly bestowed upon Apple products by the media.

It’s one thing people having an interest, but its quiet another when the media feeds our interest in Apple with such an overload of coverage. VentureBeat is by no means the most Apple-eyed blog out there (that’s why I read it). Thus it makes you wonder what the Apple-centric blogs are going through right now.

Tis’ the Cult of Mac indeed.

28Aug/09Off

How many Postmen want their kids to be Postmen?

Sorting office - Jobs worth striking for!

I absolutely hope the answer to the title question is none or at least not many. However the way the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) is carrying on you’d think that working in a sorting office is a job worth aspiring to. Don’t get me wrong (yeah this is the bit where I say some unpalatable things) because being a postman or working in a sorting office is not a bad thing in itself.

People’s situations vary and of course there are many reasons why someone would be working there, but one thing I can say is that I look down upon anyone who works there and doesn’t aspire for more. Either for themself or their family. Themself because if you’re not working there to better yourself then I really hope you’re doing it to elevate your family.  Note that I used the word elevate, by which I mean those workers shouldn’t just be looking to feed their families. There’s more to life than food. Really there is.

Anyway, the gist of the strike if you don’t know or are working in a sorting office (in which case you don’t know) is that the Royal Mail wants to modernise. In 2007 they rolled out a four phase plan to help achieve that modernisation, which the CWU agreed to. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have five phases as it’s common knowledge that all good plans either run for five years or have five phases!

Fast forward to 2009 and they have surprisingly implemented three of those phases save for the last one which calls for rolling out a ‘walk sequencing machine, a device which organises letters into the order the postmen and women will deliver them the next morning.’ A pretty neat idea which to my untrained ear says ‘lower costs, efficiency, speed’ and all the good things that any decent business and it’s customers should hope for. Of course it probably means many jobs in the sorting office will be lost, but hey who wants to haggle over menial jobs being lost? Oh……. the CWU?

The situation would be really funny to me if people’s skilled jobs didn’t rely on the Royal Mail. Losing professional jobs is one thing. But sorters *%?!! This really takes the biscuit. The CWU wants to save menial jobs even though surely the modernisation will result in skilled jobs being created. Granted there’ll be fewer than the lost ones, but hey who really wants their kids to grow up to be Post Men?

A truly hazardous profession.

26Aug/09Off

BP’s oil a shot in the arm for our addicted economies

So BP found has made a ‘giant’ new oil discovery in it’s Gulf of Mexico fields. Good timing for those oil and fuel prices that were starting to go up again, huh?

Well, I for one am not holding my breath for a stabilisation at the current prices of fuel. However, I really hoped that things were going to continue down the same road with reserves of oil and gas dwindling, and our consumption of said fuels holding steady. Humanity has made great strides in making greener flights, cars and consumer electronics. Whilst we’re not nearly enough there, innovation and technological progress in that area is the best way forward in lowering our dependence on oil.

Necessity is the mother of invention and I believe the continued progress we’ve been making could be stunted if yet more oil is found in ‘giant’ quantities. I’m not naive enough to think we could ever be 100% free from our oil habit, but Iike any alcoholic, I’d rather we knew we could do without it.

In all, I’d like to see oil prices come down as a result of low demand and not higher supply.

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21Aug/09Off

iLike didn’t believe the hype

Nic Brisbourne the London based venture capitalist yesterday blogged about the lessons of iLike's low valuation. The gist of the article was that iLike, a business based around a Facebook app that allows users to share and interact around music, had been sold for the relatively low figure of $20 million. Nic says;

It seems to me there are two big takeaways here.

1. It is important to build value as well as traffic

Ultimately the true measure of value is net cash flow and it seems that despite being profitable there simply wasn't much scale to iLike's business in revenue terms.  I would speculate that is partly because not all their 50m users were very active (it is telling they always quote total registered users not active users) and partly because the inventory they do have doesn't monetise that well.  Widgets on social networks suffer from the double whammy of limited real estate in an environment where ads perform poorly.

It is worth noting here, as David Pakman of partner at VC firm Venrock points out, that traffic is often a good lead indicator of value, just not always .

2. Dependence is a weakness

The other big problem for iLike seems to have been that 70-80% of its traffic came from Facebook, making them vulnerable to changes in FB's terms of service or if FB decided to launch their own music service.  So iLike was dependent for its future on the good will of Facebook, and If there is even a small chance that iLike could have its ioxygen (sic) cut off nobody is going to risk paying too much for the company.  This problem is all the more acute when the company you are dependent on hasn't sorted out its own business model and is somewhat unpredictable

These are very valid points for any web-based business to take on board. Nevertheless I'm just not sure they apply in the case of iLike and I commented to that end. (Updated: Nic has commented below with more insight and futher clarifying the background information. Be sure to read that.)

I'm guessing, but I think iLike's founders and investors probably knew the value of the company they were building. That they cashed out a slightly profitable company at $20 million, with other bidders on hand seems to suggest that they got what they were looking for and where not unhappy with the price. It would have been easy for them to move along thinking they'd grow and/or get more down the line.

This however, is a lesson to the tech media, analysts and all those who build copy cat businesses. Hype does not equate to a high valuation. It seems iLike (quite rightly) didn't believe the hype.