June 2010

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I have an Android phone: a Nexus One, straight from Google. It arrived independent of any phone company deals, which I thought would make it easy to use with whatever carrier I engaged when I got to France, where I would be spending the next five weeks.

We arrived in Paris on Sunday the 13th of June. On Monday we went to some phone stores and got SIMs for the three phones we brought with us. The other two were a Nokia E71 and a Nokia N900 (which is really a handheld computer, but will take a SIM and work as a phone). The E71 took a pre-paid SIM from SFR, and the N900 took one from Orange. Both worked fine. The Android was more complicated, because I wanted data working on it. We didn’t do data deals for the other two — at least not this time around — but I like the Nexus One and thought it would be cool to have one phone that would let us surf the Web, use maps, have fun with Layar and other neat stuff.

So I paid 40€ to Orange (which I had been told had the best deals) for a SIM and a plan that included telephony and 450Mb of data. It never worked. In fact, the phone part only worked for a short time. After a few days I started getting messages saying I needed to “recharge” the account with fresh money because I was out.

Looking for clues about what was going on, I went to four different Orange stores, plus other stores that work with Orange, and never got a clear reason why the thing failed, beyond “you must have used too much data.” At the fouth store, last weekend in Strasbourg, a nice young guy who spoke good English (a help since my French is worse than minimal) told me that the only sensible way to do data was to buy a long-term plan. Otherwise, “just don’t use data.” Why? “It’s too expensive.” What’s the price? He couldn’t tell me.

So I put another 35€ on the phone, so at least we could use telephony.Meanwhile I had long since turned off any setting on the phone that looked like it used data.

That worked briefly. Within another few hours the phone could only take calls but not make them. This time there were not any messages about recharging.

Now I’m in the UK, where I read that Orange claims to have the best coverage. And, indeed, my iPhone says Orange has a good signal. The iPhone — my main phone in the U.S. — works fine here, but calls are expensive, which is why I like to have a local phone of some kind. The Android works on wi-fi, but can’t seem to do telephony at all. When I call a number, I get a beep and the whole phone function pops off, returning the phone to a no-app-running state. When I call the number I get told in French to leave a message.

Since we have a 3G iPad arriving at the place in France one of these days (it was held up by French customs and other mix-ups), I was also interested in a data plan for that one. Turns out that the relatively simple plan that Apple has with AT&T in the U.S. is matched by a similar one with Orange. Unfortunately, I also need to take out a French bank account and produce other forms of documentation, before I can get the deal. So I won’t bother.

At this point, frankly, I’m kinda beyond caring. I don’t know why the phone companies want to make life so damn hard for customers — as well as for themselves. My current theory is that they’re all Enrons of a sort: outfits that make their offerings so complicated that only they can understand them — and even they aren’t that good at it.

So I just keep using my American iPhone, fortified with a $20-something/month add-on data plan that gives me 20Mb/month of data to fudge with. I use it in emergencies, like when I need to find my way from a tube stop to an address. I set usage to zero at the start of the month and see where I am. So far in June I’ve used 2.5Mb. But I’m still afraid to use more here on the last day of the month. Hey, why take chances?

Flying wide

I’m at CDG in Paris, about to depart for LHR in London, and the AirFrance plane I’ll be flying in is one of the new Airbus A380s. The plane was over-sold, so there are no windows — a low-percentage shot anyway with a plane that flies 550 or so people at a time. Got a middle in row 91 (of 94), on the upper deck.

The person at the ticket counter said they like to fly these short-hauls so the pilots “get practice.”

Well, we know they work in theory, no?

[Later...] Got in fine. The plane leaves late, but arrives on time. It’s like flying in a building. Although I missed my customary window seat, I did get to enjoy three different views, from three cameras: one underneath, one on the nose, and one looking forward from the tail. (That one produced the picture above, on approach to London.) Also had a fun conversation with a gentleman from the Isle of Man — a place about which I learned a good deal in a short time, with the help of interactive maps on the seat-back display in front of me.

Since then I’ve been on three trains, finally arriving in Suffolk for meetings that will run the next four days.

So here I am on a street in Saverne, France, getting on the Net over a rare open wi-fi hot spot. I was going to tweet something about it, but Twitter is down. So here we are.

There’s one Net, one Web and one Twitter. Many paths through the formers and but one through the latter. Note the preposition. I said through. Twitter’s API allows much, but you still have to go through one company’s proprietary system. Not so with the Net, the Web — or blogging. As with the Net and the Web, blogging is NEA. Nobody owns it, Everybody can use (or do) it, and Anybody can improve it.

Somebody owns Twitter, and only they can improve it.

Twitter is a brilliant creation that has done much to expand uses of the Net, the Web, SMS and other good stuff. But we need what it does to be Net-native and it ain’t yet.

Okay, now I’ll go back off-grid to explore France. Au revoir … from my phone to your whatever.

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The backlash against “personal branding” has begun. I saw it first in this post by Yvonne in BlogHer.  Now you can feel the line begin to whip with Manifesto: I am Not a Brand, by Maureen Johnson, also in BlogHer. Bravo.

The pull quote: “We can, if we group together, fight off the weenuses and hosebags who want to turn the Internet into a giant commercial.”

My own take is here.

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A canal in Lorraine

That headline is the posted speed limit where we are at the moment: relaxing on a canal in rural France. I bought two hours of slow Internet over wi-fi at a marina, and that will be about it for connectivity until next time, if there is one, on this trip, which we are enjoying totally.

Hitting the road, or actually the canal. Or a canal, somewhere east of Paris, in France. For a week.

The plan was to have some kind of data connectivity either through our new Android Nexus One or our new iPad 3G. Alas, five days of trying have failed to get the Android to work as more than a generic phone. (In spite of very competent and generous help from at least one techie better than moi.) My sub-minimal French is sure to blame, but the perversities of Orange (our mobile telephony provider here), and of mobile phone “plans” in general deserve some blame as well. Hell, maybe the Android too, but I doubt it. It seems quite fine.

Meanwhile the new iPad is in the purgatory of a customs warehouse. It has cleared, but there is no good estimate about when it will be delivered, and we have been advised not to push it. We won’t be here in Paris anyway, so I won’t worry about it until I find it still hasn’t come by next weekend.

So, what the hell. I’ll just use the whole thing as an excuse for a long-overdue data diet.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with David Siegel’s Open Letter to Steve Ballmer. Should be a good conversation-starter.

There’s only one way to justify Internet data speeds as lopsided as the one to the left.

Television.

It’s an easy conclusion to draw here at our borrowed Parisian apartment, where the Ethernet cable serving the laptop comes from a TV set top box. As you see, the supplier is FreeSAS, or just http://free.fr.

I don’t know enough French to interpret that page, or the others in Free’s tree, but the pictures and pitches speak loudly enough. What Free cares about most is television. Same is true for its customers, no doubt.

Television is deeply embedded in pretty much all developed cultures by now. We — and I mean this in the worldwide sense — are not going to cease being couch potatoes. Nor will our suppliers cease couch potato farming, even as TV moves from airwaves to cable, satellite, and finally the Internet.

In the process we should expect the spirit (if not also the letter) of the Net’s protocols to be violated.

Follow the money. It’s not for nothing that Comcast wishes to be in the content business. In the old cable model there’s a cap on what Comcast can charge, and make, distributing content from others. That cap is its top cable subscription deals. Worse, they’re all delivered over old-fashioned set top boxes, all of which are — as Steve Jobs correctly puts it — lame. If you’re Comcast, here’s what ya do:

  1. Liberate the TV content distro system from the set top sphincter.
  2. Modify or re-build the plumbing to deliver content to Net-native (if not entirely -friendly) devices such as home flat screens, smartphones and iPads.
  3. Make it easy for users to pay for any or all of it on an à la carte (or at least an easy-to-pay) basis, and/or add a pile of new subscription deals.

Now you’ve got a much bigger marketplace, enlarged by many more devices and much less friction on the payment side. (Put all “content” and subscriptions on the shelves of “stores” like iTunes’ and there ya go.) Oh, and the Internet? … that World of Ends that techno-utopians (such as yours truly) liked to blab about? Oh, it’s there. You can download whatever you want on it, at higher speeds every day, overall. But it won’t be symmetrical. It will be biased for consumption. Our job as customers will be to consume — to persist, in the perfect words of Jerry Michalski, as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs.”

Future of the Internet

So, for current and future build-out, the Internet we techno-utopians know and love goes off the cliff while better rails get built for the next generations of TV — on the very same “system.” (For the bigger picture, Jonathan Zittrain’s latest is required reading.)

In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. A lot worse, in fact.

But it will get better, and I’m not saying that just because I’m still a utopian. I’m saying that because the new world really is the Net, and there’s a limit to how much of it you can pave with one-way streets. And how long the couch potato farming business will last.

More and more of us are bound to produce as well as consume, and we’ll need two things that a biased-for-TV Net can’t provide. One is speed in both directions: out as well as in. (“Upstream” calls Sisyphus to mind, so let’s drop that one.) The other is what Bob Frankston calls “ambient connectivity.” That is, connectivity we just assume.

When you go to a hotel, you don’t have to pay extra to get water from the “hydro service provider,” or electricity from the “power service provider.” It’s just there. It has a cost, but it’s just overhead.

That’s the end state. We’re still headed there. But in the meantime the Net’s going through a stage that will be The Last Days of TV. The optimistic view here is that they’ll also be the First Days of the Net.

Think of the original Net as the New World, circa 1491. Then think of TV as the Spanish invasion. Conquistators! Then read this essay by Richard Rodriguez. My point is similar. TV won’t eat the Net. It can’t. It’s not big enough. Instead, the Net will swallow TV. Ten iPad generations from now, TV as we know it will be diffused into countless genres and sub-genres, with millions of non-Hollywood production centers. And the Net will be bigger than ever.

In the meantime, however, don’t hold your breath.

Typo du jour:

I think what I ordered was the souris d’agneau à l’estragon (lamb testicles with estrogen).

Starbucks Announces Free Wi-Fi, Proprietary Content Network, the headline says, in a story by Eliot Van Buskirk in Wired. Some quotage:

“Free Wi-Fi is in my mind just the price of admission — we want to create … new sources of content that you can only get at Starbucks,” chairman and president and CEO Howard Schulz told the Wired BusinessConference. “This is a thing that doesn’t exist in any other consumer marketplace in America.”

Starbucks hopes to make money from these initiatives indirectly, by “enhanc[ing] the experience” and making the content “so compelling that it drives incremental traffic,” said Schulz as he announced the new initiative at Wired’s Disruptive by Design conference on Monday…

Each customer must log in to Wi-Fi and the Starbucks Digital Network with a unique identifier, so Starbucks won’t only know where you are, but who you are, potentially allowing for targeted messaging to offset cost further. Focus groups have been quite receptive to the free Wi-Fi and local content customers will get in return, says the CEO.

So, where will all of this content come from? Especially, when Starbucks wants it to be updated multiple times a day, so people always see something new.

In addition to the inked partnership with Yahoo, Starbucks is talking to AOL’s Patch.com content-creation division about having it create customized content for the network. In addition, the network will include free online access to the Wall Street Journal, with a percentage of subscription revenue generated when coffee drinkers decide they want to access those articles elsewhere, too.

Salivating yet? Me neither.

The last thing I want from Starbucks — or any store, for that matter — is a target on my back. I do not wish to be tagged like an animal and tracked by marketers. The only identifier I want from Starbucks is the one I give them to call out when my coffee is ready. And that may not even be my name.

The free online access to the Journal is a nice deal, since the paper, both online and off, is freaking expensive. The “proprietary local content” is a big so-what. Sure, Patch.com is good at what it does, as is WickedLocal.com. But both are already free on the Web. And it’s unlikely that local journalists are going to want to go to work for Starbucks, especially for the money they’re not likely to make.

To me Starbucks has three problems, at least two of which Schultz has addressed already and needs to address again. One is the continued belief by its employees that a cappuccino is one ounce of espresso and ten ounces of milk in a twelve ounce cup. Another is selling too much stuff that’s not coffee. The third is music that’s too loud.

Visit any Peets. There the problem is that all the seats are taken. At most Starbucks they aren’t. (Far as I’ve seen, anyway.) The simple reason is that Peets makes better coffee.

It also annoys me that the Wired story lacks links to Patch.com and the Journal.  It also forces me to copy this, even though it’s not visible in the story’s print:

Read More http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/06/starbucks-announces-free-wi-fi-proprietary-content-network/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wired%2Findex+%28Wired%3A+Index+3+%28Top+Stories+2%29%29#ixzz0quYSZGhb

I hate that. I also don’t know how Wired does that, nor do I want to take the time to know it, though I probably will, so I can hate it more specifically.

Bonus link, via Bruce Sterling.

The Onion: Starbucks To Begin Sinister ‘Phase Two’ Of Operation.

When I got my first French consulting client in 1994, I found an indispensable guide in the book French or Foe, by Polly Platt. So I made sure we had hauled it east from my office bookshelf in Santa Barbara, and took it with us to Paris, where I began reading it again today, the first full day of our Summer here.

The book was fresh when I got it, and is now sixteen years old. Many of the companies mentioned are long gone, and the Internet was still off in the future when she wrote it. (She instead gives praise to Minitel, a brilliant and doomed creation of French telephony.) But still, the book is brilliant and — for Americans new to France — useful to a degree that verges on the absolute.

So I wondered if she was still around, and looked her up on the Web. Alas, she died on 26 December 2008, in Vienna. But I also discovered that in 2000 she published a companion to French or Foe titled Savoir-Flair: 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French. I’ll pick that one up tomorrow, if I can find it.

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