Category: glob-Al

Where do UK SMEs get technology advice?

It’s fairly well known that a lot of the productivity gap between the UK and other industrial countries is accounted for by a long tail of unusually unproductive small businesses (see ONS data here). This fascinating piece in the FT covers a project to do something about that by getting them management advice.

An interesting twitter conversation developed and it was suggested that the decline in the importance of bank managers had something to do with how innovations diffused through the economy, or not.

At Ovum, we recently did some survey research that touches on this. Specifically, we asked samples of people from SMEs about what they did with IT and telecoms technology. One of our questions was “Who do you trust for business and technology advice?” The following slide summarises the results for the 360 UK respondents, who were asked to give their top three choices.

For presentation reasons we applied a cut-off at 5%. Banks, as you can see, just didn’t come into it. Medium-sized firms seem to be much better served by ISPs than smaller ones.

That said, the general pattern was much the same globally, with IT consulting shops and value-added resellers winning out and a long tail of others. German firms were more likely to DIY, South Koreans to seek advice from either customers or suppliers, both results that fit with stylised facts, sorry, prejudices about those countries’ economies.

(The rest of the report is here and its international cousins are here, but you’ll need to pay for that.)

A regrettable breach of security regulations

Remember this post from 2006, and especially this one from a year later on the next big miscarriage of justice? Well, look what just happened. It’s far worse than even I thought – the police were well aware that there were serious problems with the Landslide case as early as February, 2003. Specifically, the old National Crime Squad seems to have been extremely gung-ho about the whole project while the regional police forces were much more sceptical. Later the whole thing was slung to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, one of the weird sort-of police agencies that proliferated in the late Blair years. Meanwhile, a suspect has succeeded in claiming damages. Both cases show various police forces in a very bad light indeed – the US postal inspector in the first suddenly retired to look after his “sick wife” when his evidence was challenged, while as for Hertfordshire Police:

Despite this, the officer, Detective Constable Brian Hopkins, pressed three charges of possession of indecent images of children. Mr Justice Mackay said he cut a “rather pathetic figure” in the witness box, having initially claimed he could not give evidence because of a psychiatric condition….The judge found that Mr Hopkins, who has since left policing, not only had “no honest belief in the possession charges when he caused them to be brought against [Mr Clifford]”, but did so “to protect his own position”.

Feel the fremdscham, baby!

Meanwhile, my bank card has been compromised. So I was in San Francisco of a Sunday, walking around the Tenderloin looking for a cash point that wasn’t looking back at me with mischief in its eye. Preferably one attached to a bank. I eventually walked up as far as Van Ness and found a Wells Fargo branch. It wouldn’t give me any money, nor would the Bank of America. So I ended up phoning the bank at extortionate roaming rates, standing on the forecourt with a small encampment of the homeless. Thinking that I had less US currency to my name than they did, I struggled through the IVR thickets, confirmed my salary hadn’t somehow vanished, and got into a queue to report that the fraud-detection robots had zapped me. I stayed on the line until AT&T dropped the call after 12 minutes. The phone started whining; it’s like a little jet fighter. You can do a lot of cool things with it, but it’s best not to go too far from the refuelling tanker or you’re screwed. Back to the hotel. I tried to call them on Skype, but AT&T’s WLAN was too bad to hear the IVRs. I plugged in the phone, called again, explained that I didn’t want to report the card stolen but rather the opposite, and sat in 23 minutes of queues. Curses…curses…24 hour fraud algorithms…not 24 hour staffing, though…why not call me?…banks…banks…banks…!

And then I got through. And the fraud investigators told me that the police had found my card in a list of cloned cards offered for sale on the black market. In the circumstances, they hadn’t called me or given out any information for fear of giving away the secret, as the investigation was still going on. Oh…right. They listed some transactions, agreed to let me withdraw up to £100 a day in cash and honour direct debits, and left the Visa facility frozen. They refused to say anything about where or when the security breach might have occurred, although I think the detail about the Visa card might be significant. Call us when you get back to the UK – and by the way, here’s the direct number.

The whole incident had just been annoying up to that point, but this changed the game. I was left with a whole load of surplus indignation on my hands past its use-by date. It cluttered up my room at the Phoenix like a chunk of un-Californian, clanking machinery. I suppose I could spend it on the thieves, but who were they? Rather than just harassing me and profiteering, my bank had actually done something I could only agree with. And the police had actually protected me from an actual crime, without my even noticing, with the occult efficiency Norman Lewis said had attached itself to the word “intelligence”.

As far as I know, no money is missing, but I haven’t audited as many as 14 months’ worth of transactions through my current account yet. That’s since this card was issued – they couldn’t give me any other bounds on it. After all, as they said, it was impossible to say how far the list of cards had been sold on by whoever had originally collected them.

Anyway, I didn’t even need to draw any more cash after the first $100. My expenses in Silicon Valley were unusually frugal – the nearest I came to spending significant amounts of money was trying to catch up with two colleagues who’d gone out looking for amusement. (I spent 20 minutes looking for a cab in Palo Alto at 10 o’clock at night and eventually gave up, having noticed that there seemed to be less traffic on the roads at that time of night than I would have expected in a Yorkshire Dales village.) I read the two Operation Ore articles and logged them for future use. As briefed, I called HSBC on my arrival back in Britain and they initiated a new card.

And it was only as I wrote this that I remembered I ought to be scared. After all, it is impossible to say how far the list of cards…

submarine, cocktail party, etc

I’m going to America. Specifically, I’ll be organising Telco 2.0 Americas in Orlando on the 9th and 10th of December. Then, I’ve got a two-and-a-half day layover in a hotel with marching ducks. The prose is worth quoting:

In a special elevator, the five North American mallard ducks, four hens and one drake, comprising The Peabody Ducks, descend from their $100,000 penthouse Royal Duck Palace.

When the elevator doors open, The Peabody Ducks, accompanied by their crimson-and-gold- braid-jacketed Duck Master™, take up their positions on a plush red carpet and begin The March of The Peabody Orlando Ducks to the strident tones of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March.

They waddle their way in formation through the hotel’s marble halls, and when they reach the magnificent, orchid-crowned fountain, which takes center stage in the Atrium Lobby, the ducks mount three red-carpeted steps and splash into the fountain’s waters. Tumultuous applause reverberates through the lofty, foliage-draped lobby…

I bet it does.

the problem with a submarine is that there’s nowhere to have a decent cocktail party

The blog is going to call in Amsterdam this week. I’m going to be attending eComm, the less tiresome telecoms conference. Readers there are welcome to meet up; I’d also be interested in recommendations of anything, really, as I haven’t been there since 1996, and using the various hangouts referenced in Charlie Stross novels as a guide seems to take things too far. The conference is held in an old gas works – I used to live in one in Vienna. Is there any European city that hasn’t converted a chunk of disused infrastructure into something unconvincingly hip at some point between about 1985 and 2005?

talking without speaking; speaking without talking

I often miss chunks of the humour at the Stiftung because I would rather do almost anything than watch US business-spot TV news. If you wanted to hide something from me, you could do worse than put it next to a TV tuned to CNBC. But I think I experienced something of the culture the good doktor despises so much the other day.

The scene; 3GSM/sorry/MWC keynote session. Dramatis personae: Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, ditto of Nokia, Ralph de la Vega, ditto of AT&T Mobility, and moderator Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Others present – diverse delegates, press, staff, self.

It was of course dull; you don’t go to the keynotes at tech conferences for content, you go to the actual conference sessions, or for that matter, the cocktail parties. De La Vega’s presentation at least contained actual factual material, Kallasvuo’s was inoffensive and reflected a Finnish disinterest in conference stardom, but Ballmer’s was vacuous to an incredible degree. I was aware of his reputation for histronics, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the degree to which the entire performance was divorced from its content.

He shouted, he stomped around the stage, he gave every impression of passion, but the text was content-free. It was the style of rolling TV news – had the sound been turned off, it would have been possible to synchronise almost any imaginable text with the video. David Hockney once said that in the theatre you don’t put a tree on stage, you put treeness there; this was an exercise in the theatre of Ballmerness.

One reason why I went to the keynote was to witness what happened when Ballmer of all people had to speak on the topic of “openness”; in the event, he avoided the obvious problems here by talking a great deal without saying anything.

He reminded me a little of the only time I ever heard Arthur Scargill speak; he didn’t have anything like Scargill’s style, but he acted in much the same fashion. This is of course the heart of demagogy – it’s all about turning your audience into a crowd, through a display of free-floating emotion. In this case, much of it consisted of a display of empty optimism and emotional stroking – that uniquely American mode, boosterism. We were called on to be optimistic, bullied to be bullish, badgered with progress.

We proceeded to the panel discussion, during which Mossberg encouraged the Great Men to waffle with him at great length about the Apple iPhone, possibly because this was a level of discussion he felt comfortable with. Then, he turned to taking the rise out of the head of Nokia (clearly some minor provincial), apparently having no idea where he was and who the audience were. At one point he used the success of the US automakers as an example; apparently, even if the Europeans had invented the car, blah, blah. Why was Nokia so weak in the US? Kallasvuo replied to this at some length, taking in several major news announcements of the day, some technical issues, questions of design and more.

The subject was changed back to iPhones.

By this point I was only staying in the hall in anticipation of the promised questions from the floor. I had a strong sense of having wasted my time.

Asking provocative questions is a time honoured way of drumming up business at conferences, as well as a contribution in itself. After the next homey anecdote about so-and-so’s wife and the funny little keys on their Nokia, my finger was itching. It was time to throw a pavé in the water. Questions were finally announced, and the first to be called was none other than John Strand, who I interviewed for the first ever story I wrote for Mobile Comms International in 2005.

And that was when the comfortable round of anecdotage was broken up; Strand started positively shouting that the session was outrageously US-centric, that the iPhone made up a tiny percentage of the market, and why weren’t we talking about something more useful? Dead silence…and then, applause. The viewpoint of the entire hall had shifted to yer man, standing near the back, surrounded by horrified organisers.

Neither Mossberg or Ballmer had any answer to this; it was a My Pet Goat moment. The rest of the world had turned up and crashed their OODA loop completely. In a theatrical sense, it was positively Brechtian; his intervention, in breaking the frame, forced an alienated re-evaluation of the characters. Kallasvuo maintained a poker face; there was a rumour that De La Vega sought Strand out later.

Before I or anyone else could move in with a further question, Mossberg announced that the session was closed and left quickly through the stage door, as Strand was still orating, having been deprived of the microphone. I couldn’t help imagining a helicopter on the roof. It was the most fun all week.

TYR Technical Partner – www.bogons.net

Just to explain my absence, first of all I’ve been changing ISPs – you may recall I promised to give Virgin Media the push. Bogons Ltd – Internet for the Clueful were tapped after the normal exhaustive procurement process, and I spent last Sunday afternoon setting up an ADDON ARM8200 modem/router to work with my existing WRT54G WLAN box. I was hoping to use ZIPB, but eventually settled for renumbering the WRT54 (although, as the modem seems to be a Viking one, this might show the way).

Anyway, that was fun…of a sort, and the upshot is that Phorm can still bugger off and I now have considerably higher IP bandwidth. And then I vanished down a wormhole in the work-life continuum for the rest of last week, so no blogging for you, which is just as well because I was mostly thinking about SIM-based authentication systems and related OSS-BSS issues. And you wouldn’t want that.

A short break in social democracy

Felix Salmon recalls the impact the appearance of wealth, and Buenos Aires’ status as a quasi-European city, had on Argentina’s finances; part of the reason the banks thought it could pay back the money they lent it was that it looked OK, or rather the steaks were superb, the wine better, the company classy (and white); how could anything go wrong?

It’s worth reading. It’s also interesting, as it’s his response to a debate between carta dell’oro glibertarians Tyler Cowen and Megan McArdle about why those terrible lefties persist in believing that Cuba is richer than northern Mexico. Cowen’s argument is essentially that there is a distinction between perceived wealth and actual wealth; the outsider sees crappy roads but not humming export industries, handsome Spanish buildings but not stinking jails. This is OK as far as it goes, but there is a far more interesting and fundamental point here.

Essentially, what they are talking about is J.K. Galbraith’s paradox of private affluence and public squalor. Naturally, right-libertarianism obliges them to carefully avoid citing him, but this is exactly the point he made in the 1950s; it’s quite possible, indeed common, for prosperity to coexist with ugly and generally ‘orrible visuals, precisely because people will optimise the stuff they control and which affects them individually, like their own homes. Further, there is some sort of indifference curve between private and public goods; people are willing to put up with crappier public spaces if they can compensate with greater private comfort. You can argue endlessly about the slope of the curve, but there is at least some tradeoff.

The international aspect, though, is interesting and I think original; as a foreigner, the visual terms of trade are inverted. You don’t spend time in private space, and you spend much more time than usual in public or semipublic, so private affluence is invisible except in so far as it spills over into the public square (good steakhouses, say, and high culture). Further, a lot of travelling occurs between cultures where different private-public exchange rates apply. It occurs to me that much tourism is motivated by precisely this factor; tourism as a form of commuting from the suburbs of private affluence to the city of public prosperity. In a sense, urban tourists are unconsciously spending a few days in socialism. (Other forms of tourism may provide something similar by creating pseudo-public spaces of great luxury, the poverty of the country being concealed.)

This goes double for questions of egalitarianism – tourists don’t stray into the favela, and a colleague of mine recalls the Ericsson engineer he worked with who was robbed of all his possessions down to and including his underpants on the first day of the project, so private suffering is as invisible as private affluence – and maybe triple for questions of politics.

After all, you’re unlikely to be the object of oppression as a visitor unless you’re actually coming to seek it out; if you don’t speak the language you’re unlikely to miss much through the censorship of the news. Add to this some special factors that apply to visitors who have come to do something rather than just to visit; if business is good, your old friends the fundamental attribution error and the salience heuristic will assure you that things are OK, if you’re as smart as you are. If it’s bad, well, look how dirty the streets are.