Building your own early warning system

 

What do a bowl of yellow M&Ms have to do with the Distant Early Warning or DEW line? Both are ways to provide early warning systems of sorts. Let me explain.

The DEW line was a big deal back in its day. The idea was to be notified of any incoming Soviet bombers that were going to take us out by flying over the pole. The system of radar installations stretched across northern Canada and Alaska back in the cold war when both countries were stockpiling thousands of nuclear bombs. It would just take a few minutes for a bomber or a missile to reach our country, hence having a series of detection points closer to the source could provide a few minutes’ warning of an imminent attack.

The same could be said for the bowl of M&Ms. A friend of mine is a musician and explained the typical concert contract riders that specified a particular color of candy present in the dressing rooms or backstage. It wasn’t because the musicians were being prima donnas, as I always thought. “They wrote these riders as an early warning system. If a band showed up at a venue and saw the wrong color of candy, they knew they had better get out to the stage and spend some more rehearsal time. If the venue didn’t read the contract, it meant that other things probably wouldn’t be right for their show. It had nothing to do with their personal preferences,” he told me. Snopes quotes David Lee Roth of Van Halen, who put on some very complex shows, here: “If I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.”

Great idea, I thought. Those old rockers were on to something after all.

I thought about this as I attended the annual Teradata Partners conference last week in Nashville. I have been coming to this show for several years and find it very interesting, mainly because so many IT managers present what they are doing at dozens of sessions. This year’s show was no different, and I heard a lot of folks talk about they have developed their own early warning systems that they have put into place.

For example, what about tracking what happens to your worst customers? These are people that you want to know about, and try to fix their problem before they actually leave you for your competitors. Wouldn’t it nice if you could be notified about some issue in time to change their minds? That is one of the things that Teradata excels at with its various data warehousing and analytic tools.

One British clothing retailer has gone so far to set up its systems so that it can tell when an online shopper is calling its call center trying to complete an order. While that can be borderline creepy, it can help increase revenues and customer satisfaction rates too. Wells Fargo Bank has a number of executive dashboards that are used to track what banking products are used by their customers, as a way to see who isn’t really engaged.

Interestingly, the same systems can also be used to track what is going on with your best customers too.

So whether it is a bowl of candy or some multimillion dollar systems, think about ways that you can detect early trends and keep your customers.

Solution Providers for Retail blog: How 7-Eleven Built Its Digital Guest Engagement Program From Scratch

Two years ago, the convenience store chain 7-Eleven had no data warehouse, no smartphone app for its customers, and had a loyalty program that still used paper punch cards. Since then it has built the beginnings of a digital customer engagement program. At the recent Teradata Partners conference in Nashville this week, they described how they did it.

All it took was finding the right VAR and spending some significant cash.

Well, not quite. As you can imagine, there was a lot more involved.

You can read my post for the Solution Providers for Retail blog here.

Ricoh blog: How Apple Pay Will Change Mobile Payments

Apple Pay could revolutionize mobile payments… or fall flat like so many before it.

Announced with the introduction of the iPhone 6, Apple Pay threatens to do what others have not: replace credit cards as a user’s go-to payment method.

Mobile payments have yet to take off in the United States for a variety of reasons. First of all, credit cards simply dominate our notion of how to pay for things. They’re accepted at every online storefront, and mobile credit card readers have made it possible for even the smallest operation to let customers take a swipe (so to speak).

I talk about how Apple Pay will change this landscape in my latest post for Ricoh’s WorkIntelligent.ly blog here.

 

SearchSecurity: Multifactor authentication in the enterprise

Older than the Web itself, multifactor authentication is an IT security technology method that requires people to provide multiple forms of identification or information to confirm the legitimacy of their identity for an online transaction or in order to gain access to a corporate application. The goal of multifactor authentication use is to increase the difficulty with which an adversary can exploit the login process to freely roam around personal or corporate networks and compromise computers to steal confidential information, or worse.
My first article in this series on the topic talks about the fundamentals of MFA. You can read the story in SearchSecurity here.
My second article is on making the business case for MFA.
My third article is how to figure out which aspects of the products are important to your situation, and what things to consider if you are going to assemble an RFP.
The fourth article discusses specific products that are the market leaders.
And then I have specific reviews of some of the MFA tools.

The trials and tribulations of eCommerce: a look back

I have been a keen observer and sometimes participant of the eCommerce field since its very early days back in the late 1990s. Then the websites were wacky, the software shaky, and the tools touchy and troublesome. But somehow we managed to buy stuff online and Amazon and others have been raking in the dough every since.

In the beginning, IBM had its own NT-based eCommerce product that I reviewed back in 1999 for Windows Sources magazine. These suites of products had a lot of custom configuration, and really weren’t very good. Since that point, IBM has built quite a business around Websphere and other tools. Another article about evaluating payment systems for eCommerce that I wrote for Internet.com back in 1999 described the sad state of affairs back then.

In those early days, I had fun assignments like trying to figure out how long it took staff from an online storefront to respond to my email queries. That seems fairly obvious, and there are still storefronts that don’t respond quickly enough to their potential customers.

But one area where we have come the furthest has been in online payments. A good example is the recent Apple Pay announcements last month. As the NY Times points out, even though nary a dollar has been spent with this new system, vendors are jumping on board Just Because It Is Apple. Even eBay has gotten so worried that they are in the process of spinning off PayPal, something that they have resisted for years. Here is my analysis of Apple Pay published in Ricoh’s blog.

If you are looking for some historical context of how payments have evolved, check out the following pieces that I wrote over the years:

From that last piece, I wrote:

Imagine how hard life with physical wallets would be if they acted like e-wallets. You would have to carry several different kinds of wallets around with you, since each store would accept different payment systems. You couldn’t convert your dollars from one system to another without a great deal of work. And if you lost your wallet, you would be out of luck.

sim2Today we have a lot of payment choices, including a little-known service from MasterCard called Simplify that is a web payment gateway that offers 2% rates (but only through software, no card reader yet.). We’ll see if my predictions will come true or not once again.

Network World: Slow Internet links got you down? Try Dyn’s Internet Intelligence

dynAs businesses extend their reach to more corners of the world, wouldn’t it be nice if you could monitor any Internet service provider from any location? Thankfully, Dyn, which sells DNS management tools, acquired Renesys earlier this year and extended the features of the Renesys’ Internet Intelligence product.

You can read the full review in Network World here.

Inside the Great Firewall of China

In the past week as massive demonstrations have taken place in Hong Kong we have also learned about how the Great Firewall of China operates. Thanks to a team lead by Harvard social scientist Gary King, it is an impressive collection of both manual and automated processes. The paper was published earlier this year in Science magazine here.

For those of you that aren’t familiar, China for years has been blocking a great deal of Internet traffic based on all sorts of criteria. Many of the world’s more popular social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are completely unavailable inside the country. Newspapers that are freely read in the rest of the world are also blocked. King’s team conducted the first large-scale study of exactly what was censored and how it was done. They did so by creating thousands of social media accounts and posts and seeing what got blocked and when.

table2And more cleverly, they set up their own websites from within China and then paid to have them censored by the same firms that the government uses. This gave them access to the censor’s tech support lines, so they could engage them in a dialog to understand what was going on and be able to reverse engineer things. “We were even able to get their recommendations on how to conduct censorship on our own site in compliance with government standards,” they wrote.

The study shows exactly how hard it is to censor Internet traffic, especially on the level that is seen in China where a half a billion social media posts are created every day. Automated keyword matching is flawed and requires a great deal of manual intervention. Posts that are critical of the Chinese government are routinely allowed but other posts that involve discussions of collective action (such as the recent Hong Kong demonstrations) are routinely blocked.  Earlier research was less thorough and relied on more anecdotal information, not to mention was riskier since censors weren’t as willing to talk with outsiders about their processes and procedures.

Contrary to what has been written about the Great Firewall, social media site operators actually have a great deal of flexibility in how they function and what they allow online. And while the censors employ a wide variety of automated censorship routines across more than two-thirds of Chinese social media websites, these routines are for the most part ineffective and require thousands of people to monitor and censor the vast collection of content that is posted in China.

censor2The team found that there was little censorship of posts about collective action events which occur outside mainland China, collective action events occurring solely online, social media posts containing critiques of top leaders, and posts about highly sensitive topics (such as Tibet) that do not occur during the actual collective action events themselves. Censors were more focused on the actual events that were taking place themselves and posts that related to organizing these “meetups” and the reactions to them.

A few posts critical of the government were blocked, but not on the level that posts about the actual events were censored. “The censors don’t care about what you say, but about what you do,” said King. You can listen to King being interviewed by Ira Flatow on Science Friday here.

A short history of wireless messaging

As part of my tripping down memory lane and reading my archive, I naturally came across the dozens of articles that I have written over my career on wireless messaging. It made me think about how the industry has evolved so quickly that many of us don’t even give this technology a second thought — we just expect it to be part of our communications package.

Now our smartphones have multiple messaging apps: Email, SMS, What’s App, Skype, AOL IM, and Apple’s iMessage, just to name a few of them that are on my phone. We flip back and forth from one to the other easily. When you add in the social networks’ messaging features, there are tons more.

radiomailMy first brush with wireless messaging was when Bill Frezza stopped by my office and gave me one of his first prototypes of what would eventually turn into the BlackBerry. It was called the Viking Express, and it weighed two pounds and was a clumsy collection of spare parts: a wireless modem, a small HP palmtop computer running DOS, and a nice leather portfolio to carry the whole thing around in.

The HP ran software from Radiomail Corp. The company was one of the first to understand how to push emails to wireless devices. Its innovations were never patented due to the philosophy of its founder, Geoff Goodfellow. Ironically, after Research in Motion, the company behind the Blackberry, went on to become one of the more litigious computer vendors, it had to pay $615 million to obtain the rights for patents for its device.

Now wireless has gotten so fast, it can be faster than wired connections. Cisco’s latest networking report predicts that Internet traffic will carry more wireless than wired packets in a few years. And we have come full circle: with new desktop Macs, Apple has gone a bit retro on us. Now you can access iMessage from your desktop, which is great for those of us that want to type on regular keyboards, inside of with our thumbs or use Siri to compose messages.

So for those of you that don’t recall where we have been, I have posted the original articles that I wrote about some of the early wireless messaging apps for some perspective on my blog. Here are some links to them.

Review of smart pagers for Computerworld (1998)

Back then, BlackBerries weren’t available, and Motorola ruled the roost. Pagers were in transition from simple one-way devices that would just display numerals to more interactive messaging devices. However, they were pretty unsatisfying: The one-way pagers worked because they were tiny, their batteries lasted forever, and they could be used by anyone including my nine-year old. The smarter devices were harder to use, they aet batteries for lunch, and they didn’t always work without some specialized knowledge.

Evaluating wireless web technologies (2000):

Back then, I gave up my laptop and tried to use just a smart(er) phone and borrowed PCs when I traveled. There were some early apps back then that could actually work.

Supporting PDAs and wireless devices on your corporate network (2001):

The first messaging device to gain traction was the Palm Pilot, but we also had the Pocket PC too. This article was a piece of custom content for CDW that reviewed all the options available back then. For cellular data, you needed add-in radio cards.

The joys of wireless messaging (2003)

How about AOL’s IM running on a Palm i705? That was a pretty slick device, as this article can attest to.

Don’t buy a Treo 700w (2006):

Remember the Treo? I still have one somewhere in my closet. They were a combination of a phone and a Palm Pilot. Back then I wrote: “the Treo isn’t as cool as the Sidekick, doesn’t do iTunes like the Rokr, and isn’t as addicting as a CrackBerry.”

Sidebar conversations are here to stay (2009):

It isn’t just texting during driving, but texting while doing something else that is at issue.By 2009, the notion of having a side conversation using a wireless device was very common.

What is your favorite wireless messaging device or app from the past?

 

 

A look back with Web Informant (1996): Lessons Learned From Web Publishing

Nearly 19 years ago, I began writing a weekly column called Web Informant that was first exclusively distributed via email, then via various other technologies including a blog, push technology, and syndication to a Japanese print newspaper. It has been a wonderful journey, and hard to believe that it has lasted all this time. I first wanted to thank all of you readers who have stuck with me, sent me comments and encouragements over the years.

Over the next year and leading up to the big 20th birthday celebration, I thought I would resurrect a few of my favorite stories and see how well they have held up over time. This first piece was published by John December in a journal called Computer Mediated Communications back in May of 1996. My current commentary is in brackets so you can distinguish between the original me and the current me.

After writing and editing print publications, I threw caution to the winds last fall and put up my own website. I’m glad I did and have learned a few lessons along the way that I’d like to share with you. Here goes.

  1. Print still matters: it has the vast majority of advertising and is where the attention in our industry still lies. The industry still defines itself and pays attention to what these trade publications print. [Back in 1996, I mentioned one story that the online press did a better job than print in covering, that is still true today.]
  2. You may think otherwise, but the best way to get the word out about your site is for others to provide links on their Web sites back to yours, what I call inbound links. [With all the SEO expertise out there, this is still true today.]
  3. It is a good idea to review your access logs regularly to determine frequently-accessed pages, broken links, who is visiting, and when you have your peak periods. These logs are your best sources for measurements of success and a good way to figure out who your audience is.
  4. Community counts. If you are going to start a successful Web publishing venture, make sure you have a good idea whom your community is. By community I don’t just mean reader/viewers–I mean the entire life-cycle of information consumers, providers, and relay points along the way. Who creates the information? Who sends/interprets/messes it up? Who needs this information? The more you know this cycle, the better a Web publisher you’ll be. The more focused your publication, the better off you are.
  5. Just like running a “real” print magazine, you need to develop a production system and stick to it, and resist any temptations to fiddle with it. Online, the best feedback loop you have is when your reader/viewers drop you a note on email saying something doesn’t look right or a link is broken.
  6. Don’t get too enamored with the graphical look and feel of your publication: many reader/viewers will never see these efforts and they ultimately don’t matter as much as you think. While you are developing your production systems, don’t forget that many reader/viewers are running text-based browsers or turn their images off because they are coming in from dial-up connections. [Well, that has changed since 1996, but still lots of sites are filled with useless graphical junk and pop-ups that are annoying at any bandwidth.]
  7. The best Web publications make use of email as an effective marketing tool for the Web content, notifying reader/viewers when something is new on a regular basis. [This was in the days before blogs, RSS, social media, Twitter, and other notification mechanisms, all of which are great tools to complement the web.]

Overall, am I glad I am in the Web-publishing business? Yes, most definitely: it has given me a greater feel for my community, it has helped increase my understanding of the technologies involved, and I have had a great deal of fun too.

Has it been easy? Nope: Web technologies are changing so fast sometimes you can’t keep up no matter how hard you try. Setting up a Web publication will take more time and energy than you’ve planned, and keeping it fresh and alive is almost a daily responsibility. You need lots of skills: programming, publishing, library science, graphic design, and on top of this a good dose of understanding the nature and structure and culture of the Internet helps too. And a sense of humor and a thick skin come in handy from time to time too.