Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Prepaid Cards and Financial Services 2.0

A tip of the hat to Chris Skinner for his giant post on Prepaid Cards as a payment method.

Very timely, given the launch this week of Wigadoo:
"Collect all the money for your trip into an online event account with a virtual prepaid MasterCard®. When you come to pay for hotels, tickets or extras it's all ready and waiting for you to spend."
Chris laments that the banks are not the ones initiating prepayment tie-ups with retailers etc. But this expects too much of banks. As an example, the Wigadoo card is issued by Newcastle Building Society, but there's little chance that NBS could have dreamed up Wigadoo's use case, let alone implemented the user experience and the marketing plan. That's just not what financial institutions are good at, and it's taken the talent and experience of Andy, John and Uma to initiate and drive the whole thing, using angel money and input from the likes of Andy Phillipps and Brent Hoberman.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: banks will be the back office, not the front, of Financial Services 2.0.

Lifestreaming is Social Networking on Steroids

At a time when the number of social network services is skyrocketing to the point where it's impossible to join them all, aggregating them into a single feed is the next challenge. FriendFeed does it for me.

Welcome to "lifestreaming".

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regs 2008

I've given up my attempt to independently summarise the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 ("CPRs" in the trade), and am simply going to refer you to what the OFT and BERR seem to make of them.

Oh, alright then. To summarise briefly:
  • Regulation 3 bans unfair commercial practices - basically anything unacceptable from an objective professional standpoint which is (or is likely to) change an economic decision of the "average" consumer. In other words, because of the practice the consumer buys (or sells) what they would not otherwise have bought (or sold), or fails to cancel a transaction that they would otherwise have cancelled.
  • Regulations 5-7 prohibit commercial practices which are misleading (whether by action or omission) or aggressive, and which cause or are likely to cause the average consumer to take a different decision.
  • There are 31 practices that are prohibited in all circumstances - regardless of whether or not they actually affect a consumer.
  • Oh, and this is all backed by criminal and civil enforcement powers and remedies.
Of course, this is fantastic example of EU overkill. There is simply no major consumer problem in the UK that deserves a whole swathe of new regulation which is harmonised with Greece.

Okay, so there are still dodgy traders, but we have TV shows that doorstep those guys for fun.

But some lawyers are getting pretty worked up about these regulations from a compliance standpoint (did I mention the criminal and civil enforcement provisions?). But this misses the wood for the trees. Any consumer-facing business that is reliant on these sorts of practices for its bread and butter has heavy cultural issues to contend with, and these issues could go right to the top of the tree. Cultural change is tough, and it isn't driven from the compliance coal face alone.

Which is why I enjoy advising Web 2.0 businesses - as they are predicated not only on treating consumers fairly, but enabling consumers to ensure that they are treated fairly.

Interesting issues for some eBay power sellers, though, and I guess there may be some old sharks who'll find themselves with a fine or making licence plates.

Lest we forget, there are also changes to the comparative and misleading advertising regulations. Basically, the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 ("BPMMRs"):
  • prohibit advertising which misleads traders (Reg 3);
  • sets out the conditions under which comparative advertising is permitted (Reg 4) - including the condition that the ad must not be misleading either under Reg 3 or the CPRs (see above);
  • requires traders and bodies responsible for codes of conduct or monitoring compliance with such codes not to promote misleading advertising and comparative advertising which is not permitted (Reg 5).
And, unlike the rather limp Advertising Standards Association advertising codes, these puppies have teeth - criminal and civil enforcement remedies and nasty accompanying powers.

West End ad agencies will never be the same again.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Preparing Britain for the Future

Alarmed by the loose wheel nuts on this New Labour machine we're all riding in, I've been delving under the seats in a desperate attempt to find anything that might tell me where we're headed and just how dangerous it might get.

This evening, I found the Government's legislative proposals for 2008-09 under a jumbo crisp packet and the greasy remains of a cornish pasty in the rear of the cab.

Apart from the smell, the first thing that slaps you in the face is that these guys plan to do an awful lot - too much, one senses, if they are to really achieve much. This government is a great one for gallons of policies, tapping the brakes and U-turns. Not good if you're prone to motion sickness.

Second, while there are no funding details, of course, all this planning feels really expensive in terms of consultants, and additional civil servants to staff all the new agencies. In other words, boiling an ocean consumes a lot of gas. And all the chat about better regulation, only seems to mean more regulation, if only to gather the existing regulation into neat and tidy piles for lawyers to sift through (page 72). The words "Titanic" and "deckchairs" spring to mind.

Third, and most importantly, there's absolutely no sign that this government is remotely concerned about reducing public sector costs, eliminating waste, enhancing productivity or educating civil servants to work smarter rather than hiring extra "special advisers" to get things done around them. This can't end well.

Anyway, here are 7 things that shone at me out of the rubble:
  1. We're going to get a a "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" (p. 65), so be prepared to call Radio 4 to argue for outrageously generous personal rights and extremely high expectations of others.
  2. A "community empowerment" bill (p. 66) will make it lawful to lynch local councillors for squandering our council taxes if we can only lobby hard enough.
  3. Business rates will increase 2% to fund some kind of local authority "economic development" budget (p.12). Does this mean that local authorities are better at economic development than local businesses?
  4. 8 million low income earners will be forced to take bank accounts to qualify for The Saving Gateway, a scheme that matches government handouts with individuals' own savings (p. 29). No mention of bank fees, or savings rates that will apply, but this is chum in the water for the retail banking sharks. You can already see their fins on the surface. Also a nice way to ensure that people lend to banks while the banks are refusing to lend it to each other (or anyone else, for that matter).
  5. At last we are going to get 3 new, additional, extra education agencies - to regulate tests, skills funding and apprenticeships for some reason (pp 14-15). These agencies are vital, as they act as human shields for Ministers against citizens and the media.
  6. An oddly named "Bureaucracy Champion" will be appointed to cut red tape the for the police (p. 18). Why can't the police find the people who created the red tape in the first place and beat them with truncheons until it's all removed?
  7. Great news for IT vendors - a new Communications Data Bill will increase police access to our personal communications data, which will mean lots more IT kit to record and store it all. Really securely.
Remember: don't drink the Kool-Aid.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Government to Champion Bureaucracy

"The Government will also appoint an independent and high profile Bureaucracy Champion to focus on driving out unnecessary red tape and test future proposals for their impact on the front line..."
Source: "Preparing Britain for the future: the Government's Draft Legislative Programme" May 2008, page 18

The Evolution of Legal Services

Interesting coverage of Axiom's business model in The Lawyer this week. Flexible working infiltrates the Ivory Tower.

[See also subsequent coverage in the Wall Street Journal.]

Experienced specialist lawyers like the Axiom model because you get to earn good money consulting to some fantastic brands on big product launches, outsourcing deals, acquisition integration and so on. Great if you're looking for a new challenge but the "permanent" roles on offer don't light your fire.

In-house teams like someone with plenty of corporate experience to absorb the pain of servicing very demanding, one-off projects, rather than diverting the in-house team from business-as-usual or relying on a private practice lawyer who doesn't know the corporate processes and procedures.

Big law firms like the efficiency of dealing with a lawyer dedicated to a big transaction - especially where they have committed to fixed or capped fee arrangements. And it's an alternative career path for those who find the whole partnership thing a bit of a slog.

Of course, I should mention that I consult through Axiom.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Thongs in the Park

... that's "G-string" for all you Aussies out there. And, yes, I wore a pink-spotted one while running yesterday's 5k in a "flash" 22:02.

I trust that no photographic record of the event exists ;-)

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Understatement of the Decade

“Perhaps there is a disconnect between Europe and its people, between European Union institutions and the people.”

Michael Martin, Ireland's Foreign Minister, FT 13 June 2008

Friday, 13 June 2008


I love this quote, which sprang to mind again recently:
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!'"
W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalaya Expedition, 1951.

Wear Your Y-fronts Over Your Trousers

Nothing like a quick 5 kms scamper around a public park in your underwear for charity to spice up your weekend. Pants in the Park is on this Sunday, 15 June at 11am in Battersea Park, London (and elsewhere in the UK). Registration is at 10am.

Cameras allowed.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Better Regulation - Fill Your Boots

For those interested in keeping regulation to a bare minimum, like BERR (yeah, right), here's a little gem from the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons - the Government's rationale for the 2008/09 legislative programme.

It actually wouldn't let me set up any email alerts for speeches, statements, debates, parliamentary questions and so on, but it's a nice idea all the same...

There's plenty of fun to be had figuring out what problem(s), if any, they are trying to solve and comparing the rhetoric with the substance. I have some pet issues to revisit in the coming months.

Meanwhile, look out for random infrastructure projects to be paid for with public funds, like the £1.5bn pledged toward the Manchester congestion charge scheme. New Labour seems to believe it has a lot of taxpayers' money to hand out and not much time to do it!

Marketing Mad

Can anyone explain why Alliance & Leicester displays banner ads for its internet banking service within its internet banking account pages?

Is it a mistake? Or did someone consciously decide that this would impress all their internet banking customers?

Either way, it seems moronic to me, and I honestly consider switching to a new provider every time I see the damn banner.

Good to get interest on the current account balance, though. Great change from NatWest.


I was slightly taken abarack just now to see that someone in my LinkedIn network had added Mr Obama to their network. Having viewed the candidate's profile, I also see that other US politicians have created profiles. I was somewhat comforted not to have found profiles for Gordo or Dave, but concluded that this may be more to do with their own arrogance than any desire to spare people the dilemma of whether or not to add them to their networks.

I don't know about you, but I can't see myself adding a politician to my social network, unless they happened to be a trusted, real-world friend. And that's just it. As far as I know, none of my trusted, real-world friends are politicians (other than perhaps in the sense that they cope with daily cut and thrust of office politics).

I also reckon that to add a Politician to your social network is tantamount to drinking the Kool-Aid - it's never going to end well.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Slough High Street Restored to Former Glory

Phew! There was me thinking that the current work on Slough's High Street was designed to replace the 70's red brick surface with a pristine, unbroken, light grey slate surface that gleamed in the sun, unblemished by chewing gum and random gobs of other matter.

Fortunately for heritage buffs like me, the craftsmen have managed to restore much of the detritus from the previous surface to the "new" one, thereby preserving the ethos inherent in the name Slough:
1. A depression or hollow, usually filled with deep mud or mire.
2. also slue A stagnant swamp, marsh, bog, or pond, especially as part of a bayou, inlet, or backwater.
3. A state of deep despair or moral degradation.
They've even managed to break up the surface every 20 or 30 feet and replace it with a piece of undressed asphalt, just like before.

Let's hope that non-stick chewing gum never, ever catches on!

SmartPhones, the Internet and Dinner Party Etiquette

Gone are the days when dinner party conversations drifted along, unchecked for factual accuracy, against a background of music from a CD on repeat that no one could be arsed to change.

Today, hosts and guests alike punctuate the discourse with Google-searches, songs and YouTube clips from their smartphones. If you're really lucky, a large flat screen and broadband connection will be made available on or near the dinner table for those particularly graphic clips or complex Wikipedia entries.

Is the art of conversation lost, or are these digitally-supported conversations actually more informative and rewarding than their analogue forbears? Should digital devices be hung up at the door like six guns in a Wild West saloon?

I have the feeling that I'd know the answer if I drank a lot less. By 9 o'clock it's all Mandarin to me.

Crackberry 2, Email 0

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Crackberry Adventures

Well, I had a Crackberry for 2 days, returned it, and am expecting another tomorrow.

Two top tips (explained below):
  1. Before you get a personal Blackberry, check whether any of your emails are going to come from a Blackberry Enterprise Server. If so, you will need a BES-configured handset.
  2. If you are a Vodafone customer, call Vodafone's upgrade or retention team to order your BES handset, and say you'll pay no more than £5 per month (on top of line rental) for email access.
Here's why:
  • Crackberrys are configured to run either the Blackberry Internet Service (BIS) or the Blackberry Enterprise Service (BES).
  • Only a BES-configured handset will accept email from a Blackberry Enterprise Server (really only affordable for larger employers), in addition to email from other servers.
  • A BIS-configured Crackberry will accept mail from MS Exchange etc., but not a Blackberry Enterprise Server.
  • Vodafone's high street stores only stock the BIS-configured Crackberrys, and offer email access for "only" £5 on top of your line rental (for what?). If you ask a store for a BES handset, they will offer to order you one, but charge you £28 on top your line rental for email access.
  • At the suggestion of Vodafone customer services, I called Vodafone's upgrade or retention team from the store, and they offered to deliver a BES handset with email access for "only" £5 on top of my line rental.
Will IT ever be easy?

Bad Phorm?

Back in February, I commented on the Open Internet Exchange initiative being planned by Phorm, whereby and major ISP partners BT, Virgin Media and Talk Talk will be paid for allowing all the web browsing by their customers to be trawled for advertising purposes.

Not a lot was known about the initiative at the time, but negative news has been snowballing since, and opponents are taking to the streets. The Register is maintaining a dossier, known as "The Phorm files", and a "No Deep Packet Inspection" street demonstration is timed for BT's AGM on 16 July 2008. See also the Facebook Group "Save UK internet privace - reject ISPs that use Phorm".

Incidentally, you might wish to be more wary than usual of the Wikipedia entry on this subject.

The concerns raised are similar to those related to Facebook's "Beacon" initiative that led FB to significantly alter the functionality (though you might wish to be somewhat sceptical of that Wikipedia entry too!). The chief one being that there seems no reliable way to ensure that you are really opted-out. However, the Phorm scenario is worse than with Beacon, because the inspection, storage and use of data is at the ISP layer, making it much harder in practical terms to avoid the service than if it was operated, say, on a site-by-site basis. In other words, you can't decide simply not to visit certain sites if you doubt that the opt-out would actually prevent the abuse of your personal data. Instead, you would need to switch ISPs. However, you may not actually be able to avoid using one of the "problem" ISPs (e.g. at a friend's place, work, or via an internet cafe). And what if all the ISPs join the initiative?

Further, as the Guardian has noted, the challenge for Phorm is to reconcile two apparently contradictory statements:
"Advertisers are told that it will be able to profile the surfers, based on where they have visited, and target them through that uniquely numbered cookie. But users are told they will not be identifiable. It's the apparent contradiction in those statements that has infuriated so many."
If you are remotely concerned, now is the time to make your feelings known to your ISP, your MP, and participating advertisers.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Don't Drink the Kool-Aid

Comes a time when your leader is Hell-bent on a scheme the rationale for which is utterly mystifying. In fact, it seems plain wrong to you. But the message from on high is that it has to be pushed through and you have to do the pushing. Willingly, enthusiastically, with your usual passion and zeal.

How do you get there? How do you summon the energy to override the natural urge to question, debate, argue, or rebel? Or to get the hell out of your office and run? Or to cross the floor and sit with the Tories? Or maybe even the Lib Dems?!

The only way to get there is to imbibe the same stuff your leader is on. You've got to "drink the Kool-Aid".

But the derivation of this expression tells you that drinking the Kool-Aid, is very uncool indeed. Fatal, even. Okay, so most of the 913 victims in the Jonestown massacre actually drank their poison in the less-memorable rival Flavor Aid (apparently a British knock-off). And plenty of people probably did survive the Merry Pranksters' LSD-laced cocktails featured in Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" without lasting psychiatric issues. But you get the drift. When it comes down to it, drinking the Kool-Aid is about the last thing you will ever do.

So, people, next time Gordo and his advisory clique dream up one of those wild and crazy 10p-tax-abolition, 42-day-detention, ageing-vehicle-duty, let's-call-citizens-in-the-dead-of-night reform ideas of his while £500m worth of military helicopter sits motionless in a shed, please don't go rummaging for another can of the Kool-Aid. Get yourself strapped to a gurney and go cold turkey if you have to, but please say to the big lump, "Gordon, that's a really bad idea and I don't want any part of it. Let's do something calm and rational instead. Something that will save the country a shedload of public money. Let's get the whole cabinet into one of those mint condition Chinooks and fly out to meet the Taliban."

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Even I Now Have a Crackberry

Yes, even I have finally succumbed - a decade of Nokia loyalty overturned. With my Nokia E61 forlornly relegated to back-up status, my life's data is now on the dreaded Crackberry.

This Seismic Shift was caused by the internal communications etiquette of my current client. The company generally requires employees and staff to have their own mobile phones. So, to avoid the undue use/cost of mobiles, the preferred modes of communication are email or calls on the company's internal telephone system. Most requests that someone call your mobile seem to go unheeded in favour of email, as everyone assumes that your mobile is a Crackberry - you'll see the email anyway.

Ironically, I can't get email on my new Crackberry as the relevant server isn't responding to my password yet. So, the only way to communicate effectively would be to throw it at the next person I see...

Worse still, I remain deskbound, since approval for remote email access via my company-issued laptop is yet to reach the Guardian of the VPN.

Woe betide the next person who passes my office door!

A Further Sign of the Credit Crunch - Luxembourg

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