Upping the hotel ante

After something like 200 nights in a hotel in the NW of England, I’ve almost grown used to the idea that hotels in the UK don’t work any more – it’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they look after the basics only: room + door key. Heating, hot water, bandwidth on demand are all extra.

This week I’m in San Francisco and staying in the most hi-tech hotel you could imagine. Plasma screens are everywhere – in the main room, the lounge (is that too 70s a word?) and in the bathroom (both in the shower and by the sink). All the screens are hi def. A single integrated remote control seems to control everything – with LCD panel and touch screen controls. Bandwidth from the wireless or fixed network (gratis, naturally) runs at between 2 mb/s and 3 mb/s – as good as I have at home at the moment. I have a DVD player and a couple of CD players (that even come with some discs to listen to – Ella Fitzgerald and Madeleine Peyroux, hotel choice or left by previous guests? Same in every room or different I wonder?). And there’s a socket for my ipod. The hotel’s even given me business cards with the phone and fax number on. I wonder if I can persuade the folks in the NW to adopt these standards? I don’t think I’ll be wondering long.

In the background I’m downloading IE 7 Beta 2 to compare it with Firefox. I doubt that I’ll be replacing FF any time soon, at least not with a Beta, but it deserves a look and credit to Msft for putting it out on general release. The cynics will say that they had to, but I prefer to take a more optimistic view that they’re doing the Kawasaki thing.

Yesterday I was pondering Google getting whacked, and whacked it did. Was that a reaction to just the financials or was it more than that I wonder? The stock is down 12% odd but was down as much as 20% earlier in the day. A comment on my post below says that not only will Google strip out censored words/sites, but they’ll replace them with links to why, say, “democracy is evil” (that adword cost for democracy must be going up and up). I hadn’t seen that in any of the press I read, maybe I missed it – anyone got a source?

Meanwhile, the fire alarm is going off in my super state of the art hotel … there’s “an emergency on a floor above” apparently. Good to see the fire alarm is nice and old fashioned. Some things don’t change – all hotels over the world like to test their alarms. Good job this isn’t at the usual time of 1am (although it’s around that time in the UK).


Google releases its quarterly results tomorrow and everyone is expecting another blowout quarter (in the last one, the numbers were up some 90%). It won’t need to be wrong by much – where wrong is not exceeding the estimates by as much as everyone thinks it will, in that peculiar world of whisper numbers – for the stock to get whacked. Betting against it would be a risky deal though, at least where its financial reporting is concerned. In other areas, from all the noise this week, you’d think that Google, far from not being evil, was rapidly taking the place of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the devil incarnate.

This whole China thing may just have taken the normally laidback Googlers by surprise, although I doubt that they will be displaying much sign of being fazed. New readers start here, with the faithful Beeb for background. It seems that Sergei and Larry got themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. They want in on China, they want the money that could flow from a market where, probably in the next few months, there will be more people online than in the USA (for comparison, mobile phone penetration in China is far lower than other major economies, but because of the size of the country there are already more phones than in the USA). Only 8.5% of Chinese are online, but that’s 110 million people!

But getting into this market may mean giving up on truth, liberty and the pursuit of justice (ok, so slightly changed those from the original). They have to censor search results so that sites that include references to “democracy” or “falun gong” or “Christopher Columbus found America first” are removed. Oddly, the list of terms that they have to remove doesn’t appear to be fixed – it’s not given to them once a day or once a week or whatever, they just get a call from the Ministry of (dis)information when they need to kill something off. You can just imagine how big an operation that is … and you start wondering what search engine is the Ministry using to find the sites it wants to censor and who is doing the searching (and do they go home every night having passed through a “Men in Black” style memory wiper lest they pass on details of what they saw to their friends in the local pub/tea shop?

On announcing this decision which, being even handed, only puts Google in the same space as other search providers such as Microsoft and Yahoo, a torrent of negative press was unleashed. Pretty much all of the press agreed that Google had no choice but to do this but still lamented that, somehow, we expected more from the boys (and their adult supervision, Eric Schmidt). One or two pieces, notably that by Rees-Mogg in today’s Independent, brought up the whole topic of Google putting small publishers (mostly his own he is candid enough to admit) out of business through publishing hard to find books completely online.

Google’s defence is that a little information is better than no information – and to slightly confuse this argument, they are not making their blogging, email or IM-type services available. If they’d stayed as they were then their engine would have been slower than local rivals and would, anyway, have been censored by the Great Firewall of China in the sky. This way, they can start to show Chinese folks what they’re missing – because every page with something removed will have a disclaimer letting the user know something was there (accompanied, I suspect by a banner ad from an enterprising company offering to sell you whatever information was supposed to be there – I wonder what the going rate for the keyword “democracy” will be on google.cn?).

I find myself leaning towards Google’s view of things – they’ve made a tough, pragmatic decision where bad decisions were in all directions. I don’t see many other options. They could have held out of course – after all, google.com (to name but one) is still available, albeit somewhat restricted unless you use an anonymous proxy like proxify.com) but it isn’t in Chinese; they could have negotiated further to see if they could break the resolve of the Chinese government (seems unlikely doesn’t it) or, worse, they could have caved in even more and not even flagged that items were being censored. Bill Gates, commenting on this issue at Davos, quipped that “Don’t be evil” was not a relative statement – but, then, MSN had already folded its hand.

I am, I have to say, a little intrigued with the timing of an announcement the other day – that Google would not be complying with a request from the USA’s federal government to provide (amongst other things) a dump of one week’s search requests (and presumably results). If you add this story and the China story together, you get an interesting mix – if the Chinese government ask for the same thing, Google has, at least, set a precedent not to comply in its own country … but, then, it doesn’t censor results in the USA (apart from, so some people say, occasionally tweaking its algorithm so that previous winners of “top site” award suddenly tumble to the bottom of the list).

With the apparent tendency towards piracy in full flow, it would be easy to imagine a site “googre.cn” appearing in google’s place had no deal been done. After all, there is already much swiping of car maker IP – producing, shall we say, “binary compatible” cars for the local market at half the price of their western competition (sometimes building them just across the street from the Western factories from which they have, umm, borrowed the IP). Hongda anyone? A couple of years ago, over dinner with Microsoft’s CTO at Comdex in Las Vegas, Craig Mundie, we talked about the thorny problem of car model piracy in China. Craig noted that with only the costs of “build it” to meet without any of the “design it” or “make it safe” costs, then their cars would always be cheaper. Western companies would have to find ways to deal with that – but they’d have to stay in China because, if they left, the market would close to them and who knows when they’d be able to get back in, if ever.

We know already, from long years of experience that dealing in any local market requires adhering to certain rules. In Saudi Arabia, you must have a local front your business if you want to trade; in France, you must pay up to 65% of an employee’s salary to the government to cover benefits and health insurance; in the UK you must collect VAT for the government; in many African countries, you need to understand how to bribe officials at multiple levels … should we not just add this to the list of “things the internationally expanding company must know”?

Is this a big deal because it’s Google and we expect more from them? Is it a big deal because the last bastion of freedom has fallen? Don’t forget folks, as Simon Moores pointed out in Silicon.com only the other day, Google retains records of every search you’ve made, forever; if you’re using the desktop toolbar, it knows as much about your internet habits as anyone and, maybe, it’s going to have to tell the US government as much as it knows.

And, anyway, as everyone who works in a corporation knows, if you search for the wrong thing through your intranet, or visit a website that is deemed unsuitable for corporate use, you’ll be flagged to your internal thought police … whether the site is one that tells you the latest video game charts or, in the case of many parts of UK government, Xinhua Chinese news service or anything with the word “terrorism” in the title.

Censorship is part of life – but, like life, it tends to evolve with time and ebb and flow. Google are hoping they’re catching the flow at the right time.

Now I am 20

What a milestone! 20 years since the first virus, spread by floppy disc and known as “Brain”, appeared. Was that really the first? I was lucky enough to be at a school that took the potential of computers seriously, equipping a lab with, I think, a dozen or so BBC micros sometime in 1984 or maybe 1985. Whilst I spent the bulk of my time getting very, very good at Acorn’s conversion of Defender (known as Planetoid), other, far more able, folks, such as Dennis, spent their time hacking the system. The first virus that I came across was a replicating worm, able to transfer itself from machine to machine via the network that linked them all. It fried the screen, forcing a reboot – but as soon as you rebooted, the worm was back. The only way to rid the network of this scourge was to shut down all of the machines at once – the BBC micro, lacking a hard drive and with a ROM based operating system fortunately didn’t allow viruses to stay resident after the power was cut off. I guess this would have been 1985 or maybe it was 1986 and the sudden innovation was triggered by stories about the brain virus – but in the absence of the ‘net then or any other easy way to get information about such a virus, I wonder if Dennis was indeed working on a separate branch of genetic evolution of the virus or whether he got the idea from Brain? I’m pretty sure that Dennis’ nickname was “Brain” so maybe it was he that released it into the wild?

Now people say that if you connect a machine to the ‘net with no contraception for as little as 15 minutes, there’s a 50% chance of it being infected by a virus. I’m not sure if that means that each 15 minute unit of time gives you another 50% chance, or whether the longer you leave it connected, the more the odds tend to certainty. Certainly I don’t particularly want to try – but it’s always bothered me when you boot a new PC for the first time and, since XP at least, it’s said “shall I connect to the Internet to register this software?” What’s it doing then and have I got the right protection? If I connect unprotected and get away with it for an hour do the odds increase of getting away with it for longer, for ever even? The false sense of security, so to speak, that getting away with it once brings works just as badly in the IT world as it does in the real world. Luck just doesn’t come into it.

Anti-virus vendors who, it must be said, feed into a market that is worth around £2 billion this year (and heading to £3.5 billion by 2009) advise that corporate clients should ensure that they update their AV software every 5 minutes (against every 3 months a decade ago). That means that you can’t possibly stay ahead if you’re doing it yourself. Failing to keep up to date can cause entire organisations to shut down. A big government department that I worked at in late 1999/2000 lost 3 days of email access when Melissa, one of the first really big viruses, infected every PC in the business. In 2002, government, through the joint sponsorship of my own team (who provided the money) and the OGC (who carried out the evaluation) signed a deal with Messagelabs to protect every mailbox connected to the GSI, government’s own Intranet – something like 100,000 accounts I think. Since then, as far as I’m aware, no government department using the service has had any downtime as a result of viral infection. Oddly, there was much resistance to the idea in the beginning – to the point where my team funded the first 18 months of service, before everyone was convinced enough to provide funding.

A recent article said that Mac users tend to be far more blasé about leaving their machines open, believing that there are no viruses that will attack them. With increasing market share likely for Apple, that may be a touch thoughtless. It only takes one attempt to be successful for you to lose your hard drive, have rude email sent to every one in your address box or to be infected by something that redirects every web address you enter to a fraudulent site. How would you even know you’d been infected?

The government is doing at least some of its part and has launched programmes such as “IT Safe” – very much the geek’s guide to staying secure online – and, more recently, another idea “get safe online” – an initiative that comes with the catchy action plan of “protect your PC, protect yourself, protect your business” – could be true for so many things, let alone IT security. But there remains more to be done. ISPs still allow you on to their network without knowing your operating system patch level or whether you have AV software or not and PCs and Macs still ship without AV software built in to the deal (although many, I see, come with 90 day evaluation versions of software and a discount voucher for getting the full service). Given the multiple harsh effects of viruses – they drive network traffic up (wasting bandwidth, slowing down connections and using up storage) as well as causing pain for the PCs, I find it surprising that the ISPs aren’t taking more direct action, closing down the opportunity for the virus to spread at the entry point to the Internet. Maybe there’s no commercial opportunity there? Perhaps it will take only one big name to make that leap, I suspect, offering its customers a safer surfing experience and then the others will follow. One safe harbour in a storm can’t protect all the ships.

Certainly taking individual action against such attacks doesn’t help much – but if you wait for everyone else to do it, we’ll get nowhere. Switching off your appliances when you’re not using them might make you feel like you’re doing your bit against global warming, but it makes not the slightest bit of difference in the scheme of things. But you’ll feel better, and that’s got to beat feeling worse.

Awarding the Deserving

The nice thing about awards events is that as part of the submission for why someone has to win, they get to write a little business case. That document is full of nuggets about usage of the nominated service – stuff that is pretty hard to get from anywhere else unless you look hard. I’ve sat on a few awards committees; the judging process is pretty fun and really quite random, depending on who is sponsoring, what power is vested in the judges and what’s up for an award. But everyone has a good time, aided by copious amounts of wine and, in the end, some people who have worked really hard to get a job done take away a glass block that they will put on display for years to come, it gathering dust until, eventually, the project is defunct and everyone has forgotten what the award was for, except for the person that stood on stage before an adoring (or drunk) crowd and accepted it. Awards keep the industry (whether public or private) going so are, I expect, an all round good thing.

The latest awards in this space are the “e-government national awards” … here’s a sample of what won with their usage stats, plucked from the Public Technology website:

Directgov … In the largest cross government programme of its kind, Directgov joins up central and local government’s service delivery, in a way that is easily understood by citizens. Responding to customer needs and expectations Directgov links and promotes relevant and related services together across multiple channels. In September 2005 Directgov received over 1.8 million visits and by offering convenience to customers and enabling them to discover more from one place is driving take-up of electronic transactions. From November 2005 it will be the single online destination for a host of new transactions for example the purchasing, renewing and updating of driving licences … traffic has shown healthy growth. The target of one million visits per month was exceeded by over 80% in September 2005 with 1,842,086 visits. This is more than double the 758,149 visits achieved in September 2004 with no significant marketing effort. (Source: Revenue Science). Out of nearly 500 central government websites Directgov also achieved the fourth position in September 2005 in terms of market share.

Jobcentre Plus … Jobcentre Plus launched its first employer-facing internet service in May 2005. With this innovative new service, Employer Direct online, employers can now post and manage their vacancies to the UK’s largest jobsite (which receives over 750,000 visits per week). The business target of 10% of weekly vacancies business being posted via this new channel was hit seven months early

Land Registers of NI … In less than 3 years the Land Registry’s online service landweb direct has achieved the following results: 93.6% market recognition of landweb direct (2005 annual customer survey), 86.1% customer satisfaction rating of agency performance, In November 2003 online surpassed the number of manual transactions – now landweb direct accounts for 71% of total Agency transactions, In August 2005 over 50% of all Solicitor companies in NI are actively using landweb direct – this account for around 80% of total transaction volumes generated by solicitors, In 2004, there were 555,747 applications received via the system.

Electronic Vehicle Licensing … Following early success DVLA has set a target of achieving successful take up of at least 60% for eligible customers by October 2008. (it doesn’t say what the take up is now – AM)

Planning Portal … rom a standing start the Portal team has established the Portal as the de facto web-site for information and guidance on planning matters in the U.K, for citizens and practitioners alike. The Portal now has more than 50,000 unique monthly users, generating more than 150,000 visits, whilst the email news service has in excess of 13,000 subscribers.

The Portal is now on target to process more than 3,000 online planning applications per month by March 2006 and more than 10,000 per month by the end of 2007. This will deliver efficiency benefits through this transaction alone of more than £20M per year by 2008. These examples of success illustrate what is an inspirational example of e-Government in action, a fact recognised when the Portal was recently cited as an example of best-practise in a European Commission survey on electronic public services across Europe.

Tameside Customer First … The system provides the mediated service channels with a powerful, easy to use and intuitive CRM system. It’s based on a single customer database, which provides citizen portal functionality and customer tracking. The single common data source for all information and eforms helps to ensure a consistent approach to the delivery of services, regardless of how they are accessed. Responses to service requests are managed through the newly developed contacts database that logs and tracks each unique request, giving the customer a receipt and a service level agreement and then monitors, and if required escalates the transaction as it is processed in the back office. In 2004/5:Customer First’ functionality got 679,813 unique visitors at a cost of £0.25 – compared to the call centre’s 314,602 unique calls at a cost of £1.39 each

Dorsetforyou.com … is the UK’s first single online local authority portal to provide joined-up services for citizens across five local authorities. The Dorset For You Partnership was conceived because local people are often unsure which council provides which services in an area where there are three tiers of local government. The partners; Christchurch Borough Council, Dorset County Council, East Dorset District Council and West Dorset District Council switched off their individual websites in April 2005, whilst North Dorset District Council have sought for deep linking. Six months on, the website is managed by the Dorset For You team and Programme Board of partners, a unique joined-up approach.

In a world where it’s easy to be cynical about what hasn’t been achieved, sometimes it’s nice to see what has. What worries me is that you have to be a public sector geek to find out about these services unless you look in the right place … marketing needs to get better. Which is why this sentence, buried in the directgov summary, intrigues me:

From November 2005 it will be the single online destination for a host of new transactions for example the purchasing, renewing and updating of driving licences

That shows that at least one department is routing transactions away from its own site and towards directgov … will others follow?

Now I am 5

The Government Gateway is 5 today, Burns Night. When we started work on delivery in October 2000, we figured we could get everything live in time for 25th January, picking it at least partly because the Minister for the Cabinet Office was, at the time, Ian McCartney. I remember him saying that non-delivery would be a “resignation matter” – I had no problem with that, and told him so – although he clarified that it would be him that would be resigning, not me.

According to the stats as of the end December 2005, there are now 102 services live on the Gateway with another 23 in the immediate pipeline. Over 8,750,000 transactions have completed in the last 5 years. That’s nowhere near the total that I expected or, I imagine, that anyone else had in mind. In the past, I’ve speculated on why that might be, as have others who occasionally comment on the posts here. It needs more thinking.

Still, volumes this year are up on last year. Word has it that Self Assessment will be up somewhere between 30% and 50% and, with the accountants submissions, HMRC may well hit 25% of total submissions received electronically. That would be a pretty good achievement – short of the 50% target that they had in mind for now, but nonetheless impressive. Self Assessment has, as far as I know, been out of the news for the last year too (famous last words?), perhaps displaced by tax credit fraud stories.

Happy Birthday Gateway. Five years old in this world of many failed government IT projects is an impressive achievement. The dedication from the team shines through at every level. Congratulations.

Whale Oil Beef Hooked

Out for a run today, I made sure to make time for a bit of whale watching. A good couple of thousand people look to have had the same idea as me – both sides of the river from Battersea Bridge to Albert Bridge were swamped with people. Some of the smarter TV stations had set up several cameras along the river, making sure that if the whale comes back downstream, they’ll get prime views.

Things didn’t look good from where I was, and this looks like it could all end badly – even if they do somehow get it back into deep water, who knows whether it will ever find its way to its pod or whether it will just make the same mistake again and head up the Thames.

Since living along the Thames, I’ve seen the a seal, a couple of dolphins, many dead fish and even been perhaps a 100 yards from the torso of a young boy that was found floating in the river, but I haven’t heard of a whale being seen before – and the news is saying that this is the first sighting of such a creature since records began in 1913.

The next step seems to be to load it into a boat and carry it downstream. I’m reminded of the last voyage of Concorde

I wish the rescue team luck.

Guy Kawasaki’s hindsights

Here’s a great post from Guy’s 10 day old blog. Guy was one of the original Mac evangelists. When I was first using Macs in 1989/1990, he was one of the guys that was out there beating the drum for them. Later he wrote a couple of books on how to excite people about a new idea – and he’s followed up with more books since then. I’ve met him a couple of times, in the context of what he’s doing at Garage – a VC-shaped company that isn’t quite a VC. Guy’s post is the text of a speech on how he wished he’d lived his life and how he’d encourage everyone starting out to live theirs.