Category Archives: Internet

On Loan

Transcript of podcast below.

If I wanted to start a business 30 years ago I’d probably have gone to the bank, obtained a loan, put up some kind of guarantee against the loan eventually paying off that loan over a period of years.

Of course this being the 21st century we don’t have to look to the bank to start a business, nor even our close friends, although both might still lend a helping hand. The power of the Internet and crowdfunding services enable tens, hundreds or even thousands of Internet “friends” to contribute towards an overall business funding goal.

To pick an example of the success of crowdfunding services, let’s take a look at Kickstarter, one of the more visible services. Since it’s launch in 2009 it’s raised more than $2 billion, has funded nearly 97,000 projects and has nearly 10 million individual backers who have made 27 million pledges in total. Now that’s pretty big, but what about the old fashioned banks?

Well given that Kickstarter is a US service, let’s look at a US bank like Wells Fargo, which loaned $1.9 billion dollars to small businesses in 2015 alone, with the top 100 US banks loaning $15 billion dollars in 2015. If you looked at stock market investment in companies seeking to list on the stock market in 2014, the total was $83.9 billion dollars. Crowdfunding may be the darling of the Internet, but old fashioned ways of raising money for businesses aren’t dead yet. I guess a good question to ask is this: why not?

I guess this is where we get to the truth of it. It doesn’t matter where you attempt to raise funding from, prospective investors will always want to know the same thing: what’s the product, what’s the plan, and just who is going to buy this thing anyway? The more convincing, and realistic, the business plan and product is, the better the chances of raising money. If you look at crowdfunding, banks and stock markets, each has a different appetite for risk, and the less risky a proposition looks, the more investment cash it’s likely to attract. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at crowdfunding – what kind of products are raising the cash?

I’m not sure about you but could you see a major bank funding a project called “Exploding Kittens”? I’m not sure that I can but I do know that crowdfunding helped raise $8 million for the project. In fact if you take a look at the list of crowdfunding by project you’ll notice that there’s a distinct trend towards video games and computer gadgets.

In other words crowdfunding fills a niche for projects and products that might carry too much risk for a traditional bank, or the stock markets to take a chance on, for now. Perhaps crowdfunding will become a mainstay for new business funding in the future – but that all depends on individual investors appetite for risk, and for that matter their taste in exploding kittens.

Reaching for the Stars

Transcript of podcast below.

Once upon a time in a technical universe, far, far away reviews of establishments like restaurants were published in newspapers and magazines. Restaurants had to be pretty successful to even get reviewed, and even if they were a great success they wouldn’t be reviewed that often. However the day of the restaurant critic were numbered: the Internet brought with it the capacity to instantly review anything at all.

When that feature arrived crowds of people piled in with their view of their local establishments. Web sites like Trip Advisor and Zagat soon became the place to find out what others thought of the place you were planning to eat at.

Now everything could have been rosy, and at the beginning it probably was but pretty soon the roses started wilting. What happened? The first thing that happened were negative reviews. Negative reviews can have a profound impact on small businesses, with some claims being made that a single negative review could shut a small business down.

Small businesses felt that they were being blackmailed by customers, with the threat of a negative review. Some businesses even went as far as suing negative reviewers for libel. To say that a gulf existed between consumer and supplier was an understatement. Then the suppliers began to bend the rules, and make them work in their favour.

Companies would ask friends, and soon professional copy writers, to post positive reviews of their establishment, or service. This fake review process has got so bad that various government appointed bodies are looking into the matter.

As the old saying goes two wrongs don’t make a right but the use of review as a commercial tool has been a long established practice. What the Internet has done is simply magnify the problem, and along the way created an “astroturfing” industry that churns out fake reviews for a price.

The practice of creating and posting fake reviews, by any business, is illegal however whilst it might be illegal there’s not much chance of a company ending up in court. The bodies responsible for doing so are, depending on the case, either the Competition and Markets Authority or the Chartered Trading Standards Institute . These authorities are spread pretty thin, and the Internet is a vast, sprawling metropolis of web sites, which cannot be effectively policed by any human agency without significant computer assistance.

If a company is taken to court, presumably because they were reported to the relevant body the penalties are clear: two years in prison, and an unlimited fine for breaches.

Still even with the threat of unlimited fines, companies routinely break the law, thinking themselves immune from any consequences. All we can do as consumers is exercise our judgement when looking at reviews, and hopefully reporting anything that looks suspicious to the relevant government body.

The Need for Speeed

Transcript of podcast below.

The cloud is an all encompassing term used to describe a range of products and services that are, more or less, universally accessible. The question I’d like to pose today is this: what powers the cloud?

One answer might be the vast array of computers housed in expensive data centres across the planet. Another might lie somewhere within the very large companies that have a vested interest in getting as big a share of your custom as possible, via cloud services.

A much simpler answer is speed powers the cloud. The cloud wouldn’t exist without high speed Internet connections. At the turn of the 21st century Internet connections speeds were nothing to write home about and slow connections meant that Internet services were more limited in scope, and restricted in range. After all what’s the point of having all your pictures stored in the cloud, if you can never access them because your Internet connection is too slow.

These days higher connection speeds mean that we can access a much larger set of goods and services than we ever could before. Live streaming of music and video is a commonplace occurrence, although that does depend on the speed of your Internet connection and the type of media you’re listening to, or watching.

But not everything is rosy in the garden. Mobile devices still lack universally fast Internet connectivity, and that has a knock on effect on mobile access to cloud services, which can lack zip and appeal if your mobile device suddenly decides it doesn’t have a turbo charged Internet connection to hand.

The same limitations apply to free Wi-Fi and Internet services. If lots of people access the same free service the immediate consequence is that the speed of that service declines, sometimes quite sharply. As consumers of free Wi-Fi and other access services, there’s not a lot we can do to speed things up, except hurry up and wait.

In time mobile communications will become a lot faster but that has to be balanced against the ever increasing demands for speed that new cloud services might impose. I’m not sure that we’ll see fast mobile Internet connections everywhere in the UK but I’m sure that mobile service providers are working on it.

At some point in the future the need for speed may cease to be an issue but something tells me that there will always be one more service that requires us to push the Internet accelerator a little bit harder than before.

The Cloud

When I think of clouds I tend to think of damp, rainy days in the middle of winter. Perhaps that’s just me. When I think of the cloud on the other hand, I think of storing my data somewhere on the Internet, and having no idea whatsoever where it’s being stored.

So what is the cloud? It’s a question I’ve asked myself more than once, and I’m a technician and should know the answer. In truth the cloud is somewhat difficult to define but my best effort is this: the cloud is something that you don’t own, that is remote to you, that allows you to access products or services that you need.

Now one service you might need is storage. Well there’s cloud storage aplenty these days, made available by Microsoft, Apple, Google and smaller companies like DropBox. All offer a reasonable amount of storage for free, but beware getting addicted to cloud storage, otherwise you’ll end up paying handsomely for the privilege.

In fact the cloud is becoming pretty hard to ignore. Pretty much every company I can think of has some kind of cloud product, offering every conceivable service from alternatives to PowerPoint, to music, to picture sharing, to online video editing.

Are all of these services free? Some are and some aren’t, some are great and others not so much. Some services are in early development whilst others, like cloud storage, and email, are relatively mature and very stable. So why not put everything you have into the cloud and be done with it?

Here’s the thing, cloud services are great for the service provider. They can evolve and change their product on a daily basis, should they wish to do so. They can make a new product available and kill unwanted, or unprofitable, products stone dead. Now if you’ve purchased, or rented a whole pile of music tracks from a cloud service provider and then that provider disappears, how would you feel?

I guess it’d come down to how much you cared about the music you’d been listening to. For some people it wouldn’t be a big deal, others might have a less forgiving attitude towards sudden onset of music withdrawal symptoms.

Perhaps that’s the biggest change that cloud services bring with them, that all of us have to be aware that they will change, sometimes for the good, and occasionally for the worse. We also have to be aware that they’re not permanent fixtures. If I buy a music CD, I own it. If I stream a piece of music from the cloud, it’ll only be there for as long as the providers wish it to be.

The cloud, like those fluffy white things that hang in the sky is temporary, mutable and far, far away from where we are. Perhaps that’s the best definition of the cloud so far.

The Wisdom of the Crowd

Transcript of podcast below.

One of the world wide web’s perceived strengths is that it is possessed of the wisdom of the crowd. To be clear this means that the collective opinion of a group of individuals will be as correct as, if not better than, any given individuals.

The wisdom of the crowd, in terms of the web, is exemplified by sites like Wikipedia which depend on large numbers of volunteers to contribute to the sum total of general knowledge that Wikipedia displays for free. Now is Wikipedia as correct, or better, than the opinion of any given individual? Well here be dragons as they say.

The problem with the wisdom of the crowd is that crowds, and commonly accepted wisdom, can most definitely be wrong. I was taught that people in medieval Europe believed that the earth was flat, and that it was the centre of the solar system. Historians [today] have significant doubts that medieval navigators believed that the earth was flat, but it was undeniably true that the medieval Catholic Church firmly believed that the earth was the centre of our solar system, and took severe exception to those who dissented.

Interestingly in the 21st century the flat earth theory persists, in fact there is a flat earth society, which was by the way founded by Samuel Shenton, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. It goes to show that no matter how wise a crowd is, or appears to be, there will always be dissenters, doubters and questioning minds prepared to rise up and challenge orthodoxy.

So we could debate, for example, whether Wikipedia’s list of animals with fraudulent diplomas is more, or less, correct, than any other article on the same subject, but I think that’s missing the point of what the world wide web is there for. You see I think that the web’s wisdom really lies, not in being right or wrong, but in being the medium through which ideas can be freely exchanged, debated, and held up for examination by all.

The difficult part for us humans is that we’re all too often convinced by the wisdom of the crowd, consensus opinion and the belief that the printed word ought to be right. The challenge that the world wide web throws us is that we can find almost any piece of information, and then we have to work out whether that information is correct, or not.

In closing I think that there are definite pearls of wisdom to be found on the web, but as any pearl diver will tell you, it can take perseverance and determination to find them.