Jul 13

Friction-free commerce? Hold on to your wallet.

I’ll admit it. I have a problem. It’s an iTunes problem. Apple doesn’t think I have a problem, they’re quite happy with me. My wife has the same problem, but it’s with Amazon, not Apple.

You see, online commerce has been pushing us all farther and farther down the road of “frictionless commerce”, where we can buy things without dealing with the pesky nuisance of actual cash. I’ve recently started contemplating how frictionless online commerce works, and I’ve begun referring to it also as “unconscious commerce”. It’s the same problem that has existed for years – and crushed many a consumer under its weight – with credit cards.

By not shopping with actual cash, we often cannot tangible assign psychological cost to the things we buy. For me, it’s a $1.99 app here, a $3.99 app there… a book, some music… eventually, it actually adds up to real money.

Amazon began removing friction from online commerce long ago with one-click buying. Throw in a Prime subscription, and it’s a Pavlovian experiment gone wild. Add something to your cart, quickly check out without entering any payment info, and salivate while you wait for your free delivery. I have many friends who have, use, and love Prime because it’s so convenient. I don’t – and don’t want my wife to, because I think it’s actually somewhat dangerous to our budget.

When it comes down to iTunes, the process is just as bad. One click rewarding.

I’ve mentioned before that I briefly sold cars after college. There’s something you have to understand about the car business. It’s built entirely to take advantage of the fact that car buying is an emotional process; that falling for a car will make you swoon and the typical tire-kicker will turn into a puddle of mush over a car when they fall for it. Think about the typical process… looking at cars, car Web sites and brochures, going for the test drive or two… it becomes an exercise in emotion, not an exercise in logic. There’s a reason why the icky part of car buying (Finance & Insurance, usually shortened to F&I) is saved to the end. The typical consumer is so head over heels that they’ll check boxes and sign things without reading them – much to their detriment when they come to several months later, and realize the financial obligation they just signed on to (See also: the mortgage crisis).

Too many of our commerce transactions are becoming frictionless. While frictionless online commerce sounds like a great thing, and it’s a great usability boon to consumers, it is innately geared to the benefit of the seller rather than the consumer. I’ve often debated with people why it is that Apple doesn’t have trials, and instead leaves developers to either:

  1. Build an app that is compelling enough, and a good enough value, that people just buy it.
  2. Build two versions of an app – a free version with some limitation, and a paid version that removes the limitation
  3. Build one app that behaves as the free version, with an In-App Purchase (IAP) to turn it into an unlimited paid version.

There are a couple of other options, but those are the main ones. In all of those cases, you’ve got some version of the app installed on your system. I’ve never talked to anyone at Apple, nor do I expect they’d ever discuss this on the record – but I believe that they don’t offer actual trials of paid apps because doing so could rattle the volume that comes in due to path 1 above, where consumers just say, “Screw it. The reviews look good, and it’s only $4. I’ll buy it.” Let consumers kick tires beforehand, and you’ve removed the emotion from the point of purchase. It’s actually funny to look back at how iTunes has moved from being a clone of a Website, with a basket and checkout, and now lets you one-click your heart out, bundling up multiple purchases in a receipt that is rolled up to you later. There’s a few really interesting results when you search the Web for how to turn off one-click purchasing in iTunes. Answer? You can’t. Either don’t have a credit/debit card stored, or be good about your purchases.

Back when online commerce sites were hard to browse, it was sketchy to trust purveyors, and items took time to receive, there were plenty of barriers that popped up along the way and may have tripped you on your way to checkout. Those barriers are rapidly disappearing, and it’s quite easy to get the shins kicked in your budget without ever noticing it. As frictionless commerce becomes the norm online, and it becomes more and more distant from the tangibility of our hard-earned paychecks, it is easy to get lost and spend more than you should. Think every time you check out. Add a little bit of mental friction to your emotional purchases.

Jul 13

The iWatch – boom or bust?

In my wife’s family, there is a term used to describe how many people can comfortably work in a kitchen at the same time. The measurement is described in “butts”, as in “this is a one-butt kitchen”, or the common, but not very helpful “1.5 butt kitchen”. Most American kitchens aren’t more than 2 butts. But I digress.

I bring this up for the following reason. There is a certain level of utility that you can exploit in a kitchen as it exists, and no more. You cannot take the typical American kitchen and shove 4 grown adults in it and expect them to be productive simultaneously. You also cannot take a single oven, with two racks or not, and roast two turkeys – it just doesn’t work.

It’s my firm belief that this idea – the idea of a “canvas size” applies to almost any work surface we come across. From a kitchen or appliances therein, and beyond. But there is one place that I find it applies incredibly well – to modern digital devices.

The other day, I took out four of my Apple devices, and sat them side-by-side in increasing size order, and pondered a bit.

  • First was my old-school Nano; the older square design without a click-wheel that everyone loved the idea of making a watch out of.
  • Second was my iPhone 5.
  • Third, my iPad 2.
  • Finally, My 13″ Retina Macbook Pro.

It’s really fascinating when you stop to look at tactile surfaces sorted like this. While the MacBook Pro has a massively larger screen than the iPhone 5, the touch-surface of the TrackPad is only marginally larger than that of the iPhone. I’ve discussed touch and digits before, but the recent discussion of the “iWatch” has me pondering this yet again.

While many people are bullish on Google Glass (disregarding the high-end price that is sure to come down someday) or see the appeal of an Apple “iWatch”, I’m not so sure at this point. For some reason, the idea of a smart watch (aside from as a token peripheral), or an augmented reality headset like Glass doesn’t fly for me.

That generation iPod Nano was a neat device, and worked alright – but not great – as a watch. Among the key problems the original iOS Nano had when strapped down as a watch?

  1. It was huge – in the same ungainly manner as Microsoft’s SPOT watches, Suunto watches, or (the king of schlock), Swatch Pop watches.
  2. It had no WiFi or Bluetooth, so couldn’t easily be synched to any other media collection.

Outside of use as a watch, for as huge as it was, the UI was hamstrung in terms of touch. I believe navigation of this model was unintuitive and clumsy – one of the reasons I think Apple went back to a larger display on the current Nano.

I feel like many people who get excited about Google Glass or the “iWatch” are in love with the idea of wearables, without thinking about the state of technology and – more importantly, simple physical limitations. Let’s discard Google Glass for a bit, and focus on the iWatch.

I mentioned how the Nano model used as a watch was big, for its size (stay with me). But simply because of screen real-estate, it was limited to one-finger input. Navigating the UI of this model can get rather frustrating, so it’s handy that it doesn’t matter which finger you use. <rimshot/>

Because of their physical canvas size available for touch, each of the devices I mentioned above has different bounds of what kinds of gestures it can support:

  • iPod Nano – Single finger (generally index, while holding with other index/thumb)
  • iPhone 5 – Two fingers (generally index and thumb, while holding with other hand)
  • iPad 2 – Up to five fingers for gesturing, up to 8/10 for typing if your hands are small enough.
  • MacBook Pro – Up to five fingers for gesturing (though the 5-finger “pinch” gesture works with only 4 as well).

I don’t have an iPad Mini, but for a long time I was cynical about the device for anything but an e-reader due to the fact that it can’t be used with two-hands for typing. Apparently there are enough people just using it as an e-reader or typing with thumbs that they don’t mind the limitations.

So if we look at the size constraints of the Nano and ponder an “iWatch”, just what kind of I/O could it even offer? The tiny Nano wasn’t designed first as a watch – so the bezel was overly large, it featured a clip on the back, it needed a 30-pin connector and headphone jack… You could eliminate all of those with work – though the headphone jack would likely need to stay for now. But even with a slightly larger display, an “iWatch” would still be limited to the following types of input:

  1. A single finger (or a stylus – not likely from Apple).
  2. Voice (both through a direct microphone and through the phone, like Glass).

Though it could support other Bluetooth peripherals, I expect that they’ll pair to the iPhone or iPod Touch, rather than the watch itself – and the input would be monitoring, not keyboard/mouse/touchpad. The idea of watching someone try to type significant text on a smart watch screen with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard is rather amusing, frankly. Even more critically, I imagine that an “iWatch” would use Bluetooth Low Energy in order to not require charging every single day. It’d limit what it could connect to, but that’s pretty much a required tradeoff in my book.

In terms of output, it would again be limited to a screen about the same size as the old Nano, or smaller. AirPlay in or out isn’t likely.

My cynicism about the “iWatch” is based primarily around the limited utility I see for the device. In many ways if Apple makes the device, I see it being largely limited to a status indicator for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad that it is “paired” with. Likely serving to provide push notifications for mail/messaging/phone calls, or very simple I/O control for certain apps on the phone. For example, taking Siri commands, play/pause/forward for Pandora or Spotify, tracking your calendar, tasks, or mapping directions, etc. But as I’ve discussed before, and above, the “iWatch” would likely be a poor candidate for either long-form text entry whether typed or dictated. (Dictate a blog post or book through Siri? I’ll poke my eyes with a sharp stick instead, thanks.) For some reason, some people are fascinated by the Dick Tracy approach of issuing commands to your watch (or your glasses, or your shoe phone). But the small screen of the “iWatch” means it will be good for very narrow input, and very limited output. I like Siri a lot, and use it for some very specific tasks. But it will be a while before it or any other voice command is suitable for anything but short-form command-response tasks. Looking back at Glass, Google’s voice command in Glass may be nominally better, but again, will likely be most useful as an augmented reality heads-up-display/recorder.

Perhaps the low interest I have in the “iWatch”, Pebble Watch, or Google Glass can be traced back to my post discussing live tiles a few weeks ago. While I think there is some value to be had with an interconnected watch – or smartphone command peripherals like this, I think people are so in love with the idea that they’re not necessarily seeing how constrained the utility actually will be. One finger. Voice command. Perhaps a couple of buttons – but not many. Possibly pulse and pedometer. It’s not a smartphone on your wrist, it’s a remote control (and a constrained remote display) for your phone. I believe it’ll be handy for some scenarios, but it certainly won’t replace smartphones themselves anytime soon, nor will it become a device used by the general populace – not unless it comes free in the box with each iPhone (it won’t).

I think we’re in the early dawn of how we interact with devices and the world around us. I’m not trying to be overly cynical – I think we’ll see massive innovation over time, and see computing become more ubiquitous and spread throughout a network of devices around and on us.

For now, I don’t believe that any “iWatch” will be a stellar success – at least in the short run – but it could as it evolves over time to provide interfaces we can’t fathom today.

Jun 13

How to make a great product that people love

Step 1: Find a problem not addressed by any existing product or service.

Step 2: Build the product or service that solves that problem better than anyone, before anyone else does.

Step 3: Lather, rinse, repeat.

Jun 13

What’s the deal with Facebook advertising?

For a site that has been tracking my life for years, Facebook’s advertising is horrible. Not just weak, not just bad, but horrible. During the last presidential campaign, I started to realize how bad Facebook’s advertising was, when (as a pretty outspoken liberal) it offered me a Mitt Romney ad every single time I logged on.

But take a look below. You really couldn’t get more broken in terms of targeted advertising:

Where to begin? Let’s just look at each:

  1. I have a Yammer basic subscription – using the same email address of mine as Facebook already has.
  2. I have two cats, but don’t have a dog. I haven’t had one since I was a kid.
  3. I haven’t subscribed to cable since 2010.
  4. I don’t take photos with a camera anymore. Heck, my only digital camera and camcorder both gather dust while I use my iPhone for most photography and video.
  5. I hardly ever play games. I have an original Xbox that gathers dust, and a Wii that the kids sometimes use, but even it is rarely used vs. the iOS devices in the house.
  6. I have one watch. I wear it when I fly, so I know when the flight took off and what time it will land. Otherwise, I never wear a watch.
  7. As noted, I don’t play games. I’m also pretty outspoken about not being a fan of Walmart.
Bad Facebook ads

So here Facebook had 7 opportunities to knock it out of the park based on all of the personal information of mine they have. Yet they got 100% wrong. Way to go, Facebook!

Jun 13

Content, not the chrome. Apps, not the phone.

Ahead of WWDC 2013, many people were still expecting Apple to add live tiles, and possibly widgets to iOS 7. I didn’t expect either, and as a result wasn’t terribly disappointed to see them not included (that might be an understatement on my part).

At first glance, live tiles may seem like a no-brainer in any operating system. Tiles that provide you information from within an app… How could this go wrong?

Here’s the problems that I have with live tiles in Windows 8, and why I think they wouldn’t make sense on iOS (either):

  1. They’re overused.
  2. Often, they aren’t that useful.
  3. They are distracting.
  4. They’re hardly ever in view.

Let me explain each a bit.

They’re overused. Why do I say this? Because Microsoft has focused on live tiles in their messaging for app developers as if apps that don’t feature a live tile should be shamed. Not the case. I believe live tiles should only be used when there is something actionable to present to the user (ex: new mail) and that actionable item can succinctly be presented though the live tile (ex: subject of the mail). Unfortunately, even just the built-in applications from Microsoft abuse the live tile concept. Too many feature live tiles, and too many of those live tiles are of very limited utility or are too repetitive. Having one or two live tiles is fine, especially if they’re useful -like Mail and Weather, and perhaps Calendar.

But if you add too many live tiles, Windows 8 stops looking like this:

Windows Start screen

And instead starts looking like this:

Times Square

What I’m saying is that there is a point where the utility of live tiles starts to become a problem, not a benefit, if you’re shoving too much dynamic information in the user’s face while providing very little value.

Often, they aren’t that useful. Much like a well-designed app, the utility of a live tile is only as useful as the content it is set to display. iOS has featured notification badges (the red overlay on Mail that constantly indicates you’re not at inbox zero) for many years. Many people bash the badges as being stupid or useless, but they serve as an action indicator where often, not much more is needed, and even more often, not much more can be done. A notification (or live tile) on a badge should instantly provide an indicator of status if that’s all it is to do (ex: You have new mail), and a deeper summary if that is possible (your iOS line-of-business app that tracks new tasks for your helpdesk has 32 new tasks). In iOS, the icon for Calendar has, in effect, always been a live tile. The date you see on the icon is the actual date. Though of limited utility (given that there is already a clock at the top of the screen in the iOS shell, and the icon is tiny), the icon for the clock app in iOS 7 is now a live tile in the same sense – it features the correct time, including a sweeping second hand.

But I don’t believe a live tile should always be live, and even when it is, if it isn’t actionable, it’s no better than After Dark. It ceases to have utility, it’s just there for entertainment value. Applications that do have a concrete reason for offering a live tile absolutely should. If they don’t, they shouldn’t. Don’t provide one just because “you’re supposed to”.

They are distracting. As I noted above, if you’re looking at the Start screen to find a particular application, and you have very many live tiles, it starts to become distracting, and not helpful, that they application is trying to provide you more information than you actually need at that moment. The start screen isn’t an app, it’s a shell. The primary reason for it to exist is to run applications. Rotating pictures of people, or of your own collection of photos (both of which repeat) are novel and cute for a bit, but rapidly become tiring to me.

It’s like going into Best Buy to look around, and getting inundated with salespeople. You know what you’re looking for, and otherwise it’s just a distraction.

They’re hardly ever in view. The Start screen is a shell, It’s not even like the Explorer shell or the gadgets in Vista where it could be set to always in view. If you’re not actively launching an app (or using multimon), the Start screen isn’t in view. So why the emphasis on adding interactivity (or infinite customizability) to a thing that’s basically just a launchpad?

This gets us full circle back to why I don’t think it’s a big deal that iOS doesn’t have live tiles, or even widgets. I’ve mentioned before that Microsoft employees seem to like using the expression “(just) a sea of icons” to describe the iOS app launcher. Well, yeah. That’s kind of the point? It’s a brutally simplified shell that gets you in to the apps. The iPhone (or any iOS device) isn’t about the platform, and it isn’t about the shell. It’s about the apps. Mobile devices exist to be view portals into the functionality provided by applications – including those built-in to the device.

When using a mobile device, users don’t sit there staring longingly at the shell, waiting for it to do something. They’re in apps, responding to notifications from other apps through the shell, and jumping between apps using the sharing verbs available between apps (monikers or direct APIs). On stage when first revealing Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky highlighted the focus of Windows 8 on (with a not-so-subtle jab at the browser of the same name), “content, not the chrome”. To that I add, “It’s the apps, not the phone”. Yes, shells need to evolve and grow. But rarely should they be the center of attention – as that’s rarely where the user actually spends most of their time.

Jun 13

Thomas Jefferson on lawyers in Congress

“I served with General Washington in the legislature of Virginia before the revolution, and, during it, with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves. If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send 150. lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, talk by the hour?”

Excerpt From The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1.

Jun 13

Twitter zombies and content theft

A few days ago, I noticed a new follower that didn’t look quite right. Check it out for yourself (@KoriWilbur).

I’ve never been a fan of people who use Twitter just to spray links – especially if they all lead back to the same site. There’s very little value in such a Twitter account. But when an account like this shows up, and all of the tweets have something in them that looks like a pattern (here the “$ ” preceding the actual content of the tweet, it looks even more strange. What’s funnier though, is Twitter on iOS provides a list of three accounts that are “Similar to …” and links to them. So when KoriWilbur started following and the account stood out, I happened to notice the similar accounts that Twitter said were similar. Man, was Twitter spot on.

Twitter recommended @CorettaBerk, @LuannJohn, @HilmaErvin, @LilliMoffett, and @MieshaTuttle, among many others. The more I refreshed, the more accounts it provided that were eerily similar. There were dozens and dozens of accounts using this same MO.

The person building out these accounts did a really exceptional job of trying to bury their “undeadness”. They always seem to have a unique profile picture and usernames that match full names (always female, as Twitter grifters like to do), some actual pictures/videos that the profile has posted, which tends to lend authenticity to a zo semi-unique bio, and the URL in their bio is always self referencing (back to their own Twitter profile). A key difference was that different accounts used a different tweet suffix than the “$ ” that my original follower did, such as “! “, “@ “, or “# ” (note that it often, but not always seemed to be a shift+numkey value – another example was “\\ “). Also, it appears that they try to often use different URL shorteners across the accounts, even when linking to the same topic.

Speaking of links – the links always go to mobilephoneadvise.com, which I had never heard of before this. Now I know why. They just plagiarize content.

Take a look at this post on mobilephoneadvise.com. Now take a look at this post on TechCrunch. They’ve blatantly lifted content off of TechCrunch (which seems to be the favorite site for mobilephoneadvice.com to steal from) and posted it on their own site. Intermingled amongst the pilfered content are links to games. Not even game reviews, mind you, just the same approach to games as content. See this game site, and then the post about the game on mobilephoneadvise.com. The entire overview paragraph is lifted from the developer’s site. At a quick glance, at least one the samples I downloaded even appeared to be malware.

In short, there’s nothing good going on at that site, and they’re another example of individuals gaming Twitter for personal gain – and in this case stealing content and possibly infecting devices to do so.

Jun 13

Thomas Jefferson on Congress and unity

“As to those matters which are referred to Congress, we are not so many states, we are one large state. We lay aside our individuality, whenever we come here.” – Thomas Jefferson

May 13

Twitter zombies? My favorite.

Within the last few weeks, a very annoying trend on Twitter began to pique my curiosity. I saw random accounts that don’t follow me marking some of my tweets as favorites. What was weird though was the tweets that were getting marked weren’t, frankly, my best work. But I started noticing more about these accounts.

First of all, as I said, the accounts that seemed odd were generally marking odd tweets as favorites. Take this tweet for instance, which has three weird accounts that have favorited it (and my friend, who was just being punchy). A few other examples that friends on Twitter noted are here, here and here. While I thought it was interesting that this one of mine was the last tweet of the day for me, it wasn’t in the case of my friends, although the tweets do tend to be marked in the evening.

The second thing I noticed about the accounts marking these was that they always had names that were nonsensical given their username. Take this one for instance. Username is Rossiengkh, name is Rosalina Harrey. The usernames of these accounts seem to consist of a first name and generally 3, 4, or 5 gibberish characters appended. The more I looked, the more often I found that the names on the account were completely unrelated to the username – or pictures that were even of the wrong gender. Pictures of men with female account names, etc.

Next, I noted that all of these accounts had few tweets (generally less than 20) and were created recently (May 3, 2013, in the case of the account above).

Upon examining each of these accounts when they marked a favorite, I found that most of them had quite a few accounts they were following, and quite a few accounts following them. The patterns I noticed with my initial favorite zombie continued through all of the accounts they were following. For example, look at all of the accounts Rossiengkh is following. When it came to their followers, the story was different. All of their earliest followers match the pattern as well (again, see those of Rossiengkh).

It’s here that I’d like to theorize why these bots don’t spam, but rather favorite tweets instead. It’ll make sense in a minute. First, imagine you’re a really new user on Twitter. Suddenly, out of the blue, some user, likely following more people than you, and more followers than you, favorites one of your tweets. You maybe poke at their account a bit, notice their followers/followees, and that they have a few tweets. So you follow them. NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

That’s why these zombies all have nobody they are following that is legitimate, and their accounts all began with a similar stack of zombie followers, to add cred. While some of us who have been on Twitter for a while noticed the funky smell from these accounts, new users aren’t generally aware that there are people gaming Twitter.

What’s most interesting is that many of these zombies are marking tweets as favorites that existed before their account did (the account above, created in early May, has favorites dating back into at least 2012). I didn’t even know you could mark tweets that existed before your account did as favorites, though I guess on some plane it makes sense.

So… Why all this trouble? Why build out a network of accounts following other accounts, following other accounts? Favoriting random things on Twitter? To sell followers, of course!

Follower counts generally aren’t vetted – people don’t go through and scan your followers to see if there are real people following you or not (well, not always). But buying followers, as questionable as it is, appears to be a thing to artificially add credibility to an account. I think it’s pretty sleazy and frankly devalues Twitter.

So let’s talk about one more thing almost all of the zombies have in common. Not all of them, mind you, but most of them. A short URL in their Twitter bio that at first glance appears relatively unique, and uses either bit.ly, tiny.cc, or tinyurl.com (the latter of which has now seemingly killed off the use of their service for this scam). I haven’t tabulated how many unique URLs there are (let alone how many zombies there are), but I can only assume there are quite a few. But more importantly, these URLs are not actually unique underneath.

If you click on the URLs, the final destination that you wind up with is followersdelivery.com (no link because I don’t want them to get SEO). However, they appear to have a layover along the way, at bestgod.info. Followersdelivery.com was registered through GoDaddy on February 24 of this year, with a one year registration. The registrant is an individual in Zagreb, Croatia, with – I believe – a postbox. More interestingly, bestgod.info was registered on March 24 of this year, and was last edited two days ago, on Friday, May 24. Even more interesting? That domain was registered with fake credentials through Wild West Domains, LLC. The Spurger, TX address used to register the domain doesn’t exist, and the phone number is dead.

The initial bestgod.info domain appears to do a client-side redirection to the final destination. I’ve seen this trick done before, and there’s often logic thrown in on the client side (or even before then in the server redirection) that may be defeating Twitter’s ability to detect or block this URL (assuming they’re trying to). I mentioned over a year ago the risks of trying to unwind URL shorteners when it comes to really knowing what site is at the end of the link.

But the funniest part of this exercise has to be reading the followersdelivery.com site. The site advertises (shocker) all of the following for sale in bulk:

  • Twitter followers
  • Facebook likes
  • YouTube views
  • Instagram followers

The price of Twitter followers?

  • $20 – 1,000 followers (within 24 hours)
  • $50 – 5,000 followers (within 24 hours)
  • $80 – 10,000 followers (within 48 hours)
  • $170 – 30,000 followers (within 48 hours)
  • $420 – 100,000 followers (within 3 days)

My favorite part of the followersdelivery.com site, though, has to be the following, on their FAQ page:

Can I trust Followers Delivery? Are you a reputable company?
For many people, our services seem too good to be true, so we get this question asked all the time. Followers Delivery offers very popular social media services, low pricing and excellent customers support. We believe in offering an exceptional service to all of our customers and clients. Read the reviews that our customers have left us, we are sure you’ll be impressed.

And this little gem (underline emphasis mine):

Are these real users? How do you gather the followers?
Absolutely! We guarantee that these Twitter followers are real people and that no bots or proxies will be used in the delivery of your Twitter Followers.We rely purely on proprietary marketing and promotion techniques to get the job done right. We also own and operate a few high traffic Fan pages, Twitter accounts, Youtube channels and website which we use to generate real social media users for our customers.

<SPIT TAKE/> Yes. I’m sure that those are all real people that I’ve called out above. The Twitter undead.

It gets more interesting, though, as Followersdelivery.com was explicitly called out for their role in Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy site investigating Rachel Maddow. Note that even then the site had recently been suspended by the registrar hosting it. I’m not exactly sure who paid for what in that instance either (and frankly, given the low cost of buying followers, I can imagine someone paying to have an opponent’s Twitter presence defamed by “throwing” fake followers at their account). Regardless, I hope that Twitter does something to block this service relatively soon.

May 13

Beware of strangers bearing subscriptions

Stop for a second and think about everything you subscribe to. These are things that you pay monthly or annually for, that if you didn’t pay for, some service would discontinue.

The list probably includes everything from utilities to reading material, and most likely a streaming or media service like Netflix or Hulu, or a subscription to Amazon Prime, Xbox Live or iTunes Match.

I’ve been noticing a tendency for seemingly everything to move towards subscriptions. Frankly, it irritates me and I’m not really excited about the idea.

I understand and accept that natural gas, electricity, waste management, and (ick) even insurance need to be paid for regularly so we can maintain a certain lifestyle. But the tendency to treat software as a utility, while somewhat logical, isn’t necessarily a win for the consumer or the business (it depends on the package being offered, and how often you would upgrade if you weren’t being offered a subscription).

That puzzle, of course, depends on the consumer or business to not bother to do the math and just assume it’s a better deal (or get befuddled trying to decode the comparison), and just subscribing. Consumers, and frankly many businesses, are not great at doing that math. Many subscriptions are also – literally – incomparable with any peer perpetual license. Trying to compare Office 365 and Office 2013 for consumers is actually relatively easy. Even comparing simple business licensing of Office 365 vs. on-premises isn’t that hard. Trying to do it in a large business, where it can intertwine with an Enterprise Agreement (enterprise-wide licensing agreement), is horribly complex and hard to compare.

Most subscriptions are offered in the hope that they will become an evergreen – something that automatically renews on a monthly or annual basis. Most of these are, frankly, awful, in my opinion. Let me explain why.

Recall the label on the outside of many packaged foods in the US. You know the one. Think about the serving size. This is the soda bottle or bag of chips where it says 2.5 servings, though most consumers will drink or eat the whole thing at one sitting. Consumers (and again, many non-IT business decision makers) are not really great about doing the long-term accounting here. A little Hulu here. A little Amazon Prime there. An iTunes Match subscription. Add on Office 365… Eventually, all these little numbers add up to big numbers. But like calorie counting, people often lose track of the sunk costs they’re signing up for. We wonder why America has a debt problem? Because we eat consumer services like there’s no bill at the end of the meal.

You don’t need to count every calorie – but man, you need to be aware before you have a problem.

I’ve become a big fan over the last several years of Willard Cochrane, an economist who spent most of his life analyzing and writing about the American family farm. Cochrane created an eponym, “Cochrane’s Treadmill”, which describes the never-ending treadmill that farmers are forced into. Simplistically, Cochrane’s Treadmill can be described as follows.

Farm A buys a new technology that gives them a higher yield, it forces down the market price of the commodity they produce. Farm B is then forced to buy that new technology in order to improve their yield in order to  even maintain the income they had before farm A bought that technology.

By acquiring the technology, Farm A starts an unwinnable race, where he (economically) is pitted against farmer B in trying to make more money, generally from the same amount of land. Effectively, it is mutually assured destruction. Work harder, pay more, earn less.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently trying to simplify my life. I’ve been working to remove software, hardware, and services that add complexity, rather than simplicity, to my life. As humans, we often buy things on a whim thinking (incorrectly), “this new <thing> will dramatically improve my life”. After all, the commercial told you it would! Often this isn’t the case.

Without getting off on an environmentalist hippie trip here, I’d like to circle back to farming for a second. Agricultural giants like Monsanto have inserted themselves into the farming input cycle in a very aggressive way. If we go back 100 years, farmers didn’t pay an industrial concern every year for pesticides, and they most certainly didn’t pay them an annual license fee for seeds (farmers are forbidden to save licensed genetically modified seeds every year, as they have done for millennia). As a result, farmers are not only creating a genetic monoculture that is likely more susceptible to disease, but they are subscribing to annual licensure of the seed and most likely an ever-increasing dosage of pesticides in order to defend against plants, insects, or other pests that have developed defenses against them. It is Cochrane’s Treadmill defined. Even worse, if a farmer wanted to discontinue use of the licensed seed, it’s unclear to me if they actually could. Monsanto has aggressively gone after farmers who may have even accidentally planted their seeds due to contamination. Can a farmer actually quit using licensed seed and not pay for it next year? I don’t know the answer.

I bring this up because I believe that it exemplifies the risks of subscriptions in general. Rather than a perpetual use right (farmers saving seed every year), farmers are licensing an annual subscription with no escape hatch. Imagine subscribing to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offering and never being able to quit it? Whether in the form of carrots – “sweeteners” of sorts added to many subscriptions (such as the much more liberal 5 device use rights of Office 365), or sticks (virtualization or license reassignment rights only available with Microsoft Software Assurance), there are explicit risks of jumping into using almost any piece of software without carefully examining both the short-term use rights and long-term availability rights. It may appear I’m picking on Microsoft here. I’m not doing so intentionally – I’m just intimately, painfully, aware of how they license software. This could apply to Adobe, Oracle, or likely any ISV… and even some IHVs.

Google exemplifies another side of this, where you can’t really be certain how long they will continue to offer a service. Whether it’s discontinuing consumer-grade services like Reader, or discontinuing the free level of Apps for Business, before subscribing to Google’s services an organization should generally not only raise questions around privacy and security, but just consider the long-term viability of the service. “Will Google keep this service alive in the future?” Perhaps that sounds cynical – but I believe it’s a legitimate concern. If you’re moving yourself or your business to a subscription service (heck, even a free one), you owe it to yourself to try and ascertain how long you’ve got before you can’t even count on that service anymore.

While I may be an Apple fan, and Apple doesn’t seem to be as bullish on subscriptions, one can point to the hardware upgrade gravy train that they have created and see that it’s really just a hardware subscription. If you want the latest software and services from Apple, you have to buy a new phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop within Apple’s set intervals or be left behind. Businesses that are increasing their use of Apple technology – whether they pay for it or leave it to the employee to pay for – should be careful too. Staying up-to-date, including staying secure, with Apple generally means staying relatively up-to-date with hardware.

In The Development of American Agriculture, Cochrane reasoned that <profits> “will be captured by the business firm in financial control”, and would no longer go to farmers. Where initially the farm ecosystem consisted of supplier (farmer) and consumer, industrial agriculture giants have inserted themselves into the process of commodity creation – more and more industrialists demanding a growing annual cut from the income of (already struggling) American farmers.

Whether we’re talking seeds/pesticides, software, utilities, or any other subscription, there is a risk and a benefit that should be clearly understood. But I believe that even more than “this year”, where the immediate gratification is like consuming the 2.5 servings I mentioned earlier, both consumers and especially businesses need to think long-term; “Where will this service be in 3 years?”, “Will we be paying more and getting less?”, “If we go there, can we get out? How?”

When you subscribe to anything, you’re not taking on a product, you’re taking on a partner. Your ability to take on that partner depends upon your current financial position and your obligations to that partner, both now and in the future. While many businesses can surely find the risk/benefit analysis of a given subscription works out in the subscriber’s benefit (if they are really using the service regularly, and it provides an invaluable function that can’t be built internally or completed by perpetually licensed technology), I believe that companies should be cautious about taking on “subscription weight” without sufficiently examining and understanding 1) how much they really need the services offered by that subscription, 2) what the the short-term benefits and long-term costs of the subscription really are, 3) the risks of subscriptions (cost increase and service volatility among them), and 4) how that subscription compares in terms of use rights, costs, and risks, with any custom developed or perpetually licensed offering that can perform similar tasks.

If it seems like I’m anti-subscription, I guess you could say I am. If you want a cut of my income, earn it. Most evergreen subscriptions aren’t worth it to me. I think too many consumers and businesses fall prey to the fact that “just subscribing” rather than building and owning a solution, or buying a perpetually licensed one, sounds easier, so they go that route – and wind up stuck there.