Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Daily postal deliveries: An expensive and unsustainable service

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The US Postal Service is going through hard times and Ben Brooks is sorry that such a wonderful nationwide facility is not profitable. As...

Airport security: the need for rationalisation

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Yesterday's comments on airport security checks by British Airways CEO Martin Broughton were spot on. While everyone agrees that checks are necessary, it is the arbitrariness and the differing standards that annoy passengers. Some experts would say this is a good thing and keeps the bad guys on their toes, but I sometimes think passengers are delayed and inconvenienced for the wrong reasons. Belts of here, belts on there; shoes off here, shoes on there.....

When the iPad was introduced earlier this year it sailed through security checks inside bags and no one said a thing. Then someone noticed and decided that iPads were computers. The same with my Amazon Kindle. Initially, no one noticed, then security staff started asking if I had a book reader in the case and asking for it to be put in a separate tray (on one occasion I had three trays - laptop, iPad and Kindle).

Now, according to reports from the USA, the TSA has decreed that the 11in MacBook Air can remain in the bag while the 13in model must be extracted. It's all to do with size and thickness, I suppose, but the rules do sound very arbitrary.

It's good news that the British authorities have agreed to look at the system and decide how it can be rationalised and made less onerous on passengers. But don't hold your breath.

iHoover: When trademarks become generic

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Such has been the success of Apple in the past five years that I can well understand the company's desire to protect trademarks. Unfortunately, great success brings the danger of your cherished trademark turning into a generic term. Apple are dangerously close to this phenomenon with the iPod. These days everyone talks about an iPod and everyone knows instantly that this is an MP3 player. It's definitely a more effective description than any other.

This is nothing new, of course. Perhaps the one case we all recognise is the trademark Hoover. Once upon a time, back in the middle of the last century, Hoover was the iPod of the vacuum world, with Goblin and Electrolux snapping at their bags. Even 50 years ago people were happily "hoovering" with their Goblins and not sparing a thought for the trademark. Now it is universal to prefer the verb hoover to the more generic vacuum.

There are lots of other similar instances. Sellotape and Scotchtape are both trademarks and have been fiercely protected by their owners for more than fifty years. Fiberglass (Fibreglass in the UK) is a trademark and for years journalists have been exhorted to use the generic "glass fibre". But it's a losing battle and the trademark has become a generic term.

Most of Apple's "i" products have been so successful that they have defined a genre. Both iPod and iPhone are in danger of becoming generic. iPhone, for instance, makes a much better generic for smartphone than Android in its many guises or, even, BlackBerry which for a time was becoming synonymous with smartphone. Until the Apple came along, of course.

Apple have a lot to do to make sure their trademarks do not descend into the generic.

iPaper: Murdoch’s last stand on the pay-wall ramparts

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I couldn't agree more with Techcrunch in their article "Murdoch's New iPaper - One Last Tragic Roll of the Digital Dice". Rupert's latest idea of a digital newspaper, designed for the iPad and on subscription only, is doomed to oblivion. Only last month Murdoch's News International closed down the free websites of The Times and The Sunday Times in favour of a subscription-based iPad-friendly edition. According to TechCrunch, this forward-looking initiative has produced only "disappointing" results. And that's on the first month of subscriptions; there is bound to be a severe attrition in revenues as subscribers get sick of paying for what is free elsewhere on the net. 

As far as I'm concerned, I will read free stuff until there is nothing free worth reading. Currently there are several national newspapers in the UK that provide as good, if not better, coverage that The Times. I tried the Financial Times iPad edition for a month. It's ok, but I won't be paying. Nor will I be paying for The Economist on a regular basis after trying out the free come-on subscription. The BBC news site, which is unlikely to be able to charge for access (because it is a public service, funded by the taxpayer), will be there even if all the other national newspapers erect their pay walls.

Newspaper publishers, threshing around for an answer to free internet news, seem to be convinced that people will pay £300 or more per annum to read their stories online. I remain sceptical. I wonder how long it will be before the pioneers of pay-to-read accept that they have shot themselves in their collective foot.

Packaging: When traditional is better and safer than plastic

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Yesterday iLounge ran a well-deserved condemnation of wasteful plastic packaging. So many items we buy these days are encased in a tough plastic casing intended for dangling on point-of-sale displays. Not only is the packaging often far too large, it is downright dangerous. Last year I wrote to Belkin to complain that one of their impenetrable plastic devices had cut my hand. It's quite feasible, I imagine, for the inattentive to slit their wrists with one of these sharp-edged monstrosities.

P1030112In my mind, any product that comes wrapped in such a plastic case is devalued. It looks nasty, if not cheap, and gets my goat. Plaudits, then, to those companies that stick to good old-fashioned cardboard boxes that are no larger than they need to be. Take this exemplary packaging for the new iPhone 4 dock from Apple: Barely bigger than the dock itself, the little box is neat and exudes quality. It almost (but not quite) justifies the £25 price tag. 

Such packaging is typical of the entire Apple product line. A great deal of care goes into the design and production of the boxes and the result actually enhances Apple's premium imagine. Presumably, too, these cardboard boxes are far more environmentally beneficial than the plastic stuff, but that's not the main point. Buy any expensive item, whether it be a Jeager Le Coultre wrist watch or a premium digital camera, and it comes in a proper, tailored box. 

Suppliers (and, more to the point, retailers) of plastic-encased tat should take note before they get a class-action for slit wrists on their legal agenda.

Jobs & Cameron: Optimism versus gloom, doom and more gloom

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Here in Britain today we listened to our new Prime Minister, David Cameron, heaping doom upon gloom and forecasting pain for all. A few hours later, over in San Francisco, Apple's PM, Steve J, was exuding confidence and optimism. Apple seems to be a well-run company and, currently, can do no wrong; and the new iPhone 4 will undoubtedly heap success upon success. So maybe an entrepreneur such as Steve Jobs would do a much better job of running countries on a firm commercial basis. Instead we are run by professional politicians who, with few honourable exceptions, have never worked in commerce and have never had to balance a budget. The contrast between world economic crisis and booming iSales is quite remarkable.

Printers: Do we really need them?

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350px-TheFaulknerPortableAuthor: Michael Evans

Ruminating on the absence of a print connection on the iPad, I got to wondering why we really need printers at all. They take up a lot of space - which is my main objection - and need constant attention and fettling. We're so accustomed to electronic devices that need absolutely no fiddling that it comes as a shock to have to mollycoddle a piece of equipment that demands replenishing with paper and has an appetite for ever-greater numbers of minute ink cartridges: "Your puce cartridge is nearly empty, do you wish to proceed?"

Furthermore, any device that handles paper is prone to misfeeds and frequent constipation. That is, with the honourable exception of the brilliant Fujitsu ScanSnap range of scanners; they do seem to have got it right. But the majority of domestic ink-jet printers are a pain. They churn and clunk and click through a prolonged start-up routine every time you wish to print a page. And invariably one of the multitude of cartridges is near expiry and dire warnings are posted before you press OK to continue. 

So why do we need printers? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is not for much. I print the occasional boarding pass or letter to a financial institution that insists on snail-mail confirmation. I certainly don't feel the need to print out drafts for correction and, as the proud inhabitant of an paper-almost-less office, I most certainly never print stuff to file.

My all-singing-dancing printer never sings, seldom dances. It sits there, occupying a useful chunk of my office, and I would dearly love to be able to wave it goodbye. Unfortunately, for those occasional essential documents, I don't know of a better solution. At the moment, however, I am seriously thinking of consigning it to a cupboard or, even, the loft, where it can churn out the odd print without inconveniencing me for the rest of the month.

Back to the iPad and its lack of printing. I acknowledge it is a problem for anyone who is planning to make Apple's new pad their only computing device. In fact, there are two problems to face: the iPad cannot be connected directly to a printer and, of course, it needs a mother ship for registration and synchronisation. But anyone who has access to that mother-ship computer, whether belonging family, friend or neighbour, could also beg the occasional sheet of printed paper from the same source. The iPad, with its intuitive ease of use and no-computer-knowledge-necessary interface, is ideally placed to serve people who aren't interested in computers and who want to explore the net and deal with emails without hassle. 

PS: Colleague Ralf Meier points out that he prints from his iPad using PrintCentral and WePrint. He says that for the very limited printing he needs this solution works well. 

Pay to View: A wall of death for Times Online

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TechCrunch has waded into the controversy over News International’s decision to stop free viewing of The Times and The Sunday Times news sites. My article (King Cnut: £1 a day to see his news site) offered the right advice on March 26 when the announcement was made: Goodbye, Rupert. Now TechCrunch says that “moving its content behind a pay-wall be the death of The Times; one of the world’s most respected newspapers and a British national treasure. Even with a relatively modest subscription cost of £1 a day or £2 for the whole week, it has been shown time and time again that the hassle factor of making even a small payment to access a website will result in a haemorrhaging of readers.”

Read Paul Carr’s story in full here.

The great British plug meets its Waterloo

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WE HAVE LONG been admirers of Apple's diminutive iPod/iPhone power US power adaptor with its minimal volume and folding prongs. Michael even bought a couple on his recent visit to Washington and has equipped them with euro-plug adaptors. Even with this add-on, they are smaller than the normal adaptor.

So we were pleased to see  the UK version of this minimalist approach appearing in the Apple Store this week. This is slim and makes the best of the bad job of the massive triangle of pins we have to put up with. The whole is slimmer than the normal 13-amp plug.

Britain has the world's largest industrial-strength plugs, complete with internal fuses and every safety precaution known to man. You could power all the lights of the Titanic from just one of these gems of over-engineering. Time was, we had neat two-pin plugs and even mini three-pin plugs especially for low-power devices, but they have all been banished by our 'Elf 'n Safety gauleiters. It is encouraging, therefore, to find Apple doing its bit for us mortals owning devices that consume less than 5 Kilowatts.

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Our over-size and over-kill domestic electrical arrangements have so far withstood the conformist pressure from the European Union. While a changeover would be a costly nightmare, I am a great admirer of the standard European two-pin plug system. Sockets take either a round, heavy duty plug with side earth contacts or a simple slim two-pin unit which satisfies the majority of computers and peripherals. 

Meanwhile we British struggle on with our muli-sockets the size of a London bus with a cable of a diameter normally reserved for 20 KW electric cookers. 

The back of your 40-in TV or the underneath of your computer desk normally houses several of these hippopotomi basking in complete safety and capable of dealing with anything that lightning, kids or the downright foolhardy can throw at them. At least we're safe, even if we were to plug in the Titanic by mistake.

Dangerous plastic packaging

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THE DIMINUTIVE Belkin Media Reader-Writer, reviewed earlier today, came in the usual enormous tough-plastic display packaging. This colossus measures 29 x 16 x 7cm. The bulky bit containing the card, manual and lots of cardboard, has an internal volume of 1,000 cubic centimeters (same as the cylinders of a small car or a superbike). The card itself has a volume of approximately 10 cc. So the packaging is 100 times larger than it ought to be. This monstrous confection was difficult to carry home and took up far too much space in my bag. And, of course, it is ridiculously wasteful and difficult to recycle. We are being charged for supermarket bags, so why do we get such packaging foisted on us for free?

My biggest gripe isn't with the size, volume or waste. It concerns the near impossibility of freeing the product from the clutches of this unfriendly, sharp, unyielding lump of plastic. I keep an enormous pair of scissors especially for this type of recalcitrant packaging. Even so, it takes great effort and trying to rip open the resulting clean cut is fraught with dangers. It can only be a matter of time before someone chops off a finger on such a sheet of razor-sharp plastic and sues Belkin or whoever for several million. Roll on that day because it will mean an overnight change to more sensible, cheaper and more customer-friendly packaging. 

Although this latest monstrosity from the House of Belkin was in the Apple Store, it is significant that most Apple packaging is a model of what ought to be: small, neat cardboard boxes which are no bigger than they need be. Even the latest 13-in MacBook Pro comes in a box that looks as though it contains nothing bigger than an iPhone. So it is possible, Belkin. Next time I shall consult Messrs. Sue Grabbit & Run, so be warned.