22 November 2010
Somebody drove into my car last week while it was parked outside my house and carried on without stopping. Somebody else, driving just behind, took the trouble to take the registration number of the car and to leave a note on my windscreen. There is both good and evil in the world.
That has been enough to generate not one but three fascinating insights: two into service design, or rather into services without obvious or complete design, and one into why government does big IT.
Since there was a witness, I thought it might just be worth reporting to the police. The Met has one of those fashionable single non-emergency numbers (though the world being the way it is, it isn’t very single). My call was answered in an efficient and friendly way, I told the story, gave the registration numbers of the two cars, and was asked if I had access to the internet. As it happens I do, so was told to go to the Met’s web site (which at a quick glance is worth the services of service designer on overtime in its own right) and, mysteriously, to search for “F207″.
That turned out to lead to a PDF form. A 21 page PDF form. A 21 page PDF form with the instruction on the front to return it to the “reception staff / volunteer” (volunteer?) from whom you got it. Presumably the expectation was that people should print it, fill it in by hand, and then take it to a police station. That felt a bit too much like hard work, so I did the whole thing on screen. Having done that, the obvious thing to do was to email it to them. I even had a potentially relevant email address, that of my local safer neighbourhood team, an only very slightly orwellian sounding bunch of friendly coppers who take an interest in mostly minor crime. So off it went. And came straight back again, stopped by the Met’s email filters:
Unless Acrobat itself is in the habit of generating malicious PDF files, that’s just a little strange, particularly as sending the same email to my government account just to see what would happen occasioned no problems at all.
So where to take it instead? Any police station? A particular police station? A second call to the contact centre. Ah yes, of course, it has to be taken to the second nearest police station. Off we go. The function of the second nearest police station is, it seems, simply to be charming and helpful, at which they are excellent, and then, in a particularly enjoyable piece of reverse Pinter, to send the papers to Sidcup. It is not their role, it is clear, to add any insight which may come from being second nearest as opposed to conveniently reached.
The insurance company
The insurance company has so far performed flawlessly which is reassuring in many ways, but useless for a blogger in search of material. But then it struck me that what they were doing might shed some tangential light on a very different and slightly unlikely issue, the whole question of government and big IT.
Big IT companies have been everybody’s favourite enemy for years. They are perceived as being unimaginative, slow, expensive and incompetent all in one unhappy package. Some of that is a bit unfair (this spectacularly misleading graphic from the Guardian is a lovely example of demonisation, however much they may want to hide behind the small print), and there are certainly more sophisticated versions of the challenge which deserve a serious response, particularly in world where other very large scale users of IT seem to be able to do things differently. Andy Murd in a comment last week on a great (and sadly rare) blog post from Emma Mulqueeny describes his willingness to play with open data and to build proof of concept services as being based in part on a desire
To embarrass, shame, and (hopefully) put out of business the EDS/Accenture/Gartner/CSC consulting firms that make a massive sum from obfusticating and holding back government IT. I could go on a long rant about firms whose primary product is invoices and whose R&D consists of lobbying but it’s easier to spend an hour on a demo that would cost millions through the state’s “preferred suppliers”.
So why if it is that easy is it that difficult?
Back to my car crash. I know a man in Battersea who has a small body shop. If I were spending my own money, that’s where I would go. But there’s him and his mate in a tiny yard behind a row of terraced houses. I doubt that he could absorb more than a small fraction of the work needed by my insurance company. And he certainly isn’t set up to deliver the range of related services which might be needed – collecting the car, disgnosing, let alone fixing any deeper mechanical damage. If my insurance company were to do business with him, they would have to manage and co-ordinate suppliers to a degree which would push an administrative burden back on them which they simply do not want. So they don’t. They find a bigger supplier who can deliver an integrated service at the scale they need. My man in Battersea doesn’t get a look in.
So one version of the question – and I am not suggesting it is the only one – is how you deliver large scale outputs while using a loose federation of small scale inputs. The answer needs to cover how it applies to the back end as well as the front end. An answer which starts by saying there should be no need for large scale outputs may be interesting, may even be right, but in the short to medium term is not helpful.
The hire car
So I am not sure my car is safe to drive, and I am certainly not going to experiment by driving down a motorway, which is precisely what the plans for the weekend require me to do. No problem, we can go by train. Except we can’t because of engineering works (or at least that’s my best guess, based on cryptic statements on badly structured websites – you might think that it would be worth giving some prominence to the basic question of whether a train company is running trains, but it seems not).
So nothing for it but to hire a car. The practicalities of that mean I have to collect the car on my way home from work. I carry the plastic card bit of my driving licence with me but, like any other normal human being, I don’t carry around the paper bit. That’s a problem, though, as it turns out, one which can be solved by spending £6.38 on a short phone call to DVLA. DVLA aren’t going to give out personal information to just anybody. Quite right too. So they make the car hire person hand the phone to me so that they can check my identity and record my authorisation for them to disclose my driving record.
They want to know my name, my full name with a peculiar inistence on middle names, I don’t think (pace Simon Dickson) they are at great risk of confusing me with anyone else, particularly since they also check my address and date of birth, but never mind. So now I am authenticated.
Bear in mind though that the use case I am describing is one where the plastic card bit of my licence is present. So it seems faintly odd that every question DVLA asks can be answered by reading things off that very card, so long as you can rise to the very mild challenge of deobfuscating dates of birth from driver numbers. So what is this process protecting for whom and from whom? I am not at all sure.
Maybe next weekend will be quieter.
18 November 2010
If a major objective of this blog were to be anonymous, it would have failed catastrophically. The power of google is such that searching on my name now gives this blog as the first result, despite the fact that my name does not appear anywhere in it. I doubt that it would take a moderately industrious and moderately web savvy individual more than a few minutes to make the connection even if they didn’t have a name to start with. Even my mother found her way here (hello!) without my ever having hinted that there was a blog to look for (for the avoidance of doubt, she did know my name to start with).
From time to time I toy with dropping this increasingly threadbare pseudonymity. Each time – including this time – I have decided not to, precisely because this blog is pseudonymous rather than anonymous. Over time, I have planted increasingly obvious clues around the web, which is no doubt one reason why google can pull off its party trick, but I have drawn the line at how this blog identifies itself.
The basic reason remains the one I started with several years ago:
Public Strategist is pseudonymous not to hide behind a cloak of anonymity but to underline a distinction between an individual and an institution.
That distinction is important to me because I am a civil servant, and there is a responsibility which goes with that to be impartial, to avoid politically controversial issues, and not to abuse the confidence of those I work with. I deal with that by writing only rarely directly about the matters which occupy my working day, and when I do I wrap them in such obfuscation that even I find it hard to disentangle. I have no intention of changing that.
So why, you might wonder, do I bother mentioning it all? There are two reasons. One is that this is the 500th post on this blog, which feels like quite a milestone and encourages a bit of introspection.
The second, and less felicitous, reason is that that milestone coincides with attacks by the tabloid press on Sarah Baskerville for her personal online activities. I wrote a piece on that as the storm broke and many others have come to her defence. I don’t want to repeat or add to that directly. But it is worth thinking about the general question of where the lines should be drawn, so that bloggers, tweeters and, critically, their managers know where they stand
That of course presupposes that there is a line. I think there should be no doubt that there is one – or rather that there are two. That does not mean that in practice they are either clearly visible or sharply focused. It does mean though that the interesting question is where they are to be drawn. The core issues are organisational loyalty and political impartiality and the real questions are whether anybody should feel free to use social media to comment on and criticise their employing organisation and whether the answer to that should be different for people working for elected politicians. There is nothing new about any of that: the thing which is new is the context in which those judgements are made.
Users of social media are in a difficult middle ground in which social norms have not yet fully formed. Interactions are often conversational and immediate, informal and spontaneous. But they are also recorded, broadcast and archived and can be received far away in time, space and - critically - context from the place where they were transmitted. For twitter in particular, there is a very strange collision of contexts. It is like being in the pub with some friends, being at speakers’ corner shouting at (and being heckled by) random passers by, being on the Today programme, being on Big Brother, and throwing a message in a bottle out to sea – all at once. I am no better placed to delineate that frontier than anybody else, though there are some clear principles which take us quite a long way.
The central one is set out in the Civil Service Code, which as of last week has a statutory underpinning in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The section on political impartiality states:
14. You must:
- serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are;
- act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government; and
- comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities.
What restrictions on political activities might those be? There’s a detailed answer in the Civil Service Management Code (section 4.4 if you are curious), which defines two relevant variables: national or local and politically restricted or not. Essentially, more senior people are ‘politically restricted’ and may not take part in national political activities and need permission for local political activities. Notionally there are ‘politically free’ people who can do anything, but I suspect that most of the jobs in that category have been outsourced for years. In between there is a large group who are neither of the first two, but for whom there doesn’t seem to be a name. They need permission for either national or local activities, though there is provision for block exemptions.
And what are the political activities which might be restricted? The relevant bit in this context is in para 4.4.1:
Speaking in public on matters of national [or local as appropriate] political controversy; expressing views on such matters in letters to the Press, or in books, articles or leaflets.
All that provides the appearance of clarity, but not necessarily the precision one might hope for, as is often the way with guidance. For a start the activities described in 4.4.1 have a slightly faded air to them. The general point is, however clear: civil servants do have to accept limitations on their political speech which do not apply to others. So when Adrian Short tweets that ‘In short, political neutrality isn’t the same as clerical celibacy’ I think he is wrong: for at least some of us, that is pretty much exactly what it is.
But even if we were to sweep all that aside, would that imply that there were no limits? I don’t think so In a comment on my earlier post, Ian says that, ‘This case has great similarities with Civil Serf in DWP case’. I don’t think that’s right at all. On the contrary, Civil Serf’s case shows some very important diferences from Sarah Baskerville. She was a civil servant in DWP who wrote an anonymous blog about her work, including passages commenting directly on both policies and ministers. She got some critical press coverage early in 2008, and her blog was completely and rapidly vanished. As I said when reflecting on her case at the time:
I think there are some pretty clear rules of the game here, most of which are not specific to the public sector – though the iron law applies, here as elsewhere, that something happening in the public sector is intrinsically more newsworthy than the same thing happening in the private sector.
There is an entirely reasonable expectation of confidence about the internal operations of the organisation. Not all of them, not about everything, but any organisation needs some shared assumptions and expectations about what is internal and what can be shared externally. The argument that more should be shared externally doesn’t change that: the question of degree is not the same as the question of principle. We wouldn’t expect a manufacturing company to be happy to cede decision making on the timing of new product announcement to the whims of bloggers within the company, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect ministers to be any more tolerant of civil servants opinionating about future policy announcements. For civil servants, particularly those working directly with or close to ministers, an acceptance of constraints on what would otherwise be perfectly legitimate political activities is a basic part of the deal. Anybody who doesn’t like that is free to follow Clare Short’s example and switch trades.
What Sarah has demonstrated – as have many public sector bloggers – is that it is possible to be open, human, informed and informative while at the same time respecting both organisational confidence and the particular constraints of being part of a non-political public service. On the evidence I have (admittedly very incomplete, particularly for Civil Serf), Sarah’s activities were proper, in a way Civil Serf’s simply were not. I think that that is broadly encouraging (though some think I am foolishly optimistic): there are boundaries, but they do not make a straitjacket and there is no shortage of good things we can do within them. Not everything will be easy, not every choice will be clear, but there is scope to apply passion pace and pride here – and professionalism too.
13 November 2010
Three years ago, Owen Barder was the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for his blog. It caught my attention partly because I knew Owen slightly and admired what I knew and partly because as a then much more tentative public sector blogger it was a reminder of just how unclear boundaries and expectations could be. I don’t remember how I found out about it, though I don’t think it was until some time afterwards and I do remember the vigorous defence mounted by Tim Worstall. There was some other blog commentary, but the reverberations quickly died away – except no doubt for Owen himself. Megaphone journalism remained ascendant.
Today, Sarah Baskerville is the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for her twitter account. It caught my attention because Paul Clarke wrote an excoriating rebuttal on his blog. What is different is not just the more rapid appearance of a strong defence, but the speed and power of reverberation. On twitter, by 10pm the #welovebaskers hashtag had been used in 659 tweets by 341 people. On the web, almost 7,500 people have clicked on bit.ly short links to Paul’s post. Understandably, Sarah has now locked her own twitter account, but she can be in little doubt about the outpouring of support. Megaphone journalism hasn’t gone away, but it can be challenged and contradicted in a way which wasn’t possible even three years ago. That’s apparent even in the Mail itself: the story about Owen attracted a total of two comments. The story on Sarah so far has 59, overwhelmingly critical. Those few which are not have been strongly marked down by other readers.
But although the megaphone may no longer have a monopoly, it can still make a lot of noise. Thousands of people have seen the defence of Sarah, but the circulation of the Daily Mail last month was 2.1 million.
Even with those numbers, the shift is unmistakable. It is worth noting where some of the support for Sarah is coming from. Alex Butler wrote in a comment on Paul’s blog post:
As you know i had more than a hand in drafting the guidance for civil servants and their use of social media. In the past few years I’m pleased to say that we’ve opened up to real and honest debate. Whether or not you agree with Sarah B she is one of those windows into our world.
And Bill McCluggage was one of the hundreds who tweeted support. It’s unfair in a way to single them out, but they are both emblematic of a sea change in government approaches to social media and the use of IT more generally.
The most negatively rated comment on the Mail site is rather pathetically condescending:
One imagines that poor Sarah is looking forward to a ‘quiet chat’ with the Boss on Monday morning!
Not long ago, though, that would have been a reasonable guess. My hope now is that any such chat will be to express the support Sarah deserves. My confident expectation is that even if it were not, there are many within government who would be happy to explain to her boss why support is the right reaction, should that be necessary. That may be the most important change of all, even if it is of little comfort to Sarah today.
13 November 2010
To the post office this morning. Twice: once to queue up to post some parcels and once to queue up somewhere else to collect one.
At the post office, the woman in front of me wanted a form to convert her Portuguese driving licence into a British one. Easily done. And she wanted some advice: her mother had recently arrived from Portugal, had found a job, but was having difficulty opening a bank account. Could the post office help? Yes, of course, delighted to. What evidence of identity would be needed? A passport. No problem. And a bank statement or a utility bill. Oh dear.
Then to the sorting office to pick up the parcel. The woman in front of me handed over the card that had been left. The postman went to look for it but came back empty handed. It seemed that the package had not yet come back from the delivery round. But, pointed out the woman, the card said she should wait two hours before attempting to collect it and two hours had passed. Well, said the postman, sometimes it could be quicker than that. But sometimes it took longer. Such was life. The woman was perplexed. What was the point of putting the waiting time if it was meaningless? Well, it was a guesstimate, it wasn’t to be relied on. Oh dear.
11 November 2010
The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies, frequent coffee houses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.
Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation p246
9 November 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- open data doesn’t empower communities | internet.artizans I’m inspired by the idea that nuggets of opened data could seed guerilla public services, plugging gaps left by government, but i don’t see any of that in the data.gov.uk apps list. The reasons aren’t technical but psychosocial – the people and communities who could use this data to help tackle their own disadvantage and marginalisation don’t have the self-confident sense of entitlement that makes for successful civic hacktivism.
- Shelf-stackers in the intranet supermarket (Intranet diary) In the intranet supermarket, we need more than just shelf-stackers. We need intelligent people who care about their customers. products, keen to find out if customers can find products easily. We need people with the good business sense to only stock what the customers want, eager and ready to tidy up messy aisles and to be more questioning about stacking whatever they are given, wherever they fancy.
- Finding the best ideas in the world | Freedom to Tinker Visitors to their idea marketplace were presented with the question “Which is the more important action we need to take in education today?” and two ideas from the pool. The visitors voted for one of the ideas, and then another pair of ideas was presented. This process of pairwise voting continued for as the long as the visitor wished. Also, at any time the visitor could upload an idea which would then go into the pool of ideas to be voted on by others. In this way the idea marketplace allowed the OECD to collect ideas from the community and have the community prioritize them. Both of these steps–collection and prioritization–are needed for a successful “crowdsourcing” of ideas.
- Memex 1.1 » Blog Archive » Towards the intelligent use of human beings Why don’t we do this? Mainly because we’re still operating with a hard-copy, print mindset. Once upon a time we sent one another typed drafts, so the university’s internal mail system resembled a freight-transportation network designed for shipping atoms (as Nicholas Negroponte would put it). The fact that we are now shipping bits ought to have caused us to rethink what we were doing, but it hasn’t. Instead we are just repeating in electronic form what we did with physical typescripts. And it’s daft.
Another process that happens in any large outfits (and especially in universities) is the organisation of meetings. Getting busy people together can be nightmarishly difficult. Or, rather, it is if you do it the way many organisations do it — by email. I’ve lost count of the number of interminable email exchanges I’ve been involved in where ten people try and agree on a date and time for a meeting, when the obvious way to do it is via an online polling system like that provided by Doodle.
- Gov 2.0 Andrew Stott
- Principles behind the Agile Manifesto Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely
Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential
8 November 2010
Even if people are technologically available, it doesn’t mean they are behaviorally available.
6 November 2010
These projects can get off to a great start using their originators as their own use case, but they won’t become sustainable on that basis. Government has painfully learned – or, rather, is painfully learning – that starting off with the assumption that you know what is best for people doesn’t deliver the greatest results. I am not quite sure where the tipping point comes between creator-evangelists and customer-centred design, but I am sure it has to come somewhere.
So I was delighted to spot this flowing through the twitter time line:
Great to see London Design Jam #1 getting off the ground – similar to a hack day but for UX folks! Looking forward to more info.
— micheleidesmith (@micheleidesmith) November 6, 2010
— johanna kollmann (@johannakoll) November 6, 2010
The concept of a design jam is a new one to me, but it sounds as though it’s a cross between a hack day and an unconference/barcamp:
Design Jams are one-day design sessions, during which people team up to solve engaging UX challenges.
While conferences and talks are very popular in the UX community, we don’t have many events for actual collaboration, like the ‘hackdays’ enjoyed by the development community. Design Jams get designers together to learn from each other while working on actual problems. The sessions champion open-source thinking and are non-profit, run by local volunteers.
Sounds like a fantastic idea, even though I am left slightly wondering how you do user experience design without involving some users. I am not remotely qualified to go myself, but would be fascinated to see the final presentations – it would be great if the organisers were to open those up to interested non-participants.
Tickets are available from 1pm on Monday.
5 November 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- The power of infographics
- Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers – Harvard Business Review Two critical findings emerged that should affect every company’s customer service strategy. First, delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty; reducing their effort—the work they must do to get their problem solved—does. Second, acting deliberately on this insight can help improve customer service, reduce customer service costs, and decrease customer churn.
- Importance of workflow in social technology | DavePress it’s all about workflow.The best software keeps out the way and just lets you do stuff. There shouldn’t be anything new to learn, and the process should be completed within one or two clicks of a mouse.
- Innovation functions in large organisations | Kate Bennet You need some very experienced people in the team: People who know the organisation inside out and are aware of what’s been tried before are invaluable. They’ll have the contacts to move things forward, the know-how to understand when to stop, and a full understanding of navigating complex governance to implement projects.… and people who are fresh to the organisation: New ideas/ perspectives, fresh insights, and constant questioning will help keep the innovation function challenged and on the ball. Employ additional interns and apprentices where possible, give them responsibility and see what they create.
- Small mercies – honestlyreal No drama though – no letters to the Trust, no official complaints, certainly no raised voices or threats. Just a bit of wasted medicine, a heart-rending sense of frustration, and quite a lot of avoidable pain. Life goes on.
- Stories vs. Statistics – NYTimes.com There is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled
- A Shiny World: The hacker ethic: or work as play Big ideas don’t happen in offices. Offices don’t encourage thinking. I sit in front of my desk and I look at my screen and I feel guilty for reading my RSS feeds for research, or reading Twitter to catch others sparks which fuel my ideas, because it feels as if it’s playing, not valuable, not quantifiable, and therefore not justifiable. But all my ideas, all the things we will be implementing in the near future, all of these things were not ideas I got from sitting at my desk at work. [...]Work is not for play. But in playing with things, testing things, discussing them, wrestling with them, yes I know pontificating about them, comes understanding, then quietness and then spirals of ideas coming from the understanding. Play has it’s value.
- Open data, fraud… and some worrying advice Government/big-company bureaucrats not only think like government/big-company bureaucrats, they build processes that assumes everyone else does. The problem is that that both makes more difficult for ordinary citizens (as most encounters with bureaucracy make clear), and also makes it easy for criminals (who by definition don’t follow the rules).
3 November 2010
Networked societies and networked economies rather depend on there being a network.
We only tend to notice them when they are not there or not working. On my wired connection at home, there is decent bandwidth with very occasional catastrophic failure. On my wired connection at work, there is what feels like very limited bandwidth shared among a very large number of people – the electrons occasionally approach the speed of sound but rarely, it feels, the speed of light.
Then there is my mobile connection. My phone often tells me it has a 3G connection, but in central London, it only does that when there is no actual data being moved about. The second I try to use the connection, it degrades to something dramatically slower. Not infrequently, it degrades to nothing at all.
The internet, of course, was famously to interpret censorship as damage and route around it. The trouble is that, in some very important ways, it can’t even treat damage as damage. If the final connection is missing, the health of the rest of the network is slightly beside the point (the main backbone is not as resilient and redundant as it looks either, but that’s another story). This has been a long running issue for the so-called final third: the mostly rural areas where there is not yet any semblance of any kind of broadband, with an active campaign to put the final third first. But it is also increasingly acute in the health of mobile networks, where the sudden growth in data dense traffic has left the operators floundering. There is an interesting article in the current New Scientist (but sadly behind a subscription wall) which argues that it is pretty much impossible for supply to meet rising demand in the short to medium term
Data gobbling smart phones are of course the source of the problem, as they overload networks with requests for web pages, email and video streaming 24/7. If the use of these devices grows as expected, cellphone networks across the world could grind to a halt by 2013 – and since many core services depend on wireless communication, the results could be devastating. The only solution will be an overhaul of the way mobile communications are delivered.
Of course malthusian predictions of the doom laden consequences of growth have been with us since, well, Malthus. His main claim to fame these days is to have spent two hundred years being wrong – though the past is no more a guide to the future in that than in anything else. But this does serve to underline that the service visible to customers at the top of the stack is the result of the complex interaction of many factors, not all of which are susceptible to rapid change. The shape of the 3G network in the UK was set by the process which culminated in the spectrum auction in early 2000, a time when nobody had the faintest idea what all this bandwidth might be for, beyond some some vague and misplaced thoughts about videophones and football highlights. The technology due to be implemented over the next few years to squeeze more capacity into 3G is the result of concerted development which itself was well underway before smartphones were anything but a rarity.
There is already some very visible frustration around. As I write this paragraph, Paul Clarke is tweeting:
With some trepidation, I wonder whether he is slightly missing the bigger picture. Perhaps between London Bridge and East Croydon there are other operators with better signals, but I suspect everybody on every network has had the experience of sitting on a train looking glumly at their phone with no signal while else is chatting merrily away. Of course, often it is the very fact that everybody else is chatting merrily away which blocks the next connection. I have frequently marvelled that Vodafone does not seem to have spotted that the presence of steel rails stretching for long distances away from London indicates the predictable location of large numbers of people who are somewhere between keen and desperate to make contact with the world outside their train, but in my less frustrated moments I am ready to recognise that keeping somewhere between dozens and hundreds of people connected in a small dense clump through what is presumably at least a partial Faraday cage moving at over a hundred miles an hour is probably not the easiest engineering challenge to have to solve.
The selling point of online services – from Amazon to tax discs – is that they are better, faster and cheaper than the online alternative. That’s a very powerful selling point, because they are all three of those things. The customer experience, though, is a product of the infrastructure as much as it is the service which runs on top of that infrastructure. For an increasing number of people, the quality of mobile connections is one of the critical drivers of their service experience. Ofcom research shows that:
In the early stages of mobile broadband take-up, most people used it as a complement to an existing fixed-broadband service. However, by Q1 2010 there are some indications that more households are using mobile broadband as their only internet connection. Ofcom research finds that 60% of mobile users also had a fixed-line connection in Q1 2010, compared to 75% a year previously (see Figure 5.15), and our research suggests that the number of households which only had a mobile broadband connection doubled from 3% of all households in Q1 2009 to 6% of all households in Q1 2010 (note, however, that this should be treated as indicative only, as there is a margin of error associated with this consumer survey research) . With fixed-line broadband levelling off at around 65%, it appears that the growth in overall household broadband take-up (up 68% to 71% in Q1 2010) is now being driven by households getting online for the first time via mobile broadband, mainly by purchasing lower-priced contract plans or pre-pay offerings, but also potentially by purchasing a computer for the first time, with a mobile broadband tariff that includes the price of a laptop or netbook PC within the monthly contract. [my emphasis]
The power of the network depends on the power of the network. Perhaps we need a bit less attention on the first and a bit more attention on the second.
And as a footnote to all that, the same edition of the New Scientist suggests that we may not need to worry too much about the network congestion caused by the proliferation of devices, if we run out of the raw materials necessary to make them in the first place, though their article concludes in a splendid piece of technocratic optimism, quoting Kazuhiro Hono of Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science, “The important thing is to recognise the importance worldwide,” he says. With efforts focused on innovation, he adds, “the solution to this problem will come out in the future”.