Held Up Without A Gun

Posted on 29th June 2008

This weekend, DanDan and I went down to Bristol for an event, which I will cover later. On the way down, a friend of ours dropped us off in his recent purchased Bentley. It was certainly great driving down the M5 in style. Unfortunately the journey home wasn't anywhere near as enjoyable. In actual fact it felt felt like highway robbery.

Earlier last week I investigated getting DanDan and I return tickets to Bristol, Temple Meads from New Street, Birmingham. We were planning to get the bus in and out of town, as that just made things easier. It was quite a shock at the difference in prices. The best return I could find was £59.55, a "Saver" Return. However, the link at the bottom does helpfully suggest that you check two singles tickets as these can often be cheaper. They weren't kidding either. The Standard Advance Single was listed as £10.50 in each direction, that's £21.00 for a return for both DanDan and I. A difference of £38.55 ... nearly £40! So how exactly am I saving with a returning ticket?

Unfortunately, as I'd assumed that buying a ticket at the station on the day, seeing as we were getting a lift down to Bristol, might only be slightly more than the Standard Advanced Single, I decided not to buy one in advance. Alas I wasn't prepared for the shock I got when I was told by the ticket clerk, that it was £51.00 to get back to Birmingham. I was absolutely staggered. The ticket clerk did try hard to find if we could buy the ticket in alternative forms to try and reduce the cost, but to no avail. As it turned out he suggested that we buy a Family Rail Card, which although would end up reducing the cost of the ticket, both together would end up costing £52.90, the benefit being that we could actually use the Family Rail Card if we ever used the railways again over the next year. I should imagine we will, so hopefully we will get some benefit, but the cost of the fare has really disappointed me.

If I had chosen to drive my car down to Bristol, it would have cost about £20. The original idea to use the trains was partly to save some money, but also to just use public transport because for a change it was convenient. Doubt I'll do it again.

Once upon a time the cost of a return train ticket would be just less than a single, not nearly 3 times the price. And if you bought the ticket on the day of travel it might be a couple of pound more than in advance, but not 5 times the price! In fact it was rare to bother buying a ticket in advance, as it gave you more options to travel. When I've travelled in Europe by train, the prices have always seemed reasonable, here in the UK it is nothing short of daylight robbery. Anyone planning to travel the trains who arrives from abroad is going to get the shock of their life. I also have to travel down to London soon and I see the Standard Open Return has leapt up to £123.00. Even that used to be less than £20 just over 10 years ago.

National Rail in the UK is an absolute disgrace, not just in terms of the price, but also with timetables. The train back to Birmingham from Bristol got announced as being delayed several times and finally left the station over 40 minutes later than it should have done. Now we were lucky, I've know of other recent delays to be several hours later, or even cancelled.

The ONLY redeeming feature of the railway network these days is that much of the rolling stock is being replaced by trains that do have the passengers comfort and interest in mind. The newer carriages have much better seats, usually with a bit more space than I remember of old, they are much more appealing to be in, but most useful for me is that many carriages have sockets for mobile phones and laptops. I suspect some of the prices have been due to the upgrade of rolling stock, but with the amount of passengers that commute daily on the train, I can't help think that the rail companies are taking advantage of their customers.

However, the biggest culprit is still the lack of government investment. In other European countries it seems they take their railway infrastructure a bit more seriously. As a consequence there doesn't seem to be the same amount of traffic on the roads. At the moment with the rising cost of fuel, I can easily understand more people looking to the trains to reduce their travel costs, and then being amazed to discover that fuel costs would have to virtually triple before making it more cost effective. Madness.

As far as I can see the only means of public transport that actually has improved, both in rolling stock and price (especially price) are the buses. Maybe the bus companies ought to take over the rail companies and show them how it can be done.

File Under: commerce / environment / rant / trains

Dancing with the Moonlit Knight

Posted on 21st February 2008

This week it seems eBay are changing their policies to a number of things, one of them being Feedback. My mother told me she had read about it in the paper, but seeing as I hadn't noticed anything in my inbox from them, and it wasn't obvious from any of the general announcements, I assumed that either the paper had put the wrong spin on it to generate "news" (typical of the paper in question), or my mother had misunderstood the actual news article. I suspected the paper to be at fault. However, after a quick search I found this blog post, which picked up on the feedback issue, and after a bit of digging through all the recent announcements, I finally found the announcement specific to feedback. Why they had to hide it away I don't know. With such a big change I would have expected to see this in a "news" or "update" box on the front page.

Anyway, the point of the feedback changes seems to be to protect buyers from poor sellers. They believe that "buyers will be more honest when they leave Feedback since they will not fear retaliatory negative Feedback." Sorry but I don't buy that. I've had several buyers who have failed to follow through and left me with a bill for the final value fees (FVFs) from eBay. eBay DO NOT make it easy to get those fees back. Thankfully, I've not been given bad feedback. I have also been caught out by bad sellers trying to sell conterfeit products, but having contacted both sellers in my case I was able to get a refund. Now admittedly not everyone may be as successful, and could quite easily be ripped by quite a considerable amount, but I do believe the negative feedback does have it's place. If there is ever any issue with retaliatory negative feedback, then there should be a mechanism where either party can alert eBay to the situation and for it to be handled more appropriately. From my experience eBay make it very difficult to contact them, and when you do try and contact them it falls on deaf ears.

eBay also state "When buyers receive negative Feedback, they reduce their activity in the marketplace, which, in turn, harms all sellers". Ever thought that sometimes there are buyers for whom that is a good thing? At the moment a seller has a difficult time to do anything about a bad buyer, and in some cases the only way to alert other sellers is by leaving reasonable negative feedback. How are eBay going to better protect the seller from continually bad buyers? Some sellers refuse to deal with anyone who has less than 100 points, and I can see that getting worse, as having to pay eBay what amounts to a fine for being an honest seller, is not good enough. And please don't tell me about their Unpaid Item system, as I was told my window of opportunity had passed (or words to that effect), after I had waited a couple of weeks, sending private emails and mails via eBay itself, after the end of the auction. Any experience of trying to deal with eBay themselves, for me personally, has never been a good experience. I always end up feeling that they are only interested in taking my money, never willing to sort things out when things go wrong.

Thankfully my actual auction experience with eBay has been good, and I've been very happy with both buyers and sellers in nearly all my transactions. I wouldn't stop using eBay because of these changes, but it will make me more wary of the feedback mechanism, both as a seller and a buyer, as I'm not sure the changes are favourable to anyone. Except maybe eBay themselves as it will mean less data storage.

I'm not convinced by some of the changes they propose, although some do have merit, but I shall wait and see what the outcome is for me. I may not sell high volumes, but if I find myself getting messed around because I'm not able to spot bad buyers, then I may find alternative places to sell my CDs and music memorabillia. If others follow suit then buyers have less choice and prices get higher, thus eBay wins more from FVFs. I think I see the pattern here. Or maybe I'm just cynical ;)

File Under: commerce / ebay / rant / website


Posted on 25th September 2007

This week, 27th-30th September, BT and Intel are teaming up to promote wireless broadband coverage in Birmingham for Liberate Birmingham. There seems to be a big promotion going on with lots of giveaways and prizes, but it's really a basic marketing ploy to get you to sign up to their services. During the promotion they are advertising that you'll get one day free wifi access, but if you read the website, that's part of the standard package when you sign up at any time.

I might have been more excited about it had it been permanently free not just one day, which many other countries are moving towards, or at least a low charge (£10 per month for 4 hours access is quite steep considering that Virgin Media Broadband (Telewest as was) charge £25 per month for a 4MB unlimited link). I can understand that the initial outlay has possibly been quite significant, but charging ridculous prices is not going to get you that many long term users.

I've often wonder why some of these companies don't learn basic economics. Understanding supply and demand isn't difficult, but it would seem that people like BT are being swayed more by the numbers of their capacity, thus scared of the uptake and maybe frightened that if everybody signed up they would be so overwhelmed with the bandwidth that their network would overload and shutdown. Charging a high price for very little doesn't get you much demand, so you never reach your capacity limits.

However, charging £10 for perhaps 30 hours (roughly 1 hour per day), would seem like a much better deal for everyone. The customer thinks they getting a good deal, and the provider is getting a decent demand for the service and more importantly long term demand, because people will be more willing to stay signed up for quite some time. For that kind of deal I'd sign up, in fact I'd probably sign up for a year. But how much usage would I actually get out of it? At the moment I don't spend a lot of time in Birmingham City Centre, but when I do, had I signed up I would probably be getting to use maybe 8 hours of usage total for the month. Despite the fact I never used the other 52 hours worth, I would still feel like I got a good deal, because I would know that if ever I needed the access when I was in the city centre, it would be there. If I worked in Birmingham, I could possibly use maybe upto 20 hours just sitting waiting for my bus (longest I've waited for a 63 is two hours!).

It's all about perception. It's how banks work. The perception is that a bank will always give you your money whenever you need it, and in virtually all instances that happens. The reason being that your local bank contains enough money to pay out a reasonable amount to any customer who wanted it. If with the case of Northern Rock recently, customers suddenly flood the tellers with requests, then the reserves run out fast and those unable to get their money out panic and demand suddenly escalates. Thankfully this rarely happens.

With BT's wireless service, if they had a signup of the service for 100 users, when they know they could only cope with 80 users, the chances of all those 100 users accessing the service all at the same time is unlikely. Possible, but unlikely. Maybe when an international disaster hits there might be a flood of people trying to get access, but no-one would find it totally unexpected to struggle to get a connection at those times. During regular daily usage I would expect maybe only 40-50% of users would be using the service at peak periods (probably home time). Most people are only likely to use the service in the evening or weekends, when they're out at the pub (possibly on a quiz night) or wandering around the shops. With the increased usage of the wireless mobile phone, potentially the usage could be a little higher, but in most cases people are using their work connection on their desktop or laptop, or they're at home. I would be extremely surprised to see all the access points at 100% for connections and CPU usage at any point of the day or week.

I find it sad that UK business is still greedy to make as much money as possible out of their customers. I'm not against anyone making money from this sort of service, but I am against them making it sound like a good deal, then actually offering you very little in return. Signing you up only to find you use up your monthly allowance in the space of a few days, is not likely to get you many long term customers. With the government moving to speed up the rollout of high octane fuelled 100MBps broadband across the country, it would be nice to see some of those plans to also include the provision for cheaper wireless network services. The UK is falling behind many others around the world, and it's increasingly embarrassing to explain to non-UK geeks why you're so excited to sit in a pub and have FREE wireless access!

File Under: birmingham / commerce / rant / wifi

Message In A Bottle

Posted on 4th September 2007

Recently someone posted to the Birmingham Perl Mongers mailing list trying to sell their tickets for The Police at the NIA. When I originally heard that The Police were getting back together I was delighted, as I never got around to seeing them in the early 80s. Then when they announced the tour I was eager to get tickets. Unsurprisingly everywhere sold out within minutes. Unless you were one of the privileged few, and I mean privilege in terms of your affluence, then you stood no chance.

What is wrong with ticket prices these days? The Police tickets were over £50 for the cheap seats and over £150 for good seats. The guy who posted on the list had been charged £144 for 2 tickets and these were in the upper tiers, not even on the floor! Seeing as fans bought them, there is obviously a demand, but it's one of the reasons why people are buying less music these days. Greedy promoters, record companies and many bands themselves are taking as much from their fans as they can get, at the expense of other smaller bands, who can barely get anyone to see them for £5.

The Police are not the only ones, every major band that has toured the UK playing the 10,000 seater venues in the last few years has started to charge exorbitant fees to see them. The cheapest ticket for the NEC Arena I've seen in the last few years has been over £30. Even Crowded House, who are playing later in the year are the same. When they last played a full UK tour, I saw several dates up and down the country, as the tickets were around £15. I won't be going to see them on this tour because it's just too much to pay. There are plenty of bands that I would love to see again, Peter Gabriel, Yes and others, but ticket prices are rarely priced to make me feel like I'll get value for money. I've seen several comments about the rip-off of ticket prices, but the rip-off doesn't end there.

The venues are also guilty of ripping off fans when they charge over £3 for a small bottle of Panda Cola, that can be bought in the corner store for about 40p and probably from the local cash'n'carry for about 5p a bottle. I can understand a slight markup, but when fans are being ripped off to the tune of several hundred percent for very basic food or drink, it's a joke. Especially when you are banned from taking food and drink into the venue.

Once upon a time I used to go to around 100-200 gigs a year, up and down the country. In my late teens and early twenties I wasn't on a big flash salary, in fact my first proper job was working in a warehouse. I could afford to go to the gigs as they were roughly the same price as an album at the time, about £10. Rather than buy an album, I'd buy a ticket to go and see a band. More often than not, I'd actually pay nearer £5 and see gigs in smaller venues such as Rock City in Nottingham, Princess Charlotte in Leicester, The Roadhouse in Manchester or The Marquee in London. Top name bands would tour those venues in preference to the big Arenas so they could actually see the fans.

I can understand why some bigger named bands would want to play the Arenas, as it means they get to play to more fans with fewer dates. Some bands don't actually like touring, so playing a UK tour of 7 dates is often preferred over one that might take 3-4 weeks. But why should that mean you now have to rip off fans and double, triple (or worse) your ticket prices. That £50 you're charging for a "cheap" seat, means that your fan is sitting so far back they need binoculars to see you, they rarely hear decent quality sound, they have to sit awkwardly on uncomfortable plastic seats and cannot get up and dance or jump about as they get told off by security staff and ejected from the venue if they refuse to sit down.

There are some bands who I greatly respect for taking the time to play venues where they can reach the fans. Nine Inch Nails could easily play Arenas in the UK, but they don't and only charge £22.50 a ticket, which considering their status, I feel is quite reasonable. They also give value for money, as in addition to their performances recently they were giving away USB memory sticks with a song from Year Zero on it at gigs. Prince has even started giving away albums at gigs. The Cure usually play the larger Arenas now, but the last few times I saw them at the NEC tickets were around £18. Considering they play for nearly 3 hours, that is most definitely value for money. I wonder how long The Police will be on stage for? If they play more than 90 minutes I would be very surprised. It's not been unheard of for major acts to play an hour (mostly solo artists from what I've heard) and head off to the hotel.

If you're going to charge stupid money for tickets, give people a reason to feel like you actually value their faith in you, give them a show that is out of this world, give them something to remember for years to come. I would love to see The Police, but I won't be seeing them on this tour. It's been reported that they are recording another album, so I suspect they may tour again. I hope that the next tour has more reasonable ticket prices and that the prices for this tour are only because they knew they could get away with it for reforming. I seemed to recall that The Eagles dropped their prices on tours after reforming, so it's a possibility.

In the meantime I'm looking forward to seeing Henry Rollins in January and Jello Biafra next month. Both are doing spoken word tours and both are charging less than £20 to see them :)

File Under: commerce / gigs / music / rant

When We Are Free

Posted on 14th June 2007

JJ made a point last night, that I also agree with. When I got home, following a chain of blog links and I came across an article written by Martin Belam, about his wifes feeling towards an aspect of DRM. She makes a very good point, that had JJ, Brian and I coincidentally discussing at length yesterday evening at the Birmingham Perl Mongers meeting. I hope Martin's wife doesn't mind me requoting it here:

"The thing I don't get is this core of people that want everything for free. Artists still have to eat. Why do these people think that they are entitled to get everything for free for ever?"

JJ's point was that the biggest failing of the Linux community was the expectation that everything they want on their desktop should be free. As a consequence the Linux community, to a large extent, has become very closed one. The idea of Open to me, is more about encompassing different forms of expression, being inclusive rather than exclusive. In terms of software that can also mean different forms of distribution. As a corporate, people like Sun, Novell, etc can afford to give away parts of their software portfolio, as they have gained a credible market share for their brand to allow other large corporates to want to buy support contracts and services at very high rates. Ubuntu has been able to come into existence because Mark Shuttleworth was willing put the money down to make it happen. Big players and very rich people can afford to do that, if they choose. But what about the little guy?

Certainly in the UK and probably in the rest of the world, the people that take risks are the individuals and small businesses. They can because there often isn't the risk or outlay that would be required by a large business. As a consequence, when an idea does work it's often taken a lot of research, time and effort to get it into a state worthy of release. That's research, time and effort that the designer, developer or company don't get anything back for doing that work. Suppose as an individual, I create a piece of software that manages website. It takes 4 years to get that product stable and complete enough to release. Why should I be expected to just give it away?

The failing of the Open Source community is the expectation that everything should be free. While developers may choose to release their software as free, if they don't they are derided or sneered at. If my piece of software revolutionised the way websites could be created, and gives value for money, then why shouldn't I ask a nominal fee for it? The argument that the Open Source community seems to favour, is that I should charge a support contract. But that argument fundamentality fails to understand how business works. Support contracts work for big business because they need someone to blame when it all goes wrong. JJ gave the example of the supply chain for Vodafone, where one software supplier they use doesn't have a support contract with Vodafone, but via another suppler, because the software suppler is too small to guarantee a 24/7 support contract. Even though the other suppler can only provide a 24/7 telephone answering service, and still passes the details to the software supplier when they turn up for work in the morning.

I, as an individual, wouldn't get any support contracts from businesses around the world for my product. And even if I did, the chance of me providing realistic level of support is minimal. However, I could charge for my software and allow others to reap the benefit. While, I wouldn't necessarily reap great rewards, at least I would be getting some reward for all that research, time and effort getting the product into a state that others can take advantage of.

I find I keep having to ask every so often, 'why is it such a crime to make money?'. I have a family, I have a house and I have a life. If I want to have my own business, am I expected to work for nothing for 4 years and then give the software away for free and expect the support contracts to come rushing in, while in the meantime, my family starve, I lose my house and end up with no life? The biggest part of the UK's economic growth is the SMB (Small Medium Business) or SME (Small Medium Enterprise) markets. They help to employ a large part of the working population, but also help feed many of the larger businesses and corporations, thus helping to employ the remaining part of the working population. When MG Rover collapsed down the road here in Longbridge, the knock on effect to the smaller businesses who made parts for MG Rover was devastating. Several went out of business, while others had to cut their workforce. They can't work for free in the hope that the other manufacturers might use their products. And exactly the same is true of the software market. Individuals and small businesses create many products that are used by bigger companies. Sometimes those products might be suitable for release to the general public, but it shouldn't it be their choice whether they make a living from it and how?

Part of this closed mindset also means commercial developers are less likely to support Linux, which is a bad thing. While I personally like what Linux and the Open Source community has to offer, and dislike DRM, I'm also able to be realistic and understand that people want to protect something they have created. I dislike DRM, not because I think the concept is bad, but the fact that all the implimentations of it are flawed and misunderstand both the demands of retailer and the consumer. However, the problem that things like DRM has uncovered, is that the Open Source community's resistence to anything commercial for "their" operating system, has reduced the choice available, and has not allowed developers to work with the community to help make Linux a vibrant alternative to governments, emerging markets and the like. Currently Microsoft are able to offer great incentives to the decision makers, simply because many of the vendors of peripheral devices and software only support Microsoft products. That's not allowing freedom of choice. It's also not allowing decision makers to make informed decisions on the systems they wish to deploy.

An individual or small business, wishing to make a commercial product available on Linux is currently met with derision and considered to be evil. Until this mindset opens up and accepts that we can all work together, Linux on the desktop is always going to be playing catchup, and even Linux on the server is occasionally going to have to accept that it cannot compete when a requirement is run a piece of software that isn't available for it. Freedom is also about Freedom Of Choice. If there isn't a choice, then is it any wonder why so many restricted or flawed installations occur?

Although just to be clear, the website management tool I've written called Labyrinth, that's take over 4 years of my free time in research and development, will be available as Open Source Software in the future. I don't believe I have a product that would warrant selling as a commercial product, as I don't feel I can devote the time and effort to making it into a marketable product. I will however, be looking to encourage potential clients who want me to design and develop their website to come to me. The fact that I will use Labyrinth is incidental, but the fact that I created it and know it better than anybody else is my unique selling point.

There are other products out there that do website management. Some are free, some are not. Some do much much more than Labyrinth, while others are very basic. I'm not interested in trying to compete with them, as Labyrinth was written to fulfill my requirements to administer websites that I created. The fact that I've been able to use it for other sites has been great. But had I not had that attitude and decided to make it a commercial product, why should I expect the ridcule and scorn of the Open Source community because I decided to make money?

Libre and Freedom is about choice and open minds not about money.

When We Are Free.

File Under: commerce / opensource / technology

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