I Fought the Cable Company and I Won

March 31, 2009

It isn’t often that you have much luck fighting against a corporation trying to get money off of your bill, but in these times of economic hardship, your chances are better than ever.

I use my own personal example as a case in point. Before things had gone badly in the economy, I had gotten Cablevision’s (that’s the cable monopoly in my area of  Brooklyn) “Triple Play” offering. Since I was getting both phone, Internet and TV video from them I was paying around $110 a month after taxes and fees. Things were going fine until their “promotional offer” expired and they let me know they would be jacking up the rate to something like $150 a month.

In response, I decided that I would be eliminating the TV video service and that I might take the phone off at a later date. As I canceled that service, they made some fairly pathetic offers to keep me in the fold, but I wanted the current rate I was paying and wasn’t going to accept any less than that. In any case, they did eventually let me cancel, and I went without TV video service for a little more than a month. At this point, it was costing me about $90 a month.

Then, one day my wife gets a call from out of the blue saying that they are willing to give us a rate better than our old one at $100 a month after taxes. My wife accepted, and now we are back with the “Triple Play.”

I inform you of this to let you know that there is hope if you play hardball with the cable company in these tough economic times. You may even be able to find someone to negotiate with before you have to cut off your service like I did.

I’ll leave at that for now and encourage you to comment on success you’ve had in dealing with tech companies in saving on your bills.

Finally! A Price War…maybe?!

March 27, 2009

There has finally been a development in the Mac versus PC war in a place where PCs have a distinct advantage. Microsoft has released a new ad telling the tale of Lauren, a young lady looking for a new computer. You can watch it here on the Microsoft site, but you have to have Silverlight (Microsoft’s free, but less-than-stellar video platform) to watch it there. You can also watch it here on Youtube. (I’m betting most of you are going to click on the second link.

In any case, Lauren is looking for a new laptop with a 17″ monitor, “speed” and a full-size keyboard. Although, with a monitor that big, it would be pretty embarassing if they couldn’t get a full-size keyboard. Microsoft says to her if she can find a computer under $1000 with those specs she can keep it.

First, she goes to the “Mac Store,” and finds the only laptop she’ll get for under a grand there has a 13″ screen. Looking forlorn, she says, “I’m just not cool enough to be a Mac person.”

She then goes to Best Buy. (The only way you can tell this for sure is by slowing down the video and looking at the employees’ shirts.) She quickly finds the machine she wants and gets it free from the folks at Microsoft.

There are a couple of things to take away from this new attack by Microsoft. First, but less importantly for what I’m interested in, Microsoft has basically conceded that their computers are not cool. This is an interesting move considering all of the effort that went into the “I’m a PC” campaign. I suspect this was something they were willing to give up for the overall thrust of the commercial.

Second, Microsoft is finally attacking Apple directly. For a significant amount of time, Microsoft’s strategy seemed to either be to simply ignore Apple and hope they went away or to promote their own brand and not acknowledge Apple as a competitor.  That has not worked too well for them, so it seems logical for them to take another approach.

Finally, and most importantly for my purposes here, they are attacking Apple on price, an area where Microsoft and PC have a significant advantage over Apple. For the same amount of money, you are going to get a significantly greater amount of processing power and memory from a Windows PC than from one of Apple’s products.

The hardcore computer users among us would say that people should continue that argument to its logical conclusion and use an open-source operating system like Linux and pay simply for the hardware that is needed. However, for the bulk of users this is basically irrelevant, since there are many people who would find many distributions of Linux completely foreign and gladly pay for the familiarity that Windows provides.

In any case, I am very interested to see what Apple decide to do about this attack. Will it unveil some new Mac vs. PC ad that turns this around on Microsoft? Will it ignore and just be content with being cool? Could they actually…gasp…lower prices?

In the current economy, price is becoming a very significant sticking point and if Microsoft were able to succeed in convincing people that buying Apple computers is an extravagant expense, they may have a significant chance in taking back some of the market share that Apple has slowly been taking from them, at least in the short term.

I will definitely be keeping an eye as this develops, and thanks to Channelweb for alerting me to this story here.

Data Security and Everyone Else

March 24, 2009

This time I want to talk about the people on the other end of data security, that is, those people who want to surreptitiously get a hold of your data.

Sometimes it is the bad guys  who want to get a hold of your data, but also sometimes it is the good guys, the government. However, just because the government is trying to do their job in protecting us doesn’t mean that people necessarily have to give up the right to privacy. NetworkWorld has a very interesting entry on an effort by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It’s called Surveillance Self-Defense and it serves as a very interesting primer for understanding how and what the (American) government is allowed to do in terms of obtaining your data in a covert fashion.

Reading through the website offers a couple of very interesting revelations. {Bracketed material added by the write for clarification.}

1. The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches whether or not you are a citizen. In particular, the exclusionary rule {which bars evidence obtained in an illegal search from being used in a court of law] applies to all criminal defendants, including non-citizens. However, the exclusionary rule does not apply in immigration hearings, meaning that the government may introduce evidence from an illegal search or seizure in those proceedings.

2. {Once the government has received a “pen/trap order,” which only requires that the material they expect to obtain would be relevant to their investigation” they have the ability to get…}All email header information other than the subject line, including the email addresses of the people to whom you send email, the email addresses of people that send to you, the time each email is sent or received, and the size of each email that is sent or received. Your IP (Internet Protocol) address and the IP address of other computers on the Internet that you exchange information with, with time stamp and size information.

These items alone are very interesting things that I didn’t know. At some points, the EFF’s arguments can border on the paranoid, especially when they start to speculate on what government agencies could be doing with the information that is gathered, but the factual material they discuss is very useful and thought provoking.

Just knowing the IP addresses of computers that your computer is communicating with contains a lot of information that in the wrong hands could be very telling. There are those that argue that if one has not done anything wrong then there is nothing to worry about, but from my perspective given human imperfections, to err on the side of protecting privacy when information can be obtained in  other ways. This is, of course, not to say that government should not use the tools at their disposal, but I think it is wise for there to be appropriate oversight on how those tools are used.

I recommend looking at the EFF’s article and picking up a few things about how surveillance works, both from government, and from a technical perspective on how the actual data collection occurs.

Data Security and You

March 15, 2009

Like a lot of people, I do a staggering number of financial transactions on-line these days. I have to remain vigilant so that I can trust my data to go scurrying across the web and not get stolen by bad guys who would love to steal my identity (and more importantly, my money).

To do this I have a few tips that you may have heard a thousand times before, but are still worthwhile.

First, whenever you are entering important data on a form, make sure your browser is in https mode. The first place to look for this is in the address bar at the top of your browser. On this site, it says http://, but on a site where you are entering important data, it should say https:// . Most browsers will also indicate you are in a secure mode with a lock icon near the bottom of the screen or at the end of the address bar. This is an easy thing to get in the habit of doing, and it can prevent a lot of problems.

Second, when you are going to a website where you’ll be entering sensitive data, make sure you’ve typed in the name correctly, or even better use a reliable search engine like Google to enter the website. Many sites pray on the misspellings and typos that can lead you to look like the site you intended to go to, but are really for scammers. Also, just double-check that after you’ve clicked any link that you are at the site you intended to go.

Third, to go along with the last tip, never go to someplace you’ll be entering sensitive data by following a link in an e-mail. Many scammers create very realistic looking e-mails that actually appear to link you to the site you want to go to, but then re-route you to their professional looking con site. Remember, carefully type in the address, or use a search engine like Google. Don’t use your e-mail.

Finally, use strong passwords. The more important your data is, the more important it is to protect with a password that, at least, has both CAPITAL and lower-case letters and numbers. You should also not use words that are in the dictionary ApPle1 is a weaker password, than pPle1A, which is the same thing just moved over a letter. Using tricks like, you can make your password, and therefore your data a lot more secure. You can find a lot of other good password recommendations here.

I was also planning on having a couple of recommendation for keeping your data secure from the government, but that will have to come later.

Until then, stay safe.

I’ll also have a couple of recommendation for keeping your data secure from the government, but that comes in a bit.

The Paradox of Tech Thrift

March 9, 2009

If you’ve been watching the dire economic news, you may have heard of the economic theory called the “Paradox of Thrift.” Wikipedia obviously explains it better than I can in a few words, but basically if everyone saves their money at the same time, that money will be worth less since there is so much more money floating around. That combined with decreasing demand means that job elimination and a lack of raises means the ability to save is threatened.

Like many economic cycles, it is sometimes a difficult one to break out of.

I bring this point up to discuss a comment I saw in TechCrunch about Twitter using its search functionality as a way to monetize their business with advertising.

A commenter “alex” responded to the article saying “No ads, no ads, that’s why it’s so special right now. I know I am wishing into the wind.”

I don’t begrudge Alex the wish that micro-blogging service Twitter no run ads, but it occurs to me that every method of monetization that they might try is going to be odious to somebody. Let’s go through some examples.

1. Twitter would not work if users had to pay for the service, so that clearly isn’t viable.

2. As Alex shows, people would prefer it if Twitter didn’t have ads.

3. Sell out to Google and let them figure out how to monetize it. This leads to monopoly concerns.

There are a few other scenarios that are discussed here, but these all follow these three main criticisms that I outlined above.

Basically, people don’t want to pay for things and they don’t want to see ads. This, of course, isn’t limited to Twitter, but shows a severe problem in this Internet age, a problem that websites like this one make worse. We all want something for nothing, and too frequently we’ve been getting it. On this website, I have tried to discuss how the service that are offered are monetizing their efforts, but my focus has been on decreasing the cash outlay of the user. The point Alex brings up is relevant as well; your attention and time is also a valuable quality that everyone wants to maximize.

So where does that leave Twitter and other websites actually looking to run a business and not a charity? The best solutions that I have seen come across are ad-based revenue generation and “free-mium” service websites.

We’re used to an ad-based system from newspapers, TV and radio, but as people move over to iPods and on-line news consumption, people are getting less tolerant of advertising. Meanwhile, there is so much competition among free services that sometimes “free-mium” models can’t catch on.

What will happen? That’s hard to say, but I point you to the paradox of thrift. I’ll suggest to you that whatever the result. It will not be good.