Thursday, April 24, 2014

Predictive Analytics for the Smart Consumer?

#CW500 If merchants can use predictive analytics to get more out of the customer, why can't the customer use predictive analytics to get more out of the merchant?

In December 2012, I reported on a subscription-based service from, which predicted future retail price changes (based on retailers' past behaviour) and encouraged its members to use these predictions to optimize the timing of key purchases.

Many retailers have fairly regular patterns of seasonal price changes and promotions, which are designed to maximize the lifetime profitability of a product. This is particularly important for fashion goods and high-tech, which tend to have a high initial price and a low clearance price. However, if customers (with the help of advisory services such as start to game these price changes, then profit optimization becomes a lot harder to calculate. So this kind of advisory service represents a significant threat to retail profitability.

In September 2013, was acquired by eBay and effectively closed down. “This is an exciting opportunity to bring Decide’s expertise in data and predictive analytics to the worldwide commerce leader and empower over 25 million eBay sellers,” said Mike Fridgen, CEO of “We believe teaming up with eBay allows us to realize our mission of leveling the playing field in commerce.” (eBay 6 September 2013, Geekwire 6 September 2013)

In other words, taking the advantage away from the customers and giving it back to the sellers.

However, other customer-side predictive services may be still available, including (for Gasoline) and Kayak (for air travel).

Predictive Showrooming Dec 2012

Tricia Duryee, Says It Will Accurately Predict Prices or Your Money Back (All Things D, 19 April 2012)

Thorin Klosowski, Kayak Adds Price Forecasting to Predict Price Drops and Increases (Lifehacker, 15 Jan 2013)

Thursday, February 06, 2014

What's the Most Important Task for Microsoft's New CEO?

"Bill Gates’s first day at work in the newly created role of technology adviser got off to a rocky start yesterday as the Microsoft founder struggled for hours to install the Windows 8.1 upgrade" (New Yorker, 5 February 2014).

Lots of people have expressed amusement or sympathy about this. But the twist comes later in the story.

"After failing to install the upgrade by lunchtime, Mr. Gates summoned the new Microsoft C.E.O. Satya Nadella, who attempted to help him with the installation, but with no success."

What is really going on here? Has Nadella nothing better to do? One wonders whether Gates really didn't know how to install the software or whom to call, or whether he was just making a point about who was really the boss.

When someone as clever as Gates asks a stupid question, it may not be a stupid question at all. See my post On the Difference between Judges and Geeks.

A Microsoft spokesman said that Mr. Gates’s first day in his new job had been “a learning experience.” Yes, but for whom?

As they say in Italy, se non è vero, è molto ben trovato.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Does this chart prove the tech industry's lack of diversity?

Twitter's forthcoming IPO has drawn critical attention to its male-dominated board. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, recently complained about the lack of women in Twitter’s top ranks. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo responded in childish fashion, tweeting that “Vivek Wadhwa is the Carrot Top of academic sources” and that Wadhwa had a “propensity for silly hyperbole”.

Source: Twitter CEO hits back at gender bias rap (New York Post, 7 October 2013)

Clearly, Twitter is not an isolated case: many commentators have pointed out that this is a more general problem. For example, ValleyWag prints a chart of the corporate boards of the top 17 tech companies, created by Gawker's @JimCookeIII and @NitashaTiku, The Boards Are All White: Charting Diversity Among Tech Directors via @HuffPostTech

But hold on. These are not the top 17 tech companies in the world. They are not even the top 17 tech companies in the USA. Notable omissions from Gawker's list are HP and IBM (which happen to have female CEOs), and Intel (which has a female president). Here is Wikipedia's list of the largest information technology companies (retrieved 9 October 2013).

Obviously a few women in high places doesn't make the problem of gender imbalance disappear. But it really doesn't help the cause of diversity to airbrush out those women who have made it to the top of the tech ladder.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tablets and Hyperactivity

@CharlesBrett via @rwang0 explores the ways in which mobility is changing what and how we do it (Feb 2013). He talks about the greater convenience of the tablet over the laptop

"the tablet possesses a flexibility to ‘turn on and to turn off’ that was never true of the misnamed laptop"

and claims that this flexibility provides a counter-argument to the fear that they will invade and consume personal time

"In fact the reverse seems more likely.  You can be watching a movie and move to reading an urgent email, doing the research to reply to it and then return to your movie — all from where you are. "

For Charles, the tablet is an almost universal device.

"Tablets that connect enable you to do what you want, whenever you want.  That can be any or all of email, personal browsing, corporate browsing, information access, decision taking, reading, entertainment, etc.  Indeed, one of the attractions is that you can switch at will between any or all of these.  About the only activity you cannot do is document creation."

Actually there are some vital activities that you cannot do on either the laptop or the tablet - to think and reflect and understand. Being "always on" means that you never have long enough to think through something difficult before you are interrupted by another event. There is always another email to attend to, there is always something happening on Twitter or Facebook, and mobile devices encourage and reinforce this kind of hyperactivity. Some might call it addiction.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Asymmetry of Hype

@oscarberg is "so tired of the question 'is social media a hype?' Obviously it's not, so please stop asking this question!"

Hype (short for hyperbole) is a property of discourse, not of technology itself. Discourse about social media can oscillate between hyperbole and bathos. The same is true of any other technical or sociotechnical innovation or practice. The medium is not always the message.

Aaron Kim, Social software adoption: Riding the hype curve (December 2012)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Dynamics of Hype

A common feature of technology hype is the shifting relationship between signifier (a word or phrase) and signified (what the word is supposed to mean).

I found the following observations in a discussion of the hype around "nanotechnology".

  • The relationship between the signifier and the signified can change over time.
  • People can argue about what a signifier means.
  • Signifier-signifed relations can be political.
  • One sees an ideological landscape of explicit and implicit assumptions, with much competition to establish definitions.
 edited by Susanna Hornig Priest, Sage 2010.

The Encyclopedia makes the point that "nanotechnology" is an emerging technology - incomplete and with unclear consequences (ibid p 486) and identifies "nanotechnology" as a polysemic or multivalent signifier: in other words, the same thing can mean very different things to different people.

What the Encyclopedia says about "nanotechnology" is true of many technologies, especially those that are most overhyped: at present, these would include Big Data and Cloud.

Innovative concepts typically go through some or all of the following phases.

1. People starting to talk about the concept. (Assertion)

2. Other people rejecting the concept as meaningless, dangerous and/or unnecessary, while trying to bundle it together with earlier concepts. (Denial)

3. Vendors trying to attach the concept to a wide range of new and existing products. (Divergence)

4. Some common understanding may emerge as to what the concept really means. (Convergence)

5. A split appears between a narrow purist interpretation of the concept and a broader more ambitious interpretation. (Divergence)

6. Several different industry groups develop alternative definitions. Subcategories emerge. (Convergence/Divergence)

7. Vendors produce deliberately confusing statements, wishing to show both that they confirm to the standard(s) and also differentiate themselves from the standard(s).  (Divergence)

8. The concept only stops changing its meaning when it ceases to be interesting. (Convergence/Death)

By the way, denial often follows Kettle Logic. That concept doesn't make sense, and even if it did it wouldn't be technologically feasible, and anyway we already have a perfectly good word for it and lots of people are already doing it so we don't need a new word.

If you compare the Gartner Hype Curve (it's not a cycle) from one year to another you will see some of the consequences of this shifting and subdividing terminology. For example, Thoran Rodrigues notes that different cloud technologies are in different points of the curve and wonders about the shifting positioning of Cloud Computing from one year to the next. (The cloud's place in the hype cycle, Tech Republic Sept 2012).

The Gartner Hype Curve (it's not a cycle) is supposed to track hype rather than reality, so we may suppose that it describes the trajectory of the signifier rather than the signified. There are many terms that have become discredited or unfashionable, but the underlying technologies have been quietly adopted by many large organizations. Conversely, there are many terms that are still "hot" but whose adoption is problematic. What Gartner's Hype Curve (it's not a cycle) fails to explain is the evolving relationship between the signifier and the signified.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Towards the Carbon-Neutral Office

@benhammersley at #RSAwork has some useful tips for email users.

1. A concentrated high productivity state (sometimes known as 'flow') takes 20 mins to get into. So if your e-mail program checks for incoming email every 15 minutes, you will never get into a Flow state (via @MatthewMezey). 

2. Ben himself only checks his email once a day, and claims that many of his correspondents find this liberating. Isn't it good to know that you can email Ben at lunchtime, without getting sucked into batting emails to-and-fro for the rest of the afternoon?

3. Ben also complains about the Reply-All button.

The Reply-All button is also known as CC. Anyone old enough to have used a typewriter may remember that CC stands for carbon copy. For younger readers, let me explain. Before computers people used to type letters and other documents. To save typing the document twice, you would put two pieces of paper into the typewriter, interleaved with a piece of carbon paper, which would give you a carbon copy.

When photocopiers came in, people went crazy. Once we weren't restricted by the physical limitations of carbon paper, we could make as many copies as we could manage before the copier jammed or ran out of toner. Everyone on the project could have a copy of that witty memo to the project manager.

But what a waste of paper. People looked forward to the day when the paperless office would save all those trees. With email, you don't need to worry about your carbon footprint. You can CC your witty or backside-covering email to everyone in the universe, and it doesn't add a molecule to your carbon footprint. After all, if some of the recipients choose to print your email, that's their responsibility not yours.

But there are two problems with this. Firstly, if everyone sends loads of unnecessary emails to unnecessary recipients, this will add to the power and cooling requirements of the computer systems. Secondly, and more importantly, excessive volumes of email waste an enormous amount of time, and pollute the information environment (noise).

So I think we need to reassert the idea of carbon neutrality. Every CC email adds to a growing level of information pollution, and we need to find ways to reduce this pollution. The principle of carbon neutrality implies that those who create the pollution should also be the ones who incur the cost of cleaning it up. So what would be a suitable mechanism?

4. Can we lobby Microsoft to remove the "reply all" button? "Common sense", says @dcoplin, "I'll have a word when I get back in the office tomorrow."

See also How Offices Make Organizations Stupid (Feb 2013)

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