99p is The New Free

Yes, it seems it’s ebook week on The Lunch.

Free books

Free books (Photo credit: randomduck)

On just about every high street in Britain there is some kind of mis-named Pound Shop, selling things for 99p, and it’s a well-known psychological effect that we think that 99p is vastly cheaper than a pound because it has less digits, even if our subconscious obsession with lower numbers in buying but higher in selling leads us to all have jam jars full of pennies.

The odd thing though is a shift in the area of “free” goods.  On Amazon and other ebook stores there are thousands of free ebooks, some are actual out-of-copyright classics, some are good books simply written for the enjoyment of it and given away, others are free just to be generous and helpful.  The problem is that we often assume that if something is always free then it must be of lower quality, whereas we will eagerly grab a book that’s normally £3.99 but is reduced for a day to £0.00.  This idea of low quality is reinforced by many writers and journalists who have said that only crap writers do it for free [Andy looks at own not-for-profit blog and sighs].

This is a problem for new authors who are publishing solely electronically – price it too high and buyers might not want to take a shot at an unknown, give it away and it’s likely that people will see the words “FREE = CRAP” with memories of bookstore remainder bins in the back of their minds.

There has emerged a middle ground, more and more books are being published at 99p, cheap enough to be a potential throwaway purchase but someone thinks it’s worth actually charging money for which gives you a bit of confidence that it’ll be worth it.  It also feels like you’re getting a bargain even if it’s not reduced.

Amongst the ebook chaff there is wheat and if this idea gets it noticed then it doesn’t matter whether crap gets sold at the same price – that’s what Amazon’s reviews sections are for.

 

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Electric Hands and Aluminium Kitchens

chisels

chisels (Photo credit: The Year of Mud)

I was watching a TV show which showed a restaurant and the customers kept talking about all this “home cooked” food, OK it was a family restaurant, owned by the same family for generations but I was sure that they just showed the food being cooked in a very shiny, very metallic, very up to hygiene standards industrial restaurant kitchen behind the counter.  Do they live upstairs?  I thought.  On other shows this pattern repeated, maybe it’s the decor that’s making people think “home cooked”, don’t they know it’s not the owner’s dining room.

Next up came the description of hand-made food items which again didn’t seem quite what I would call “hand”-made, although hands were involved in some ways, moving the ingredients, pushing the button, turning the handle.

“The meat is still prepared by hand” – the guy pushed a piece of meat into a machine.  No knife, no hammer.

“Hand-cut fries” – the guy pushed a potato into a device and pulled a handle.  Again, no knife.

It’s not just restaurants though, more and more (often expensive and exclusive) things are described as “hand-made” when they’re in fact made by a machine and assembled by hand.  A chair leg hand-turned on a lathe is still hand-made, the hand that guides the chisel, but a cabinet where all the joints are routed by a set machine rather than a hammer and chisel – is that still hand-made?

Eventually I’ve come to the conclusion that the term hand-made, along with home-cooked has come to mean the opposite of “made in a huge mass-production facility in China”.  TV shows have shown examples of some mass-production methods used by food producers, occasionally emphasising the less savoury looking aspects – the infamous “pink goo” – which doesn’t look appetising it’s true but restaurants don’t make food like factories, they mass produce just on a smaller scale, I’ve done a large spaghetti Bolognese at home but not enough for a table for ten at eight.

As well as that people know that fast-food or large chain restaurants have frozen food items shipped in nightly to be warmed up which are as such full of preservatives and evil whereas in a small restaurant the food is made properly, just like you’d have at home, hence home-made.  Even if the mass-produced stuff is 100% beef and the home-made one is just as bad for you if you scoff too many.

Maybe I’m being picky over semantics, again, but even home-made “home-made” food can come from a kit you buy at M&S these days.

In our world where just about everything is manufactured in a factory, see How It’s Made on TV, people are more often craving the hand made for its roughness, lack of uniformity – in things like cakes and chocolate bars, but if you phrase it differently “made by hand” or “hand finished by Barry” suddenly you can charge a fortune for it, whether it’s a watch or an Aston Martin engine.  The irony is that less than forty years ago Fiat ran a campaign for the new Strada expressing how amazing it was that it was Hand Built by Robots.

If you can market something as home-made or hand-made you can imply it’s more wholesome in some way, even if many of the ingredients still contain colourings and preservatives, when used deliberately this way it’s tapping into consumers’ resistance to “processed foods” which are full of salt, fat or MSG.  You can also sell to those following the current fashion of seeking out “authentic” experiences, like rustic furniture, timber sash windows, overpriced hearty bangers and mash or real ale at six pounds a pint – yes you read that right, a pub near here is offering an authentic real ale in a real pub experience for just six quid a go. Again they’re selling people the idea that the past was better, that retro is the way forward, so to speak.

I think I’ll stick to my real real pub across the town at half the price, followed by a decidedly not home-made battered sausage.

 

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Bills and Shopping: The Rise of the Machines

Point Four Touch Point of Sale Till

Point Four Touch Point of Sale Till (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

It’s not that I don’t like banks, or that I’m in some way un-British and avoid queuing it’s just that I don’t like being required to go out on some cold, damp Saturday morning when I’d rather be sat by the heater reading.  This is why most of my bills are sorted out by Direct Debit, even my credit card which is paid automatically every month – as it’s exclusively for online use rather than credit as such.

However there is one, variable bill which I don’t do this way – the electricity bill, because I don’t want them taking the money if they’ve over-estimated it.  So once a quarter I trudge to the bank.  The last couple of times I’ve been intercepted in the queue and guided to the paying-in ATM which can, I am assured, be used to pay bills and sure enough it did, it scanned the bill, took the details from my card and printed me a receipt.  It lacked the friendly hellos and brief chatter of talking to a teller but it did its stuff efficiently without having to wait with the other customers and their queries that computers can’t resolve (yet).  It’s amazing what technology can do isn’t it.

When it works.

This time I queued for the ATM, a member of staff asked if I was OK with doing it myself, “yes,” I replied, proudly, stopping short of continuing with “fear not, I have done this before”.  The woman ahead of me was though clearly having trouble paying a cheque in and was becoming increasingly frustrated by the machine.  Some people would have been mortified at causing a delay for others.  When she went in search of a real person I approached the anonymous grey box, inserted my card and then my payment slip which it chewed a little, thought about and then spat back out at me.

The member of staff who had by now redirected the cheque woman to a teller dashed over, I tried again but still it said it was having trouble reading the slip.  “Oh,” said the smart-suited bank woman “I think it has trouble with the new smaller payment slips.”  Right, so it’s the electricity company’s fault.  I was redirected to the queue for the tellers too, while reflecting that it’s lucky there were still real people present to do the job. The banks say this is to do with improving customers’ experiences, to reduce waiting times and so on.  A while later a man ahead of me was plucked from the queue and escorted to the same ATM, poor unsuspecting soul, like something out of Nineteen-Eighty-Four he walked by, towards the room 101 of automated banking technology, “good luck” I silently whispered.

It’s becoming ever more common though, in the supermarket there have been self-service checkouts for a while, and now the incredible sounding Hybrid Checkouts – you get your own conveyor belt to play with, like your own Generation Game.  A tin of beans.  A lettuce.  A cuddly toy…

I like checkouts with people on them, you can say hello, chat a little, they do all the scanning stuff.  I know someone who can scan goods quickly, accurately and have a riveting conversation with you at the same time, all you get from a Hybrid Checkout is the infamous “unknown item in the bagging area” message.  Which is a further complication – having to precisely place your items in your bag instead of lobbing them in haphazardly.

They say it’s quicker, denying the accusations that it’s to do with saving on the costs of staff, as do the banks.  They encourage you to use them, “it’s for your own good” they virtually scream as they drag you by the basket towards the robot cashiers while you whimper “but I want to talk to the nice lady on till nine.”  I have been known to linger at the end of an aisle, apparently choosing coffee until I see a gap on a conveyor then dump my groceries onto it before they can have my basket away from me.  True story.

I’ve seen people using the Hybrids, repeatedly scanning a loaf of bread while looking around for help.  My friend on the till would have scanned it first time.  If you’ve got alcohol or something else that needs authorisation then you’re left waiting until an assistant can come and release you back into the community from whence you wandered, happy and smiling, ten minutes earlier.  Just nipping in for a bottle of wine and a curry you said.  Now you need something more substantial.  “What kept you?” your partner says as you get into the car.  You mumble something about bloody technology and drive home, which is something that, for now, you can still enjoy doing yourself.

When Is Bigger Better?

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (Photo credit: Janitors)

Chocolate bars?  Sorry.  I’m referring to phones at the moment.  Anyone who answered anatomically – no comment, but you know who you are.

In the last few years smartphone makers have been simultaneously racing to make the thinnest phone whilst also ensuring their screens are bigger than everyone elses – bigger numbers sell it seems.  For years Apple played no part in this, with Steve Jobs apparently saying that bigger screens were impractical, until they then made a bigger screened phone and suddenly it was an obvious thing to do because it is the perfect fit for your thumb’s range of movement.  Right.  What they haven’t done (yet) is make a 6″ screen phone, what many tech bloggers mockingly referred to (when Samsung unveiled the Note) as a Phablet.

How they laughed.  Until millions of people went out and bought them.  25.2 million shipped in the Asia-Pacific region during the second quarter of the year, according to IDC.  Samsung still has around 50% of the market tied up in Notes.  The larger screen smartphone trend was really started by the Dell Streak but the Galaxy Note really made the form popular, especially with its s-Pen stylus which gave back touchscreen devices truly precise pen-like use even though, again according to Steve Jobs they were an outdated way to control a device.  People like to doodle and make handwritten notes though and this is easier with a pen, as it properly drawing something, annotating a plan etc…

One reason that larger phones are catching on is that they’re not really that big, the screen size has increased but the surrounding bezel has reduced almost to the point of non-existence so, combined with thinner chassis the phone doesn’t feel too bulky – though despite the idea that we’ll evolve different shaped thumbs due to texting is a massive misunderstanding of evolution our trousers may evolve bigger pockets.  Or sales of jackets and cloaks with poachers’ pockets may increase.  A particular user group for big-screen phones is apparently people with impaired eyesight as the larger on-screen keys are easier to read and type on.  Lastly the availability of high-speed mobile internet and the fact that smartphones can connect to wi-fi internet whenever possible makes them popular for watching films and tv or gaming on the move, though personally I wouldn’t want to watch a film on anything less than my 7″ tablet.

Some have aired concern that as manufacturers battle to have the biggest screen size consumers will be forced to accept bigger phones in order to get higher specs elsewhere in the device and this could be a problem, as this Gizmodo UK article points out they should also release smaller versions too and it seems that this is happening with smaller but not spec-crippled phones beginning to trickle out from companies like HTC and Sony.

One considerable downside is the size of the phone when you actually make a phone call, I know, it’s crazy but some people still do that.  I’ve not tried it but I’ve read that after so many years of phones becoming so tiny and inconspicuous that you’d sometimes appear to be talking to yourself it feels odd to have something the general size and shape of a thin paperback novel stuck against your head whilst talking to it.  This is the difference between today’s big phones and the eighties bricks – back then you wanted people to see your expensive mobile and didn’t care how big it was.  To this end phone makers have come full-circle and are developing tiny satellite handsets which look eerily like late-nineties GSM phones, with buttons and everything, connected via bluetooth for the purposes of making voice calls via the smartphone lurking in your pocket or bag.  It’s only a matter of time before we get these add-on handsets made to look like classic Nokias or Motorolas, I suppose, with the current retro obsession in other areas of technology.

Taking all this to its (il)logical conclusion in the future perhaps the smartphone will become a hub, connected to your smartwatch for notifications, your Google Glass style eyepiece for even speedier updates and navigation, and your peripheral handset for talking.  At which point we’ve gone from carrying many devices doing various jobs to many devices doing various jobs but connected together.

Everything’s Better With Bacon

Horse And Cart

Horse And Cart (Photo credit: foilman)

To be honest I quite like the adverts for the UK’s EE phone network featuring the always-connected Kevin Bacon, even if I’m not a fan of the name “EE” – at least I can still say I’m on Orange if anyone asks.  The latest ad dips into popular colloquialisms for its inspiration and shows Kev dragging a “shedload of data”.

My first thought was where they could go next with the idea:

“Why you lugging a cart of manure Kev?”

“That’s not manure, it’s data, it’s a metric shit-tonne of data.”

There you go EE, have this one on me.

Ad-Free or Not Ad-Free, That is The Question

Yahoo Bar on Flickr

Yahoo Bar on Flickr

The home of my other creative endeavour is over at Flickr, a site that many say has been left to stagnate under the ownership of Yahoo mainly because it didn’t become the kind of social network that Facebook is.  The thing is that it started out as a photo sharing site and it still is, the recent makeover improved how your photostream was presented to viewers and in general it was still doing its job as an online portfolio of photos.

Today though something odd has happened and the Flickr community as a whole is not happy.  Me included.  The facelifted interface had a nice grey toolbar across the top, it was all very clean and modern looking, very professional, but today something else appeared, a lilac bar – referred to now by forum members as the Y! Barney Bar – displaying links to other Yahoo sites and services.

As many commenters have said it looks like something from a nineties website, wedged between your browser’s chrome and the elegant Flickr interface, a distracting layer of pink nougat taking up screen space and cheapening the experience for your viewers.  The thing that has annoyed most people though is that many of us pay to have an ad-free interface both for our own use and for those viewing our photos but this amounts to an advert for Yahoo’s services, driving viewers to the ad-land that is Yahoo’s main site, to gather more revenue.  Yahoo staff have said that “The idea is to make it easier to access other places in the Yahoo! network and make visiting Yahoo! pages a more seamless experience.” and that it brings your photos to a wider audience.  If that’s the case add another menu item to Flickr’s own toolbar not this monstrosity.

Many users have pledged to leave altogether if it’s not removed immediately but most think it’s unlikely because Yahoo are copying Google’s trend of having the toolbar at the top of everything, but at least Google’s bar fits in.  What you’re paying for on any site like Flickr or our home here at WordPress is the avoidance of your content being juxtaposed with adverts which may detract from what you’re trying to say or the aesthetics of your site, to make it feel like your own space not part of a larger corporate behemoth, that is what the Yahoo bar makes Flickr feel like – just a part of a search engine and internet portal, it takes the shine off the presentation, makes it feel less special.

Some commenters have said that at least this hasn’t happened to the sites of our blogging brethren over on Tumblr – but as Yahoo haven’t had much time with its new purchase as yet perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

[Flickr Forums]

Material Love

English: Apple iPhone (left) vs HTC Hero (righ...

English: Apple iPhone (left) vs HTC Hero (right). Adapted from original source, to scramble screenshot of non-free software. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My phone’s outer shell is made from plastic and a piece of thin glass.  My car’s made of metal.  If the car was made of carbon fibre it would be seen as premium and special, yet the new Samsung Galaxy S4 has been criticised for being made of plastic, because it’s not metal like the iPhone 5.

It’s not the first time the tech industry has had a metal fetish, in the seventies and eighties everything “premium” had to have a brushed aluminium fascia, then we went through the period where clear coloured plastic was fashionable, a fad caused in a large part by Apple again with the original iMac and its guts-and-all on show design approach.  Sleek black plastic in exotic moulded shapes was the future.  For a while.

Today it doesn’t matter how good quality the plastic, or more accurately in expensive phones, polycarbonate is the legions of gadget blog and mag writers and commenters will whinge that it feels cheap compared to the metal iPhone or new HTC One purely because it isn’t metal.  The idea that metal is premium comes from the sense that it’s more resilient, like high-end granite kitchen worktops, and that it takes more effort, more craftsmanship to make, hewn from blocks of aluminium by bespectacled artisans.  A CNC milling machine in reality is a little less romantic and premium.

The strange thing is that the metal phones are more prone to the screen cracking, easier to scratch and more likely to be permanently dented when dropped.  But despite this and despite the fact that the plastics in even my sub-£100 phone feel solid and quality as far as I’m concerned metal is the thing to have.  But it’s all image, until the iPhone gained a metal body no-one cared about it, there were plastic phones that felt sturdy and plastic phones that felt like they were made out of microwave meal cartons and the iPhone 3G was one of the former (for better signal strength).  In fact many old phones had metal backplates that many people probably didn’t even think about.  It’s also marketing, use a different material for the case, tell people its revolutionary and so much cooler and better and people will snap it up.

The next big thing?  I’ve heard it’s going to be ceramic phones*, you know shiny, glossy, tough enamelled ceramics.  It’ll be the thing to have.   “Aluminium?  The same stuff they make Coke cans out of?  So cheap feeling, so cold, look at my new phone, it’s ceramic.”

(* – I may have imagined this.)

Smart Uses for Dumbphones

Nokia 8250

Nokia 8250 (Photo credit: xcode)

Smartphones are everywhere now it seems, especially as they become increasingly intuitive to use, more powerful and as such multi-functional.  However what are now referred to as dumbphones still have uses.  People who just want something for making and receiving phone calls or texts appreciate them, one iPhone user turned his into a dumbphone by removing all the apps except the SMS and dialer and found the experience refreshing – I wonder if he’d have found it as easy to sell the shiny, touchy-feely one and buy a £20 Nokia.

In much of the world though dumbphones are the most used phones, often for reasons of cost – both the hardware and the costs of data which make smartphones unviable.  As an article in Wired said amongst our world population of seven billion there are six billion mobile-phone subscriptions, in Columbia, Egypt and Indonesia the mobile penetration is over 90 percent and it’s more than 100 percent in Brazil, Vietnam and Russia.  The same article is about how marketers are using the ubiquity of basic mobiles to reach new markets.  The cost of mobile minutes in emerging markets are high and as such are a precious commodity, or currency.  The article author, Nathan Eagle’s company Jana provides services whereby mobile users can be rewarded with airtime for trying new products, filling in surveys and looking at adverts.  74 percent of users in Brazil would be happy to receive adverts in return for airtime.  Multinationals are catching on, P&G have launched a campaign and Jana helped Danone doubled sales of yogurt via a similar campaign.  This kind of targeted marketing that we’re used to with our smartphones is now reaching more emerging markets and according to Nathan Eagle using advertising budgets to give emerging markets consumers these airtime bonuses would give them more disposable income.

Also, in Wired’s April 13 edition is a piece about an Indian startup called Innoz and its service SMSGyan which is a search engine without the internet – again perfect for basic mobiles.  Founded by Deepak Ravindran, Mohammed Hisamuddin, Ashwin Nath and Abhinav Sree who dropped out of the Lal Bahadur Shastri College of Engineering in Kerala to persue the project to give more people access to information, and answers.  “Gyan” means “knowledge” in Hindi and the service has partnered with Wikipedia, Bing, Wolfram Alpha and others to enable the system to answer questions sent to their servers by text message.  Costing the equivalent of 1p per query it returns an answer as a text message.  The networks gain revenue, the service’s 120 million active users gain information.  The next step is expansion of the service beyond India, as the ability to gain access to info when you have no data service can be vital just about anywhere.

As Wired’s Jana article pointed out this is the second time basic mobiles have created a communications revolution in emerging markets.  The dumbphone’s not that dumb after all.

Cheeky Marketing

apples

apples (Photo credit: msr)

My parents will tell you that when I was little, as in younger not shorter, I watched the adverts on TV more than the programmes.  back then there were many amusing and memorable ads, these days though too many try to be clever or ironic but fail to be funny – notable exceptions being the current Fosters “Good Call” campaign and Three’s Dancing Pony.  Some of the pseudo-science can be hilarious if you’re of a scientific persuasion but that’s for another post on another day.

One recent advert immediately caught my eye and made me laugh, then had me wondering whether they’d get away with it.  No, I thought, their lawyers must have checked it.  It’ll be fine.  The ad in question is, of course, the Somersby Cider parody of the excitement that surrounds the product launches of a certain fruitily named purveyor of shiny gadgetry.  I was impressed with the creativity and just how many gadget puns they managed “single core, dual core” and the “less apps, more apples” tagline.  The fact that it’s cider just added to the enjoyment of it.

But it’s not just Carlsberg who have been a tad cheeky recently, in the days preceding Samsung’s Galaxy S4 launch LG placed an ad for their Nexus 4 on their Times Square billboard above Samsung’s “be ready 4 the next Galaxy”  which read “ready 4 you now”.  Cunning.

Then on the launch day while journalists were waiting to enter the venue and feeling rather chilly in the midst of the New York winter HTC thoughtfully laid on complimentary hot chocolate.  So yet more tasty marketing.

It’s good to see that in our times of vicious patent lawsuits and arguments over who invented rectangles with rounded corners companies can indulge in some light-hearted competition.

It’s The Thought That Counts

Easter eggs // Ostereier

Easter eggs // Ostereier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was younger Valentines Day involved giving an anonymous card to someone you kinda liked.  Easter involved a gift of chocolate eggs.  At the end of the school term your teachers said “right that’s it, piss off, see you all in September” and everyone gave a sigh of relief and went for a smoke – often both the teachers and pupils.

Now though before Christmas is fully over we get adverts flogging “that perfect Valentines gift for someone special” and it’s not just expensive jewelery but DVDs, Tablet computers and phones.  Now I’m not unromantic but I don’t confine my displays of affection to blingy jewelry in February.

Next there’s Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day which has also moved beyond flowers or chocolate, handmade gifts and cards to similar flogging of expensive electronics, and the card aisle also now includes cards for husbands to send to their wives and vice-versa on these days and even Mother’s Day cards for Aunties.  The inevitable next step is the largely informal Grandparents’ Day, not that I have a clue when that is as I haven’t seen the adverts for it yet.

Today I’ve seen an advert for a remote control BMW toy headed with “struggling to find that perfect Easter gift”.  What, we now have to buy actual toys and expensive electronics for Easter too?

Finally, just when you think the gifting season is over the kids are breaking up from school and are encouraged by marketers to take a parting gift for their teacher(s), to remind them of all the little darlings they’ll be missing dearly over the six weeks holiday.  This year has even seen an advert of choice items teachers can buy for the pupils.

Now I love giving gifts to people, I’m able to, but these additional gift-giving times apply increasing pressure on people to give increasingly expensive presents or risk appearing to not care, or being left out.  With all these days seen as just another marketing opportunity its easy to believe that today the thought no longer counts.  I like to think though that that’s not true.

By the way, remember there’s still five shopping days ’til Easter.