Archive for October, 2010

No more hiding for us freelancers

My days of working in a bathrobe are numbered.

One of the joys of freelancing is that I don’t have to get dressed up to go to work. In fact, I don’t even have to get dressed. I do, of course, eventually. But when I have loads of work or a pressing deadline, I stay in my pajamas. All in the name of efficiency, of course. Why spend time on clothes, hair and makeup when nobody’s going to see me anyway, except maybe the FedEx man?

But now that integrated webcams have become a standard feature in most laptops, rudimentary video conferencing through services like Skype and Google video chat are becoming more common. I started to realize this when my son went off to college this fall. He was amazed that he couldn’t video chat with me. (I was amazed that he wanted to. It was probably just a momentary lapse caused by the novelty of the webcam on his college-issued laptop combined with a golden opportunity to make me feel clueless.)

Initially I thought maybe we could keep this Skype thing just between me and family. Then in October Cisco introduced Umi Telepresence , a video conferencing system for the home. The system, which retails for $600, includes a camera that connects to a high-definition TV to become a video-conferencing system that shows everything. With this technology, you’re no longer just a talking head at the computer, but a full person, head to toe, with a picture “so clear, natural and lifelike that users will see . . . the twinkle in your eye.” Or, in my case, the stain on my bathrobe and the fuzzy slippers on my feet. Wonderful.

I’m hoping this won’t catch on. But the monthly subscription cost – just $25/month for unlimited video calls and storage of up to 100 minutes of video messages – is going to be attractive for businesses that till now have been priced out of the high-end videoconferencing market. And there’s going to be lots of competition that will drive those costs down further. Skype, for example, just hired away a senior vice president of Cisco’s, Tony Bates, to become its CEO. It doesn’t take a high-definition picture to see what’s going on there.

My five-year-old computer is about ready for retirement. But I keep putting off shopping for a new one, because I probably won’t be able to avoid buying one with integrated webcam and microphone. Which means this time around it’s more than the hardware and software that requires an upgrade. Bye, bye, bathrobe.

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Written by Tam Harbert on October 18th, 2010

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In Musings, Technology category

Technology elite’s oblivious, and dangerous, contribution to distracted driving

Every now and then, I hear a tech executive say something so astonishingly oblivious to what’s going on in the rest of the world – the world of us average, common people – that at first I think he’s kidding. Then my jaw drops as I realize that he is completely serious. He’s certainly not stupid. In fact, most of these people are very smart. But the tech cognoscenti can get so wrapped up in their insular world of cool inventions that they don’t see obvious problems and dangerous pitfalls.

Case in point: At Forrester Research’s Content and Collaboration Forum, held last week in Washington, D.C., a Microsoft executive described how the company’s employees use their in-house podcasting platform, called Academy Mobile. The platform is like a “private YouTube network,” where employees can post video clips to share their knowledge, said Christian Finn, director of SharePoint at Microsoft. To demonstrate, he showed a webcast created by a Microsoft salesman to share tips on demonstrating and selling a particular product. There is the intrepid salesman, greeting us from behind the wheel as he drives at a speed of probably 65 mph down a busy interstate highway somewhere in North Carolina. Speaking to a webcam mounted on his car’s dashboard, he introduces the other sales reps in his car – taking his right hand off the wheel to move the webcam and show his passengers – and tells us how the three of them are going to share some of their most effective techniques.

The clip isn’t long, probably about 30 seconds. But it’s long enough to show that the driver is paying much more attention to the camera than to his driving. Already alarmed at what I saw, I was horrified when I heard Finn joke about the fact that they were webcasting while driving. He warned the audience to watch out for these guys. “If you’re driving down in North Carolina,” he chuckled, “be careful!”

Apparently neither Finn, Microsoft’s marketing team nor the traveling salesmen saw anything wrong with a) a driver conducting a webcast from a moving vehicle or b) Finn using this as an example in a public presentation of the technology. Multi-tasking while driving is so common, acceptable and probably even expected in the technology world that they either forgot about or decided to ignore the mounting evidence that distracted driving is killing people. In 2009, 5,500 people died and 450,000 were injured in America because of distracted driving, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That represents 16 percent of the total deaths on U.S. roadways. And that’s considered a conservative estimate because many police reports don’t document whether driver distraction played a role in the crash.

They should know better. Microsoft’s own home state of Washington is one of eight states that prohibit drivers from using handheld mobile phones, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. (North Carolina is not among the eight.) Even if these laws don’t ban webcasting while driving (yet), how can these guys be so tone deaf? Just last month, the Department of Transportation held the second annual National Distracted Driving Summit in D.C. Ironically, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood talked about the joint efforts of the government and the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety to get U.S. corporations to adopt policies to discourage distracted driving among their employees. Apparently, Microsoft didn’t get the memo.

Just because drivers can use these products in their cars doesn’t mean they should. Rather than encouraging us to take our hands off the wheel, tech executives had better put their own ears to the ground. They just might hear the rumblings of an oncoming public relations crash.

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Written by Tam Harbert on October 11th, 2010

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In Business, Public Policy, Technology category