Clash of cultures

I returned to Australia to resume working at Telstra the month before the current CEO joined the company. Sol Trujillo took up his position in July 2005, and brought in a number of trusted people he’d worked with at previous companies. The result was a dramatic increase in the number of Americans in top positions in Telstra. This is hardly news, or particularly interesting.

However, what I have found quite interesting is the intersection between the American business culture and the Australian. In particular, what is often taken by Australians as brash, arrogant, or undiplomatic behaviour can be seen alternatively as plain talking, “speaking their mind”, or direct behaviour. I suspect that this is to be admired in American business circles while seeming unsophisticated or suspect in an Australian context. This is most clear in the Australian business press.

For example, concerning the recent submissions to the national broadband tender, Telstra put in a 12 page letter. Earlier in the process, as quoted in The Age, Telstra had stated that they would not bid if there wasn’t a guarantee that structural separation was not on the table, and this was not a bid. Optus agreed, stating “This is not a bid; it’s not even a partial bid”, as quoted in the Australian IT, but later in that article claiming “Telstra has once again proven that they are all bluff”. Clearly this was the opposite of bluff, but once again we see the continued assumption that Telstra’s culture of keeping the commitments of senior management is actually an elaborate game.

I have seen many examples of where Telstra would officially, publically make a commitment and then do everything possible to follow through on that. Even when, in my humble opinion, occasionally information subsequently turns up suggesting that it might not be the best thing to be doing. But so ingrained is this culture of doing what has been promised, that not doing it is not an option.

And yet, still the media treat every commitment made by Telstra as mere positioning. If it were Australians running the show, we would understand it as such, and statements to the press would be part of a negotiating game, to be bargained up or down from. It took me a couple of years to notice that this has not been the case, but the media still doesn’t seem to have twigged that it isn’t the old Telstra, and there’s a different culture at work.

Perhaps the Australian media itself could benefit from more foreigners in the mix, or even in control? And if there’s a more contentious statement than Telstra speaks the truth, it’s that we might benefit from foreign control of Australian media. Hmmm. I’ve said enough.

iPod At Home

I’ve had an ordinary iPod for years, and it’s brilliant for helping me mentally escape the morning public transport crush. Plus it’s great for turning otherwise “wasted” minutes in the day into enjoyable and productive moments when I listen to my batch of podcasts. But, a few weeks ago I bought a new iPod – not to replace the old one, but to leave around the home.

It’s not as crazy as it seems. I bought an iPod Touch, and although it is capable of playing music and TV shows, I don’t intend to use it for multimedia content (I’ve already got an iPod that can do that). It’s primarily an Internet device, and the applications installed on it are almost life-changing.

Whenever I am about to go for a walk, or head to work, or put out washing, I grab it and check the Melbourne rain radar. It takes less than 10 seconds from picking up the device, because it turns on instantly. I would never have bothered to use the laptop for this, but with the iPod Touch it is too easy.

If Kate is watching the TV, I might use it to browse the TV guide of shows that are on other channels, and read summaries of what they are. I often check ahead to see what shows are on that night. Again – I could have done this on the laptop, but it would take minutes to turn it on, boot it up, start up Firefox, go to the relevant website, etc.

I’ve found myself regularly using the Facebook application, which pretty incredible as I rarely used it before. In fact, it has replaced Twitter as my microblogging platform of choice. The app has a couple of bugs and lacks some parts of the full Facebook site, but it is brilliant for catching up on what people have been doing, checking out photos and basically staying in touch.

Also, the web browser on the iPod Touch is as full-featured as a normal desktop web browser (with the exception of having no Flash plugin), and Google Mail has a slick web interface for the iPhone / iPod Touch that performs almost like a native application. The on-screen touch keyboard for the iPod is pretty easy to get used to, and is easier than any phone keyboard I’ve used, particularly when you hold the iPod on its side.

Aside from Google Mail, just using the web browser to search for a website when it comes up in conversation, or when it appears on the TV, or a question just comes to mind.. it is almost trivial to get the information you’re after.

We have also started using the iPod Touch as our de facto digital photo album. All the recent pics are stored in there, and it’s easy to flick through them to show them off to people who visit. It’s better quality than the digital camera screen, and faster to browse. And again, it would take too long to fire up the laptop.

None of these applications is enough to justify the iPod Touch on its own (although, Google Mail and the Facebook app come close), it is really the pure convenience of getting instant access to a wealth of information. It has also provided a sense of connectness to my online friends that I didn’t have before.

There are a few annoying aspects though. Firstly, the web browser (Safari) is prone to crash on several major sites (including The Age) as this is what it does when it runs out of memory. Also, it is pretty slow to synch with the PC since it tries to backup everything. And it doesn’t have the best support for some of the older WiFi security models – it kept on forgetting about my non-SSID broadcasting WEP protected network, requiring me to keep entering the secret key every couple of days.

However, it is an amazing device. Although I’d previously touched on some of the aspects I thought made it revolutionary, I hadn’t appreciated the benefit from the processing power on the device. This provides incredible responsiveness, and together with ability to turn it on instantly, reinforces the sense of convenience. Even Kate thinks it’s pretty cool.

People prefer the personal

Following up on my last post, the reason that the big TV on the living room wall is going to become less relevant is because it’s a shared device. The way of the future is personal devices.

It’s sad but true – we prefer to have our own personal versions of things rather than share them with others. Maybe this is a particularly Western trait, but I suspect not. For example, despite the additional cost, most people prefer to travel in their own car rather than use a taxi or use public transport. Car sales are booming in China, showing it’s not just something that happens here.

When it comes to video devices like TVs, pretty much all actors in the economy are benefiting from move to selling household video devices to individual video devices: the screen manufactures, content providers, telcos, and most of all, the viewers. It’s part of a larger trend. Initially, all households in a city got the pretty much the same video content at the same time, broadcast from TV stations. Then, with the uptake of VCRs, DVDs, PVRs, and so on, different households were able to get different video content at the same time. Now, with PCs and iPods, individuals within the households are getting different content at the same time.

We saw the same thing happen with audio devices. The Consumer Electronics Association in America published this year in their Digital America 2008 report that

U.S. factory-level dollar sales of portable audio products, consisting overwhelmingly of MP3/portable media players (PMPs), exceeded the combined sales of the home audio and aftermarket car audio industries for the first time in history in 2005, and again in 2006 and 2007, according to CEA statistics.

Another aspect to consider is that portable media players and PCs are increasingly becoming connected to the Internet, and support communication as well as media consumption. There will be growth in triggers to watch video content, received over those communication channels (such as friends sending you email, IM, or messages from Twitter or Facebook), and given a desire for immediate gratification, people will not want to wait for a shared device to become free, so will watch the video content on their personal devices, even if the quality of experience is less.

I don’t think shared video devices, like the expensive LCD or Plasma set that takes pride of place on the wall, will ever become completely redundant. They will simply evolve to niche uses when it is more convenient or appropriate to use a shared device, such as when hosting a video / games party with friends, or displaying a loop of video to display in the background.

TV Set Obsolecensce

In an email to friends back in August, I wrote this..

We saw an old TV out the front of one of our neighbours today. Perhaps someone who has replaced their ancient set with something better suited to Olympics viewing?

The TVs of old were like furniture, while today’s TVs are like pictures. They used to have pride of place in the living rooms, in cabinets made from expensive-looking timbers. There were fancy looking knobs, boxes for the speakers. They were substantial pieces, indicating their substantial role in the entertainment and education of families.

But now a TV is a thin, fragile screen that can barely hold itself up straight. They need a stand or a bracket. Some plasma screens need professional installation or they can be damaged. Just like the cost of framing a picture can be a substantial fraction of getting artwork on your wall, this precious screen comes with additional costs to enable you to properly appreciate it.

I wonder though, that at the very time TVs are becoming flat, thin, and almost insubstantial devices, that their role in entertainment and education is at risk of becoming equally insubstantial. Or perhaps more like high-tech decoration, providing ambient audio and vision in modern living rooms.

And in reply, George said..

What an extraordinary pile of codswallop.

That may be, but it’s true all the same.

I’m posting this ancient thread of email because I’m going to explain myself in the next post.

Dial M for Mistake

The other week, we went along to a CPR for Babies course run at the local family resource centre. It was pretty good, right up until the end when the instructor suddenly went off the deep end in discussing the emergency 000 and 112 services available on mobile phones. I was pretty outraged by the mistaken and outdated information that was being taught as fact, including the myths that:

  • You need to dial 112 if you want to call emergency services when your phone is locked, or out of your operator’s coverage (but within another operator’s coverage).
  • If you dial 112, then the operators will be able to pin-point your exact location – the instructor gave the example of being found within the Chadstone car-park.
  • Sometimes when you dial 000, the operator will ask you to ring back using 112 because of that feature.
  • “They” don’t tell you about 112 because they don’t want to overload the system.

You might have gathered that I think that all of this is complete bollocks. In fact, 112 is simply the European standard number for emergency services (and hence supported on all GSM mobiles), and you should almost always simply use 000 when calling emergency services in Australia.

The facts are:

Note that 112 does not work on fixed or VoIP phones. The only cases when dialling 112 on your mobile phone is going to be worth a try in Australia are when 000 isn’t working for you and (i) the phone was bought overseas, or (ii) the phone is really old. Even in those cases, 112 may not work either – unfortunately a mobile phone network should not be relied on as the sole means of getting help in an emergency.