Big Tin

Big tin: IT infrastructure used by organisations to run their businesses. And other stuff too when I feel like it…

Time to end loyalty card schemes

Am I alone (distraction: how many rants start like this?) in thinking that few of the trappings of the modern world are as annoying and deeply insidious as the loyalty card? Every shop in the high street offers one, it seems, so it can’t be a bad thing, or they wouldn’t get away with it, would they?

“Do you have a loyalty card,” they twitter. I’ve just encountered the final straw – hence this posting.

On the face if it, what’s not to like? You give the organisation your name and address, they send you a card, and you get a percentage point or two off your shopping. In these hard times, many a mickle makes a mackle.

But they never tell you the whole story. They will never come out and say that, if you subscribe, the company will bombard you with offers that, based on your spending patterns, they think you will want. Well, maybe you will, maybe you won’t, but would you rather not make those choices at a time of your own choosing, under your own steam as it were, rather than being manipulated by some marketing droid or, worse, by some marketing algorithm deep in a data centre somewhere?

If those cards weren’t worthwhile to administer, then companies such as Tesco – feted in marketing circles as among the most successful deployers of such schemes – wouldn’t do it. The reason it’s worth it is not because they get their hands on your spending patterns, which of course they do and which raises other issues – see below – but also because you spend more. Each marketing mailout increases demand for whatever it is that’s being pushed at the consumer.

So whatever discount you’re promised, you’re almost certain to have blown it out by buying more stuff you wouldn’t have bought had the scheme not been in place. That’s more profit for Tesco.

What’s more, the cost of the scheme is offset by hiking prices, as demonstrated by the Morrisons chain of supermarkets which cut prices when it abolished its loyalty card scheme back in 2004. and Asda told the Daily Telegraph it wouldn’t be implementing a scheme because: “It would have cost £60m to set up and £20m to £30m a year to maintain.”

But more fundamentally important is the loss of privacy that these cards entail. As the Telegraph feature referenced above reports, one campaigner likened having a loyalty card to walking around with a barcode stamped on your backside.

What I buy is my business, not that of a marketing programme. The data my buying provides means that more snippets of data about me sit in the public domain, waiting for some future organisation to hoover up and use in ways as yet unspecified.

Those who made this argument ten years ago were shouted down as paranoid. But today, with the growth of huge databases, accessible worldwide, as companies amalgamate and share data, and as basic security issues – such as not walking around with databases on a device liable to either theft or absent-mindedness, such as a laptop of USB memory stick – seem to be beyond either commercial organisations or the government, it behoves us all to hang onto those snippets.

Piled up in one place, a lot of snippets make a profile. Many a mickle makes a muckle.

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Filed under: data protection, mergers & acquisitions, Privacy, , , ,

What’s the prognosis for true high-speed mobile data?

The mobile industry confuses its customers and doesn’t deliver what it promises.

We all talk much about the latest technology, and how it will transform this that or the other element of our personal and/or working lives.

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday talking about LTE — also known as 4G by some, but not everyone, in the mobile industry. It’s known as 4G because it succeeds 3G, today’s iteration of mobile broadband technology. Even though, confusingly, some of it, such as HSPA which can give you as much as 21Mbits/sec is known as 3.5G.

And LTE isn’t 4G technically, because it doesn’t quite meet the definition of 4G laid down by the global standards body, the ITU, according to one analyst I spoke to. So you’ll find LTE referred as 4G or as 3.5+G, LTE-Advanced — which does meet the 4G spec — or just plain LTE. WiMax, incidentally, is 4G according to the ITU. No wonder the mobile industry confuses its customers. There’s a pithy piece about LTE and 4G here.

But that’s all by the by in some ways. The important thing about LTE is that it promises 100Mbit/sec download and 50Mbits/sec upload speeds. If you know anything about the technology, you’ll know that in practice some 25 percent that is likely to be eaten up by protocol and other overheads. You’ll also know that a further 25 percent is likely to be lost to distance losses, cell sharing, and clogged up backhaul networks.

All this is due to arrive over the next ten years. Yes, ten years. Roll-outs are unlikely to start happening in the UK before 2012, more likely 2015.

Except that this is so much hogwash.

I was in the middle of London — yes, challenging conditions due to the concrete canyon effect, but the kind of area in which the mobile industry has to demonstrate its best technology. And the best mobile data rate I managed inside or out was a standard GSM-level 56kbits/sec. This is early 1990s technology.

So if 20 years after its invention and 15 years after its introduction, that’s the best I can get in the middle of one of the world’s leading capital cities, I suspect it’ll be 2025 before I see LTE speeds.

You know what? I’m not sure how much I’ll care by then…

Filed under: mobile, , , , , , ,

Computing is making progress, but so slowly…

I’m sitting in a hotel room on a press trip. Flown on a flight landing at 1000, the first official engagement with the vendor (who remains for the moment anonymous) is tonight. I’ve had all day to hang around and do work stuff. Naturally, you’re never as efficient as you would be at the office, with all the stuff around you that you need. Not least, a nice cup of tea.

But here in the room, miles from anywhere, I’ve hotel-provided wi-fi for free, a laptop whose battery life is measured in half-day – this dual-core machine with 4GB of memory and a 15.4-inch LCD-lit screen lasts for up to seven hours on one charge – and a phone with no charger that won’t last more than a day and a half. I thought I’d brought a cable but managed to forget it in the early dawn rush to the airport. But all I need is a mini-USB to USB cable and they’re near-ubiquitous: I’m reasonably confident of finding or borrowing one sometime in the next 24 hours.

Five years ago, the battery life of laptops was abysmal, and phone chargers were all proprietary. And if you’d asked for wi-fi anywhere but a city centre, you’d have been looked at as if you had horns growing out of your head.

Things are improving, if slowly…

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