Friday, May 23, 2008

It's time YOU were given more control

It was back in 2006 that Time magazine declared that "You" were the person of the year for taking control of your digital world, yet for all the hype on user-control there is still a lot "you" cannot do. For example, you can't legally open up and modify an iPhone, at least you can't according to Apple and its legal team. And they're not alone, with many other electronics makers wanting to lock you out of the innards of their gadgets, in the process locking you in to their way of doing things.

Phone and internet connections are similarly hobbled. We're only now starting to see so-called "naked" DSL, where you can have a Net connection without having to pay for a phone service you don't want, but it's still fairly scarce. And as a number of friends have found out after moving house recently, when it comes to getting a new phone connection you're still at the mercy of telcos and their antiquated practices.

For example, one acquaintance moved into a place where they'd only just hung up the Telstra phone, yet when he wanted to get his own Telstra connection back he had to wait for a technician to come and connect the wires. You'd think that there would be systems in place that would allow for an automated service initiated by the user. But as another vendor friend noted, the whole area of connecting and disconnecting lines is a huge revenue earner for some telcos.

And then there's the ability to control your own domain name and the services attached to it. I wrote about my experience with Melbourne IT a few weeks back: how I couldn't change some DNS records so that I could use the free Google Apps services. Despite pleas to Melbourne IT, they would not allow me to change my own DNS records -- something common with most other domain registrars. Since then Melbourne IT has got even bigger, with the acquisition of VeriSign's Digital Brand Management Services (DBMS) business, but they haven't got any more user-friendly. On the contrary, I had many emails from people with similar problems with the company and many requests for getting around them.

Thankfully, when "You" are in control you can find a solution. In my case, I initiated a transfer to another domain registrar, one that allowed me to control the DNS settings of my own domain name. The process to transfer the domain was all automated thanks to the enlightened policies of the dot-au domain space and took about 48 hours to come through.

The registrar I chose to park my domain name with was Domain Central, mainly because they assured me that I could alter the domain name records whichever way I chose, including pointing them to the free Google App services. In particular, I could alter the CNAME records to point to Google and also change the MX records so that I could take advantage of Google's free email hosting using my own domain.

In the process of doing all this, I discovered another user-centric service I like -- web-based live support. Online support is another area that's been hyped over the years but hasn't really been widely embraced. Just think of all the major company web sites you visit and then try to recall how many have live support via chat and so on -- there aren't too many. Domain Central has gone to the other extreme, doing away with phone support altogether and relying on online support via web FAQs, email and live chat. While you might suspect it's simply a cost-saving measure that offers poorer support, I was pleasantly surprised at how effective it was.

In my case, I needed help getting the right formats for my DNS records. I clicked on the live support button and within a minute or two I was in a chat session with someone who obviously knew their DNS and how to change the settings to suit my purpose. The guy even did a backup of my records on the spot and sent it to me for safe keeping, then went on to patiently explain what the problem was.

Having read the major part of a few novels while waiting for regular phone support, I'd happily look for live online support in future if it were more widely available. The way I see it, it's just one more small step in putting more control in the hands of us users. -- Geoff Long

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The beginning of the end for unlimited Net plans?

Given that the average user absolutely loathes pricing based on the quantity of data downloaded, it's interesting to hear that carriers and ISPs in places such as the US, Canada and Japan are considering doing just that.

In Japan such pricing is still in the discussion phase, but ISPs there have expressed concerns over an explosion in P2P and video traffic and some see "per-byte" charging as a possible solution. Bell Canada is also looking at its options, according to media reports, which stated that an industry group representing more than 50 independent Canadian ISPs is suggesting that Bell Canada's plans to throttle the web traffic on its networks is part of a larger plan to implement a tiered Internet pricing scheme. And in the US, Time Warner has already started trials in Texas of pricing schemes based on how much bandwidth the user consumes.

Users in Australia and New Zealand have long been used to Internet "caps" and associated charges that see them pay for the extra data they download. But in the rest of the world, "unlimited" data plans are taken for granted. There are a number of other countries that have capped data tariffs, but mostly these are outweighed by unlimited plans, as a study by New Zealand's Wairua Consulting found in 2006. NZ had the distinction of having the highest percentage of capped products among OECD countries surveyed, while the study also found that the top three countries in terms of broadband uptake -- Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway -- all "have significantly more choice, faster plans and either no usage restrictions or limits that in most cases are unlikely to ever affect customers."

Over the past 12 months I've been a user of both unlimited and capped services and have noticed a massive difference in my broadband habits depending on which I'm using. Using an unlimited broadband connection gives the user the opportunity to embrace the digital world fully, whether that's contributing to or accessing video sites like YouTube, sampling the world's radio stations via the Internet or creating a virtual meeting place on a social networking site.

A capped service, as I've experienced the past four months, can see users severely throttling their broadband activity and nervous about experimenting with anything online that might send them over their capped broadband limit and paying exorbitant charges for the excess data. In my case, the cap is 5GB -- a limit the carrier and a few friends suggested would rarely be exceeded. Wrong!

I don't consider myself a heavy surfer, particularly of video, but I've still found it easy to exceed the 5GB threshold. One change of habit as an example: I no longer have music services such as Last.FM playing constantly in the background while I work. I also have to be careful of automatic updating services, such as the security and other updates from Windows or application updates from the likes of Adobe.

In many ways, excess data charges can be compared to international roaming charges: they're often exorbitant, they create billing uncertainty for the user, and they end up inhibiting usage. Yet while there is plenty of action aimed at bringing down mobile roaming fees, there seems to be less momentum for removing data caps and excess charges. In fact, as the recent announcements in the US, Japan and Canada suggest, the trend could be towards more rather than less per-byte charging. And that would seem a distinctly backward trend given all the rhetoric about moving towards digital economies and the need for communities to take up broadband. -- Geoff Long