An idea for Apple: An ultra low-cost ARM-based PC for the masses

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday February 9 @ 6:00 pm

Maybe it was due to the cold I’m currently struggling with, or a by-product of the medicine I’m taking for it, or it could just be my brain’s attempt to keep me sane while I power through exhaustion until my holiday in May – but last night I had the most peculiar, vivid and financially plausible technology dream ever.

Let me explain…..

I dreamt, in surprising detail, that Apple had launched an ultra low-cost desktop PC/media player called the iSocket (yes, the name is terrible, but stick with it), which had a striking resemblance to the company’s AirPort Expresspocket Wifi router.

However, instead of containing a Wifi router, the casing in fact contains a very small, basic but effective ARM-based PC, not unlike the one about to go on sale from the Raspberry Pi project. Only Apple’s one ran a complete version of iOS along with the Apple TV big screen media player interface, giving you all the capabilities of an Apple TV, but also the full iOS application set and the ability to buy and install additional apps like you would on an iPhone or iPod Touch does.

The iSocket featured a HDMI connector (with audio), 3.5mm audio out, two USB ports, an Ethernet port, an SD card slot and a mains plug. It also had built-in Wifi and on-board Bluetooth, should you prefer to connect a keyboard and mouse to it wirelessly. As previously mentioned the chassis was a slightly oversized version of the Airport Express, with the intention that you plug the device straight into the wall socket, keeping it neat and tidy, as well as keeping it compact and reducing the production cost by keeping everything on one very simple motherboard.

Ultimately, what we are talking about here is an Apple TV with some additional connectors, a different casing, and a full iPod Touch-style iOS build embedded, rather than the cut down media player version of iOS currently used in the Apple TV.

The most curious thing about the iSocket was the price. In the dream, Apple planned to sell this device for $1, working on the basis that the hiding it would take on the initial hardware sale would be more than clawed back through the combination of higher app and content sales. Or even content subscriptions…..

When I woke up this morning, I was so convinced of the detail and plausibility of the dream, I had to go and double-check that it wasn’t a real product that had been announced overnight by Apple and that I’d heard about on the radio or TV while sleeping.

Suffice to say the iSocket had not been launched by Apple, and neither had it launched any other $1 ultra-basic PC with a less stupid name than the one my lucid sleep-deprived brain conjured up.

But, it is a plausible device, and the $1 price tag isn’t completely mad either. With Apple’s gargantuan cash reserves, the company could afford to take a massive up-front hit to seed these devices globally, in order to achieve longer-term recurring revenues. However, whether it would fit Apple’s product strategy or be deemed too geeky for a company that is now firmly in the mainstream is unclear.

Apple’s interest in desktop computing has waned in recent years, as demonstrated by the slowing in development of its iMac, Mac Pro and Mac Mini products. You can’t blame the company – desktop PC sales are in decline globally. The big money and big interest right now is in portable devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, desktop computing is still a cost-effective starting point for the next generation of software developers to start (it’s where I started, writing software for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore Amiga and early Windows PCs). Also, desktop PC technology does make for a good media player platform – and internet-connected media players are growing in popularity thanks to ubiquitous broadband availability and the growth in online content delivery services such as iTunes, LoveFilm and Netflix.

Also, a low-cost, small and simple to deploy desktop computer wouldn’t hurt Apple’s market share in emerging economies where a £1,500 MacBook Pro or £600 Mac Mini just won’t fly in volume just yet, but a cheap and cheerful ARM-based iOS desktop mated to a cheap monitor or flat panel TV will, seeding interest and desire for bigger, more expensive Apple products in the future. Finally, a very cheap, discreet PC connected to a TV would be appealing to those put off by the complexity and cumbersome look and feel of Windows and MacOS laptops.

The guys working on the Raspberry Pi project have already demonstrated that you can build and sell – profitably – a decent spec ARM-based micro computer for about $25 (£17). On that basis, the likes of Apple could easily sell a similar device, running iOS or an embedded ARM-port of full MacOS X, as a loss-leader for $1. Such a device, due to its minimal on-board storage, would be heavily reliant on either external storage drives or Apple’s iCloud service for storage and file-sharing (another upsell opportunity), while the ability to access and purchase (or rent) content and apps from the iTunes Music and App Stores would generate suitable additional revenue to more than offset the initial loss on the hardware.

Contrary to the company’s current strategy, iOS apps are extremely well-suited to a TV/Living Room environment and are a more friendly way of delivering Internet-based services into a non-computing environment than a web browser on a big-screen TV.

Apple then gets to make massive inroads into the consumer PC space and complete the integration of Apple mobile devices within the home, but moreover, gets to move even more into the home media player space than it has achieved so far with the Apple TV devices.

Yes, there is all likelihood that Apple is going to launch a TV with all of the above integrated into it. But as we have seen with Freeview boxes, until people are ready to replace their TV, bring them along for the ride with an external box that does everything the integrated unit can do, rather than just the limited Apple TV feature set we have today.

In the meantime, as I mentioned earlier in this post, the first Raspberry Pi devices are set to go on sale very soon – I think they will be extremely interesting and disruptive devices. If I’m quick enough, I plan on purchasing a couple.

Until then, I’ll keep dreaming of the Apple iSocket, or at the very least, a price cut for the Mac Mini.

Steve Jobs: One Man, One Incredible Vision

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday October 6 @ 10:14 am


People come and go throughout our lives and throughout history. Yet, while we are here we all change the world by our actions, hopefully for the better. Be it building a loving family and helping to bring new life into the world, building a stable business that creates work and better lives for others, creating new technologies, new ideas and new approaches that change and improve the way we did things before, or simply changing the world by making the people around you smile. The things we do define us and define the world we live in and leave behind. While we all make a contribution, the impact that some make on the lives of all of us can be simply staggering.

Steve Jobs was one of those people. As co-founder of Apple Computer (now Apple Inc) he helped bring about a new era in computing, shaping the way we would use personal computers for decades to follow, while showing that computers could be a thing of beauty on the outside, as well as incredible inside. He also played a key role in transforming computing from geek hobby into an aspirational mainstream activity.

Even after he was ousted from Apple, his wonder and excitement about technology refused to wilt, leading him to found NeXT and invest in Pixar Animation Studios, creating not only the technology that would later become the foundation of MacOS X and help save Apple, but also the animation technology (and of course bringing together talented people) that delivered some of the most popular family movies in modern history, bringing joy to millions and raising the bar for what can be achieved with computer generated imagery and animation.

His return to Apple unquestionably helped save the company, which was on the brink despite the efforts of previous CEO Gil Amelio to steady a sinking ship. On his return, Jobs not only brought fresh ideas and new approaches with him, he helped inspire a demoralised workforce, and encouraged them to do more and do better with the limited resources left at the company.

The subsequent products that Apple produced, while not necessarily technologically advanced, achieved an important goal – they changed the way we lived, worked, communicated and had fun – all for the better. The iMac, which helped kill off the anonymous beige box design ethos of personal computers, or the MacBook, that helped trigger a massive shift towards portable computing among both consumers and business users. Then there was the iPod. Not that advanced, and among the last products to market, it was the one that learned from the mistakes of its predecessors. Combining good looks, massive storage, and ease of use. When combined with a revamped iTunes app and one-click purchasing of music, it revolutionised the way we chose, purchased and listened to music and audio content.

The iPhone has had a profound effect on the mobile phone industry, While still accounting for a small percentage of the overall market, it is still a very lucrative product and has not only become a must-have item, it has inspired the rest of the industry to raise its game and advance product development far beyond where it would be today without such robust and creative competition from Apple.

As for the iPad, it is another example of a product and market sector (tablet computers) that Apple has achieved huge success with where others have failed, doing so by creating something that did not fall foul of the mistakes made by those before it. I would be absolutely lost without my iPad 2 – it goes with me almost everywhere.

These are just a few of the creations that Apple produced during Steve’s second period at the company, and all were produced with Steve taking a major hands-on role in their design, usability testing and even the packaging. Steve believed that every Apple product should feel special every time you use it, including when you unbox it for the first time. It is an approach that always appealed to my child-like wonder of technology and something that is neglected by so many other companies.

Steve Jobs has always been at the top of the list of people that have inspired me to do more, do better and to be passionate and excited about technology and what it can do for the greater good. His passing is deeply sad, but at the same time we should try not to dwell on the fact he is no longer with us, but be happy that for 56 years he was here and during that time he had a profound and positive effect on the way millions of us live and enjoy our daily lives.

As I write this, I am sitting at a desk surrounded by Apple technology. From my MacBook laptop to my iPad 2, to my iPhone and my iPod, Apple is a major part of my life thanks to Steve Jobs and his vision, determination and passion for technology. Most of us will have at least one piece of Apple technology in active use, or have done so in the past. That alone speaks volumes for the lasting legacy created by Steve’s work.

Steve Jobs showed the world (and me) how to “Think Different” and with it, he changed the world, for the better.

Thank You, Steve.

Why you should never buy a car from the Citroen main dealer attached to Citroen’s UK Head Office!

Posted by Chris Green on Tuesday August 23 @ 9:46 am

The Citroen C4 I was supposed to buy - you can see the wheel arch dent in this pic that was not fixed as agreed

The Citroen C4 I was supposed to buy - you can see the wheel arch dent in this pic that was not fixed as agreed

This past weekend I was supposed to be picking up a new (well, low-mileage used) car from Citroen’s Slough dealership. The one directly attached to Citroen’s UK headquarters in Slough. As you’ve probably already guessed, things didn’t go to plan and I am about to deliver the most deserved naming-and-shaming ever.

After a rocky start, I’ve had the best part of five hassle-free, but expensive, years’ service from my trusty and beloved Rover 75. Unfortunately, as much as I want to keep the 75 until it’s old, rusty and the doors fall off, its low mpg (24 on a good day with the wind behind you) and my 70 miles-a-day commute mean that it’s just not a financially viable car to keep using seven days a week. I’m pouring around £350-£400 a month into the petrol tank, and that’s a big expense. The car was bought in a different time, when I commuted to work on the Tube and only really drove at weekends. In that scenario, owning a V6 gas guzzler was a manageable and enjoyable luxury expense. Sadly, it’s now a much larger dent in my pocket that I can no longer sustain.

Having looked around a fair few car marques including Skoda, Kia, Nissan, Fiat, Peugeot, MG and Ford, I settled on a Citroen C4. I found a viable example of the car, a Citroen Approved Used 2008 (57 plate) 1.6 HDi (Diesel) VTR+ in Puss Beige (Sahara Gold) with Citroen’s EGS semi-automatic gearbox. Fortunately, I’m not fussy about car colour at all. The car can allegedly achieve 62mpg (manufacturers claimed combined fuel consumption) and had a nice array of toys on it including cruise control, speed limiter, stability control, trip computer and a boot that you could comfortably stuff a dead body into without folding the rear seats down. You never know when this might come in handy!

Having viewed the car at Citroen’s Slough dealership (remember, this is the one directly attached to Citroen’s UK headquarters in Slough) on July 30th, we proceeded with an agreement to buy the car (on finance) on agreement that certain remedial work be carried out on the car prior to handover. These items included:

  • Repairing a large paint scuff and dent on the passenger side rear wing wheel arch
  • Repairing a large paint scuff on the passenger side front bumper
  • Investigate and mend faulty electric mirror control on driver door window control panel
  • Replace or skim warped brake disc on drivers’ side rear wheel

I was assured this would all be done, and we shook on the deal (and I paid a £250 deposit). We agreed for the handover of their car (and my part exchange car) to take place on the morning of August 20th – giving them a full three weeks to complete all the works on the car to a high standard, including completing the bodywork repairs to Citroen paintwork and corrosion warranty standard.

We arrived at the dealership (Citroen Slough – the one directly attached to Citroen’s UK headquarters in Slough) at 9am on August 20th as agreed, only to find no sign initially of the sales rep. He showed up about five minutes later as we were fetching coffee from their machine – all fair enough so far. Whilst he was very keen to get me to sign a myriad of paperwork (as well as get another £750 out of me – the rest of the cash I was down paying on the car – which I stupidly paid up straight away, albeit on a credit card so have some protection), I was more concerned with inspecting the car before I made the sale final.

Having been asked to sign a checklist confirming that everything was in order, I downed my pen until I could inspect the car, and produced my own five page check-list of things based on information and advice from the Citroen C4 Owners Club forum.

Reluctantly, the sales rep led me out to where the car was waiting in their collection area.

The first thing I inspected was the bodywork repairs – which were a joke! The rear wing repair was pathetic; with no effort made to restore the wheel arch crease and curve (it now has a completely flat patch in the middle of the arch. There were also clearly visible dents still around the centre of the damage as well as paintwork scratches.

The front bumper scrape looked like it had been T-Cut polished as part of a wash and wax, and nothing else. They again only did the middle of the scrape, leaving the ends of the scrape untouched and a large deep scratch above it untouched and dirty. They also managed to create fresh damage in the form of scraping the passenger-side body-coloured bumper insert so deep it’s down to the underlying plastic. Looking at the damage, it would appear that either someone reversed into the car, or the car has hit a bollard or roof support in a car park.

There is also paint damage in the passenger side front wheel arch lip (down to the bare metal, but easy to touch up to seal it. After these botched bodywork repairs, they then had the cheek to apply the £299 GardX protection I paid for – an utterly pointless exercise on such bad bodywork that, thanks to the shoddy work (and no work in the case of the front bumper) does not conform to Citroen paintwork and corrosion warranty standard

Next, I checked the boot wiring loom rubber sheath. The wiring loom in the boot is subject to a recall at present, as the loom has been fitted too short/too tight on a significant number of cars, causing it to rub on the bodywork, breaking the cables and causing the electric boot lock to fail (there is no key override). When that happens, you can’t open the boot.

The wiring loom rubber sheath where the wires exit the main car and enter the boot lid looks a bit manky where it joins the boot lid itself, suggesting it is going to be susceptible to water ingress in the future, if not already. The dealership insists this particular car is not subject to the boot wiring loom recall. However, I expect this to be an area for future problems, if not from broken cables then from water ingress based on the malformed and ill-fitting wiring sheath.

The car was advertised and sold as having a full dealer service history. However, on finally seeing the service log book it was completely blank! It turns out there were no manuals with the car, so they put an old spare set in (and incomplete at that, just the main user manual and log book, no getting started guide, no RD4 car stereo manual). After much arguing, a single A4 laser printed page (that looked like it had just been knocked up in a hurry in Microsoft Word) was produced, claiming to detail the full service history from a Citroen dealership in Wrexham where the car was first registered and allegedly maintained. Suffice to say this was not convincing. It also has no value as nobody will accept the piece of paper as a legitimate service history and proof of accumulative mileage.

Furthermore, I asked for proof of what work had been carried out on the car by Citroen Slough. A printout was produced that revealed they replaced 2 wiper blades, had a new remote control key produced and they claim to have replaced the Air Doseur (which is known to leak oil on a C4, dripping into the Alternator which is directly underneath it). On inspection there was an oil stain on top of the Alternator. However, the Air Doseur does not look new at all, and had dirt and other muck on the two rubber pipes, suggesting it’s been in place and undisturbed for quite a while.

No evidence of addressing the brake disc issue or the dodgy electric mirrors control on the driver’s door panel. Also no recent service (allegedly the mystery Wrexham dealership did it in November last year) – the oil was as black as tarmac and Citroen Slough failed to even do a basic courtesy oil and filter change, instead sticking me with a £200 service bill almost immediately in order to make the car safe and reliable to drive.

On further inspection, I noted that the faux carbon fibre trim surrounding the gearstick was extremely loose and had acquired several scrapes and indents in it, which I am confident were not there when I first inspected and test drove the car.

The car also only had a 10-month MOT, not the full 12 month I was expecting and as would be normal with any other manufacturer-approved used car of MOT age.

I also discovered the two front tyres are two different makes. Both rears are factory Michelins, but the driver’s front is a Goodyear, and the Passenger front is a Pirelli! Both have completely different tread patterns and the wear is uneven. I consider this to be extremely dangerous, a view that has been backed up by both the RAC and by Michelin, Citroen’s recommended tyre supplier. Replacing the tyres will cost in excess of £300 if I have to do it.

Odd tyres and a mixture of tread patterns on the front will significantly compromise handling and grip, as well as overworking the stability control and ABS as it tries to compensate.

The end result is I refused to take possession of the car. I scooped up the V5 for my Rover, along with its manual and service history and the keys and walked out. They still have my £1,000 and I’ve stupidly allowed them a window to make good the car when I should have reclaimed all my money and never set foot back in there. However, having received expert advice, I am no longer prepared to accept the car in its current form at the agreed price.

The simple fact of the matter is I’ve had to endure significant aggravation, cost, lost time and, quite frankly, was left quite upset at the disgusting way I was treated on Saturday. This included the sales rep I was dealing with went and grabbed a decidedly yobbish and extremely aggressive colleague (who’s presence was never explained or justified) to try and intimidate us into taking the car as was without complaint (which didn’t work). The problems, the botched remedial work, the additional damage to the car caused by the dealership, the odd tyres, the damaged and loose trim panel around the gearstick – it all damages the resale value of the car, my confidence in the car, my confidence in the dealership and its ability carry out any of the work properly, and my confidence in Citroen full stop.

I highly expect my next visit will reveal the car still has not been prepared as agreed and I will be rejecting it for good and claiming a full refund of the £1,000 I’ve paid so far as a deposit.

Full Disclosure: Following several attempts to complain via Twitter to Citroen UK, I received a very polite and constructive call from their PR department. They in turn escalated my complaint to an extremely confrontational, rude and argumentative person at the Citroen Slough dealership (a real let-down as I was hoping for progress on this). The individual who called displayed little interest in rectifying anything other than begrudgingly addressing the bodywork and getting the original dealer that allegedly maintained the car to reissue and stamp a service history booklet. He demonstrated no interest in delivering good customer care, rebuilding trust or making good the obviously poor performance and attitude displayed by the staff at the dealership and the overall sub-standard state of the car.

On the basis of this so far, I would have to say avoid buying a Citroen car from a Citroen main dealer, and in particular avoid Citroen Slough at all costs!

BBC Interview: Will Japan’s problems damage Apple’s supply chain?

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday April 21 @ 11:16 am
Chris Green - BBC News Interview - April 20 2011

Yesterday morning I was on BBC News previewing Apple’s results and talking about how the disruption in the global component supply chain is likely to impact Apple’s plans for new devices (iPhone 5) and its ability to meet demand for current products (iPad 2 etc).

The interview is now up on the BBC News web site and can be viewed here:

In case you are not aware, Apple last night reported its best Q2 ever, generating $5.99 billion in profit. However, combined iPad and iPad 2 sales undershot expectations at 4.7 million units, against analyst expectations of 6-6.2 million. iPod sales continue to decline, down 17 per cent as falling sales of the basic iPod Classic and iPod Shuffle devices diluted growth in sales of the newer and feature-rich touchscreen  iPod Nano and iPod Touch units.

Previewing Apple’s results at the BBC

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday April 20 @ 3:58 am

It is extremely early in the morning, and I am off to BBC TV Centre to preview Apple’s Q2 results which are due out at 10pm BST tonight (5pm Eastern).

I’ll be on BBC News Channel at 5.30am BST this morning on World Business Report talking about what we can expect from Apple’s numbers.

Overseas viewers can watch the show live on BBC World at 6.30am CEST and 12.30am Eastern in the US.

Lots of interesting things to discuss including the implications of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on Apple’s component supply, whether iPod sales will decline further and the initial success of the iPad 2.

Off to the BBC…

Posted by Chris Green on Friday April 15 @ 6:01 am

I will be on BBC Radio 5 Live today at around 7.45am BST talking about Google’s financial results and the challenges facing co-founder Larry Page as he takes the helm as chief executive.

Virgin Mobile UK: A useless company staffed by incompetent liars!

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday December 29 @ 9:24 pm

Today I decided to purchase a new BlackBerry as a secondary device, having decided that my HTC Desire is awful and no longer fit for purpose (In fact, I don’t think it was ever fit for purpose).

I decided to take out a new contract with Virgin Mobile (owned by cable company Virgin Media), as this company was offering a good deal on the BlackBerry Curve 8520 – free handset and only £12.26 a month for two years for unlimited BlackBerry service and a basic talk plan.

So, I called Virgin Mobile to place the order. What follows are the basic details of how this moronic company has managed to take a perfectly straightforward purchase of a new BlackBerry Curve 8520 on a new contract, with next day delivery, and turn it into a complete disaster and waste of my time in just sic hours.

On calling Virgin Mobile I had to deal with a foreign call centre, by the sounds of the person who handled my call it was in the Philippines. This is where it all started to go wrong. The call centre rep had a terrible grasp of English and didn’t really seem to know what they were doing. My credit check also took a prolonged period of time, though allegedly I did eventually pass it (and am good for three contracts apparently). I had to repeat everything multiple times, and had to ask for everything to be repeated due to the poor English skills of the sales rep. In addition, the rep was far more interested in trying to to up-sell the contract and sell insurance than actually log my details or answer any of my questions.

However, I was called back by the same rep two hours later to say that my order had not gone through the system (a very vague and unexplained statement) and that she was going home now so wouldn’t be able to deal with it any further? I requested an explanation as to exactly what to the problem was and why it was not being rectified. None was given. I was then told that if the phone didn’t come out on Thursday it would come out on January 5th and would this be OK. I said no, it most certainly would not! I then insisted on escalation and was eventually called back by another person (this time in the UK) at about 5.30pm.

This person claimed I had not been credit checked at all by the foreign call centre and that my bank details had not been logged on the system. In addition, she claimed that my order failed because my address was too long? She took my address and bank details again and promised to push the order through manually, and that she would call me back by 6pm to confirm whether the phone was ordered and would be delivered on Thursday. The call never came.

So, as I write this, it’s nearly 9pm in the evening, I’ve not received the promised callback to either tell me the phone is on its way or to confirm that Virgin Mobile can’t organise a booze-up in a brewery. I now have no idea if the phone is going to be delivered on Thursday, or ever, and the very rude woman I’ve just spoken to at customer service told me there was nothing about an order on my account, the department dealing with it is closed and that I’ll have to call back tomorrow. No help whatsoever and very rude in the process.

In short, Virgin Mobile is utter crap and your staff are a joke. You have repeatedly lied to me today, you have failed to complete a very simple order for an advertised product, you have taken sensitive data from me in the form of my bank details and debit card details and failed to use them in the way that was promised. You have failed in your duty of care regarding my personal data having lost said banking and payment details after the original sales call, resulting in me having to give them to you again. You then failed again to use that data in the stated way – as you failed to actually set up a direct debit or process my order. In addition to all of this you have, as a result of your incompetence, potentially run a completely unnecessary second credit check, an action that will affect my on-going credit rating.

I will be calling you on Thursday morning. However, it will most likely be to tell you to shove your BlackBerry. If this is how you treat new customers at the point of inception, I certainly don’t want to be dealing with your unpleasant, untrustworthy and utterly incompetent organisation for the next two years of a contract!

I also expect an apology!

UPDATE: I received a phone call from Virgin Mobile’s call centre at 11pm on Wednesday night. No apology was offered for calling me so late in the evening, no acknowledgement was made of the fact I was already in bed at that time (I did mention this on the call), in fact, the caller (a different Philippine call centre rep to the one who handled my original order call) had no concept of what time it was in the UK.

Anyway – the call centre rep still had no idea what was going on or why my order still had not been processed. All he offered to do was run the order again (and credit check me, again). Despite the time, he claimed they could still get the phone to me on Thursday, and when pointed out that no courier company was going to collect a handset from Virgin Mobile at past 11PM one night for next dat delivery, he chirped up with the following:

“Well if it doesn’t come on Thursday, maybe it will arrive in 2-3 days, but that will also be OK”.

No, it bloody well will not be OK!

Virgin Mobile (and with it Virgin Media). I’ve made a bold statement with the title of this post – I challenge you to prove me wrong. So far, you have only proved me to be absolutely right!

Radio and TV appearances: Windows Phone 7 launch

Posted by Chris Green on Sunday October 10 @ 12:34 pm
Windows Phone 7 press conference invite

Windows Phone 7 press conference invite

Tomorrow (Monday) marks the official launch of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform.

Windows Phone 7 is the latest iteration of Microsoft’s operating system for smartphones and PDAs. The new version marks a major departure from the traditional Windows Phone/Windows Mobile user interface, with a move to a larger finger-friendly interface that has been influenced significantly by Microsoft’s Zune MP3 player platform.

Microsoft needed to undertake a major overhaul of Windows Phone in the face of overwhelming device and software competition from Apple, RIM and Google. Only Nokia appears to be struggling worse than Microsoft to gain a footing in the smartphone market.

I’m doing a number of media appearances tomorrow to talk about the new phone platform and where it fits into a crowded and competitive smartphone market. You can see and hear me on the following stations and shows:

Monday October 11th 2010 – all times are BST
5.30am – Wake Up To Money (BBC Radio 5 Live)
6.15am – Today (BBC Radio 4)
6.50am – BBC Breakfast (BBC 1 TV)
7.30am – World Business Report (BBC World TV) – Not officially available in the UK, international viewers only

If you can, do take a look.

Speaking at Digital Surrey tonight

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday July 22 @ 8:38 am

I will be speaking tonight at the Digital Surrey group, talking about ‘The financial and ongoing value of web content’.

Digital Surrey is a networking group that grew out of the Farnham Tweetup. Since April 2010 the group has been meeting at Surrey University in Guildford and we’ve had a number of fantastic speakers covering everything from the Digital Economy Act to Social Media in the Enterprise. Now I’m stepping up to talk about how and why individuals and businesses need to do more to understand the cost and value of the content they place online.

I’ll post my slides and any other useful material here after the event. Stay tuned.

How do you solve a problem like Ocado?

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday March 24 @ 10:09 pm

For the last few months we’ve been experimenting with online grocery ordering with Ocado. We say experimenting as the whole saga has been far from a convenient, pain-free and polished service. Rather it’s been like using a buggy early beta release of a piece of software.

For those who do not use or know about Ocado, let me explain the origins. Ocado is an online grocery firm that resells the usual name brand items, along with its own small range of own-brand goods and a vast selection of own-brand goods from upmarket supermarket chain Waitrose. One of the original investors in Ocado was John Lewis, parent company of Waitrose (hence the link-up). The John Lewis stake in Ocado is now controlled by the John Lewis Pension Fund.

In our fairly short tenure as a customer we’ve had over a dozen deliveries. We’ve also had an unprecedented reoccurring problem with goods turning up damaged. We’ve even had an incident where fresh fruit arrived so mouldy, some items had already turned to mulch, plus a couple of incidents of bakery goods turning up completely stale and a few items that never turned up at all (but remained on the bill). Around £80 of food and non-food items have been compromised across our dozen-or-so deliveries to date. It’s a large amount of money to have to refund to one customer, and can’t be helping Ocado’s bottom line. It is also problematic as it undermines the main point of online grocery ordering – we buy online and have it delivered to our home so we don’t have to go to the store (for various reasons we rarely have time anymore). Yet with the high degree of damaged goods, we still end up regularly hitting a traditional supermarket to replace damaged, missing or otherwise compromised items.

We would like to add at this point that this blog post is in no way intended as an effort to solicit any form of additional compensation, free gift or inducement from Ocado. In each incident of damaged or otherwise unusable goods, Ocado’s customer service department has always responded quickly and courteously, and has always offered a sensible resolution to the problem at the time, be that a refund or replacement. However, the repeated problems suggest that our past feedback hasn’t filtered through from front-line customer services to the people who need to know (and who can make changes to solve potentially systemic quality and product damage issues).

Instead, this blog post is intended as an attempt to offer detailed, constructive business feedback to Ocado on what is and isn’t working in our individual experience so that improvements can be made and the good stuff continued. We are also doing this in public so that others can learn from our experiences and to stimulate sensible discussion about online grocery shopping in general. However, we would like to avoid a repeat of a recent incident on Ocado’s Facebook page, where we tried to offer up some honest and constructive feedback on a small issue and our post was immediately hijacked by a small group of ‘fans’ who seemed unable to cope with the idea that someone’s Ocado experience was less than perfect and proceeded to carry out the internet equivalent of a public stoning. While I am delighted to find that someone somewhere is receiving the Ocado experience I would dearly love myself, to blindly accuse others of lying about their own, lesser experience of the company is childish at best.

This post is a realistic account based on our personal experience alone. Your experience of Ocado may well differ, and may well be far better than our experience. In which case we envy you, and would dearly love to have your delivery driver or drivers cover our area. It does not mean our account is not an accurate one. Sadly, it is. But it can be made better! That is what we want to achieve here. Ocado, we hope you see this. Our first delivery from Ocado, and the driver who brought it was fantastic. It went rapidly downhill from there. We want the first-delivery Ocado experience back and we know Ocado can and wants to reproduce it. We are also happy to work with Ocado to try and find out what’s going wrong so it can be rectified.

We really like the Ocado philosophy and business model (and the food it sells), and really want the company to succeed. Ocado is a great example of British business innovation and it fulfils a clear need in the marketplace. When the process works, it works incredibly well (not to mention that it fits my lifestyle perfectly, when it works). What seems to be lacking, based on our personal experience, is consistency and reliability.

Supermarket home delivery is a booming business in the UK right now. The current crop of services started in the late 90s when frozen food retailer Iceland launched a pure delivery-only service (you still had to go to the shop and pick your own goods and go through the till, but a man in a van would then deliver the items to your home – great for people without a car); a bit like Ikea, but for food.

Others soon followed and the likes of Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s now all offer online ordering and home delivery of groceries for a nominal fee. Then there’s Ocado.

Founded in 2002 by a group of ex-Goldman Sachs bankers, Ocado set out to do things better, which meant doing some things differently. Being the first new supermarket to enter the crowded UK grocery market in a generation was never going to be an easy task, so the Ocado proposition had to be both compelling and eye-catching to attract customer interest, and it is.

Ocado is the only 100% internet-based grocery retailer in the UK. As such it differs significantly from the established bricks & mortar retailers in terms of how it goes from initial order to front door delivery.

The Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury online ordering and delivery services all work on the basis of your internet order being passed to your local store, where a staff member wanders the aisles selecting the items you requested from the shelves and choosing alternatives for items that are out of stock. These items are then packed in bags and crates before being handed off to a van driver for delivery to the customer’s home or other nominated address. On delivery, the customer can then opt to reject inappropriate or unwanted substitution items, damaged or poor quality goods.

There are obvious benefits to this approach. It retains the ‘local’ aspect of the interaction between retailer and customer. It also maintains a level of continuity and familiarity between delivery drivers and customers, building up trust and confidence in the service if deliveries are done well. For the retailer, it keeps costs down as they can leverage existing stock, supermarkets and in some cases staff, minimising cost exposure and allowing the service to operate on fairly low minimum spends and delivery charges while still making a profit or breaking even.

Ocado takes a very different and more centralised approach. Orders are placed online and are fulfilled from a single warehouse regardless of where the delivery address is (Note: Ocado does not yet have nationwide coverage, with coverage focussed largely on the South, South East, North West and Midlands, but still expanding).

Ocado has built a purpose-built, semi-automated picking and packing facility in Hatfield that can only be described as a work of complete genius. Plastic crates are filled with carrier bags (three bags fit into one crate), the crates are bar-coded and assigned to each order. The crates then zip around the warehouse on conveyor belts and slides in a manner not too dissimilar to how your luggage is routed around the bowels of an airport. Along the way the crates stop off at the various aisles where your chosen goods are located. Members of staff in each aisle pick the items you require off the shelf, pop them into the bags in the crates, log they’ve done it on the computer system and send the crate back on its journey.

The computer system provides suggestions to the pickers on alternative items if something is out of stock, helping to reduce the number of inappropriate or illogical substitution choices. Furthermore, by centralising the stock and the picking in one place, and not having to compete with in-person shoppers for the stock on the shelves, Ocado has a massive advantage over the established supermarkets – it can more accurately manage and report stock availability at the time the order is placed, taking into account when the order is scheduled for delivery.

Centralisation, paired with very effective customer relationship management (CRM), order processing and stock control systems means that the company knows exactly how much of an item it has in stock, its sell-by date, when the next delivery is due in, how many orders there are for that item and when they are due to be delivered. As well as having hard data on availability vs demand, the company can make pretty accurate predictions on future demand based on historical data and sales trends, allowing it to order quantities more accurately to service expected future demand, while minimising waste from items going out-of-date and unsold on the shelves. The approach also lends itself well to just-in-time ordering, meaning that Ocado doesn’t always have to stock and store goods in massive bulk, goods can stay at the supplier until they are actually needed on-site at Ocado’s Hatfield warehouse. There are also significant operational, purchasing and staffing economies of scale associated with the single central warehouse model.

Once all your items have been picked and packed, the crates reunite at the end of the process, where they are loaded onto a van and shipped off for delivery by one of Ocado’s army of delivery drivers, using a massive fleet of custom-built Mercedes-Benz refrigerated delivery vans, painted in an array of bright colours. Most even have names – my last order was delivered in a van called Laura Lemon, the order prior to that was delivered in a van called Kai Cabbage.

Last year (2009) Ocado enjoyed significant growth in customers, sales and turnover – including a bumper Christmas – and continued to expand its fleet of vans and drivers. It has also continued to expand its network of satellite distribution centres. In order to expand Ocado’s coverage area, but retain the single warehouse concept, Ocado has opened a number of satellite distribution points to enable it to reach into additional regions. Rather than load all its delivery vans at Hatfield before setting out around the country, orders destined for an area covered by one of these satellite distribution centres are picked and packed as normal in Hatfield, before being transferred en-masse via a large lorry to the satellite centre. There, the crates containing the shopping are transferred to the smaller delivery vans, which in turn deliver the goods to the customer’s home.

As a customer that appears to be served from one of these satellite depots, rather than direct from Hatfield, we think this is where the Ocado experience might be starting to break down.

Maybe it is the additional journey and transfer process that our shopping goes through (being moved by large lorry from Hatfield to White City, then being reloaded onto a small van) that is causing so much stuff to be damaged? Maybe it’s a mechanical problem within the Hatfield fulfilment centre? Or maybe it’s down to aggressive handling by the drivers or the original pickers and packers?

As a customer, ultimately we do not know where the problem is, and don’t really care, as the mechanics of Ocado’s process should be transparent to the customer. What we do care about is getting the problems worked out of the system so that we can obtain a reliable flow of undamaged deliveries from Ocado for a long time to come.

Issues such as rotten fruit and stale baked goods seem easier to determine. That problem stems either from the supplier, or that these perishable goods are not being stored properly in Hatfield. It is also possible that Ocado’s stock control processes are failing and these items are hanging around for too long. Storage problems seem more likely, but we are purely guessing as to exactly which of these is the actual cause.

Another area of concern is the delivery drivers. Again, it is hard to identify the root cause for what we are about to say (and would appreciate not going through another public stoning), but by-and-large the drivers that have delivered to our home, with the exception of our very first delivery, have been pretty awful. Maybe it is because the drivers are based at a satellite depot and thus don’t feel like part of the Ocado corporate family and don’t subscribe to the philosophy? Perhaps the satellite depot structure has created malaise leading to less oversight and monitoring, higher staff turnover, less training and less overall enforcement of standards and expectations of the delivery drivers?

We have had drivers that have man-handled goods, drivers who could not speak English, drivers that turned up at the wrong time without warning, drivers who refused to wait for a few seconds while we checked for broken fragile goods (really, we realise you have other deliveries to make, but there’s no need to rush a delivery like it’s a Formula 1 pit stop – no wonder things keep getting damaged), and drivers who continually refuse to take the old Ocado carrier bags away for recycling (a significant differentiator of the Ocado experience is its commitment to recycling the many carrier bags it uses to pack the shopping in).

Sure, the bags are bio-degradable so dumping them in the rubbish isn’t so bad, but when part of the Ocado delivery service (which can cost up to £6.49 for a single delivery) is to take away the Ocado bags from the previous delivery, it is frustrating when it doesn’t happen. Especially when you have made the effort to hand the bags to the driver and he still manages to put them down and leave without them. We are not the most eco-conscious people in the world, but try to do our bit and even we know it’s wasteful to dump something like a carrier bag into landfill when the grocery delivery service is supposed to reprocess and remanufacture them. Again, we don’t know why so many of the drivers we’ve had are reluctant to take the Ocado carrier bags away, but in our experience, many are.

To be clear, especially to the Facebook lunatics, we are referring only to the drivers that have delivered to our home. We cannot comment on drivers that have never delivered to us and do not wish to tar all Ocado drivers with the same brush. We would hope that the vast majority of Ocado drivers are like our first driver – polite, careful, considerate, helpful and most important, passionate about their job. The guy really cared about doing a good job and ensuring the customer was happy, taking extra time to talk new customers through every little detail. It is good customer service you seldom see anymore and it’s good to know it’s alive and well somewhere within Ocado. It is the sort of service that makes us want to be loyal customers, and perhaps it is the pursuit of that service again that has led us to be so patient and to persevere for so long with Ocado.

Alas, that perseverance may be coming to an end. Our delivery experiences have been a challenge, while the juvenile reaction to our Facebook feedback has sadly left us with a very negative view of Ocado – particularly given its failure to police its own Facebook page and its encouragement of the mob of immature individuals hurling abuse and unsubstantiated (and quite frankly criminal) accusations.

Also, we are currently trialling Ocado’s Delivery Pass deal. This is another excellent Ocado service innovation, whereby for a monthly subscription fee (or annual payment), you incur no individual delivery charges, regardless of when you opt for delivery. It also means you can order as little as £40 of goods (orders between £40 and £65 usually carry an additional delivery surcharge when paying for individual deliveries), which again suits our needs well as a weekly Ocado shop of around £45-£50 pretty much covers our grocery needs.

We began a one month free trial of Delivery Pass back at the beginning of March, and have had three deliveries in that time. So far, one delivery had nearly £20 of damaged and missing items (including a badly damaged frying pan), and the two most recent deliveries had no product problems at all (though on both occasions the driver left behind our carrier bags having been handed them). What is likely to be our final order of the trial is coming this Saturday, and it is this delivery that will determine whether we commit to the 12-month minimum Delivery Pass contract or walk away, perhaps completely, from Ocado.

The thing is we really want to continue as an Ocado customer and as a Delivery Pass subscriber. However, there is an obvious reluctance to commit to a 12-month minimum term if we are going to have to spend time every delivery logging claims for damaged goods, and paying £9.99 a month for the privilege of chasing down refunds and replacing damaged items. With all the problems we’ve had so far, and the fact that in four months we’ve only had two consecutive deliveries without damaged goods, our patience is wearing thin and we are starting to resign ourselves to the fact that we’ll have to trawl around a traditional supermarket – sadly not a Waitrose – again instead of having quality produce delivered to our door by Ocado.

So we say this in closing – Ocado, we are loyal and committed customers that want to support your business and spend money with you, so please don’t ignore our feedback and instead show us the same level of commitment we are showing you. Please sort it out; please retain us as a customer!

Full disclosure: Prior to becoming a journalist I worked in the grocery retail industry. I also advised WebVan, a dot com-era grocery delivery service in the US on media issues.

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