Credit Card Relief

A final piece of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 legislation went into effect, shielding credit card users from "unreasonable late payment and other penalty fees".

It’s a two-part benefit for credit consumers.  First, it puts a limit of $25 for late charges and other fees except in extreme circumstances.  Those circumstances include repeat offenders, and where it can be shown the costs of recouping exceeds the $25 limit. 

Another restriction now in place is that a late or overdraft fee cannot be higher than the charge in question.  Also, consumers cannot be charged more than one fee per infraction.

The second benefit to this legislation it it also encourages credit card companies to reconsider rate increases from January 1st, 2009.  While it doesn’t appear to be mandatory, the banking industry holds that it has already been modifying rates in accordance, especially since many rate increases were based on large fees that now do not exist.

However, credit card companies now may not raise interest rates on customers who pay their bills on time.  They must also give at least 45 days notice before any rate hikes or fee changes.

Write on North Korea’s Wall

Through the wonders of modern technology and a little social media network known as Facebook, it was possible for to “friend” North Korea for about a day.  Since it’s creation on Thursday, the profile for the country gained 65 friends.  But as of right now, the profile has been blocked.

It is not yet known if the website Facebook itself blocked the profile after it was discovered by the Associated Press.  More likely it was South Korea who also blocked the Facebook profile once before in 2007, as well as more recently blocking North Korea’s Twitter account.  The North Korean YouTube profile still appears to be up.  

The South Korea's Communications Standards Commission deems North Korea’s social media forays as illegal under the National Security Law.

"We are aware of the Facebook account and the police and the National Intelligence Service are currently investigating the site to verify whether it is indeed run by the North Korean government," Commission official Han Myung-ho said Friday.  "If we find that this Facebook account also carries content violating the National Security Law, we will do our duty of shutting it down as well."

Content on these government-run accounts are propaganda based, praising North Korea, degrading South Korea, etc.  The YouTube videos in particular are filled with North Korea denying any role in the destruction of a South Korean ship and the deaths of the sailors.  

Of course the information is for the rest of the world to see as most North Koreans are not allowed computers, let alone to access to such websites.


Virtually Dining Out

Zagat, Foursquare, and Foodspotting have several things in common.  They are all about restaurants and food, they are fueled by consumer interaction, they each have a smartphone app, and now they are combined together in the newly released iPhone app, ‘Zagat to Go’.

Zagat is known for its reviews and ratings of restaurants, and the new app is a mobile, up to date version for iPhone users.  With the integration for Foursquare, users can now “check in” to Zagat to Go when they eat somewhere.  The app keeps track of the checkins, as well as any user submitted opinions.

Along with professional reviews and user comments, Zagat to Go is integrated with Foodspotting, an app that includes pictures of thousands of restaurant’s menus.  Foodspotting--and now Zagat to Go--allows users to take pictures of the food they order to share on the app.

The Zagat app follows a trend of integrating smartphones and mobile apps with user locations and GPS coordinates, with the hopes of providing as much information about a place as possible without having actually been there yet. 

TI’s Buyout Expands Intel’s Atom Processor Reach

Intel has announced it will expand its Digital Home Group with Texas Instrument’s Cable Modem manufacturing division in a buyout during the fourth quarter of 2010. Intel’s wants to further develop its “system-on-chip” line of products, and the acquisition of TI’s Puma technology gets it closer to that goal.

Earlier this year Intel entered the “living room market” with Google TV, a screen that blends TV and the internet--and was developed around Intel’s Atom processor. The Atom is a low-cost, low-power chip normally found in mobile computers.

After Google TV and the Texas Instruments cable modems, Intel will look to putting its Atom chips into other consumer electronic devices such as set-top boxes, blu-ray players, companion boxes, and residential gateways.

But Intel plans don’t stop in the living room. The Atom processor was designed for smartphones and TVs, but also for future emerging devices, even cars. Basically, to have “microprocessors where there weren’t before.”

Facebook Buys the Patents of Social Media

On Facebook, when you “friend” someone and can then see their network of friends, there’s a patent for that.  Friendster, the forerunner of online social networks like Facebook, has sold and transferred eighteen of their patents on a broad range of features and capabilities we take for granted in social networking.  The total cost to Facebook for all patents in the deal was $40 million dollars.

Beginning in 2006 when they controlled the social networking market, Friendster began taking patents out on their coding and systems.  These patents range from how a network chooses who it thinks you’ll want to meet, to general and sweeping descriptions of online social networks.

It might be confusing then, if Friendster had these patents then why weren’t there lawsuits against every other online social networking site, including Facebook?  The simple fact is, to Friendster, it wasn’t worth the time, legal fees, bad press, and subsequent scrutiny of Anti-Trust legislation.

This is part of the explanation why the rights of ownership for the building blocks of present day social networking had such a relatively inexpensive price tag.  The other part lies in Facebook’s future.  While a date hasn’t been set, Facebook has been clear that soon they will offer an IPO.

In the past, Friendster never sued over use-without-permission of one of their patents, but who knows what they would have decided to do later on.  So it seems Facebook now owns the rights to the things it’s been using to make it number one.  And with the upcoming IPO, that’s just good due diligence.

New 4G Networks But Not For Consumers

As phones and wireless device become faster and more powerful, so increases the demand for networks and infrastructure to support them. The main telecom companies are expanding as best they can, but small privately-backed network companies like LightSquared have found opportunities to grab large amounts of the wireless network market.

Networks up to this point have been consolidated among the main providers, with seemingly insurmountable barriers to entry for new, less established companies. However, with the new 4G networks, infrastructure building is still on-going, leaving the market full of opportunity and potential.

LightSquared is taking advantage of 4G by offering a new choice for super-fast wireless internet--in select areas now, and with 95% coverage by 2015. With $7 billion in start-up cash from Harbinger Capital Partners, and Nokia Siemens to build the network, it looks realistic that they could do it.

Though such a large bankroll is uncommon with most of the ambitious new network providers, it’s LightSquared’s business model that really sets them apart. For starters, they won’t be offering 4G service to consumers.

Instead, LightSquared will be providing bandwidth to companies to offer 4G services to consumers. This allows them to reach a lot more people at once, leading to faster expansion. Offerings from LightSquared include white-label network branding--“Wal-Mart 4G wireless internet”--extra bandwidth to smaller telecoms like T-Mobile, and alternative internet sources for companies with wireless products such as the Nook from Barnes & Noble.

While this business model will not directly compete with the main network providers, it will still shake up the American wireless business structure. But LightSquared seesthis as a good thing, fostering more innovation and progress.

Smart Phones Changing the Credit Game

In a move guaranteed to shake the halls of finance, smart phones like the Android Apple’s iPhone will soon be able to make credit purchases in lieu of plastic cards. For the consumers, this will give another, more convenient option for shopping, but for Credit Monoliths like Visa or MasterCard, it could mean a loss of billions in transaction fees.

Consumers use their smart phones often to make online purchases or app purchases, so it seems a natural progression to buy with their phone at face-to-face transaction points. In the works are apps to manage multiple cards, live spending reports, and even “buy and tip” style purchasing for restaurants and the like.

Where smart phones are changing the game is in the long-established credit networks, responsible for handling over 50% of sales transactions in the last year alone. Normally, as with a plastic or “dumb” card, there are transaction fees amounting to 1-2% of the sale that the seller must pay. Last year, these “interchange” fees totaled to around $44 billion. When smart phone transactions are introduced, they will take a significant cut of this from the credit card companies.

Smart phone transactions must still have a credit company behind the sale, and currently Discover is working with AT&T and Verizon to do credit transactions through their networks. T-Mobile will be joining as well in a minority-share capacity.

As far as costs go, the wireless chip will add $10-15 dollars to the manufacturing cost of each phone, as well as $200 to vendors for a smart-phone-reading unit. There is room to wonder though, why the additional costs wouldn’t be absorbed by credit card companies as operating costs, instead of passing it on to consumers and vendors, then charging again for the privilege of using the new equipment.

However, with smart phones just now entering the picture, it will be some time before we see how the landscape will look when it’s all said and done.

FCC Changes Mind on Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission has redefined the classification of “broadband internet”, raising the minimum download limit from 200Kbs to 1Mbs. However, this change the FCC said is “long overdue”, has sparked discussions about telecom monopolies and pricing models, and put the subject of net neutrality center stage.

200Kbs is an eleven-year-old limit set by the FCC in the days when Dial-Up internet was how the majority of Americans accessed the internet. While changing the definition may seem small and irrelevant to most people, it is actually a powerful tool in this online social media and internet-integrated world. Previously, Internet Service Providers were able to use the low definition of broadband to minimally conform to the FCC’s National Broadband Plan to provide affordable, high-speed internet to every American.

But even as the US internet infrastructure is becoming stronger and less expensive, ISP and telecoms are raising prices--ATT’s new $25 for 2 gig/month data plan for example. And while higher on internet speeds has brought out telecom complaints of additional expenses to build infrastructure to match, it also revealed telecom pricing and control strategies for tiered access to the internet. Throttling access to the internet is a violation of the freedom of internet, Net Neutrality Act.

While the only concrete occurrence is a higher broadband speed definition, with the upcoming Google Fiber Network and the fierce telecom pricing wars, it will be a while before the full impact is seen on the face and structure of the internet.

The Future of Work

The future is tomorrow… but then I guess it always is, isn't it.  As far as the next big things of work and the workplace, we’re already seeing "the future", or more exact, the changing of the past.  In an interesting article by The Futurist on the, they have predictions of the future of work.  Going hand in hand with the article, I think that we who use conferencing are already working in the future.

It's not really stated in the article, but I believe that all the major changes—barring the generational changeover—stem from our ability to communicate and collaborate effectively despite distance.  For example, the second prediction says we’ll be working for smaller, leaner companies organized to take advantage of outsourcing and consultants.  The only way that could make sense financially is if conferencing is at the core.

The "what" and "when" of work in the future is made possible and regulated by conferencing technology.  If a company wants to have employees responsible for the big picture of the company in addition to their personal work and sell 24/7 in an on-demand, internet-driven marketplace, conferencing will have to be at the foundation.

Obviously the move towards smaller offices, home offices, and the like, located to take advantage of geographic, convenient, or financial benefits--rather than large, single location workforces for command and control purposes—will only be possible through conferencing—or teleporting.

So if The Futurist is a bang-on prognosticator and these visions of the future of work are going to come true, a company should adopt conferencing now to have a solid foundation to support all the changes to come.

For all of us already heavily leaning on conferencing, the future looks mighty rosy!  How do you think things will be in the workplace of the future?  Tell us about it in a comment.

Conferencing Backchannels

What is the point of a lecture or presentation?  In most cases, it’s to educate or inform the audience and influence them in some way.  So when we’ve put a lot of time and thought into what we’re going to say, we want to do everything possible to pull off a successful presentation.  One of those things we can do isn’t something we actually do… it’s something our audience does.

Backchannel communications is any form of exchange of information “behind the scenes” during a conference or presentation.  At many conventions, a Twitter-stream provides an overall backchannel for the convention participants.  And it’s not only for them.  Participants who couldn’t make it, and anyone else interested in the convention can follow the events, happenings, and impressions of the tweeters in attendance.

For presentations in general and conferencing specifically, a backchannel of communication for the audience can greatly increase conferencing benefits.  For one thing, people can talk about what we’re saying, even as we’re saying it.  They can post their thoughts, feelings, ideas, have an interesting counterpoint to make, more information, or a better conclusion.  Without really realizing it, all of them are collaborating every time they post or even read a post; and all this going on in real time.

The backchannel isn’t just for the participants either.  If we add a web conference to our conference call and activate the chat feature, we can get instant feedback by glancing at chat activity while we speak.  This can help us know when to clarify, when to move on, when they’re with us, and when we’ve lost them.

People seem to feel much more comfortable posting their questions on chat than having to ask them aloud.  And because the questions are posted when they’re thought of, they’re not forgotten by Q&A time.  Also, since we can see a question pop up, we can choose to stop and answer right then, ignore it, or work the answer into our lecture.

For a truly dynamic, controlled group discussion, you really can’t beat a good chat backchannel.  What other ways can we create a communications backchannel in our conferences?  How else can it be used?