Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A free-for-all in domain names?

One of the biggest shake-ups in naming of internet sites has been approved by the relevant global authority, ICANN. They have opened up the top level domain (TLD) names to virtually anything. (See www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-13835997 for the relevant news article.)

Now, there are 22 current TLDs - these are the likes of .com, .net, .gov, .org and so on. These are not to be confused with country level domains like .uk which are often suffixed to TLDs but can be used alone. The plan now is to allow any organisation to apply for ownership of any new TLD name.

There is a down side to this: the minimum bid will be $185,000, but then if you gain ownership of a domain like .music or .sport you should be able to sell a lot of URLs to web site owners. After all, the tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu now gains most of its export income from selling domain names using its country level domain .tv (including for example Channel Five's www.five.tv).

So what can we expect from this? Well, various global brands have already announced their intention to buy their brand name - for example, .canon and .nike. If they don't intend to have various domains within the TLD, then they will have a website which can be addressed simply as http://nike. One might imagine various global superbrands will follow this route. Even if the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Google and so on did not particularly want to change from current well-known URLs, they cannot sit back and allow someone else to acquire a TLD with their brand name.

Then there will be the "domain name investors" who will acquire the names which will be saleable as domain suffices. Besides the examples of .music and .sport already mentioned, there could be many more: other category descriptions from .air to .zoo; location domains like .london or .scotland; perhaps even some corralling of the, shall we say, specialist portion of the internet behind .porn or .adult.

One of the biggest expansion areas is expected to be for the likes of China, Japan, Korea and the Middle East, as non-Latin character sets will be able to be used for the first time in domain names.

What will it mean for smaller, sub-global companies? Well, one impact is that the increasing trend towards longer domain names may be averted for a while. I was lucky in that (a) I have a relatively unusual surname, and (b) I bought my domain name around 2000, when .biz was a comparatively new TLD and so there was an opportunity to get the www.emmens.biz name I wanted (the .com and .co.uk variants were already taken back then). These days, I'd probably have to go for something unwieldy, like www.emmensconsultancyservices.co.uk - definitely a candidate for one of the 'short URL' services if tweeting! I've also encountered medium-sized businesses with 20 or 25 character names which also use the email convention of firstname.surname@25charactercompanyurlname.co.uk, and when an employee with a long name like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen - well, you get the picture. There's no doubt that shorter, snappier URLs are more likely to be remembered and typed than long ones, but at present the only other option is to find a weird, made-up company name that won't already be registered as a domain name, like zxrg421. (Yes, that one is still available, I checked. Feel free to claim it, I won't charge a finder's fee.)

Is there a down side? Well, there is some concern about organised crime getting hold of specific domain names that could enable them to spoof corporate network locations (see www.theregister.co.uk/2011/07/04/dotless_domain_security/), but I would expect ICANN to be fairly careful with the release of sensitive TLDs, so the risk should be small for most of us. There will I guess be a proliferation of web sites with the same name but different TLDs, which could get confusing, but no doubt as most of us find a site through a search engine, it won't be too much of a minefield. Wait though for the first law suits as for example small independent shopkeeper Mr. Clarke sets up his web site as www.clarkes.shoes, and the big corporation gets all proprietorial!

So in general, I look forward to the brave new future with more and more names available to choose. I'm off to relax with a www.glassof.beer!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Campaign for Real Daylight

There have been the usual arguments associated with the onset of BST about whether we should move to Central European Time in order to take advantage of even longer evenings before sunset, and the usual counter arguments about loss of morning daylight in winter.

Now I think these discussions miss the point by some margin.

The centre of the day - the mid-point of daylight hours, when the sun is highest - is noon, or in BST, 1pm. Centre an 8-hour working day around that, with an hour for lunch, and it starts at 07:30 GMT or 08:30 BST.

The real problem is that we get up later, and go to bed later, than we've ever done. Often we now work from 09:30 or even 10:00 and frequently don't leave work before 6:30 or later. Rather than trying to make the clock fit around what we now do, shouldn't we make a simple adjustment to our habits?

If 'Normal Office Hours' adopted the Real Daylight approach, and started at say 8am, then at a stroke we get more daylight back in the evening. Adjust public transport timetables, and let shop times match the office workers, and you are half-way there.

Most logistics companies already start much earlier anyway, and should not be affected (unless they want to get on the roads even sooner to beat the now earlier commuters). Farm workers, of course, are already geared to maximising use of daylight.

What other impediments are there to sensible getting up and going to bed times? Well, the TV schedules would be easy to move, and the likes of restaurants and bars would fall into line with customer requirements.

School times are already a problem for working parents, being able to deliver the kids to school and pick them up at times which don't impact their jobs. Shouldn't school times similarly adjust to what is convenient around the new office hours?

All it requires is a general voluntary agreement by most employers to make the adjustment at an agreed date - probably a clock change date - and it would be so easy to implement. Inside a month, we'd all have forgotten the previous ways of working, and the change would seem natural.

Would we need Daylight Saving (BST) any longer? Well, I'd suggest only if the rest of Europe fails to fall into line. Otherwise, we'd have automatically saved daylight by the simple fact of centring the work day on the daylight period.

Of course, many people complain they are 'night persons' or find it hard to get up early. What they really mean is they find it hard to adopt the self-discipline of going to bed at a sensible time. Such people will of course adjust to the new times, will still fail to go to bed at the appropriate time, and will still complain just as they do now!

So let's start the Campaign for Real Daylight now. Don't be seduced by arguments for yet more clock changes - use the natural daylight we already have!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cookie ban takes the biscuit

Most small businesses don't yet realise it, and even quite a few large ones, but there is an EU Directive that will affect the majority of commercial websites. As of 25th May this year, it will become illegal for a website to set a cookie on a visitor's computer without their explicit prior consent.

Cookies, for those who aren't technical, are small text files which a website stores on your computer so that it can help improve the experience of your visit. All major websites use them; any website with a user login facility will use them. Blogs use them. Websites which serve adverts based on site content or browsing history of the user depend on them. If you don't use cookies, your browsing experience will be the poorer - try disabling cookies in your browser tools and see what the result looks like.

So what is the EU trying to achieve? Well, some unsalubrious web sites are using cookies for unethical purposes, and the powers that be are trying to curb such behaviour. This is clearly however a sledgehammer to crack a nut. There has been no consideration by the lawmakers as to how a website can actually gain the required user consent, and it will not always be straightforward - some careful code will need to be written in many cases.

The UK body responsible for drawing up guidelines as to how businesses should comply is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). They published an impact assessment last September which included this section titled "What are the policy objectives?":

"The aim of the E-Privacy Directive is to ensure that consumers have the opportunity to given specific and informed consent to the placing of cookies or other information on their equipment. This will have the effect of ensuring that they are more aware of the use of such technology by the websites they visit, and so are able to use the internet with more confidence."

It is hard to see how this statement could be less meaningful.

A spokesman recently said that work on the regulations was “ongoing” but would not be complete by 25 May. The minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, said he appreciated that the delay would “cause uncertainty for businesses and consumers”. It is clear that the Government not only has no guidelines, but no real idea yet how to police the new regulation.

So what does this mean for the average small business website?

If your website is built with a popular content management system such as Wordpress or Joomla then it certainly uses cookies. Neither Wordpress nor Joomla have yet commented as to how they will change their products to make them conform to the new regulation, and it looks highly unlikely that any changes will be made before 25th May.

The best strategy for a small business at present is therefore to keep an eye on how this develops and wait for Government guidance. The Government cannot really afford to be seen to be loading any onerous requirement for web site developments onto small businesses given their declared support for them.

Your site may thus become technically illegal, but at least no-one is likely to police it!

For more about this directive see these news stories:
www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12668552
www.guardian.co.uk/media-tech-law/eprivacy-cookies

For more information about cookies, see:
www.allaboutcookies.org/cookies/

Friday, 18 February 2011

When is Democracy a bad thing?

It's a momentous time for Democracy. In Tunisia and Egypt, the population is clamouring for a genuine say in how the country is run. In the UK, we have to decide which is more democratic: first past the post, or the alternative vote. In the west, it is almost unthinkable not to have a form of democracy for public representation.

But would you apply democracy everywhere? Take business, for example. I have recently been working on a contract for a FTSE-250 company, guiding their information systems department through a reorganisation. They had taken the approach that the current heads of each section should develop the new organisation and create the objectives and terms of reference of each new team within the planned structure. Very democratic, you might think. The result was a structure to which all of the existing section heads had fully contributed and had "bought into".

However, there was a down side. Naturally, they each ensured that a nice piece of the organisation was created that could be led by themselves. This was not quite the optimum organisation, and there were a few who were not up to the task of leading a significant group within it.

So of course the responsible Director reviewed the organisation and decreed that whilst it was a distinct improvement over the status quo, some parts should be merged and others arranged slightly differently. The number of available leadership roles reduced significantly, and some existing leaders were going to be disappointed. The Director came out with the cliché: "This is not a democracy, it's a business."

So how do you get involvement, buy-in and commitment from your staff to new business initiatives? One extreme is to make the decisions yourself, as the business head, and your staff accept it or lump it. The other is to make the process entirely democratic, and then you have a result which is in the interests of the staff but not necessarily of the business.

There has to be a third way. Whether a small business or a FTSE company, to develop as an organisation requires all staff to make a contribution. They will generally know what would make their jobs easier, more efficient, more productive. The key skills that you as a manager can add are:
- Create the environment where staff are comfortable generating ideas and proposing changes.
- Ensure that you listen to opinions and get input.
- Make the final decision as to what gets implemented and what not.
- Provide a clear explanation to staff, not only regarding what will be done, but also why.

Because a business is not a democracy, but neither should it be a dictatorship.

To help with determining the best way to organise or change your business, it can often be constructive to use outside assistance. A third party can bring wider experience to bear, recommend what has worked elsewhere, help to make the business case viable, and crucially provide the time outside day to day operations to define and implement the change. We have wide experience of all kinds of business change, from organisation to IT to business development - contact us for more information.