Dial Zero
A look at what's surprising, silly, scary or stupid in telecommunications and data

Friday, June 30, 2006

What the people really want

A while ago, AT&T spent a lot of money to determine the most desired phone features.

The winners were not Caller ID, voicemail, speed dial, redial, conferencing, speakerphone, VoIP, long-life batteries, or any other high tech.

Most people wanted long cords and big buttons.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bad Decision #83

In the 1870s, Western Union turned down an offer from Alexander Graham Bell to sell the patent for Bell's telephone.

In the 1980s, the company was briefly in the cellphone business, and later licensed its name to a maker of cheap consumer phones. Now, Western Union doesn't even do telegrams. It's owned by credit card processor First Data, and tries to make money by helping people transfer money.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bad Decision #841

AT&T used to operate a chain of "Phone Center Stores," that sold and rented a variety of telecom products for home and business use. The AT&T stores were often in shopping malls with other stores that sold the same products for 20% less. Within the AT&T stores, people could buy a Panasonic phone for, say, $149; or buy the same phone with an AT&T label for $189. The store signs had nearly-invisible navy blue lettering on a black background. They were doomed from the start, and wasted many millions.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What's wrong with "telephone?"

Inter-Tel calls them "endpoints."

AT&T and its spinoffs Lucent and Avaya call them "voice terminals."

Nortel Networks calls them "business series terminals."

Panasonic sometimes calls them "handsets" or "h'sets."

The cellphone companies are even stupider, advertising additional "lines" instead of phones.

The telecommunications industry has terrible communications. It's time to eschew obfuscation.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Lightning injures cellphone users.

Don't use your phone outdoors during a thunderstorm because of the risk of being struck by lightning, doctors say.

A teenage girl was using her phone in a park when she was hit during a storm, and suffered persistent health problems and needed a wheelchair for a year.

"This rare phenomenon is a public health issue, and education is necessary to highlight the risk of using mobile phones outdoors during stormy weather to prevent future fatal consequences," said Dr. Swinda Esprit.

Esprit and other doctors explained in a letter to the British Medical Journal that usually when someone is struck by lightning, the high resistance of the skin conducts the flash over the body in what is known as a flashover. But if a metal object, such as a phone, is in contact with the skin it disrupts the flashover and increases the odds of internal injuries and death.

Three fatal cases of lightning striking people while using mobile phones have been reported in newspapers in China, South Korea and Malaysia. (From Reuters)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Here we go again:
After ten years & four names,
a phone company is back in showbiz.

This is complicated, kids, so pay attention.

1996Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) negotiated an 11-year cable TV franchise to provide service in all of Connecticut. The company never completed the work, and only served a small part of the state.
1998SNET was bought by SBC, which promised to continue offering TV service for at least two years.
1999AT&T acquired TCI, the second largest cable TV company in the US.
2000SBC asked Connecticut for permission to discontinue TV service, arguing that the operation, started by SNET, couldn't make money.AT&T added cable company MediaOne, becoming the largest cable TV company in the US.
2001SBC obtained approval to discontinue TV service in Connecticut
2002AT&T sold its cable TV business to competitor Comcast.
2005 SBC, which owned SNET, bought ATT and took its name.
2006 AT&T announced that it will go back into the TV business and invest $336 million to provide TV service in Connecticut.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The new AT&T may be talking about you.

AT&T said it clarified its privacy policy for Internet and television customers to state explicitly that subscriber information is a company business record that could be turned over to law enforcement. AT&T also plans to track customers' TV-viewing habits.

AT&T says: "While your account information may be personal to you, these records constitute business records that are owned by AT&T. As such, AT&T may disclose such records to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others or respond to legal process."

The new policy also states that customers must agree to it before using Internet or TV service. The policy does not apply to regular phone calls.

Some privacy advocates object. "The public needs to be deeply concerned that AT&T is asserting proprietary ownership over a record of what they do by calling it a business record," said Mark Cooper, of the Consumer Federation of America. (Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Students hurt while cheating with cellphones

BEIJING (Reuters) - Using microscopic earphones and wireless devices, Chinese students upped the ante in the high-tech battle to counter cheating during university entrance exams this month, putting some in hospital as a result.

With 9.5 million students competing for only 2.6 million vacancies, some universities installed cameras and mobile-phone blocking technology at exam halls to foil the cheats.

But students "racked their brains" and in some cases injured themselves with "low-quality devices" to come up with new ways to cheat, state media reported Tuesday, underlining the highly competitive nature of education in China.

A student in Wuhan, capital of China's central province of Hubei, used earphones so small that they slipped into his aural canal and perforated his eardrum, the China Daily newspaper said.

Another student's earphones required an operation for their removal, the paper said, while an electronic device connected to headphones and strapped to a third student's body exploded, leaving a bleeding hole in his abdomen.

Supervisors at an exam hall in Wuhan, capital of central Hubei province, found over 100 "cheating tools" including earphones hidden in vests, wallets and waistbands, the paper said.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dog makes cellphone call to save owner's life.

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - A 17-pound beagle named Belle is more than man's best friend. She's a lifesaver. Belle was in Washington, D.C., on Monday to receive an award for biting onto owner Kevin Weaver's cell phone to call 911 after the diabetic Ocoee man had a seizure and collapsed.

"There is no doubt in my mind that I'd be dead if I didn't have Belle," said Weaver, 34, whose blood sugar had dropped dangerously low. Belle had been trained to summon help in just those circumstances.

She was the first canine recipient to win the VITA Wireless Samaritan Award, given to someone who used a cell phone to save a life, prevent a crime or help in an emergency, the Orlando Sentinel reported Monday.

Weaver first heard about service dogs while he was working as a flight attendant after befriending a frequent passenger who taught dogs to help diabetic patients. Using their keen sense of smell, the animals can detect abnormalities in a person's blood-sugar levels.

The dog periodically licks Weaver's nose to take her own reading of his blood-sugar level. If something seems off to her, she will paw and whine at him.

"Every time she paws at me like that I grab my meter and test myself," Weaver said. "She's never been wrong."

Monday, June 19, 2006

Koreans use cellphones to find date mates.

Customers of Korean cellphone provider SK Telecom can use a new service called “Cool Guy/Girl within 100M” to learn if a likely date-match is nearby.

SK Telecom joined with WaveMarket, a developer of location-based services, and Psynet, a dating software company, to offer the service.

People use Psynet’s dating website to fill out a profile of themselves; and their preferences and attributes are matched to other users. By using location-based technology, users are alerted when a someone with a compatible profile is nearby, and a conversation can be started.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Winstar should have stayed in stretch pants.

Winstar was a maker of ski clothing that somehow got into the "fixed wireless" voice and data business, with antennas on office roofs.

In 1998, Winstar made a deal with Lucent, where over five years Lucent would provide $2 billion worth of equipment, services and software to build the Winstar network.

According to author Lisa Endlich, "the financing was unusually large and generous. Lucent lent Winstar funds above and beyond the cost of the equipment," acting as a bank/supplier hybrid with 50 people servicing the Winstar account.

Lucent's backing gave Winstar credibility. Despite an uncertain future and huge losses, the company was able to easily raise more money on Wall Street and from companies such as Microsoft and Compaq.

Because of technology troubles, funny financing, unexpected competition, and increased costs, Winstar's stock price quickly dropped from $65 a share to $2 -- but many Wall Street analysts kept recommending it.

The company went bust, missing a $75 million interest payment and owing Lucent $700 million; and its share price hit a low of 14 cents. In 2001 Winstar's assets -- previously valued at more than $5 billion -- were sold to competitor IDT for $42.5 million.

Winstar sued Lucent for $10 billion, complaining that Lucent pushed it into insolvency by not providing an expected $90 million payment. Moody's Investors Service said Winstar had about $6.3 billion in debt

Thursday, June 15, 2006

India outsources call center jobs to Ireland.

After years of being the beneficiary of worker outsourcing, India itself is outsourcing.

Mumbai-based ICICI OneSource said that it would create 1,000 jobs in Belfast, Northern Ireland. New employees will staff call centers for British and European clients that do not want the work done in India.

Matthew Vallance, ICICI OneSource’s managing director in Europe, said that the company plans to create a global network of outsourcing locations. (London Times)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Role Reversal:
with cellphones, men outgab women.

New research conducted for Cingular revealed that men talk an average of 546 minutes per month on cellphones, compared to 470 minutes per month for women.

Conversely, women use home phones more frequently than men: 471 minutes per month against men’s 274.

- Women continue to lead men when it comes to camera phone usage. In 2006, 51 percent of women use their camera feature frequently or occasionally with only 40 percent of men using as often.
- While only one-quarter of those surveyed admitted to having ever lost a cell phone, men proved to be slightly more forgetful than women - 28 percent compared to 23 percent.
- Eighty-four percent of women use their wireless phones to talk to friends and family, versus only 64 percent of men.
- 66 percent of men and women indicated they primarily use their wireless phones for convenience. Safety is second at 17 percent.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

School kids use ringtones adults can't hear.

A high-pitched alarm which cannot be heard by adults has been hijacked by schoolchildren to create ringtones so they can use phones in class. They receive calls and text messages without teachers knowing what's going on.

Techno-savvy pupils adapted the Mosquito alarm, used to drive teens from shopping centers. The alarm is highly effective because its ultra-high sound can be heard by youths, but not by most people over 20. Young people recorded the sound and spread it from phone to phone.

A teacher in Wales said: "All the kids were laughing about something, but I didn't know what. They could all hear somebody's phone ringing but I couldn't hear a thing. One of the other children told me about it later. I couldn't be too cross, because it shows resourcefulness."

The technology, which relies on the fact that most adults gradually lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds ("presbycusis"), was developed in Britain and recently reached the US.

"When I heard about it, I didn't believe it at first," said Donna Lewis, a technology teacher at the Trinity School in New York City. "But one of the kids gave me a copy, and I sent it to a colleague. She played it for her first-graders. All of them could hear it, and neither she nor I could."

(from Metro.co.uk & The New York Times)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Can a manta ray beat a speakerphone?

The scary gray thing on the right is really a V-Hub conference speakerphone, made by Bogen.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Can a starfighter beat a speakerphone?

On the left, an Alliance A-wing fighter from "Star Wars - Return of the Jedi." A-wings could strike quickly, and flee before targets returned fire. Some had guns that rotated 360 degrees.

On the right, the Panasonic KX-TS730 conference speakerphone, equipped with eight microphones in a 360 degree array, and able to record up to 120 minutes.

"Any pilot who volunteers to fly an A-wing better be brave or crazy. It probably helps to be a little of both." — General Han Solo

"When I spoke to someone using a KX-TS730, I would never have guessed that he was on a speakerphone." — Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

Do Panasonic phones stimulate
the growth of strange facial hair?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Cellphone helps cops catch candy-crazed crooks.

Everyone knows the bad guy always returns to the scene of the crime, but actually calling the scene and identifying oneself is … well … just stupid.

Mitchell Scudder and Brian Current, young burglars with a craving for candy, stole $30 worth of Skittles and Starburst from a Little League concession stand in Minnesota.

But after grabbing the goodies, the sugar-fueled sneaks left behind an important piece of evidence — Scudder’s cell phone.

The cops found the phone in the building, and were pleasantly surprised when Scudder called his missing mobile and identified himself to the officer who answered. Police made an appointment to return the phone to the sticky-fingered candy crook.

When the officers arrived at Scudder’s house, he answered the door with a mouthful of Skittles. Cops found 20 bags of candy in the house, and another 20 in a backpack. (From Fox News and the Associated Press)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Help for BlackBerry Addicts.

BlackBerries, the popular Personal Digital Assistants, are sometimes called "CrackBerries" because users become so dependant on them.

BlackBerry addicts have an opportunity to free themselves if they stay in the Sheraton Chicago Hotel. The manager will lock up PDAs for guests who want a break.

Rick Ueno, head of the hotel, said the program grew out of his own personal BlackBerry addiction. "I was really addicted to my BlackBerry. I had an obsession with e-mail," he said. "Morning and night. There came a time when I didn't think it was healthy."

He believes guests might want to try the same thing for a day or two, so they can concentrate on meetings, business and socializing.

Ueno said he would take personal charge of any BlackBerries or similar devices that guests want to surrender and keep them locked in his office until they are asked for. There is no charge.

"I run a hotel with over 900 employees and thousands of guests. I think I'm more effective. I feel better. I sleep better. My family likes it," he said of his post-BlackBerry life. (From Reuters)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

How IBM lost a billion bucks in the phone biz.

Founded in 1969, ROLM was once the third largest business phone system maker in the US, supporting retail stores, offices and college campuses.

The company pioneered digital telecommunications and also introduced employee policy innovations that made ROLM a great place to work. ROLM became a Fortune 500 company and employed more than 3,000 people.

In 1984, IBM, wishfully anticipating the convergence of computers and communications, bought ROLM for $1.3 billion.

IBM's rigid culture clashed with the laid-back Rolmsters, and the technologies did not merge smoothly either. After five years, IBM sold ROLM to Siemens, for about a billion bucks less than IBM had paid.

ROLM-Siemens didn't do any better than ROLM-IBM.

Technology pundit Rob Enderle wrote: "even though it was clear the US market was moving to Ethernet, Siemens was convinced that their ISDN implementation was a key differentiator and that equipment designed for European power wouldn’t be a problem. The result was that their new line simply did not sell and IBM had agreed to cover 50% of the ongoing loss, which became massive..."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

With cellphones, beauty beats brains

According to a new study by J.D. Power and Associates, 39 percent of cellphone shoppers chose their phones based on “style.”

29 percent of shoppers, the next highest group, chose their phones because of cost (a freebie).

Features -- such as cameras, speakerphones and color screens -- achieved a distant third place, at 12 percent.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Lying about cellphone danger, Part Two

Shortly after boarding a commercial airplane, passengers hear a lecture about emergency exits, seatbelts, seat cushions, smoking in the john, and the use of electronic devices.

Pacemakers, electronic watches and hearing aids can be used all of the time.

Laptops, PDAs, MP3 players, DVD players, CD players, tape players, electronic calculators, electronic games, and digital cameras can be used during most of the flight.

Cellphones must be shut off before takeoff, and must not be turned on until the plane is back on the ground.

eWeek says, "The popular perception is that the federal regulation comes from the Federal Aviation Administration — the government’s airplane people — and that it is intended to prevent interference to airplane controls."

In reality, it has never been determined if in-flight cellphone use is indeed dangerous, and the reason behind the ruling is more based on interruptions to cellular service on the ground.

Apparently, when phones are used at the altitudes and speed of airplanes, they can cause problems when signals are handed off from one cell tower to another more quickly than anticipated by the system designers. Tens of thousands of airborne cellphone users could disrupt calls on the ground.

Why don’t airlines just say that? Because a clever bureaucrat concluded that passengers are unlikely to care about an unknown person on the ground who might have to redial a few times, but they probably won't disobey a rule that's supposed to keep their plane from crashing.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Lying about cellphone danger, Part One

It seems stupid that some restaurants and stores post signs on their doors banning cellphone use inside. Am I any more annoying or disruptive if I talk to my wife on the phone while I wait to pay for a loaf of bread, than if she's with me and both of our voices are heard?

Hospitals are another case (or so I thought). Almost every hospital has signs banning cellphone use, with implied or stated fears of interference with critical hospital equipment. If you call your mother to tell her that you just saw Aunt Betty and she's doing fine, it seemed, your conversation could cut off Aunt Betty's oxygen supply or distort her Xrays.

Apparently, the warnings were valid back in the early days of cellphones; but unless you have a wireless antique (and a cellular carrier that can still connect it), interference is extremely unlikely. In fact, doctors and hospital administrators often use cellphones at work.

Dr. Thomas Stair is an emergency doctor at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He's involved in many of the hospital's technology projects, and admits that he and other doctors frequently use their personal cellphones in the hospital.

He told eWeek: "We still have the signs up to tell people to not use cellphones" even though "our biomedical people have checked cellphone interference out" and found none.

The warning signs are kept in place to minimize noise.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Mon Dieu! Another blow to French pride.

Back on May 11, we told you how a French government-financed agency established to improve sales of French phone equipment in the US, bought an American-made phone system for use in their office in New York.

Today France Telecom -- the largest telecommunications company in France, with 220,000 employees and about 150 million customers -- starts a new policy of ethnic anonymity.

The company will spend $225 million renaming itself ORANGE, and will use the slogan "open" (in English!) in 14 countries for television, phone service and internet access.

You can now connect your Apple to Orange.

However, if you live in France, and still use a dial-up modem, your computer
will connect to France Telecom. The company is keeping the old name for
traditional phone service in the homeland.