America’s distrust for big biz, big gov

The approval rating of Congress hit an all-time low in the months before the 2012 presidential election. And it’s not alone.

When asked “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job,” just 10% of respondents said they approve, according to pollster Gallup Inc. That approval rating ties February 2012 as the lowest result Gallup has received in  the 38 years it’s been asking the question.

But there’s other news: In January 2012, Gallup asked people if they were satisfied with the power and influence of major corporations  in the United States. Only 30% answered yes – up one percentage point from the all-time low in 2011 of 29%. Clearly, a majority of people think corporations wield too much clout in policy and daily life. Right?

Unfortunately, the picture isn’t as simple as that. The question was asked as part of a political poll in which just 29% said they were satisfied with the power and influence of federal government. That figure was an all-time low, down from 31% in 2011.


Reprinted form Gallup. Click image for original.

But what seems really significant about the graphic is that this year represents the only time in the 11-year history of this particular survey in which the perception of government was worse than the perception of big business. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a trend.

But remember, this survey is taken in a political context – and during the heat of a political season in which the role of government is the dominant issue. And the results broke cleanly along political lines. Republicans tend to be more dissatisfied with the power and influence of the federal government (84% dissatisfied) and less dissatisfied with that of  big business (48% dissatisfied). Predictiably, Democrats tend to offer the opposite results (47% dissatisfied with the federal government and 71% with big business).

So once again, it all comes down to the independents. What do they say?  They hate everything (75% are dissatisfied with the federal government and 71% with big business.)

Here’s the big picture. The Gallup survey clearly demonstrates that our distrust for the largest institutions has grown over time. Except, perhaps, for the political parties that spend so much time and money dividing us.


AT&T data: You get what you pay for … eventually

Photo: Danilo Rizzuti / (and yes, we're aware he's not actually using a smartphone)

Wireless providers are beating each other up to claim the best wireless networks, the fastest download speeds and the most glamorous smartphones, connected tablets and other bandwidth-gobbling devices.

What they’re really selling is dependency on large amounts of data.

In what may be the worst-kept industrial secret of all time, the wireless vendors – AT&T in particular – are making promises they can’t keep.

Since even before it helped introduce iPhone 1.0 in 2007, AT&T has been criticized for a balky data network and slow download speeds. In 2009, it even asked customers to voluntarily back off their use of data after conceding that its network was overwhelmed by demand for bandwidth.

But that hasn’t slowed down AT&T’s promotional efforts. It’s still pushing smart phones like Wal-Mart pushes cheap crap from China. By at least Wal-Mart has shelves full of crap.

AT&T has oversold its bandwidth, and deals with that reality by throttling the download speeds of 17 million customers – half of its smartphone users – who purchased unlimited data plans, according to Associated Press.

In effect, it’s slowing down the rate at which customers’ phones can access information – sometimes to a crawl that makes it impossible to use such popular functions as navigating, streaming online music or downloading e-mail. In some cases, according to varied reports, unlimited users are being throttled well before the threshold of lower-cost limited-data plans.

All the major wireless  vendors have made adjustments to the way they charge for bandwidth, but AT&T’s particular approach – selling unlimited data plans and then simply making them too slow to utilize – has created outrage.

Some customers are complaining loudly about it. And while AT&T’s user agreement apparently forbids these complaints from being consolidated into a class-action suit, some customers are taking AT&T to court. In one such case, the claimant was awarded $850 – 10 months of $85-a-month service.

The total was far less than the $10,000 the claimant asked for. But it was enough to send a message: When AT&T suggests that its technology lets you rethink the possible, it’s really just intended as a brain exercise.


Photo credit: Danilo Rizzuti /

Apple iPad 3, iPad, iPad, iPad, iPad

The Onion, a national humor newspaper/website reports that by simply writing about the iPad 3, it’s possible to substantially increase website traffic and, therefore, impression-based advertising revenue:

According to industry sources, this news article is generating a veritable bonanza of highly lucrative advertising revenue by mere virtue of the fact that it mentions Apple’s new iPad. “Current estimates show that the particular article I am being quoted in at this very moment began to accumulate thousands of dollars in ad-based profits as soon as the words ‘new iPad’ appeared in the headline,” said market analyst Jonathan Bowers, who single-handedly and out of thin air created cold hard cash for a media organization simply by adding that the new Apple iPad will feature a high-definition screen and an improved processor.

You’d have to be cynical to buy it. But then again, the Onion is nothing if not cynical.

Yahoo’s new idea: No new ideas


Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles,

Yahoo, out of original ideas to end its losing streak, is now turning to shakedowns of online competitors. So says Business Insider, in its commentary on reports that Yahoo is preparing to sue Facebook for infringement of up to 20 Yahoo patents on technologies involving “advertising, the personalization of Web sites, social networking and messaging.”

It’s been a long time since anybody had much good to say about Yahoo’s direction and long-term prospects. Google has been shedding its “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy in a flurry of impressive – if not always beloved – moves that make it ever-more valuable to marketers.

And Facebook has been figuring out more and more ways to make money by increasing its presence in the everyday lives of internet users. Even frumpy old AOL has dug in hard in an effort to corner the hyperlocal market – though its unit is said to be losing as much as $130 million a year and few observers give it much chance of success.

Meanwhile, what has Yahoo done? While it’s market share in online ad sales continues to decline, executives seem to have spent the last 3 years trying to sell the company and not much more. yippee.

RIM reintroduces PlayBook tablet; still irrelevant

Reasearch In Motion (RIM) – inventor of the Blackberry and our favorite company to kick around for an astounding record of failing to meet its commitments – has done it again.

It has released the next version of the long-awaited PlayBook tablet to an industry-wide uncomfortable silence.

According to BusinessInsider’s tech department, the would-be competitor to iPad and increasingly popular Android-based tablets, has addressed the single biggest complaint that the original version had when it was released a year ago. It now has a native e-mail application, allowing users to pull down e-mail without a convoluted set of workarounds.

And that’s the last nice thing BusinessInsider has to say:

It’s nice that the Messages app pulls in stuff from email, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, but it’s barely usable. For example, you can’t send a message over your social networks to someone who isn’t already stored in your contacts.

As far as apps go, RIM says it added thousands of new apps to the BlackBerry App World today, many of them Android apps. Yes, there are some nice apps … but the store is still riddled with junk. It’s clear developers aren’t taking the PlayBook seriously.

Other reviews are less biting, but at best tepid:

RIM released its first version of Playbook last year to dismal reviews. The product was quickly pulled for a revamp, which was promised by last fall and then extended to sometime this year. In the meantime, the old CEO stepped down after co-founding the company, leading it into the stratosphere and then nearly crashing it. Let’s also not forgot the serial delays in other new RIM products, such as the operating system that now runs the Playbook; and the global shutdown of RIM services that affected millions of users for several days last autumn.

More recently, RIM board member Roger Martin (a business school dean, nonetheless) defended the company leadership, saying that while the company outlook and stock was tanking there is no question it was being run by the right people all along.

Today, though the company has a new CEO, the Playbook 2.0 release doesn’t seem to burnish near-term prospects. The base price for the device, which was originally designed to compete with the $500 iPad, has been dropped to $200. Best Buy, which got caught holding the bag on millions of the first-generation PlayBook, is selling refurbished models for as low as $169.99.

The PlayBook may yet succeed and pull RIM out of what appears to be a death spiral.

Or not.



Best Buy WiFi tapped to air in-store porn

Sometimes companies are stupid; other times greedy. But occasionally, they are just victims of something no reasonable person would predict.

Take, for instance, the unscheduled demonstration of capabilities of the new generation of smart TVs on display at a Best Buy store in Greenville, S.C.

While families were browsing around the display of 55-inch televisions, someone used the built-in WiFi capabilities of at least one set to upload and play hard-core pornography. The skin show aired for several minutes before a store employee disabled it, according to local television station WSPA.

Best Buy has apologized, saying:

Two individuals accessed our store’s wireless signal to broadcast inappropriate content on a smart television display. In both cases, we worked immediately to disable the inappropriate content. We greatly apologize for this unfortunate incident and we are working to ensure that it does not happen again.

However,  despite identifying the number of perpetrators, the retailer has not directly answered the question whether it knows who did it – or how it knows there were two, according to WSPA’s report.

Apology notwithstanding, local police have received formal complaints from shoppers – who might have simply switched off the TV – and will investigate whether the incident represents a state or local legal violation.



Outbound RIM CEO says he’s wanted to step down for years. It shows

Mike Lazaridis, who is giving up his job as co-CEO of RIM said in an interview recently that he has been planning to step down from the CEO job for years.

Based on earnings and RIM’s recent record of following through on commitments to customers and investors, we think he did.

12 months of futility reflected in RIM's stock price


McDonald’s gets humbled on Twitter

McDonald’s new Twitter promotion backfired last week, when the fast-food company launched a hashtag campaign using #McDstories to gather recollections of people’s most memorable McDonald’s moments.

In the first hour, they got a bunch of stuff like this, as reported in the UK’s Daily Mail:

@jfsmith23: Watching a classmate projectile vomit his food all over the restaurant during a 6th grade trip.

 @MuzzaFuzza: I haven’t been to McDonalds in years, because I’d rather eat my own diarrhea.

@nelo_taylor who wrote: These #McDStories never get old, kinda like a box of McDonald’s 10 piece

@rolfarnold: Learn all about McDonalds using pigs from gestation

You can’t see the actual trail of posts anymore; McDonald’s brought it down, as was the company’s privilege under terms of the paid promotion. But for more examples check the Daily Mail article and coverage from Business Insider.
McDonald’s acted quickly. Rick Wion, social media director for the fast-food chain, sent this explanation to Business Insider:

Last Thursday, we planned to use two different hashtags during a promoted trend – #meetthefarmers and #mcdstories.

While #meetthefarmers was used for the majority of the day and successful in raising awareness of the Supplier Stories campaign, #mcdstories did not go as planned. We quickly pulled #mcdstories and it was promoted for less than two hours.

Within an hour of pulling #McDStories the number of conversations about it fell off from a peak of 1600 to a few dozen. It is also important to keep those numbers in perspective. There were 72,788 mentions of McDonald’s overall that day so the traction of #McDStories was a tiny percentage (2%) of that.

With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned. The ability to change midstream helped this small blip from becoming something larger.

The media has gone crazy over the story, with significant coverage ranging from Huffington Post and Forbes to Barfblog and TopsyTasty.
It’s not that McDonald’s really screwed up. Here’s a more positive perspective from the Junta42 blog, which focuses on Content Marketing.

The point is that even the largest and most powerful corporations are powerless to control what occurs on the Internet. Any company with the footprint of McDonald’s is likely to have enemies. And everybody – even those who harbor no real malice – enjoys seeing a giant humbled every once in awhile.

Which is why we’re anxiously awaiting these future Twitter hashtag campaigns:









International banks hatch scheme to manage private web data

With Facebook and other websites under global pressure for the way they care for user data, a new idea is developing to allow consumers to take back control of their own data – lending it out to organizations only as they choose.

The idea – outlined in an article by Bloomberg Businessweek – offers an interesting approach with just one catch: It’s the brainchild of SWIFT – the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a consortium of banks.

If they ever get it off the ground, they intend to charge a fee for the service.

Chinese sweatshops hit home

At the Foxconn manufacturing facility in Wuhan China, where Apple products are made, a spate of suicides and a threatened mass suicide over working conditions have attracted a lot of embarrassing media attention.

Now, a week after working conditions at the Foxconn plant were featured in an sobering episode of the popular public radio show This American Life, Apple has released its 2012 Apple Supplier Responsibility Report. The report indicates that 69% of audited suppliers were in compliance with Apple policies on wage and benefit practices; while only 38% were in compliance with policies on work-hour practices.

In other categories, suppliers fared better:

  • Antidiscrimination: 78% in compliance on practices
  • Fair treatment: 93%
  • Prevention of involuntary labor: 78%
  • Prevention of underage labor: 97%
  • Juvenile worker protections: 87%
  • Freedom of association: 95%
In his report on This American Life, master storyteller Mike Daisy doesn’t dispute such findings, and he paints an appropriately conflicted picture of life in a Chinese manufacturing facility that employs half a million people. He interviewed several workers who claimed to be as young as 13. He saw the dormitories  of workers – bunk rooms where up to a dozen people share a 12-foot x 12-foot space.
But they are proud of the products they make – even if many have never used them, or even seen them in completed form.
He talked a woman who was labeled a troublemaker and blacklisted from working by the independent labor board – which exists to address worker grievances – after asking it for help in getting paid for her overtime. He met a man who was fired because he couldn’t work quickly enough after losing the use of his hand due to long-term exposure to neurotoxins used (allegedly since replaced with alcohol) to clean iPhone screens. Sixteen-hour shifts and mandatory overtime routinely result in work weeks in excess of 70 hours for which one might be paid $50.
All of which, some workers say, is an improvement from life in the rice paddies or other places they may have worked.
The company has placed netting around the second floor of buildings on its fenced-in manufacturing campus in response to people who were jumping from roofs.
Here in America, we complain of the great divide between the 99 and the 1%. In Taiwan, where Foxconn is headquartered, Chairman Terry Gou entertained guests at a year-end party by telling them that managing a million animals gives him a headache and suggesting that he is working with the director of the Taipei Zoo to learn how to do it better.
But most surprising for American listeners may have been the revelation that the tiny electrical parts in your iPad, iPhone and MacBook were assembled by hand in a culture where people are simply cheaper than machinery.
For its part, Apple hasn’t commented on Daisy’s reporting. And despite whatever similarities Daisy found to our image of what a Chinese sweatshop is like, Apple isn’t necessarily the bad guy here.
For one, it’s not alone sending high-tech production to China – or even to Foxconn. Further, Apple sets a standard for transparency in its auditing (though its report does not mention name of suppliers where large numbers of violations occurred). HP also makes public the results of its supplier audit. It too deserves credit for the gesture.
At the same time, Apple’s business model demands that it use the lowest-cost manufacturing techniques no matter what the consequences. As a provider of premium products, Apple’s good fortune depends on two things:
  1. Introducing at least one or two breakthrough products every year;
  2. Achieving the ability to sell those products for a price that isn’t too much more than the lower cost competitors that follow it.
This because Apple serves a buying market that has been trained for years to value the lowest price above all other variables.
So to a great degree, Western consumers are responsible for whatever reprehensible labor practices are tolerated and institutionalized at places like Foxconn. That’s just one of the prices we pay for $99 gadgets.
Foxconn is not an aberration. And no matter how much effort Apple, HP and others put into monitoring labor practices in developing economies, it couldn’t possibly be enough.
Anyone who has done business in China knows that terms of a contract will often be considered the maximum level of service – and aggressive oversight is necessary to see that it’s achieved. Every time arsenic is discovered in drywall from China, or lead in toys from China, or poison in dog food, the failure belongs to Western manufacturers who outsourced at the lowest cost then winked before closing their eyes to the process. They may claim to be surprised, but none of this is new. Everybody knows.
Here at BigBadBiz, Apple products dominate the vast array of technological tools that are used. (Well, OK, it’s a couple laptops and an aging iPhone). Even if there was a choice, we admit that we wouldn’t give up these products for something else. But we’d be willing to pay more – even 50% more – if they were made in the United States under working conditions that don’t make us squirm.
Because in the end, everything we buy from China or other developing economies really does costs more than is reflected on the price tag.