Archive for July, 2010

Why do travel agents still exist?

July 30, 2010 1 comment

I must admit to a certain level of glee in watching the accelerating death spiral of Blockbuster Video. Those ridiculously high rental fees and the iron-fisted inflexibility on forgiving late charges are finally coming back to bite the company, which was too slow to adapt to the digital revolution, in the backside. It won’t be long till Blockbuster is just a distant, painful memory.

That’s also the case with travel agents. It seems like an eon ago, but I used to book all my travel through a nice Polish lady who ran a small agency with a few friends. Such shops are few and far between these days, killed off by the same internet forces as Blockbuster. The Polish lady and her friends long ago went on to different careers.

I travel a lot, both for fun and for business reasons. I flew a ton of places while working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and for its promotion - something I’ll be continuing to do for the next year. I haven’t used a travel agent in ages; I’ve found that booking online is easy and almost always cheaper.

A few friends and I decided we wanted to have a guys’ weekend in Las Vegas this fall, so I set to pricing the trip out. For kicks, and because there’s five of us involved, I thought I’d check with an agent at the Flight Centre to see whether he could come up with anything I couldn’t. The result: not really. The prices he quoted were pretty much exactly the same as what I found, and in at least one case, they were higher. Still, I figured he’d done the work and booking with Flight Centre would mean a small savings in hassle for me, even though there was the downside of having to pay for our flights and hotel up front (if we’d booked independently, we wouldn’t have had to pay for the hotel until we checked out of it).

The trip was booked and paid for and we all thought we’d be on our way, when all of a sudden the travel agent dropped a nice little surprise in my lap: there’s going to be an extra “resort fee,” payable to the hotel once we get there. Uh, okay then…

I write about cellphone companies all the time, so I’m well versed in hidden bullshit fees. The “resort fee,” which ostensibly pays for the newspapers and bathrobes you enjoy at the hotel, is about as bullshit as they come. It’s an extra tax, plain and simple, that should be included in the cost of the room.

That’s not what bugged me about the situation, though, nor was it the amount ($15 per day per room). What really got my goat is the fact that I wasn’t told about it before I booked. When I brought this up with the agent, he predictably claimed (backed up by his manager) that he did mention it. But like I said, I’m unfortunately a hawk for such charges and I most definitely would have remembered it had he actually brought it up. The correct course of action, as far as I’m concerned, should have been an apology for the oversight and a reimbursement in the amount of the resort fee. After all, isn’t the customer always supposed to be right?

The situation leaves me asking: what exactly is a travel agent good for? If it’s not to make the booking any easier or cheaper, and if it’s not for looking out for things such as hidden fees on behalf of the customer, exactly what do they bring to the table?

Strangely, although many of the independent travel agents have gone the way of the dinosaurs, the Flight Centre seems to be doing okay. My suspicion is that the majority of the chain’s business comes from booking corporate travel, something that still isn’t that easy to do online. But that’s going to improve and travel agents are going to have an even tougher go of it as it does.

The Flight Centre would do well to learn from Blockbuster’s fate. Not looking out for the customer and then ultimately telling them they’re wrong just doesn’t cut it. As for me, so endeth a short-lived stray from booking my own travel online.

Categories: online

Fast food making good use of Twitter

July 29, 2010 Comments off

It seems like everyone is using social media, particularly Twitter, to promote something or other these days. See the recent, hilarious Old Spice Man phenomenon. Fast food restaurants are no different. A number of them are using Twitter not just to inform their customers about their food, but to bring their food to them.

The trend was started by Kogi Korean BBQ, a small company in Los Angeles. With its business consisting of a handful of mobile trucks, Kogi decided to take to Twitter to let customers know where they’d be. Now, they’ve got more than 68,000 followers and a website that displays the trucks’ schedules and locations.

Not to be outdone, Taco Bell is doing the same thing. The chain has been fielding big purple trucks since the ’90s, but Twitter provides a new way of communicating just where the vehicles are going to be. The truck looks to be on its way to Dallas, where there is a shortage of street food.

Closer to home, here in Toronto we have Smoke’s Poutinerie, purveyor of fine fries + gravy + cheese. Like Taco Bell, Smoke’s aims for big events such as the recent Honda Indy, and uses Twitter to announce its presence.

I imagine it’ll only be a matter of time before one of these chains incorporates GPS into a smartphone app that will let customers track them wherever they are, any time of day. Because when you need your tacos or poutine, you really need to know where it’s at.

I, for one, am glad that technology is making this kind of stuff more accessible. I remember when I was a kid, I used to hope that the ice cream truck would come by after school. Some days he did, some days he didn’t. It should would have saved me some childhood stress if I had known exactly where the hell the ice cream man was.

Categories: food, taco bell, Twitter

iPhone jailbreak means porn is on the way

July 28, 2010 Comments off

It didn’t take long for someone to suggest what the real effect of the new rule that allows “jailbreaking” of iPhones in the U.S. will be: it’s going to lead to an upturn in mobile porn. And as anyone who’s been following the situation knows, that must really have Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ panties in a twist.

If you missed the news, the U.S. Library of Congress, which oversees the Copyright Office, on Monday enacted a number of exceptions to the Digital Copyright Millennium Act, or the law that governs how Americans are allowed to make copies of electronic content as well as the level of access and power they have over the gadgets they own. Two of the big new exceptions to the DMCA include the right for consumers to unlock their cellphones so that they can be used on different carriers, and the right to put whatever software they want onto their devices.

Apple maintains a tight grip on the iPhone and only lets users put apps it has approved onto it. Naturally, the company fought against these exceptions and is none too pleased they got passed. The ruling will allow people to “jailbreak” the phone and load on whatever software they want.

As NetworkWorld touched on, we can expect an influx of porn apps for the iPhone since they have now effectively been declared legal. They won’t come through Apple and iTunes, of course, but from third parties. A couple of analysts have speculated that a “red light app store” is likely to arise.

The downside of the Library of Congress’s exception is that the iPhone has been considerably opened up to hacking and malicious attacks. You can bet a number of rogue software developers will create virus- and malware-laden apps that unsuspecting users will inevitably load onto their iPhones. Apple wasted no time in saying that jailbreaking the iPhone will void its warranty, which is a completely understandable and warranted position for the company to take. After all, if you want to mess around with your device and do whatever you want with it, you should have that right, but you should also do so at your own risk.

On the plus side, respected companies that have had their apps blocked by Apple are now free to go to town. I can’t imagine it’ll be too long before Google launches its Google Voice calling service, an app that was prohibited on the iPhone because it threatens cellphone carrier revenue.

The same holds true for the larger or “respected” adult companies - the likes of Playboy, Digital Playground and Pink Visual, among others. It’s probably only a matter of time - possibly even days - before one of them announces an app for jailbroken iPhones. And because these are established and credible brands, users can be reasonably confident that the apps will be safe to install.

Again, Steve Jobs must be apoplectic by this turn of events. This is the man who recently declared the iPhone “free from porn,” even though users could still access adult content through the device’s web browser. Keeping his app store porn-free, though, seemed to be a source of pride.

An analyst in the NetworkWorld story estimated that only 4% of iPhone users had a jailbroken handset, so the new DMCA exception probably won’t have much of an impact. Given the historical trends regarding porn and technology (detailed at length in Sex, Bombs and Burgers!), I’d disagree and say the new rules will have a big effect.

Before the exceptions, there really weren’t that many reasons to jailbreak your iPhone. There are few industries that face as much demand as the adult business, and now that porn apps are officially allowed onto the iPhone, producers will move to fill the supply side. Porn apps are therefore likely to spur more jailbreaking, especially if Pink Visual and the gang manage to come up with some innovative and intriguing apps that actually make it worth the risk of voiding Apple’s warranty.

KFC’s Double Down a flop

July 27, 2010 Comments off

I’m playing a bit of catch-up today, but I know there are many readers of this blog out there who will find this news important: if you’re waiting for KFC’s legendary Double Down “sandwich” to expand its way out of the United States, don’t hold your breath. That’s because, despite some serious media attention a few months ago when it launched, the bunless chicken monstrosity isn’t selling very well.

David Novak, CEO of KFC owner Yum Brands (no relation to me, as I’m sure someone would ask), reported a couple of weeks ago that, despite being a “big eat,” its sales have been “immaterial.” KFC sold about 10 million units of the Double Down, which features bacon, cheese and sauce sandwiched between two chicken breasts, since its U.S. launch in April.

The company didn’t spell out what percentage of sales the Double Down amounted to, but at least one analyst figured it accounted to about 5%. For a new product to be considered a hit, sales had to be above 10%, he said.

The Double Down got a ton of attention when it was launched, but it now looks like it was the wrong kind of attention. The kind of “oh my god that’s disgusting” attention that generally doesn’t bode well financially. In retrospect, the company tried to spin it as a positive story - KFC was only supposed to sell it till May but extended its offer through the summer because of “popular demand.” Obviously, Yum was trying to cover up the fact that the sandwich was selling poorly.

Folks connected to John Bitove, the entrepreneur who owns KFC restaurants here in Canada, had said he was watching to see how the Double Down performed in the U.S. before bringing it north. Sadly, for fans of really nasty fast food, its performance there doesn’t bode well for a Canadian debut.

Ah Double Down… we never even knew ya.

Categories: food, kfc

China lifts porn ban, Indonesia clamps down

July 26, 2010 Comments off

A bunch of news outfits got fairly excited by the news last week that China has apparently stopped blocking porn sites. The folks over at Gawker even trumpeted it as a huge win for freedom, and likened it to the fall of the Berlin Wall or D-Day.

Hyperbole aside, the Associated Press story suggested a number of possible reasons for this change, which has apparently resulted in many porn sites - including Western ones such as YouPorn and PornHub - being accessible to the general public for the past eight weeks. One of the possibilities is that the government is running out of resources to keep sites blocked, so they’re reorienting man- and computer-power to block the really sensitive political stuff. Another theory is that the government is trying to distract people from worrying about the actually important stuff, such as human rights, by “keeping the population’s hands and minds distracted,” as Gawker put it. It’s not a bad theory - it sure has worked here in North America.

One thing is for sure, and that’s that the government hasn’t officially announced a different position when it comes to pornography. Keep in mind that non-pornographic websites and services in China are intermittently blocked and accessible, so what the state does as far as internet regulation is really all just a big guessing game.

The recent decision to renew Google’s license to operate in China is a perfect example. The search giant, finally sick of censoring its own results to keep in line with Chinese law, decided it wasn’t going to play ball anymore and earlier this year started directing all users to an unfiltered site based in Hong Kong. The government wasn’t too happy with that. As a compromise, Google instead directed users back to its main, censored search site based in China, but that site has a link to the unfiltered page in Hong Kong, which anyone can access with a simple click. How the Chinese government finds that to be acceptable is beyond me.

The bottom line is, I wouldn’t get too excited about this apparent easing of restrictions on pornography in China. My money is on this being either a temporary shortage of resources, or an experiment wherein censors are testing some sort of new blocking system without anyone knowing it.

Ironically, just as China is unblocking adult sites, the clamps are coming down in Indonesia. The country is looking to block porn sites before Ramadan begins on Aug. 10 as an effort to carry out a law passed in 2008. The government says it is being very careful not to evoke the sorts of web censorship fears found in China and Iran, since Indonesia has humans rights and press freedom laws, but it is duty bound to protect the population from the ill effects of pornography.

What’s funny is that the government isn’t quite sure how they’re going to block such sites, whether it’s with keywords or some sort of other larger method. One thing they don’t want to get into is accidentally blocking non-pornography sites. Even the Communications and IT Minister seems to know this is a “good luck with that” kind of situation, summing up the plan with this nice quote: “If some of [the websites] remain accessible, we can at least say we tried.”

Categories: china, Google, sex