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HELLO? Bugger, no signal!

Seems appropriate to be in a bit of a miffed off mood with IT at the moment, in both personal and professional areas of my life, both me and a lot of my customers work with NatWest and O2. Not really the two best companies to have been dealing with in recent weeks. However for many years have been my recommended bank and network of choice.

In previous blog entries I’ve talked about UK investment in infrastructure and my concerns for how this is all going. Whilst I may be critical as an informed observer of companies such as NatWest and O2, I use them and recommend them because I am a fan. But how far does that actually go?

O2 for instance, would rather have fans than customers. From a marketing perspective, there’s something a bit more sticky about a fan than a customer. Customers are transient, always after the best deal. Fan’s will stick with you through the good and bad times, through thick and thin… and will also complain less!

What I wonder is whether this is a symptom of one arm not knowing what the other is doing in a lot of big companies.

Recently I was on a Microsoft training course with regards to licensing, we were asked the question: “What is the difference between Windows 7 Enterprise and Windows 7 Ultimate” my hand of course shot up like the nerd that I am and said that Enterprise is for businesses and doesn’t have Windows Media Centre. I was shot down, apparently wrong and the answer is – there is no difference other than the name on the box! It is simply a case of market positioning for Microsoft. I am glad to say, that they are sorting this out in the new version of Windows… hopefully!

So the software engineering department at Microsoft had little to do with this decision, there’s no fundamental difference… it’s simply some bright spark in the marketing department realising that there’s a power user both in business and the consumer market. I also see this frequently with Cisco phone systems, where the actual capacity of how many extensions a system can serve, has nothing to do with the technological or support capacity of a unit but to position it between existing products.

What happens, if the marketing department realises that the business doesn’t have the best engineering? Say, perhaps, a takeover by some foreign company has leveraged a lot of debt on the company, or that an expensive 3G license has also crippled any forward looking investment. We’ll they’ll probably realise that customers would be in search of the best network and best connection speeds, but have no means on delivering any of this. Luckily, there is such thing as branding, sponsorship, marketing and fans! All these things are easier, less tricky, cheaper and more understandable to executives that have come from a sales and marketing background than building a resilient and robust network. Let’s face it, it’s relatively cheap to sponsor the UK Apollo music venues, a dome, a Formula One team etc – you get your name out in situations where people are having fun and enjoying themselves, not where they’re struggling for reception. I nvesting in a network, is expensive, difficult to manage for execs and value for money is less tangible than a marketing initiative.

Those who know me, I’m not really the greatest fan of football, however the business of football and football fans is quite interesting to me. Being in Manchester, of course this is even more interesting. The dedication of Manchester City fans has paid off when the big money has started rolling in for them and success has been very much forthcoming. It would be of course interesting to know whether there are now more Blue fans now than previously given the recent success.

Manchester City has spent on their infrastructure, coaching team, manager, players even the Etihad Stadium. My other blue friends at O2 I can’t say that I believe they have done the same. Manchester United, much like Vodafone are consistent, however foreign investments have seen some distraction for a while.

However, I wonder if much like Vodafone who has made a bid for Cable and Wireless and seeking to improve its infrastructure and take them to the next level, that Manchester United will also do the same by buying more clubs globally and expanding the franchise (think Redbull). Well, I’m going to stop pretending I know anything about football now…

I had a call from a friend who is the IT Manager of a national retailer yesterday, who is very much a Vodafone fan whilst I was out having dinner, I thought it was an important call so I nipped out to take the call to find he was just calling to see if he could get through to me in order to take the pee.

Why are we so brand loyal and let inferior brands and services takeover in our heads to constantly disappoint? As a technology professional, certainly I should only go for those who have the best networks and infrastructure, not those who underspend and leave themselves open to disaster. I constantly bang on about business continuity and always having a fall back plan – it appears that O2 and NatWest didn’t have that, or didn’t have such a plan that they could enact quickly enough to prevent reputational damage.

A small business customer asking me about their IT issues, I’d certainly advise them not to make any moves on changing their IT systems, without having a fall back plan in place, certainly it is even more important for a small medium business. A day’s lost production and custom, could be the difference of staying in business or going out of it, for most SME’s in present conditions. I find it hard to believe that large companies are failing to do this.

It is clear to me that there also needs to be further consolidation in the UK telecommunications market – Vodafone seem to realise they need to own more of the ‘dirty’ stuff, the wires in the ground. Have a good solid network, concentrate on getting the engineering right and building a resilient network.

O2, I do feel a bit sorry for, perhaps back in the days when they were a BT subsidiary it was much better for them, Telefonica own very little in the ground in the UK – I also don’t believe that economic conditions in Spain will lead to any improvement for them. O2 unfortunately needs BT, it could be that BT also needs a mobile network infrastructure – whether this is O2, I don’t know. Maybe BT could end up buying Telefonica in its entirety – I’d certainly like to see that.

So what does this mean for me, am I going to suggest people leave banks and mobile networks? Well, I think this is just the first time such major issues have happened – I do believe it’s a symptom of under investment, I sincerely hope that it has been a wakeup call to invest more into IT and technology systems and ensure that networks and other technological assets are taken seriously once again and receive the investment that they sorely need.

You may need to think about your own business – when was the last time you invested, have you put it on hold because of the recession? This is not a sustainable manoeuvre – if such issues can happen to multimillion companies, it can and will happen to anyone.

This summer’s Olympics will very much be a test of most infrastructure in the UK – my fandom of the brands that I recommend and do business with means I will stick with them until they start costing me and my customers more money. I personally think the issues that both NatWest and O2 have had has been a kick in their complacency and improvements will come. Otherwise, I’m changing from being a Blue to a Red.