Trendlines from 5/15/08: New, Hot, Unexpected

In this issue: Sesame Street and Open Souce; More demand for wireless; Xerox goes green; ROI vs. TCO; Starbucks seeks feedback; Hacking the election; BPM obstacles; and Unified Communication by the numbers.

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Starbucks Would Love Your Input

Think Starbucks should offer free Wi-Fi in its shops and reward frequent customers with free coffee? Now you can tell the coffee giant exactly what you think, and they might just do it.

Starbucks recently launched a website that lets anyone post ideas about how the struggling coffee maker can improve its offerings. Visitors can vote on ideas and add comments.

The site puts Starbucks at the forefront of a growing trend of companies using social networking applications to communicate with customers. While companies use services like blogs and social networking for employee communication, some are beginning to use such tools in external applications.

Called "My Starbucks Idea," the site is built on a hosted offering called Ideas from Salesforce.com. It is monitored by 40 internal "Idea Partners" with access to software tools that let them analyze the comments posted by running queries, using filters and running reports, says the company. They can add, modify and delete site content. The Idea Partners also choose ideas suggested on the site and work internally to recommend ways to implement them.

Such customer-facing websites can be a way for a company to try to control customer comments online. In Starbucks' case, the site offers an alternative to forums like "I Hate Starbucks," where customers post negative comments about the coffee company, says Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst at Nucleus Research. Instead of ranting on a site like that, a positive suggestion made on My Starbucks Idea can be considered for implementation by the company.

However, Wettemann advises against deleting negative comments on company-run sites because customers will be less apt to participate. In addition, companies must be committed to following up on such sites. "If there's criticism and it's not dealt with effectively, this can be more of a problem than a help," she says. "If you give someone a megaphone and then you turn it off, you haven't done any favors."

-Nancy Gohring

U.S. Presidential Election Can Be Hacked

According to security experts at a recent RSA Conference in San Francisco, the U.S. will pick a new president using electronic voting machines that can be hacked.

As the November election approaches, the question before officials is not how to fix known bugs in their e-voting systems, but how best to check them for fraud, says David Wagner, an associate professor with the University of California, Berkeley's computer science department.

Wagner was part of the team that audited California's voting systems, and the problems his team found affect counties across the U.S. "The systems we looked at are three of the most widely used around the nation," he said during a panel discussion at the show, which was held April 7-11. "They're going to be using them in the 2008 elections; they're still going to have the same vulnerabilities we found."

County officials have spent billions over the past eight years on electronic voting systems in hopes it would take the guesswork out of vote counting. But panel members agreed they are insecure, and now states are being forced to make do with buggy equipment. "We have spent billions of dollars on equipment," Wagner said. "We don't have another several billion dollars."

The California audit examined systems from Diebold Elections Systems, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems, ultimately permitting their use in 2008, but only under certain conditions. In testing, Wagner and his team found they could introduce a virus to any of the three systems that would then spread throughout the county and ultimately skew the vote count.

This year, most California voters will use paper ballots, which give officials a way to audit their machine-counted tallies for irregularities, but not all states have that option. About a quarter of the votes cast in the upcoming election will be on electronic voting equipment with no paper trail, Wagner said.

-Robert McMillan

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