Category Archives: Technology

Travel-Related Technology Musings

Random reflections during my latest jaunt this week between Boston and Milwaukee:

Innovation: As I went through airport security and heard the drone of “all laptops must be removed from their cases,” I was reminded of a recent NY Times article on the new “checkpoint friendly” laptop cases that the TSA has blessed and that bag makers Pathfinder Luggage and Targus are now “rushing to produce.” My question is, what took them so long? My goodness, Crocs can churn out multiple generations of its butt-ugly footwear in the time it takes briefcase and backpack makers to make a single security-friendly bag that passes TSA muster. Where are our priorities?

Bluetooth in bathrooms: I’ll never understand how men can talk on their cellphones while relieving themselves in a public restroom. Dude, those Bluetooth headsets can pick up all kinds of background noise, including all the unzippings and tinklings and flushings that the person you’re talking to doesn’t really need to hear. Another blow against commonsense phone etiquette, though it does give new meaning to the term “hands free.”

Earbuds: I have to wear bulky headphones when I listen to my iPod. I can’t wear earbuds – they always fall out. I’m not talking about when I’m exercising either – sitting in an airplane seat, if I turn my head slightly or inadvertantly tug on the wires, boop! they’re out. Even the models that hang over my ear don’t stay snug. Does anyone else have this problem? Do I need custom ‘buds? Should I try Superglue?

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iPhone Frenzy – and Risky Partnerships

A Google search of iPhone this morning turned up nearly 73 million results; Google News turned up more than 12,000 references to recent articles and blog posts. Groups of early adopters-slash-yahoos are already parked in front of AT&T stores to get one of the phones – which don’t go on sale until 6 p.m. Friday. In fine capitalist fashion, some are offering to sell their spots to the highest bidder. Six months of user-generated hype and a slick Apple ad campaign have laid the groundwork for the iPhone frenzy, and now early reviewers are falling all over themselves in praise of the new device. Apple has once again orchestrated a masterful product launch, combining design innovation and unmatched marketing savvy to create what could be the MOST IMPORTANT NEW PRODUCT IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

No one does this marketing/innovation thing better than Apple, but is the hype enough to get the masses to buy one long after the launch? I’m guessing not, for one reason, and it’s not the price; it’s the network. For the first time in recent memory, Apple has to rely on a partner to help deliver the promise of one of its products. AT&T Wireless, as the exclusive wireless carrier, will play a major role in determining the long-term success of the iPhone. And that must scare the bejeesus out of Steve Jobs and Co. Wireless carriers in general have shown a remarkable ability to not care about their customers, opting to put far more effort into acquiring new ones than retaining existing subscribers.

When you get a dropped signal while making a call or surfing the Web from your phone, you blame the network provider, not the handset maker. But with the extreme brand awareness around the iPhone, I sense that any connection problems will reflect just as much on Apple’s brand as on AT&T’s. A few bad network experiences from early users could take the air out of the iPhone’s pumped-up balloon pretty quickly.

Out-of-Home Advertising’s Digital Transition

The current issue of The Advertiser includes a feature I wrote on the increasing influence of digital technology in out-of-home advertising. The out-of-home segment – a market consisting of billboards, mall displays, and basically any other venue that can hold LCDs or traditional signage – is a small but growing slice of the overall advertising pie. The article is here, courtesy of The Pohly Company, which publishes the magazine for the Association of National Advertisers.

Not everyone is thrilled with the digital transition of outdoor signage. Google “digital outdoor advertising” and you’ll find any number of stories from local papers or TV outlets on some town’s attempts to ban digital billboards from their roadways. Here’s an amusing one from Arkansas, which chronicles the fight of a Fayetteville citizen who filed a federal lawsuit charging that his First Amendment rights were violated when local officials fined him for his digital sign; this righteous individual claims the authorities simply didn’t like the religious and anti-abortion messages he was displaying on the sign.  Well now, that’s a whole separate discussion for another time and place.

Bye Bye, Analog OnStar

General Motors, which cannot afford to lose any customers these days, is alienating a big chunk of them – about half a million – thanks to wireless providers’ government-approved plans to drop analog support from their cellular networks on Jan. 1.

Here’s why: Many of GM subsidiary OnStar’s in-vehicle communications systems run on analog technology. Those who own 2003-or-later GM vehicles with analog OnStar equipment – about 3.5 million of OnStar’s existing 4 million subscribers – will be able to upgrade to the new digital OnStar network for around $200, according to ConsumerAffairs.org. Owners of older OnStar-equipped vehicles, however are, as my Dad used to say, shit out of luck, as GM is not offering any upgrade options for those vehicles. That means the cool little OnStar button in my 2001 Tahoe will be deactivated and completely useless at the end of the year.

But there’s good news! GM is offering an additional year of OnStar service for free – “with the purchase or lease of a 2006 model year or newer OnStar-equipped new or certified used GM vehicle.” With the monthly plan I’m on now, that cool deal will save me $203.40 (minus the price of the new vehicle, of course)! Thanks, GM!

I’m sure GM made a basic business decision based on the cost of rewiring older models (if indeed that’s even possible). But they could certainly do a better job of taking care of loyal customers who, like me, expected a key feature of their car or truck to last longer than five years. Like a Rock.

Selling Copiers in Second Life

Xerox simulcast the launch of some new office products yesterday from two venues: Fenway Park in Boston, and Xerox Innovation Island in Second Life. Xerox exec Jim Firestone said the simulcast demonstrates the intersection of the print-based and paperless worlds.

The Fenway event was cool – free food and drink in the EMC Club, a few swings in the indoor batting cages, and Jim Rice signing autographs. The SL event – well, not so good. Xerox Chief Technology Officer Sophie Vandebroek used her avatar to walk through a couple of product demos from within the virtual world, which featured streaming videos of real-life product managers embedded in virtual displays, and a skinny Al Roker avatar running around as some type of investigative journalist/narrator. Vandebroek said Xerox is using Innovation Island to study the social dynamics of the virtual world and potential opportunities for Xerox. I’m sorry, I still don’t get the appeal of Second Life to marketers.

Ode to a Trade Pub that Gave Me Many Sleepless Nights

The news that IT trade pub InfoWorld is ending its nearly 30-year-old print publication (while continuing its online and events properties) is not a wet blanket over the entire print publishing world. It’s more of a long-overdue nod to the bloated state of the tech publishing industry. When dozens of IT publications – three within IDG alone targeting senior IT execs – are competing for ad dollars in an industry that has gone through massive vendor consolidation (meaning the ad pie is shrinking), you have a problem even before what’s left of your print revenues start flying over to the Web.

I haven’t read the print version of InfoWorld for years, but I have fond memories of the publication from my days at PC Week – InfoWorld’s bitter rival during the ’80s and ’90s, aka the tech journalism boom times. We competed fiercely for every piece of breaking news. Outside my office in the newsroom of PC Week (now eWeek), we kept a “Scoop Scoreboard” to track our wins vs. the competition. Our receptionist, the legendary Betty Edwards, would call me every Tuesday morning to let me know when the stack of InfoWorlds had arrived, and reporters held their breath as they scanned the front page to see if they’d been scooped (and would soon be answering questions from cranky editors as to why).

Both publications would both send massive news teams to Comdex – I once had an $11,000 bill from the Vegas hotel where we housed our newsroom – and, after we launched our respective Web sites (PC Week’s crude 1994 implementation, built by our lab rats, was one of the first news websites) our goal at PC Week was twofold: to post every bit of breaking news from the show ahead of InfoWorld, and to beat them with exclusives from the event in the following week’s print mag. 

Jim Forbes, a former colleague of mine who worked for both publications, has a great look back at InfoWorld‘s storied run. I will never have as much fun as I did in the PC Week newsroom during the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s too bad that the leaders of great publications like PC Week and InfoWorld let new competition (CNet), new media (the Web) and a paryalyzing unwillingness to embrace new publishing models pull the rug out from underneath them. The writing was on the wall for print rags like InfoWorld long ago; look for others to follow.

Websites Don’t Meet Consumer Expectations, Report Finds

Adweek reports on a study by the Web Marketing Association indicating that companies are not keeping up with rising consumer expectations regarding their corporate web sites. The WMA’s Internet Standards Assessment Report, released on Tuesday, benchmarks websites across 96 industries and, for the second consecutive year, shows a decline “in the overall standard of excellence.” From WMA President William Rice:

“Web standards are not falling, [but] we believe that consumer expectations … indicate that Web sites have to work harder at creating a total user experience that both informs and entertains the visitors who reach their sites.”

Website assessments are based on seven criteria: Design, innovation, content, technology, interactivity, copywriting, and ease of use. The industries whose sites scored highest are (in descending order): airlines, computer retailers, gaming sites, toy and hobby sites, and food. Those with the lowest scores were Internet service providers, credit unions, brokerage sites, and directory or search engines. 

There’s plenty of other interesting data in the paper, but I don’t need a 117-page report to tell me what my own eyes can see: that many companies are woefully clueless in their efforts to provide a satisfactory experience to website visitors. Some simply don’t put enough resources into their efforts; others over-engineer to the point where their sites become unnavigable (I think that’s a word). Many sites are a confusing mish-mash that show the conflicting functional agendas between marketing, IT and anyone else with some skin in the game. And I don’t see those types of baked-in cultural issues being resolved anytime soon.