Monday, February 28, 2011

Communism, atheism, and free love - in Torrance, California? (University of Redwood)

I didn't know that Jake Kuramoto knew that I have a child of college age, but he has alerted me about a wonderful college called the University of Redwood. The About page contains this information:

University of Redwood was founded in 1908 and was operational in 1911. Redwood is named after the Oregon pioneers Simeon and Amanda Redwood. Simon Redwood had been an entrepreneur. He wished his wife to devote some portion of his property for the purpose of prosperity and happiness of the inhabitants of Oregon. Amanda Redwood then set up a board of trustees to found an institution of learning in Portland, with no limits other than an insistence on equality and secularism. In the ensuing years, University of Redwood has become one of the nation's prominent institutions of the liberal arts and sciences.

Let me share a little more about this institution with you.

The curriculum at Redwood is highly structured and extremely rigorous. The four basic features of Redwood are – humanities sequence, the breadth of study requirement, junior qualifying examinations and the senior thesis. Thesis is one of the major achievements of Redwood graduates. First- and second-year students at Redwood College develop a strong background in humanistic and scientific study. The junior and senior years provide opportunity for intensive examination of the subject matter and techniques of a more narrowly defined academic discipline, culminating in the senior research project and thesis.

Now perhaps some of you are starting to wonder about this institution, which is referred to as a "university" at one point, and a "college" elsewhere. And why does an Oregon college have this address?

Suite 19149, 2972 Columbia Street,
Torrance, CA 90503,

As for me, the alarm bells went off when Simeon and Amanda Redwood were mentioned.

You see, the Redwoods, and the institution that they founded, bear a striking resemblance to another college in the Pacific Northwest.

Here's the article that Jake Kuramoto actually shared with me:

Starting a new university might seem like a huge endeavor: You need to gather many millions of dollars, hire a qualified faculty, find and pay for a campus, and set up an infrastructure capable of serving the needs of thousands of students. But a “school” called University of Redwood found a much simpler way to come into being: Copy every photo and bit of information about Reed College, a (real) liberal arts school in Oregon, replace Reed’s name with its own, and watch the application fees roll in.

The apparent point of this whole endeavor, according to the Wall Street Journal, is to convince overseas students who are less familiar with American colleges to apply. When they apply, they pay a fee; then, the school sends rejection letters to every applicant and pockets the fees. It’s a lot cheaper than hiring professors.

Be sure to read the entire Geekosystem article here, including this interesting little tidbit about what happened when the real Reed College complained to GoDaddy, the U of R's web provider:

GoDaddy initially took the University of Redwood website offline when Reed complained, but put it back up after concluding that the “allegedly infringing material was removed.”

Oh, and because I'm not a U of R graduate, I should take time to note that the Geekosystem post sources its information from Metafilter and the Wall Street Journal.

The Metafilter comments reveal that the University of Redwood's site also appropriates material from the University of Washington, as well as a fax number from Redwood City, California.

Now let's see if I'm logically consistent. I previously supported Mohamed Khidr's right to take advantage of people who don't take the time to compare gas prices. Am I now going to support the University of Redwood's right to take advantage of people who don't take the time to research the legitimacy of undergraduate institutions?

But as for me, I wish that the U of R would post information about its most famous non-alum - Steve Jobwoods.

Why Mohamed R. Khidr at a Mobil gas station in West Covina makes a lot of money

I have an undergraduate degree in economics. When I was taught economics, there were a lot of assumptions in what I was taught, including the assumption that people not only have access to perfect information, but also act rationally on that information. These actions represent the "invisible hand" that manage market prices.

Those are a lot of assumptions, and they don't hold up in the real world. Even when people have perfect information, they do not always act rationally.

I bought gas on Saturday, and paid $3.559 a gallon for it. (If Foursquare still allowed me to compete for mayorships, I would have shared this with you on Saturday.) This was at a Costco, where gas is usually priced more cheaply than it is at other gas stations.

This got me wondering - how much are people paying for gas at more expensive gas station chains, in more remote areas? Baker, California came to mind - it's on the main freeway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and there's not much around it, so gas prices usually tend to be high.

But when I checked the California Gas Prices web site on Sunday afternoon, it turned out that the most expensive gas in California wasn't in Baker. Instead, it was in the suburban city of West Covina, California.

My first thought when I saw this price - is this real? California Gas Prices is dependent upon people who submit price data, and I considered the possibility that someone erroneously listed a price for this gas station.

View Larger Map

But as I searched the web, I found a February 24 Pasadena Star-News article that indicated that the high price report at this Mobil station was probably accurate.

The article, written by James Figueroa, listed a February 24 price of $4.599 at the Mobil gas station at Azusa and Garvey, and included a picture of the price. So if they were charging $4.599 on the 24th, a price of $4.699 on the 27th wasn't all that surprising.

And this quote from the article obviously didn't surprise me:

Business at the Mobil appeared slower than other stations, however.

But what was surprising was this little tidbit in the article:

Across the street, a Shell station was selling regular for $3.75 a gallon.

Yes, that was (as of the 24th) an 85 cent per gallon difference between two gas stations right next to each other. Or, if you put twelve gallons of gas in your tank, a $10.20 total difference.

Yet people were willing to pay it - five people in one half-hour period surveyed by Figueroa.

Figueroa tried to reach station owner Mohamed Khidr, but he couldn't be reached.

Now invisible hand proponents would argue that it is impossible for someone like Khidr to exist, because people would rationally gravitate to the Shell across the street. And anti-libertarians would argue that "something should be done" about the gas station's price gouging.

But Khidr has apparently hit upon a successful way to make money. You can either sell things to a lot of people at a low price, or you can sell things to a few people at a high price. Kind of like what Apple used to do with its products, except that the gas at the West Covina Mobil station is just like all of the other gas sold in the area. (In fact, in late January, this article noted that a Mobil station in Bakersfield was selling gas for $2.999, while one in West Covina - possibly the one on Azusa and Garvey - was selling gas for $4.379.)

And as long as people continue to go to the West Covina Mobil station, why change the pricing strategy?

Years ago I read a parody music publication that claimed that the Eagles were pricing a record album at $5 million, rather than the then industry-standard price of less than $10. According to the parody publication, when the interviewer asked the Eagles how many people would buy such a high priced album, the band responded, "We only need one."

And yes, if you remember reading this story in an earlier post in this blog, then you realize that I'm making the same point again - if you price your goods as high as the market will bear, then you can't be criticized when people actually pay the price that you set. (Assuming that the marketer is not taking advantage of catastrophe, but in both the Mobil West Covina case and in the Mobile Industry Review case, customers could easily find alternatives to the high-priced items but chose not to do so.)

P.S. When I shared some of this story on Facebook, one of my Facebook friends told me that she was driving by this gas station last summer and the prices were $1 higher than average even then. This further substantiates that the station has hit on a winning business model.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The problem with becoming the next [fill in the blank]

STEVE MARTIN: Let’s repeat the Non-Conformist Oath. I promise to be different!

AUDIENCE: I promise to be different.

(Steve Martin; read the entire quote at Mike Whitmore's Blog

Businesses, or business people, often set goals for themselves. Sometimes the goals are modest, but sometimes they are ambitious. Often the ambitious goals are stated in relation to a competitor. Here are two examples of such goals:

COMPANY A: I will create a product that renders the iPad obsolete.

COMPANY B: I will produce a tablet that outsells the iPad.

There is an important distinction between these two goals. While both of the goals target a competitor, the goal of Company B is completely defined by the competitor. Perhaps Company B had previous goals such as "I will produce a music device that outsells the iPod," or "I will produce a computer that outsells the Macintosh."

Now these types of goals are not necessarily bad goals - there are tons of companies that can improve on processes and commoditize products - but it's important to notice the difference between these types of goals and the types of goals espoused by Company A in my example.

Speaking of Apple, in the early 1980s Steve Jobs and John Sculley clearly targeted IBM. But unlike companies such as Compaq that improved upon IBM's original design, Apple chose to present a different solution to the same problem, even though many people told Apple that they were dooming themselves and they'd be better off providing a computer that ran the same software that IBM computers could run.

There are many cases in which we are told that we can't do things as well as the competition can. Tara Hunt recently provided a personal example:

As I prepared my talk at TEDxConcordia last week, I was told by countless people that certain talks would be ‘a tough act to follow’.

I was told this over and over again in my speaking career. Someone is either about to get on stage or they’ve been on stage and everyone is buzzing about the talk. This will be the one that nobody wants to follow. The speaker either has an amazing reputation or amazing content that everybody is eagerly awaiting. As someone who is always concerned about being the ‘best of breed’ on the stage – this used to be a daunting task…especially if I am following that ‘tough act to follow’.

So how did Tara ensure that she measured up to those who preceded her? By not worrying about it:

But somewhere along the line, I decided to stop being the person who follows the tough act and start BEING the tough act. I thought to myself, “Screw it…Tara Hunt follows nobody…tough or not…I have the ability to set the bar high.” And so it went…and I carved my own path.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Online transparency

The Washington Post has nothing to hide.

See my previous posts on the topic of corrections, including this December 6 post and this December 4 post.

And after reading the title of the December 6 post, those of you with a musical bent may want to view this video. Yes, it's off topic, but it's ZEPPELIN...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I'm sure that Hewlett Packard in Bangalore is a fine place to work (or, the hazards of over-analysis)

I occasionally dip into my Google Analytics data to look for trends, and ideally to manufacture them.

Perhaps it's appropriate for me to make a confession at this point - while the majority of my traffic comes from the United States, I wouldn't be terribly disappointed if that were to change, and the majority of my traffic were instead to come from India. Why do I feel this way? Because there are a lot of Indians, and if the Indian traffic on my blog outweighs the American traffic, then I'll have a substantial readership indeed.

So every once in a while I'll throw something into the blog that I believe will be of interest to this populous subcontinent. And I'm not just talking about my two posts (whoops, three) about James Macpherson and Pasadena Now, or my post about President Obama's tax policies. I've also talked about a sports injury centre, Wal-Mart and Carrefour expansion in India, Navnitlal and Sons, and the Irrigation Association of India (IAI).

I have to be honest - I haven't covered San Marino or Andorra to this depth. Now Finland and Ecuador? That's a whole other story. And yes, I still have to cover Tanzania.

But when I actually went to see what content was really popular in India, I was surprised to discover that one of the popular entries was a September 2010 blog post entitled Worthless speculation - who else could acquire Hewlett Packard?

At first this mystified me, because there was nothing in that post that directly referenced India.

Then I checked to see if that post possibly contained a search term that caused people to rush to the page. As it turns out, however, all of the visits were via direct link.

Then I noticed that all of the visits came from the city of Bangalore.

And when I checked the service provider, everything fell into place - the listed service provider was Hewlett Packard.

So apparently what happened is that some HP worker in Bangalore happened upon my post, and either couldn't stop reading it, or decided to tell his/her co-workers about it. I can imagine the lunchroom conversation now:

So this stupid American blogger thinks that AT&T may acquire us?

Yes. Bizarre, isn't it?

I hear that people in the United States hate AT&T. That's what my iPhone-using friend told me.

Yes, the iPhone is only available via AT&T in the United States.

And that probably won't change any time soon.

Unless the stupid American blogger says that Apple and AT&T will stay exclusive forever. Then I'm certain that another American company will offer the iPhone.

Well, to do my due diligence, I should mention that Hewlett Packard has ten locations in Bangalore. The first location on the list is as follows:

Hewlett-Packard India Sales Pvt. Ltd.
Hewlett-Packard India Sales Pvt. Ltd.

Hewlett-Packard India Sales Pvt. Ltd.
24, Salarpuria Arena Building
Adugodi, Hosur Road
Bangalore - 560 030

9:00 AM - 6:00 PM, Monday - Friday (IST)

View Larger Map

But after hours, the HP workers could presumably go to the nearby MICO Sports Club, where cricket and hockey (field hockey, I think) are played. The sports facility is presumably named for the nearby MICO Bosch factory.

Hmm...maybe AT&T will buy Bosch.

Monday, February 21, 2011

(empo-tuulwey) No, Twitter - or Amazon - are not good or evil

This morning, I saw a tweet from Dion Hinchcliffe that got me thinking:

Watching the Middle East & N. Africa news today, it's fascinating to see how social media has helped trigger a major regional transformation

And a little later, I saw a post from Dave Winer that included this comment:

When Amazon kicked WikiLeaks off, without adequate explanation, they did far more damage to their own rep than they did to WikiLeaks. Everyone knew WikiLeaks is a hot potato. What we didn't know is how little heat it would take Amazon to dump one of their customers. It would be one thing to stand up to repeated court orders and finally cave. But in this case, there wasn't even a judgment against WikiLeaks. They kicked them off because it suited them. And that killed Amazon as an environment for journalism.

It's important to note what Hinchcliffe and Winer are saying, and what they are not saying. (Or at least I hope they're not saying.)

Twitter the tool is not inherently good. Amazon the tool is not inherently evil. (Of course, one can have an opinion on the goodness or badness of the COMPANIES named Twitter and Amazon.)

But the tools themselves are amoral entities. I can use Twitter to tell people about a peaceful demonstration, or I can use Twitter to command crazed followers to damage society. I can upload evidence of government wrongdoing to Amazon, or I can upload information to Amazon that will endanger the lives of people.

Of course, this same perspective on tools applies to tools from earlier centuries. I can use atomic power to take lives, or I can use atomic power to take lives. I can use a printing press to enlighten humankind, or I can use a printing press to enslave humankind.

And, of course, it all depends upon perspective. Every one of my examples above describes the same event - it's just how we perceive the event that classifies it as good or evil.

Take the tweet. While some people look at a peaceful demonstration as a symbol of freedom, others (namely those in power) look at the same event as damaging to society. If you don't believe me, consider how you would react if a peaceful demonstration occurred just outside of your house, blocking your driveway, keeping you from going to work or school.

Take my atomic example. There's an ongoing debate among historians, some of whom say that the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the most evil thing ever done by a human against another human, while others (including buck-stopping Harry S Truman himself) maintained that the bombs were necessary to avoid the massive loss of life that would have occurred from a ground invasion of the Japanese islands.

So before you go out and declare that Twitter saved the world, or that Amazon enslaved it (or vice versa), remember that Twitter and Amazon did no such thing.

Paraphrasing something that U.S. Second Amendment supporters say, Twitter doesn't free people. People do.

(empo-tuulwey) Tools, when used correctly, can have unintended consequences

As a former product manager, I am well aware that my vision for a product may not be the same as the way in which the customer wants to use the product. We can probably all thing of examples in which some uses the product in the so-called "wrong" way, but gets a wonderful benefit out of this supposed misuse.

But the reverse also holds true. You can use a product exactly the way that the designers intended it to be used, and very bad things can happen.

If you don't believe me, consider this - use of a spellchecker can result in death.

I'm not kidding.

Spellcheckers, whether found on your computer or on your cell phone, are problematic things. First, spellcheckers may be out of date; for example, the spellchecker that is monitoring this blog post is unaware of the word "Facebook." Second, spellcheckers are (obviously) language-dependent; if I suddenly start typing in French or in German, when the spellchecker is expecting English text, the spellchecker will freak out. Third, even if the spellchecker and the typist are using the same language, there could be dialect, slang, or other issues that send the spellchecker awry.

So, let's say that you're in the United Kingdom, and your name is Neil, and you send an SMS message to your friend Josef. You type the word "mutter," but your cellphone helpfully uses predictive text to auto-correct the word so that it instead reads "nutter."

To say that Josef was displeased when he received this text message is an understatement. The Daily Mail:

[Josef] Witkowski went round to [Neil] Brook's flat in Walkden, Greater Manchester....

Mr Witkowski had gone to [Brook's] flat with a knife, looking for a fight...

And he got one.

In advance of the visit [Brook] had fitted knives to the door and near his bathroom in his flat which hit [Witkowski] in the leg.

After suffering a knife wound, Mr Witkowski sought sanctuary in the bathroom, but Brook smashed his way through and continued the assault.

The Bolton News said Manchester Crown Court heard the victim had 104 injuries including cuts, stab wounds, bruises and slice marks on his hands, with the fatal blow piercing his heart.

The jury determined that Brook was NOT guilty of murder, but was guilty of manslaughter.

But before you start campaigning to ban cell phones, I just want to remind you - cell phones don't kill people. People do.

H/T, which was shared by a co-worker of mine on Facebook. I am going to be very very careful when I send messages to that co-worker.

However, Daggle suggests that we should all be referring to this story in the Bolton News, which appears to be the original source used by everyone. Be sure to check the Bolton News item for additional information.

And if you're interested in the whole issue of citation, see the comment from Jennifer Guevin of CNET at the Daggle post.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(empo-tymshft) (empo-tuulwey) How the Twentieth Century Contributed to Conan 2.0

Recently, Fortune published an article entitled "Conan 2.0." (H/T Techdirt and JCunwired.) While the article primarily deals with how changes in the technological landscape have affected Conan O'Brien and his work, there are a couple of item in the article that remind us, in the words of the 20th century philosophers Devo, that "some things never change."

The first item comes from Conan's post-NBC, pre-TBS stand-up tour, during which Twitter hashtags were used to influence O'Brien's onstage performance.

Suddenly O'Brien wasn't just performing for fans; he was also engaging in a conversation with them.

Just before each show [Aaron] Bleyaert would tweet a new hashtag (which allowed Twitter users to form a single conversation stream that everyone in the audience could follow), and then members of O'Brien's team would monitor the tweets from audience members to one another....By reading the hashtag stream, Bleyaert recalls, O'Brien and his team could see, for example, that "some guy in the fifth row was using Twitter to try and pick up a 'girl in the white hat, three rows in front of the stage,' " and O'Brien would instantly incorporate that into his next bit.

But when I was reading the passage from the Fortune article, I was immediately struck by the next sentence:

He was tapping into his improvisational roots -- he had been a member of the Groundlings, the legendary Los Angeles improv group whose alumni include Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman, Laraine Newman, and Jimmy Fallon -- but now he was "improv-ing" based on digital information gathered in real time.

Now let's face it - if I or Robert Scoble or someone had access to a real-time Twitter feed of reactions to what we were saying, we could certainly incorporate that into our presentation. But Laraine Newman, unlike me, could actually incorporate that information and come up with something funny. This isn't because of some type of Twitter training or Web 2.0 training, but because of the improv training that Newman, O'Brien, and others received back in the dim days of the twentieth century. In this case, the tool (the Twitter feed) is secondary to what you do with the information that the tool provides you.

The second part of the Fortune article that struck me was when O'Brien was talking about how his childhood dream was shattered:

O'Brien had worked his whole professional life with one goal in mind, to get to host The Tonight Show, and he got there, but he was born 10 years too late for it to really matter. Accidentally, however, he's learned how to innovate and make the Conan brand mean even more than The Tonight Show brand to a young, passionate, and growing audience....

"You have an image in your head of this iconic person. For me, it might have been Johnny Carson, where you grow up with him, and you think, 'Well, that's who I need to be' -- to realize that feeling I had when I was 8, sitting in my parents' house and watching him. And then things happen, and you think, 'Oh, my God, I didn't -- that fell apart.' But it's the failure to be that person or to completely follow through on what he did that leads you to something that's much better."

On the surface, it seems to be an indictment of old TV, and how Twitter and YouTube and everything else have worked together to make old TV obsolete. Yes, that's how it sounds - until you realize that Conan O'Brien wasn't the first person to have his dream shattered.

Nearly twenty years ago, another insanely popular comedian with a late night show wanted to host the Tonight Show. Unlike Conan, however, this person never got a chance to do so, because NBC had already signed a deal to give the show to Jay Leno after Johnny Carson retired. This performer, David Letterman, was literally in physical pain because his dream of hosting the Tonight Show had been shattered.

Now if the situation in the early 1990s had paralleled the situation of today, Letterman would have reinvented himself by opening a CompuServe account and distributing bits on VHS tape, thus revolutionizing the way in which performers could access their audience.

But Letterman did no such thing. Instead, he transferred his show from one network, NBC, to another network, CBS, and pretty much did the same thing that he had been doing before, only in a nicer suit.

Heck, there are a number of performers who have lost out on the Tonight Show and have enjoyed success afterwards. Despite the fact that Joan Rivers' late night show is popularly regarded as a failure, the fact remains that Rivers has continued to work and enjoy popularity even today.

So Conan's post-Tonight show success is not unique. And Conan's ability to immediate react to hashtags is not a new phenomenon. What Conan HAS demonstrated is an ability to adapt to his situation, based upon his personal experience and upon the tools that are available to him. I don't know if Conan could have bested Milton Berle - back in the 50s, people would have had to rely on word of mouth to realize that O'Brien and Lucille Ball shared a hair color - but O'Brien would have given it his best shot.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What type of leader do YOU want?

I'm fascinated by leaders and leadership, both in government (my alliance in Starfleet Commander Universe 2 is called "Commanders in Chief") and in business. And since I've spent all of my working life in technology (in one way or another), I've had a chance to observe technology leaders as they rise and all.

And there's one observation that has held true - most of the people who founded companies in the tech boom of the 1970s aren't heading those companies today. Bill Gates, who today remains as chairman of the board at Microsoft, is a rare exception. Steve Jobs is another notable case, although his leadership at Apple was interrupted for over a decade.

In most cases, however, the founders chose to depart, and the reins of their firms were handed over to non-founder types.

In a recent editorial in InformationWeek, Rob Preston discussed the difference between the two types of leaders>.

"Professional CEOs" -- those adept at keeping costs down, market share on track, M&As in motion, and the regulators in check -- will always be valuable, but more often than not they don't build truly great companies. Think Jeffrey Immelt at GE or Mark Hurd when he ran HP: first rate executives who get the house in order but who don't rally the troops or enthrall the customer base over the long haul.

Preston then veered into the present with two examples:

As most are aware, Google announced last month that co-founder Larry Page will be taking over as CEO, replacing Eric Schmidt, the exec Page and Google's other co-founder, Sergey Brin, hired a decade ago to lead the company beyond its blockbuster startup phase....

Schmidt, the professional executive and respected technologist, served Google well during his decade as CEO. But with Google facing cutthroat competition from the likes of Facebook, Apple, and even Microsoft, the company decided it's time to bring the product vision and inspiration back to the CEO office.

The news out of Google came a week after Apple announced that founder-CEO Steve Jobs would be stepping aside for the second time in as many years for unspecified medical reasons, though Apple hasn't named a permanent or even interim replacement. Having sampled professional management in the 1980s, Apple isn't keen on handing the reins over to COO Tim Cook, an omnicompetent exec but no Steve Jobs when it comes to understanding what will wow customers.

Preston then noted that his views on the value of founding, inspirational CEOs are not universal:

In a famous 2001 Harvard Business Review article, management expert Jim Collins argued that the key element in turning good companies into great ones is "Level 5" leadership: CEOs with a paradoxical mix of personal modesty and "professional will." His Exhibit A was Darwin E. Smith, a low-key lawyer who transformed Kimberly-Clark into an industry leader in the 1970s and ‘80s. A rung lower in Collins' leadership hierarchy were the Level 4 types: those who "catalyze commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision" -- the profile of most enduring technology industry founder-CEOs.

Collins talked about Darwin Smith, as well as nine other CEOs, in a 2003 article. Most (but not all) of the people that he named were similar to Smith, and were more process-oriented than inspirational generals. For example:

Most people have never heard of Charles Coffin—and that's the ultimate testimony to his greatness. His predecessor had something to do with this. No CEO finds it easy to take over from a founding entrepreneur; now imagine that founder holds patents on the electric light, the phonograph, the motion picture, the alkaline battery, and the dissemination of electricity. But Coffin knew his job was not to be the next Thomas Edison—though Coffin, too, would prove a master inventor. His invention was the General Electric Co.

Coffin oversaw two social innovations of huge significance: America's first research laboratory and the idea of systematic management development. While Edison was essentially a genius with a thousand helpers, Coffin created a system of genius that did not depend on him. Like the founders of the U.S., he created the ideology and mechanisms that made his institution one of the world's most enduring and widely emulated.

But is there a middle way - one in which the company executes well and inspires at the same time? Collins says yes, and cites William McKnight of 3M (DISCLAIMER: I AM EMPLOYED BY A COMPETITOR OF 3M):

The early giants of industry tend to fall into one of two camps: Individual innovators (think Walt Disney) and system builders (think John D. Rockefeller). 3M's William McKnight falls into neither. Beginning in 1929, the bookish accountant fused the two models into something entirely new: a company that turned innovation into a systematic, repeatable process. While you couldn't predict exactly what McKnight's system would create, you could predict with certainty that it would create.

Obviously a company's need for a CEO will change depending upon individual circumstances, but it's a good topic for inquiry.

Hopefully my Starfleet Commander alliance is well served by its CEO.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Last July, I took great delight in tweaking the noses of both iPhone lovers and Android lovers alike when I pointed out that their preferred beloved model was not the most popular smartphone platform out there. Neither platform enjoyed the 44.3% market share of the leading smartphone platform...Symbian.

But all was not well in the Symbian front. For example, the Symbian Guru moved over to Android.

And now things REALLY aren't well in the Symbian arena, although iPhone and Android people aren't rejoicing just yet. Alan Reiter:

In Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK)’s most gut-wrenching decision since deciding to stop producing paper and rubber boots and switch to telecommunications, the Finnish company today said it was picking Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)’s Windows Phone 7 as its primary OS and, in effect, eventually killing its Symbian and MeeGo operating systems.

But not immediately:

Nokia says Symbian will become a “franchise platform.” In effect, other vendors could use Symbian, and the OS will stick around until Nokia transitions its phones to Windows Phone 7. Perhaps Symbian will remain on the lowest-end phones.

The fact that Nokia dumped Symbian isn't surprising to some folks. What is surprising is that it was dumped for Windows Phone 7. Jake Kuramoto had previously predicted that Nokia would move to Android, and when the Windows deal was announced, Kuramoto noted the following:

By now, you’ve likely heard that Nokia is partnering with Microsoft to release Windows Phone 7 smartphones. Many, many, many people are seeing this as highly negative and disappointing for Nokia, and Nokia’s stock reflects this sentiment.

One of Kuramoto's concerns is that the Windows Phone 7 browser is based on Internet Explorer 7. Heck, that's better than my Motorola Q, which was based on Internet Explorer 4.

But while some people are probably predicting the end of the world for Nokia, my nearly ten years at Motorola suggests otherwise. When I started at Motorola, all that I heard was that Motorola phones were terrible and that Nokia was so much better. Then we came out with the RAZR and all that I heard was that Motorola was wonderful and whatever happened to Nokia? Fast forward a couple of years, and Motorola was on life support. Today all we hear is that Nokia has flubbed it and should go back to the paper mills.

Normally I tend to write about enterprise products in this blog, and cell phones (despite the fact that they are used in enterprises) are really part of the consumer product industry, with very short product cycles, constant turnover, and myriad changes in the market. I'm not going to go out on a limb and predict who the major small platform (phone, pod, whatever) players will be two years from now, but perhaps Nokia will be triumphant again, and people will be laughing at all those geezers with their iPhones and Android devices.

Nipplegate gave us bad Super Bowl halftime shows. Now Tibetgate will give us bad Super Bowl ads.

In a previous post on Groupon's Super Bowl ads, I observed that people hated Groupon because they perceived that Groupon did not share their values.

Geoff Livingston (H/T @tacanderson) has a different take. Livingston has observed that people hated Groupon because they perceived that Groupon did, in a different sense, share their values.

...[T]he United States as a country gives nonprofits a lot of lip service, but when push comes to shove, we fail to change. Consider all of the talk about environmentalism, yet America still consumes more than any country in the world. We fail to act, and though we emote, our collective actions as a society are demonstrative of a deeper apathy.

Groupon thrust our hypocrisy into our faces, and we responded with wrath. We eat Tibetan food, instead of taking action for Tibet, or a Brazilian wax instead of helping the rain forest, or a ticket to a water amusement park instead of helping to save the whales. Think about it. We talk mindfulness while we walk vain consumption.

So instead of perceiving that Groupon trivialized what we do, Groupon instead exposed what we DON'T do. Heck, I don't even own a Livestrong bracelet; I personally can't claim to have done anything meaningful.

But the Groupon ads have had a potentially far-reaching effect. As the hubbub continued, Andrew Mason made a decision.

We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did – it’s the last thing we wanted. We’ve listened to your feedback, and since we don’t see the point in continuing to anger people, we’re pulling the ads (a few may run again tomorrow – pulling ads immediately is sometimes impossible). We will run something less polarizing instead. We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through.

But the ramifications didn't end there.

Very early in my blogging career, I offered some comments on another Super Bowl. Here's part of what I wrote on February 1, 2004:

Then there was the ending to the halftime show. CNN reported the incident; here are some excerpts:

The network quickly cut away from the shot, and did not mention the incident on the air.

Actually, they did. Either Gumbel or Simms made a comment about expecting a "raw, naked" third quarter.

Joe Browne of the NFL was quoted as saying:

"It's unlikely that MTV will produce another Super Bowl halftime."

Of course, this means that the NFL will turn to Don King. Or perhaps the Children's Television Workshop. Or Arnold Shapiro.

As to why this happened, I will go with the following possible explanations until reality corrects me:

Justin was firing another salvo in the Britney-Justin war, trying to upstage Britney's kiss on Madonna and her weekend wedding.

Janet was trying to get Michael to become interested in adult women.

Well, Michael is no longer with us, but Joe Browne's words certainly became true. In an attempt to make sure that the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake incident would never ever ever happen again, the Super Bowl instituted a change in its halftime programming. As Wikipedia notes, Super Bowl fans were greeted the following year with a performance by Paul McCartney. Apparently NFL officials were not worried about what would happen if McCartney's nipple were exposed. The next year, the Super Bowl presented the Rolling Stones. This was fine for forty-somethings like me, but how would the vast majority of the audience react? Of course, this situtation couldn't last long, so the NFL went all modern the next year and brought out 1980s star Prince. He was followed in subsequent years by Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and the Who. Classic radio loved it. In fact, it was only this year that the NFL dared to have a halftime performance with artists from THIS millennium - the Black Eyed Peas.

But the counter-reaction to Nipplegate indicates what is going to happen in that lucrative world of Super Bowl advertising. Because even so-called sophisticated people couldn't understand or couldn't accept the humor in the Groupon ad, advertising agencies and businesses will strive to avoid "the Groupon mistake" by going for simple ads that appeal to the lowest common denominator. No one wants to be Tibetted, you know.

So, if we have a Super Bowl in 2012, and if you are disappointed that all of the high-priced Super Bowl ads feature cute kittens and people doing wacky things, you only have yourself to blame.

Friday, February 11, 2011

57 channels and nothing on - why it may be really easy to dump satellite/cable

Why am I paying large amounts of money for satellite service?

Oh yeah, I remember. If I cut the dish, I will be limited to my local channels, and even though Los Angeles has more local channels than most areas, I would still miss out on a lot of programming.

Or would I?

Now I'll grant that my TV watching tastes are atypical. I don't tune in to the latest sitcom or drama. In fact, sports are the only thing that I watch, so if I cut the dish, I'll miss out on regional Fox programming (which has now been restored to my system after the temporary blackout) and on the ESPN series of networks. And I'd miss out on the all-news channels.

Or would I?

I got home on Friday night after listening to part of the Lakers-Knicks game on the radio. I had to install some software on our family desktop computer, and I happened to visit the ESPN website while doing so...and noticed that the Lakers game was just wrapping up on ESPN3. Now ESPN3 doesn't show everything, but it does seem like more and more sporting events are being shown online, for free.

Later in the evening, I thought that I'd check on the latest news from Egypt, which (after Mubarak's resignation) is undergoing the most dramatic changes that it's witnessed in the last 60 years. It was 10:00 pm Pacific time in California, 1:00 am on the east coast, and probably around mid-morning Saturday in Egypt. So what was happening in Egypt right now?

I started at CNN, and saw a picture of Anderson Cooper talking to some Egyptian experts - all of whom were surrounded by the dark of night. So either Anderson was talking to people who weren't even in Egypt, or (more likely) I was watching a show that had been taped several hours earlier. The most important changes in Egypt in a half century, and CNN couldn't bother to show it live.

I went to Fox and Greta, but I already knew that was a tape delayed show.

But hey, there's Headline News, the channel that shows live headlines. Well, that channel was showing Joy Behar talking to someone with an animal. I don't think he was Egyptian. Let's face it, Headline News shows as much news as Music Television shows music.

So in the end I went to my netbook and found BBC World Service. Granted they were talking about Denmark populist parties, but I knew they'd get around to Egypt within the half hour. News Corp and Time Warner's so-called news channels were asleep at the switch.

So why am I paying for satellite service again?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Catching up is hard to do - the business edition

I couldn't do a lot of blogging here over the last few weeks because of a major project at work. Rather than unleash a ton of separate posts on my reader base, I figured I'd try to cover a number of old topics in this post.

Way back on January 20, Bruce Schneier linked to some discussions of an important issue facing the Supreme Court. If a corporation is classified as a person for legal reasons, and if a person has a right to privacy, does a corporation have a right to privacy?

Speaking of corporations - if a corporation is truly run by its board of directors rather than its CEO, then why did Hewlett Packard's change in its CEO end up resulting in a change in its Board of Directors?

And things aren't better elsewhere. Manny, Moe, and Jack are looking to sell themselves.

But Aol is doing very well, mainly because, in the words of a former executive, "75% of the people who subscribe to AOL’s dial-up service don’t need it."

Back to Bruce Schneier. Apparently, despite my thoughts, people are not sworn under an oath to cyberwar.

Oh, and part of the reason that I had Google, rather than Tibet, on my mind during Groupon's Super Bowl ad was because Google is reportedly launching a Groupon competitor.

Meanwhile, GigaOM reported that only four percent of Internet users had used a location-based service such as Foursquare. I guess that Foursquare's strategy of shutting most phone users out of mayorships didn't give that boost of popularity that was envisioned.

Adam Singer couldn't figure out why Adobe has a legal disclaimer opposing the use of the word "photoshopped." People with an appreciation of trademark history will appreciate my comment at the post:

It’s enough to make you want to take an aspirin, which is what Adobe would do if some no-name company released a software product called Photoshop, and Adobe was unable to stop the other company from doing so.

And you should watch out about bringing meat into Israel - even kosher meat.

Monday, February 7, 2011

On Groupon, and why we want to buy from ourselves

I spent Super Bowl Sunday at my father-in-law's house, with my netbook, alternating between watching the game and following the conversations - both on the game, and on the advertising.

I hadn't checked out any of the ads before the game, but if I had, I would have seen this ad that was posted on February 3.

As it turns out, I didn't see the Groupon Tibet ad until it actually aired during the Superbowl, and I posted this tweet:

groupon advertised. is google? #brandbowl

As you can see, my major observation at the time was that Groupon had snagged a Super Bowl ad spot, while as far as I knew, its former acquirer-wannabe had not. Other than a mild chuckle, I didn't really have any other observations about the ad.

As it turns out, my view on the ad were in the minority. I continued to monitor the Twitter feed, and posted this follow-up:

ooh, people are incensed at the groupon ad. that will effectively boost the brand. #brandbowl

Here are a few examples, tweeted during the Super Bowl itself. @copyblogger:

Did Groupon just make light of the political struggle in Tibet? Who wrote the ad, Kenneth Cole? #brandbowl

And @daveixd:

I actually think that I'll never use #groupon again after that tasteless commercial. #advertising #fail #superbowl

But then further reflection revealed a little more about the ad. @davidrisley:

Looks like @groupon scrambled up a Tibet charity fund. Wonder why. ;-)

Yes, upon further investigation, if you followed the link, you'd discover that Groupon was encouraging its members to donate to The Tibet Fund, as well as to other organizations that were mentioned in the Groupon ads. And Groupon is matching the donations.

Needless to say, Groupon didn't suddenly whip up these charity funds after the ads aired (note Risley's smiley face). It was all part of the plan from the beginning, and if any of us had bothered to read Groupon's February 6 post, we would have known what was going on.

This year, we realized that in spite of how much we’d grown, a ton of people still hadn’t heard of Groupon, so we decided to give in to our Napoleon complex and invade the rest of the world with a proper Super Bowl commercial.

The trouble was figuring out what to do and with whom to work. We had tried working with creative agencies before and had never been that impressed. Our peculiar taste in humor made it really hard for outside agencies to come up with concepts we liked. This time around, we had better luck with the ad firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky. We really admired some of the work that CP+B had done in the past, so we gave them a shot at pitching us concepts, and they came up with an idea we couldn’t resist blowing millions of dollars on.

The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as “Save the Whales”), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in “Save the Money”)?

Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site ( and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause. So we bought the spots, hired mockumentary expert Christopher Guest to direct them, enlisted some celebrity faux-philanthropists, and plopped down three Groupon ads before, during, and after the biggest American football game in the world....

And if you’ve saved enough money for yourself and feel like saving something else, you can donate to mission-driven organizations that are doing great work for the causes featured in our PSA parodies.

All right and fine, except that many people who saw the ads for the first time during the game didn't, in Groupon's words, understand their "peculiar taste in humor."

Why did this ad (and the others) yield such a passionate negative response? Quite simple. We want to do business with companies that have the same values that we do, and many people took the Groupon ads to mean that Groupon didn't share their values.

Obviously, in a multi-cultural world, people do not have identical values, and therefore no one business can please everyone. For example, if you're a Birkenstock-wearing vegetarian who believes that the death penalty is only permissible for unborn children and people who insult the Dalai Lama, then you're probably not going to like the Groupon ads. On the other hand, if you're a gold-hoarding, gun-toting survivalist who believes that all of the Bible is inerrant except for the commie liberal parts, then you probably skipped the Black Eyed Peas performance during halftime.

And the Groupon ads weren't the only televised event on Sunday that yielded such a passionate response. On Super Bowl Sunday, the President of the United States normally makes an appearance on the network that is televising the Super Bowl. It can be a win-win for both, since the President gets a huge audience, and the network has something to lure non-sports fans to watch the event. If one of the old three networks (CBS, ABC, NBC) is airing the event, then obviously the network's news department talks to the President. The Fox Network itself doesn't have its own news organization, so it called upon its sister network, the Fox News Channel, and one of its hosts, Bill O'Reilly.

Hmm. Bill O'Reilly. Barack Obama. Do you think that the entire Super Bowl watching audience shared the same views about THAT interview?

Needless to say, reactions ranged across the entire spectrum. The ones that I saw included comments about how Fox was asking pointed questions when Obama just wanted to enjoy the game, or why Fox was foisting Obama on the viewing audience, or why Fox didn't nail that commie when they had the chance to do so.

As for me, I was fine with the Obama interview. Both parties proceeded as expected, and were reasonably courteous to one another despite their differing views. And, needless to say, I was fine with the Groupon ad, and I personally thought that the Chrysler/Eminem ad was a masterpiece.

However, as for that Doritos commercial in which the insane guy licks another guy's finger, then tears the pants off of another guy - that was over the line.

So how can businesses develop advertising campaigns that please me - whoops, I mean please everybody? Or should they?