Wednesday, January 30, 2008
You see, I've been a Hyatt guy for a whole bunch of years. I did an internship between my sophomore and junior years at Northwestern which required a bit of travel around the Midwest. For a 19 year old kid to have somebody else pay for your plane ticket and hotel room, in exchange for doing your job, which you're getting paid for? And to get to keep these miles and points to go stay for free in the future? Holy cow...jackpot!
At the consulting firm I was working for, the CEO was a big fan of Hyatt. While that didn't necessarily make me a fan of Hyatt versus anyone else (since I signed up for every program I could), I found Hyatt's mix of service and location to be fantastic in meeting my travel needs. Plus, since Hyatt was owned by Chicago's own Pritzker family, I always felt that no matter where I was traveling, I always had an extra little connection to home.
Even though I've been in Silicon Valley for more than 14 years, my affinities have stayed pretty close to my Chicago-area roots. I've flown over 100,000 miles a year on United for 10 of the last 11 years, and passed the million mile mark long ago, making me a "1K Million" in UA's vernacular. Next stop, 2 million miles and free Red Carpet Club membership for life...assuming United outlives me, which isn't a safe wager for even the riskiest of bettors.
By the way, that's a comment on the health of the airline industry, not on my own health.
Along with being a big-time United guy over the years, I've been a big-time Hyatt guy, too. According to goldpassport.com, I've earned 634,040 points over my nearly 20 years with Hyatt. I have no idea how many nights that translates into, but "a lot" is a fair guess. I still really dig Hyatt, and they'd be still be my preferred hotelier, save for two reasons.
First, Hyatt was late to react to the branding expansion led by Marriott and Hilton. Yes, if I'm in a major city in Asia, you bet I'll be at the Hyatt. In fact, don't bother calling anywhere else if you need to reach me. Start and end with the Hyatt. But, if I'm in a whole lot of cities in the rest of the world, I either don't have a Hyatt option, or I have the option of only a few properties, whereas Marriott and Hilton might provide me dozens of properties from which to choose.
We can talk all day about brand dilution, the fact that Hyatt has always placed themselves above Marriott and Hilton in terms of brand image, yadda, yadda, yadda. I'm sure that Kellogg and the U of C GSB have spent serious cycles on the topics of Hyatt's branding and expansion. Net-net, Marriott and Hilton have more properties than Hyatt and Starwood. Unfortunately, I spend time in cities other than just the world's majors, so I need an option with better reach, which is how Marriott came into the picture. In Hyatt's defense, while late to the party in terms of expanding the number of properties, they've done a fantastic job with their conversion of AmeriSuites into the Hyatt Place brand. The new rooms ROCK...there just aren't enough of them yet.
But, not only did Marriott come into the picture, they jumped into my wallet. With a credit card. Which Hyatt doesn't offer.
The debates on devaluing a loyalty currency (in this case, Gold Passport points) went away long ago, or at least they should've. Pretty much every hotel chain below the Ritz and Four Seasons has a credit card...save for Hyatt. Heck, the sale of airline miles is keeping a few airlines alive; Delta comes to mind with their Amex partnership. This is no longer a question of debasing a brand; it's about what we as the most frequent of frequent travelers choose to do with our loyalty. Not having a credit card option puts a huge dent into that loyalty.
The lack of a branded credit card is a common topic among Hyatt fans. A look at FlyerTalk on the topic of Hyatt and credit cards shows a theme that seems to recur annually--the desire for Hyatt's most loyal travelers to further cement that loyalty with a credit card option.
Not only does Marriott offer a credit card, they offer a number of them, targeted at customers of different demographics. I went with the Signature Visa card for one reason and one reason only--the crediting of 15 stay nights per year, meaning that I only need 60 nights to get back to Platinum. That's a HUGE deal. You might argue that by needing to only stay 60 nights instead of 75 to make Platinum, I can go and spend those other 15 nights a year with somebody besides Marriott. And you'd be right--everybody needs a backup partner, whether that's my use of Alaska's partners (AA/NW/DL/KL/AF) backing up my United travel, or Hyatt now backing up Marriott. But, having set a lower but still challenging bar for requalification, Marriott's still going to get my business most of the time.
So, what's my point, you ask? I was hoping you'd stick with me this far.
I've been a Diamond Gold Passport guy for a bunch of years. Qualification requires 25 stays or 50 nights; most years, I've done it on stays. Admittedly, I've been able to take advantage of promotions a couple of times offering me double stay credit to get back to that 25 stay cliff; regardless, I've spent a lot of time with Hyatt over the years. We've been good for each other, in fact.
Last year, I dropped off that cliff. I had 4 one-night and 1 two-night stays in the first quarter and a one-night stay in June. That's it. Meaning, not only did I not re-qualify for Diamond membership, I didn't even make it back to Platinum (10 stays). Heck, I'm at the level of Joe-New-Guy-to-Hyatt. In fact, check that--and that's the thing that prompted me to write this. Joe-New-Guy-to-Hyatt gets automatic Platinum if he joins prior to March 31st this year.
That's annoying. Now, I'm not a quant guy. But, I know a little bit about items like customer acquisition, retention, and churn. And I know that it's a lot easier for a brand to keep me than to get me. Hyatt had me, and for all intents and purposes, they've lost me, or at least much of me. I still love Hyatt (a phrase that I'm sure Joe Brancatelli would admonish me for using), but I just can't justify staying with them much any more.
Here's the mind-boggling thing...twice last year I received an e-mail offering me a free night if I stayed once. The text of the June e-mail (note to self: clean out newsletter mailbox more frequently) reads as follows:
"It has been several months since you last stayed at Hyatt Hotels & Resorts® and enjoyed the privileges of your Hyatt Gold Passport® Diamond membership. Because we value your membership in Hyatt Gold Passport, we invite you to receive a free night when you complete an eligible stay at one of our distinctive Hyatt locations worldwide through August 24, 2007. Once you have completed your stay, the free night award will be good through October 31, 2007."
Hey, that's cool. But it misses the point. Targeted e-mail communication is really cheap. Courtesy of an embedded bug (that's HTML speak, not spy speak), Hyatt knows when I read the e-mail, whether I clicked on any of the links, you name it. But there's no call to action that they can quantify. If I made a reservation with Hyatt, did I do so because I was enticed by this offer, or just because I really like the Hyatt on Wacker? They simply have no way to quantify my actions, because they didn't do one important thing, one which is shockingly easy in this day and age.
They forgot to ask.
This isn't rocket science. Change that e-mail to include a link that takes me to a short form that asks me a couple of questions about why I haven't stayed with Hyatt in a while (new job, change in responsibilities, moved, poached by Marriott's credit card, etc.). Once I've answered those few short questions, THEN drop the free stay into my account.
Here's an example. My buddy Jacco wanted to get an idea of people's TV viewing habits in this brave new world in which we live. So, he created a questionnaire on SurveyMonkey, sent it out to 2500 of his closest friends, and waited. By the next day, more than 5% of the folks to whom he'd sent the survey had responded. The data he collected was extremely interesting and valuable, but not terribly stressful to gather. In fact, I'm guessing the process itself didn't take more than a couple of hours--figuring out how SurveyMonkey works, creating the questions and answers for the survey, dropping in the e-mail addresses of his victims (er, friends), and hitting send. 24 hours later, boom...solid data.
Why can't Hyatt do this? For that matter, why can't anybody that claims to really want to honor a customer-vendor relationship in this competitive world in which we live do this? Don't think that I'm picking solely on Hyatt here...I've taken my rental car business to Budget after Hertz gave me one-too-many 25,000 mile beater Tauruses. Again, I don't mind that if I'm my parents, who rent a car once a year, if that. But, as a guy who was a Hertz President's Circle member (meaning 40+ rentals per year) up through 2006, you'd think that they'd wonder why I've only rented with them a single time in the last six months, and fewer than a dozen times for all of 2007. I'd be happy to tell them that it's because of the number of absolutely rubbish cars they've rented me.
But they haven't asked.
I'm not sure who to indict here. This obviously isn't an issue just with Hyatt...it's a problem with every vendor, in every industry. Some companies tuned into the power of the Internet early on; Starwood's William Sanders is legendary on FlyerTalk for his interaction with real, live, paying customers. Others are only now seeing the value of doing more one-to-one marketing. Therefore, I'd like to challenge somebody, ANYBODY, to get their stuff together and figure out a way to actually monetize all the information sitting in all those horribly expensive (and as of now, not fully utilized) CRM systems.
The data's there. As I see it, one of two things needs to happen. Actually, both do. A) the marketing and customer service folks need to go buddy up with the IT and financial planning folks to get creative about what a CRM system can and can't do, and B) the marketing and customer service folks need to go out and talk to some real, live customers. Real, and live. Alaska Airlines hosts lunches for their MVP Gold members so their execs and their most frequent fliers can interact. I've heard that Larry Kellner from Continental conducts similar events. And United hosted an *unbelievable* event at the SFO maintenance base last year--fortunate FlyerTalkers flew in from around the world (on their own dime and time) to participate. For all that can be said about ultra road warriors, we're a pretty loyal bunch; we expect that loyalty to be rewarded, but most of us recognize it's a two-way street. That loyalty is a bear to earn in the first place; once a vendor has it, letting the customer churn (particularly with no method to quantify or qualify why) is a horrendously bad idea, and a big waste of money.
So, to the Hyatts and Hertz' of the world, a piece of advice about feedback from your customers:
Ask, and you shall receive.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
So, as I mentioned, Schneier gave the keynote. Good stuff. The following presentations discussed the role of robots in wartime. Of particular interest was Dr. Ron Arkin's paper, "Governing Lethal Behavior: Embedding Ethics in a Hybrid Deliberative/Reactive Robot Architecture".
Arkin and his students have written extensively on issues surrounding reasoning and constraint of autonomous robots in rules of engagement and laws of war. Heck, these are issues I'd never really thought about, but holy cow. I mean, artificial intelligence is tough enough, but I hadn't really given much thought to the multiple sides of the coin involved in incorporating ethics into an autonomous warfighting machine. I've always thought about maximizing survivability for the warfighter, particularly the dismounted one. Further, I'd always thought about lethality as simply a side effect of taking personnel out of the OODA loop, not realizing just how much thought about causality went into the design of these machines.
I was fortunate to sit down next to Ron at lunch, where I peppered him with questions as a follow-on to his talk. I also pulled down a bunch of papers written by his students for later reading. One thing that I brought up that he wasn't aware of was the whole iRobot/Robotic FX saga. Arkin mentioned iRobot in his talk, both in the context of being known for its combat 'bots, as well as for its Roomba vacuums. I've followed the Robotic FX case pretty closely, as they were based not too far from where I grew up. If you have a half-hour, check out the Arkin paper I reference above. If you have another half-hour, check out the excellent Xconomy reports on the whole iRobot/Robotic FX case. Put 'em together, and it's a spy novel. If you're into corporate espionage, it's a don't-miss...there's a book in there somewhere.
The next set of talks focused on surveillance. The one which resonated most with me was a talk on Tor, the anonymizer. I've always thought of Tor as something that the bad guys used to cover their tracks, but I hadn't given any thought to the entirely humane use of Tor--enabling human rights activists to communicate freely while minimizing their risk of compromise. I've always respected the heck out of the community for its work on Tor, but now that respect is in a whole new light. I'll be at Shmoocon in a couple of weeks, where I'm sure that Simple Nomad and others will further dig into anonymity. Anonymously, of course...
After lunch, Kevin Poulsen moderated a panel on cyberterrorism; Dr. Herb Lin of the National Academy of Science and Dr. Neil Rowe both presented compelling papers. I'd encourage you to check out their research. Dr. Lin is leading an about-to-wrap-up effort focused on policy consequences of legal offensive information warfare. Dr. Rowe is looking at the design of ethical cyberweapons (which I would've thought was an oxymoron, until his talk). All this was seriously way cool stuff. Net-net...is China attacking us? Maybe. Is it legal? Can we attack back? Rowe made a convincing case that cyberweapons are analogous to biological attacks on crops, prohibited by the 1972 biological weapons convention...meaning, computer network attack might have been outlawed 35 years ago. Hmmm...
The next talks were on smart soldiers in battle, primarily referencing work that the U.S. Army has done on Land Warrior and Future Combat Systems. I'm still fairly up to date on these programs, so the talks were interesting but not new to me...although I was dying to ask about battery technology. Wrong guys, I know...call DARPA or DISA.
The day's final session was on the dilemma of socially responsible computer science. Honestly, this panel could've been a day-long topic in and of itself. While each speaker had very interesting things to say, I was particularly interested in the remarks by Dr. Terry Winograd from Stanford. As a founder of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, he's been thinking about a lot of these issues for more than a quarter century--longer than some of Saturday's attendees have been alive. Winograd led an extremely interesting discussion about the ethical issues surrounding taking government money for research, the role of universities in performing classified research, and much more. I really wish that the day could've ended with a debate, as Dr. Arkin (of Georgia Tech, which receives government money for classified research) had a passionate yet civilized give-and-take with Dr. Winograd during the final remarks. This could've turned into one helluva debate on the Aykroyd-vs-Curtin scale; calm heads prevailed, but the event did end with everyone a little bit on edge, which was great--no matter where each attendee fell on the spectrum of computers and social responsibility, we all came away better educated, with lots of interesting things to think about.
I'm going back next year. Definitely.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
All in all, the conference was *excellent*. I can't tell you the last time that I received that good of a value for $50--a docket filled with excellent speakers, great interaction, refreshments and lunch, and a cool t-shirt.
Bruce Schneier gave the keynote; I haven't seen him speak in a while, but I do keep up on his thoughts courtesy of his monthly Crypto-gram. While Bruce touched on many interesting topics, including the conviction in the Estonian cyberattacks, the most salient takeaway was the quote "automation separates skill from ability". I've never heard that succinct a definition of what script kiddies pull off, but that's precisely it. I look back to when the first tools for cracking WEP came into play; rather than having to figure out a complicated hack, the script kiddies of the world simply starting downloading WEPCrack and AirSnort and had at it. While these types of tools are extremely beneficial for security auditors, they're unfortunately used more often for nefarious purposes. However, script tools that provide this type of automation also compel programmers to do a better job of vetting their code and concepts, ensuring that over time, we end up with better and better options (e.g., WPA/WPA2 versus WEP). So, maybe some good does in fact come out of script kiddie tools.
More on the rest of the conference later...
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Monday, January 21, 2008
I'm sure that I'll be pilloried by the Apple fanboy crowd for this statement, but I was pretty underwhelmed by Macworld, too. If you're an Apple fan, work with me. And if you're not, stick with me...I have a point.
Macworld made me no promises. Whatever expectations I had for the show were created entirely in my own mind, based largely on Steve Jobs' ability to generate buzz. So, if I thought Macworld didn't deliver, it didn't deliver solely based on the fact that I didn't have a realistic expectation going in.
Anyone who's been in sales or marketing learns at some point in their career (the earlier the better) relevant metrics for promise and delivery. Over the years, I'd like to believe that I've pretty well learned to underpromise and overdeliver. Setting a realistic customer expectation is oh-so-important from a credibility standpoint, both as individuals within an organization, and as an organization as a whole.
If I was disappointed by the show, well, it's not the show's fault--Macworld didn't promise me a free Mac, a free iPhone, or exhibitors giving away winning lottery tickets. *I'm* the one who had a given expectation that wasn't met, through no other fault than my own.
Well, guess what? Lots of folks have criticized Steve Jobs (and Apple) for his announcements (or lack thereof) this week. AAPL is down ~10% from Monday's close, based largely on the fact that Tuesday's keynote didn't deliver anything as earth-shattering as the iPhone. The bummer from Apple's standpoint is that Jobs didn't make any promises on which he underdelivered. In fact, he didn't make any promises at all--which is responsible for at least some of the stock sell-off, I'm sure. As a guy who was away from the cult of Mac for 13 years, I'm amused by the number of Mac rumor-mongering sites which try to read the tea leaves in terms of Apple's product direction. Heck, back in the late 80s, all we could hope for as Mac users was getting a coffee mug from giving a good tip to the Mac the Knife column in MacWeek (a.k.a. MacLeak).
I have to laugh at some of the items people are dissing Steve Jobs about for not announcing. I mean, c'mon people...who in their right mind would build WiMax into a laptop right now? There's precious little infrastructure in place to support WiMax, so giving up a socket to a chipset which would be utilized by some tiny portion of users would be silly. Is that a risk a Lenovo or a Dell could take? Sure--they could do so in order to both demonstrate some Apple-type chutzpah and to appeal to their corporate customers. But, Apple doesn't need to do the former, and they have (as a percentage) few of the latter.
But if you look at what Apple *did* announce this week, people should be every bit as excited from a consumer standpoint as they were about the iPhone, maybe more so. Why? Well, Apple threw down the gauntlet with the introduction of the iPhone; we as consumers are already benefiting from the imitators, some of which look like decent handsets in their own right. Billboards on both sides of 101 are lousy with ads for devices trying to be the next iPhone, even though I'm sure their usability pales in comparison to the iPhone. We'll see exactly the same thing happen as the Macbook Air pretenders hit the market over the next six months.
Ironically, having the chance to hold the Macbook Air in my own hands at Macworld confirmed for me that even though it's a lust-worthy item, I wouldn't be ordering one. I've been holding off buying a new laptop the last few months, solely based on what Jobs would announce in his keynote. Hmmm...a 12" or 13" Macbook Pro? That would've been worth the wait. But, a slim and sexy machine with an 80 gig hard drive and a whole bunch of missing ports? Not for me. Do I feel disappointed that I didn't get what I was hoping for? Sure...as do so many analysts, stockholders, and Mac fans. But, I highly doubt anyone in those three groups are abandoning Apple or questioning their support of the company.
Nor am I. I left Macworld, drove down to the Apple store in Palo Alto, and bought a black 13" Macbook with a 160 gig hard drive and 1 gig of RAM (and a full complement of ports and a SuperDrive). Next stop was Fry's, where I paid $100 for 4 gigs of RAM (rather than the mind-boggling $850 premium Apple charges you to go from 1 to 4 gigs of RAM). 10 minutes after getting home, I had a machine that was exactly what I was looking for, for less than the price of the (under-kitted) Macbook Air.
And you know what? That's okay. If the Macbook Air isn't right for a lot of folks in version 1.0, we can wait till 2.0. When Air 2.0 ships, I'm sure I'll be kicking myself for having bought this particular Macbook. Also, who's to say that a DuoDock-type dock for the Air isn't right around the corner, but wasn't ready for primetime? You wanna talk about the *perfect* application for an ultra-wideband docking station? The Macbook Air is it.
But I didn't expect Steve Jobs to announce a UWB dock, just as I didn't expect him to announce the very cool Time Capsule, or the equally cool refocusing of the AppleTV as AppleTV Take Two. I didn't go in with unrealistic expectations, although I would've liked to have seen a 12" Macbook Pro. I came away from the show a little underwhelmed, but I wouldn't exactly call myself bummed.
Most importantly, I still ran out and gave Apple my money, which is the biggest vote of confidence a consumer can offer. Not that Steve needs any more cash, but he has mine, and my sympathy.
For a guy who tries like heck to not set any customer expectations prior to his keynotes, he was hung with the tag of underdelivery this year, even though he promised nothing.
For that, I feel sorry for him...even though he did win a Crunchie.
Monday, January 14, 2008
However, in all this mania, I think a key point has been missed, or at least overlooked. The blogger community is continually striving to gain additional respect, a happy medium between the "real" press and anybody with a keyboard and a Blogger or WordPress account. Now, I barely count as a blogger--with an entire week of this medium under my belt, yes, I'm a blogger, but definitely a newb. And I certainly don't qualify as a journalist; sure, I went to Northwestern, home of one of the finest journalism schools in the country, but anything I picked up there would've been by diffusion, entirely dependent on which way the wind was blowing.
After my posts on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, I was marveling at how guys like Eric Savitz and Dean Takahashi manage to be both on publication deadline and blogging regularly. These guys (and so many others) are helping old-line journalism meet new school immediacy; we as readers are all better for it, so it's irrelevant what they call themselves. They're journalists who blog. Cool.
But what's annoying me is that both the press and the blogosphere are stuck in this debate of whether Gizmodo's prank has screwed it up for bloggers, and whether bloggers won't be welcomed back to CES (or other shows) because of how big of a chucklehead Richard Blakely is. Make no mistake--he's a chucklehead, and a big one at that.
[Oh, and to all those who commented that the prank was innocuous because nobody was hurt, I'd love to have you responsible for a Bill Gates demo, a trade show presence for a big CES vendor, or a new product rollout. If you think that Panasonic, Motorola, et.al. weren't "hurt" by this stunt, you also must believe that the Keebler elves pull shows together. And that they make the stock market go up and down. And that they are responsible for the success (or failure) of product launches. People *were* hurt when those TVs started going off, whether they were panicked demo techs trying to figure out where they went wrong, product managers who immediately doubted their products' readiness for a CES launch, or the investor relations crowd who had to contemplate what a failed demo/launch would do to the company's stock.]
This shouldn't be an argument about whether Blakely screwed things up for bloggers. This shouldn't be an argument about whether bloggers are bad and journalists are good. And this shouldn't be an argument about whether bloggers deserve their "rightful place" and recognition at trade shows. In fact, this shouldn't be an argument at all.
Unfortunately, the Gizmodo stunt crossed the line from reporting the news to being the news. The shame is, this year's CES was so devoid of buzz that a prank like this not only became newsworthy, it became the single biggest story of the show. If there's an argument to be had, it should be over why so little of note came out of the show, not what potential harm a single individual might've done to a very loosely affiliated class of folks called bloggers. I'd guess that the perpetrators thought they'd simply have a little fun, post their video, and laugh it off as an opportunity to upstage Engadget and other competitors. But, they forgot two things. First, in trying to make yourself the story, you can do so *way* too well. Secondly, be careful what you wish for.
You can't un-ring a bell.
Friday, January 11, 2008
If you've never been to CES, it's tough to grasp just how immense the show is. And, if you have any hope of trying to get around the show to see more than a little of what's going on, you end up on news blackout. Whether working a booth, in meetings, walking the floor, or (most likely) doing all the above, most people don't have time to sit down and properly read the show daily, newspapers, or blogs. At best, you hope to hear about the buzz from other folks who’ll fill you in on what you need to see. Last year, I was thrilled to be part of the team responsible for creating and benefiting from that buzz.
However, this year seemed a bit muted, which is why I’m scratching my head. Maybe we’re just in a technology trough, and next year will be a big buzz year again. The big pre-show stories were the Warner decision on Blu-ray and Bill G’s final CES keynote. Once the show started, the Panasonic 150” plasma, the bevy of ultra-thin panels (led by Pioneer’s 9 mm thin Kuro concept), and Sony’s OLED all drew more than their fair share of attention. But, nothing really electrified the many folks with whom I spoke. Heck, as I boarded my Southwest flight from LAS-SFO tonight, a flight attendant asked me if I was as disappointed by the show as others. I mean, heck...she was on the ground long enough between flights to run out to grab a sandwich, and she’s hearing that the buzz is that there’s, uh, no buzz? Wow.
Even some of the stuff that seemed like it should’ve been more buzz-worthy, wasn’t. One of the better-kept secrets this year was that Aliph, the folks behind the Jawbone Bluetooth earpiece, conducted a trade-in program in the main CES concierge tent. Anyone who brought a non-Aliph headset to their stand received in exchange a brand new Jawbone, gratis.
Aliph has obviously made great money off of the many folks like me who paid well north of $100 for our Jawbones soon after introduction, meaning they can afford to give away thousands of headsets, particularly with Sequoia supposedly throwing in another $30 million in funding last week.
The Jawbone’s noise cancellation capabilities quickly became the key selling feature of the product, but I find its battery life to be just as valuable--a few months ago, I spent 6 1/2 hours straight on calls. My BlackBerry needed lots of wall power, but the Jawbone charged (pun intended) through the day admirably. When I see a fellow Jawbone user, I make a mental note that that person gets it. I bought the Jawbone because of its awesome capabilities, not because I was striving to look like Dieter from Sprockets.
I wear my Jawbone pretty much all the time. Yes, I know that I look like a dork, thank you. But, the design doesn’t lend itself to a reasonable carrying method, so you’re stuck with it on your ear. And, if you keep the stock, out-of-the-package Jawbone on your ear all day, odds are your ear’s gonna hurt, since the earpieces Aliph ships with the product are absolute rubbish. Crap. Totally. When I first bought my Jawbone, I made it about two hours before the inside of my ear was screaming in pain. Experimenting with the other bundled earpieces made no difference, resulting in either a worse, still-painful fit, or no fit at all. Thank heavens for the blogosphere--within 15 minutes, I’d discovered that the unanimous mod for the Jawbone is to purchase Jabra’s replacement MiniGels ($5.49 from hellodirect.com). Replacing the stock, too-hard plastic earpiece with the Jabra ear gels is the only thing that prevented me from returning the Jawbone. Judging from the number of my friends and colleagues who’ve also made the same mod, I’d posit that there are three types of Jawbone users: A) those who’ve made the Jabra mod, and love the fit, feel, and improvement in audio clarity; B) those who are less than thrilled with the stock earpieces, but put up with them because they don’t realize there’s a better alternative; and C) those who are fortunate enough to experience no discomfort and suitable audio quality with the stock earpieces. I haven’t met anyone in group C yet.
I relate this story because tonight on the monorail at the airport, a fellow passenger saw my Jawbone on my ear, and asked how I was able to wear it all the time. He told me that he’d taken part in the exchange program, and was really looking forward to using his new Jawbone--but that he couldn’t have it in his ear for more than a few minutes before the discomfort headed towards unbearable. As I’ve done now at least a couple of hundred times, I popped the headset off my ear to show him the comfy Jabra MiniGel, directing him to the hellodirect.com website (for which I should probably figure out some kind of affiliate or referral deal). He was very thankful, and looked forward to paying the extra fin to make the Jawbone usable.
Which brings me to my point.
History is filled with items which are almost fully baked, but fall just short of really being the full monty. The Jawbone is one of these. Aliph has known they’ve had a problem since the day they shipped their first headset, yet they appear to have done nothing whatsoever to react to the issue. In these days of fleeting brand loyalty, ignoring just one ingredient can ruin the recipe, causing otherwise loyal customers to seek out new solutions from other vendors, or forcing customers to throw a few more bucks at something to make it right--leaving a sour taste in the mouth. Heck, I *loved* my Plantronics 640 and 655 headsets, which I still believe are a dramatically better form factor than the Jawbone. But, the 640 didn’t perform noise cancellation, causing the remote party to believe that I was shooting a Will It Blend? commercial. The follow-on 655 did a passable job of noise cancellation, but was slow as molasses. Having to train myself to count to three-Mississippi before saying hello when the phone rang was a real drag. I might still be using my 655, but for one thing--the carrying holster was designed to such poor tolerances that getting the 655 to actually charge was a strenuous exercise in accuracy every single night. Trying to get the charging contacts to line up just right, I felt like the diamond cutter in the back of the Mercury Marquis (really, I was a wee lad when that commercial was popular...thank god for the Saturday Night Live spoof). Just as I know I wasn’t alone with the 655 charging issue, I’m obviously not alone with the Jawbone earpiece comfort issue.
Customization is one thing. I drive a Mini Cooper S. Today, you can order a Mini with a massive number of options providing an immense number of permutations, allowing drivers to roll their own to best suit their personalities. But, inherent functionality is another thing. How can a company ignore a known issue for this long, one that’s hellaciously easy to solve? We’re talking an earpiece supplier, not an ASIC re-design.
Lest you think I’m unhappy with my Jawbone, I’m not. I’m annoyed that they still ship these lousy earpieces, sure, and that I had to throw more coin to get the product to actually fit my definition of “works right”. But I relate the story about the guy at the airport not to pick a (Jaw)bone with Aliph. I relate the story because he was the *sixth* person to ask me the question about wearability comfort in the last 3 days. Folks, that’s not even a trend. That’s a problem, and a big one at that. I don’t know if Aliph isn’t listening to customer feedback, if they don’t care, if they’re growing too fast to be able to respond, whatever. But, the day that somebody comes out with a headset that has similar (or better) noise canceling technology, that fits my ear as comfortably as my 640 and 655 did, that has a convenient mechanism for carrying the headset (a la the 640 and 655) rather than having to keep it on the ear, and that even approaches the battery life of the Jawbone, I’m gone. That might be the next version of the Jawbone, that might be a new headset from established players like Plantronics or Jabra, or it could be from the next hot startup. Sure, I’m an early adopter, the guy that many of my friends and colleagues rely on for newtech advice, but I still carry a 2G iPod (which I’m looking forward to plugging into that 64 GB NAND MacBook I hope is announced at Macworld next week). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broke, don’t expect any consumer loyalty whatsoever.
So, Aliph, here's my offer--when you're finally ready to ship a suitably great earpiece with your otherwise kick-ass headset, let me know. I'll be happy to check it out. Fix the bad ingredient, and inspire customer loyalty, rather than the current state of one and half thumbs up.
In a year largely devoid of buzz, Aliph could’ve been heard better. Hopefully, they will be.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
At its heart, the issue really comes down to compression. You can slice the definition of compression any number of ways. As a Chicago native, I'm all about the slice, although it's a dramatically different experience than a slice is for someone who grew up in New York. For me, gimme a couple of slices of sausage and a pitcher of beer from Pizano's on State. For Yogi Berra, a native of St. Louis' Hill who was more concerned about quantity than quality, it was "How many slices should you cut it into? Six. I could never eat eight". For New Yorkers, a slice is just that. You walk in and order a slice, you get a slice--a wedge of cheese pizza on a paper plate, with one option--in a white paper bag (go) or not (stay). You want other stuff on the slice, you call it out up front. A slice is one thing. Anything else is anything else--a slice with stuff, if you will.
Similarly, at some point, the compression argument moves beyond layers 8 and 9 (politics and religion) onto layer 10. Which, unfortunately, is undefined...you can't even call it the stuff layer. If you're familiar with the issues between contradiction and argument (and if you're reading this, you should be, you silly git--Google it if that didn't make sense), you understand that what some people call compression is what others call, well, not so much.
Today, I was wearing orange socks with ducks on them. Shut up. They might've been mallards. They matched my shirt. Shut up! I have a point.
At some juncture, if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and performs other bodily functions like a duck, it's a duck. Therein lies my personal quandry, and likely that of the consumer electronics industry as a whole. Are approaches which "prioritize and throw away less significant video bits in the event of wireless channel issues" any better or worse than solutions which provide "visually lossless" video compression? At its heart, why is there this STUPID discussion about compressed versus uncompressed?
The issue should be, at retail, what will sell in, what will sell through, and what willl stay sold. Instead, we're in this silly jihad about "compression" (in quotes on purpose) rather than what the heck the consumer needs, and whether there's an opportunity for more than one approach.
Work with me as I climb on my soapbox. If you believe that solutions using compression are the right way to go, particularly in light of the advancing signal bandwidth of HDMI from 4.95 gb/s to 10.2 gb/s and beyond, you'll believe that approaches like Tzero's or PulseLink's will be the perfect method. In this case, you'll argue about the merits of a solution which co-exists with the WiMedia standard (Tzero) versus one which doesn't, but has lots more available bandwidth, meaning less need for compression and a potentially better quality video experience (PulseLink). And, you'll argue against solutions like those from Amimon, Radiospire, and Sibeam.
Conversely, if you believe that compressing the video signal adds unwanted shmutz to the video (like putting mushrooms on my slice), you'll be a fan of Amimon, Radiospire, and Sibeam. I've seen demos from every one of the five folks I mention here, and while they're all really promising, the winner may end up being F, none of the above.
If you're spec'ing a solution which needs less than a millisecond of latency, you'll go with Amimon, Radiospire, or Sibeam. If you want the best quality video today, you'll go with Tzero or PulseLink, whose solutions are (to my admittedly non-golden but still reasonably well-trained eyes) the best options available for 1080p/24, but which don't do as well beyond that, since the compression technology is lagging a bit behind the wireless technology. Today, for 1080p/60, if you want something that's going to provide extremely good quality in an in-room fashion at the lowest latency, you'll choose Radiospire, hands down. If you want something that's going to provide good (not great, at least at this point) video quality with the lowest latency with far and away the best range and resilience, you'll choose Amimon. And, if you're content to wait two years while the Wireless HD consortium takes their 60 GHz millimeter wave technology (which looks great and is very low latency, but is the size of a Kegulator) and shrinks it into something that can exist in your house without requiring its own dedicated 20 amp circuit, you'll wait for them.
Ultimately, who's your winner? Well, nobody yet, because winners require products in consumers' homes, and we don't have those yet.
By the way...when we're talking about 1080p/60, bear in mind that there's, uh, precious little content mastered/delivered at 1080p/60 today (particularly over any form of broadcast, be it cable, satellite, or over-the-air), so a lot of this discussion is like figuring out if those are ducks or mallards on my socks. Is it relevant? Today, no, it's not. But my feet are comfy.
So, what's important here? I can do a fancy schmancy SWOT matrix of who wins what, where, why, and how. But, it really comes back to who--who's going to get a product into stores that consumers are going to buy, and be happy enough with performance that 95+% of the products stay sold and don't end up in the reverse supply chain, screwing up margins and numbers for everyone. Only eBay wins there, thanks to their mastery and democratization of the reverse supply chain, but Joe Six-Pack sure doesn't.
Once a number of products have shipped, only then can we predict a winner. And, keeping in mind that different vendors and solutions serve different demographics (e.g., Best Buy vs. Radio Shack), you may see more than one winner.
While we sit here and argue about the merits and shortcomings of "compression", I still can't buy a solution to wirelessly deliver my HDCP-protected HD sources to my HD display, any more than I can figure out whether these socks actually work well with this shirt or not. But at least I'm willing to take the risk and do so.
I challenge the consumer electronics industry to do the same.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
While one can make a comparison between the price and availability of certain demo dollies and prototypes such as a 150" TV, I'll defer to the reader to do so.
But, maybe more often than not, bigger isn't better. Just as you can never be too thin or too rich (or a third one, I hear...), I find the ultra-thin flat panels being shown by Panasonic, Sharp, and others to be much more compelling than a massive TV. Not only do I not know too many people who'd be able to afford a 150" flat panel, I don't know too many more who have an 11 foot wide wall on which to place said TV. But, I know a ton of people who'd love a TV less than an inch thick. Here, thin trumps big, hands down. Never more so than at CES, the old golf adage still holds true.
Drive for show, putt for dough.
In 1999, I paid $2,000 for Sony's most bad-ass 32" tube, the Wega 32XBR450. Moments after I wrestled the nearly 200-pound beast into place and fired it up, my then 9 year-old brother-in-law stopped by with my father-in-law. In the truest sense of "from the mouths of babes", he immediately blurted out "Dude, your new TV sucks". And he had a point.
You see, even though this was an HD-ready tube (supporting display of all 18 Grand Alliance formats...which is a comment that horribly dates me, I'm sure), I was watching a football game on one of our local O&O's. And, as is the wont of the video service crowd, my satellite provider had compressed the crap out of the signal, to the point where all my beautiful new TV was doing was making a crappy signal look bigger and crappier. I tried to enlighten the youngster by explaining that the lousy quality of the source was heightened by just *how good* the new TV actually was. He wasn't buying it, until I fired up a DVD on the then state-of-the-art Sony DVD player I'd also bought. Like the Wega, the DVD player was cutting edge--with features like progressive scan, component connectivity, de-interlacing, reverse 3:2 pulldown, the whole nine yards. Once he saw how great video *could* look on the Wega, he admitted that the TV was in fact sufficiently bad-ass. But, I'd had to turn off broadcast TV and fire up a DVD just to show him how good the new TV was. In my own living room, I was doing a demo.
"To impress a 9 year-old?", you say incredulously. Well, yeah. We're all proud of our new gadgets, particularly the main TV in the home. To have anyone, even (especially?) a little kid, tell you that the TV for which you've just paid lots of hard-earned bucks is anything less than awesome is simply not acceptable.
Which leads me to my point.
If you're a TV manufacturer doing a demo, anytime, anywhere, USE A QUALITY SOURCE for Pete's sake. Holy cow...the number of TV manufacturers at shows like CES, IFA, and the like is off the charts.. Consistently, the vast majority of tier 2 and tier 3 TV players show their content after running the source/s through 8-, 16-, or 32-port splitters, often poor quality ones at that. Tier 2 and 3 brands (e.g., Hisense, Konka) who are unknown to the American consumer are always at the key shows, spending millions of dollars on their presence, trying to rise above the din to break through to retailers and white labelers. Yet, these tier 2 & 3 brands seem content to chintz on the source, resulting in their TVs looking like crap. I saw a demo today from one of the tier 3 players, whose booths I always blast past at shows, since their TVs on display are such low quality (or so it seems). However, the demo I saw today was via a directly-connected HD-DVD player. Even though all the TVs on the exterior of the booth looked like garbage due to a lousy source, and would thus never compel me to even walk into their booth, this one looked fantastic. And it was the same TV as the ones on display outside, which looked brutal.
This isn't rocket science, folks. Garbage in, garbage out. Heck, it's so obvious, even a 9 year-old can tell the difference.
Hopefully you've stuck with me this far, as I'm going to make another point, this one perhaps more salient to today's market. I've seen a lot of TVs over the first two days of the show, running the gamut from freakin' spectacular to not so much. The more TVs I see, the more I wish that there was a way to see inside them, a method to figure out just whose components make up the innards of any given brand's (or line's) televisions. For years, people have bought on brand, and most folks still do. I was hellaciously brand loyal to Sony for many, many years, just as I've been loyal to brands like Nike and Ralph Lauren. But, as I look at replacing the behemoth 32XBR450 which still graces (dominates?) our living room, I'll certainly be looking much further afield than Sony. Two years ago, if you'd told me that you were going to do a bake-off between a Sony TV and an Olevia TV, I wouldn't have even shown up. C'mon...Olevia, by Syntax-Brillian? Who? Versus Sony? You're spending too much time in Amsterdam. Yet, lots of demos at CES 2008 compare their products against Sony TVs, and shine by comparison to the Sony.
Now, I've spec'd enough demos in my day to understand that what you see on the show floor often bears little resemblence to reality. Never confuse selling wth installing. Heck, the group I ran at Microsft had prototyping as part of our charter; through our work with the proto team in Redmond, we well learned from their motto of "fake is the future". That's not a knock against Microsoft, by any means. When you're trying to inspire people at a trade show, you use all the weapons in your arsenal, product availability be damned, and Microsoft has done so extremely well over the years.
Am I saying that people are gaming demos to look good at Sony's expense? No, not really. What I *am* saying is that you can place two TVs side-by-side, one from well-known vendor A, and one from not-so-well-known vendor B, playing the same source content from the same type of player so you can do a true side-by-side comparison. You might expect that vendor A will have a better product, based on brand equity built over many, many years.
And often, you'd be wrong.
Been to Costco lately? Have you seen how Vizio TVs are blasting their way out the door? Heck, William Wang and his team have re-written the manual on how to launch a consumer electronics product, even though they've spent little money on branding until recently. What's the key to Vizio's success? Well, that's a topic for another time. But, what I will say now is that the Vizios and Olevias of the world are putting higher and higher quality components inside of their products to enable them to compete better and better with the Sonys and Pioneers of the world, and not asking you to pay hundreds of dollars more for that slapped-on brand name badge. I'm not knocking or promoting anyone in particular here. But, it's public record that Samsung has out-Sony'd Sony over the past few years by innovating much more quickly, bringing products to market which consumers want, at price points they're willing to bear. As tier 3's innovate to move up to tier 2's and tier 2's innovate to move up to tier 1's, the apple cart is being upset more and more frequently. And, since there's not a lot of room at the top of any consumer sector pyramid, some players are going to drop down a notch. Apples falling, if you will.
I'm to the point where I don't want to buy a TV from Sony, or Sharp, or Vizio, or anyone else in particular. I want to know whose guts are inside before I pull the trigger. This week, I've seen motion compensation, noise reduction, and scaling demos which will knock your socks off. Syntax-Brillian (the Olevia guys) has a demo of a number of TVs using various video processors that's awesome, particularly the TVs they're showing in their home mock-up which use the Silicon Optix chipset. I wish that today there was a way to figure out at retail exactly whose TVs had a given video processing chipset inside of them, as those TVs would shoot to the top of my consideration list. To my knowledge, Silicon Optix are the only ones who've made the commitment to try to build their ingredient as a brand, under their HQV (Hollywood Quality Video) logo, for which I commend them.
Branding an ingredient is an absolute bear, perhaps akin to using your nose to push a wet noodle up a hill in the rain into the wind, barefoot. A number thrown around the industry a few years ago is that Intel supposedly spent on the order of $350 million to bring Centrino to market. That's not marketing/ad spend...that's the whole kit and kaboodle, including R&D. But, a reasonable chunk of that was in fact spent on the actual marketing of the Centrino brand. Whether you're an Intel fan or not, I can guarantee you that if you're reading this, you know the Centrino brand, and you know "Intel inside". But, when was the last time you bought a computer from Intel?
You buy from Dell, or H-P, or Lenovo, or Apple. You don't buy *from* Intel, but you might buy *because* of Intel. Similarly, I predict a day in the not-too-distant future where you don't just buy Sony or Vizio or Mitsubishi as brands, but you buy "HQV inside" (or the equivalent). Executed properly, it wouldn't take a company like Silicon Optix (or Genesis, Sigma, Micronas, or anyone else in video processing) $350 million (or anywhere near that) to launch their ingredient brand. And, by lifting the value and corresponding brand equity of the consumer brand (let's say with Olevia, in the case of today's demo), the rising tide lifts the ships of the consumer brand, the ingredient brand, and the retailer's brand, too.
The retailer, you say? Well, sure. For consistency's sake, let's stick with the case of Olevia as the consumer brand and Silicon Optix as the ingredient brand. What if the combination of an Olevia TV with HQV inside brought an extra 10 points of margin into play, 10 points which even when divvied up are sacred points to everyone in the supply chain? That's huge. Circuit City was absolutely hammered in calendar Q4 '06 due to the fact that flat panel margins fell off the cliff, and they couldn't react. This wasn't margin erosion. This was a sea change in the market, one from which Circuit City is still struggling to recover. Every point is sacred (which sounds better if you hum along to the Monty Python tune...you know what I'm talking about). Rising above the din when you have dozens of companies making a similar product (in this case, flat panel displays) is tough. I believe that taking a serious look at ingredient branding could be the way ahead, at relatively minimal cost--buying more because of what's inside, rather than simply what the brand badge says. I don't mean to imply that Centrino and "Intel inside" are the reason that Intel's doing so well, and AMD, not so much. But, when I think of Intel, I think of Centrino and "Intel inside". When I think of AMD, what do I think of? I don't, and that's my point here. Just as I have a lot of friends at Intel, I have a lot of friends at AMD, and it pains me that they really don't have anything I can point to as a consumer brand. AMD Live! hasn't gone so well (although it's done better than Intel's Viiv, by a longshot), but that's the only thing that really comes to mind as a consumer brand. Sure, AMD has some awesome offerings for gamers, but if you the reader ask your parents to name a slogan from Intel and from AMD, I'd bet you'd get an answer and a quizzical look, in that order. Branding is key. Overlook the brand, even an ingredient brand, at your peril.
Thanks for staying with me this long. If you've read all the way down here, you're probably not actually at the show. But, if you are, run, don't walk, to the Dolby booth to see their demo of HDR (high dynamic range) TV. HDR has been around for quite awhile in still photography; the combination of a good camera which allows exposure bracketing along with an application enabling you to combine the bracketed exposures into a single image results in some awesome imagery on-screen. However, translating an HDR image from a screen onto photo paper leaves a lot to be desired. Accordingly, I'd never really considered HDR as a video technology. Now that I've seen HDR TV in the Dolby booth, I want one. Now. If you're here at the show, make sure you check it out.
Tomorrow, more on various wireless video delivery solutions...
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Lots more to come...
As an endnote, only at CES would one ever sit down at a blackjack table with 4 Korean guys and have the table language be Spanish--3 of the guys based in Bogota, 1 based in Panama, with a Panamanian dealer. Yet another reason to enjoy CES, despite a few warts.