Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My first cross-post...

I felt compelled to jump into a discussion on TechDirt about the AppleTV and HDCP. I'm not sure why we're seeing such angst about the AppleTV's limited connectivity options more than a year after its introduction. That said, maybe this means that the Take Two program is having its desired impact (distribution beyond Apple fanbois and the CEDIA market), so perhaps this is an indicator that the AppleTV is now appealing to a broader base...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Apologies for the radio silence...

I've been working on a number of different projects which have left limited time for the blog. Two quick thoughts which come to mind...

A) "Competency" and "resiliency" are not words. They're bastardized from "competence" and "resilience". Since each of the proper terms define "a state of", the bastardized terms literally mean "a state of state of being competent" and "a state of state of being resilient". Am I the only one who cringes when I hear these (and similar) words used?

B) While I'm playing word cop, when the heck did it become decent literary form to begin sentences with "It"? Certainly, languages become less formal over time. Sometimes, those changes don't become apparent for decades; in other cases, the changes become readily apparent in a much shorter timeframe. I'm a huge fan of mirroring one's written language to how one speaks, as all too often, the written word seems painfully stilted in comparison to the spoken one.

However, the "lazification" (see, I can make up words, too) of English is beginning to alarm me. More and more, I'm seeing sentences in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal beginning with "It". I don't mind that particular usage occasionally and informally, but the frequency with which I'm seeing this so-called "structure" is annoying. Admittedly, I learned English from very traditional and conservative teachers; I'm thankful that they cared so much about their craft that I became a reasonably decent and conscientious writer. But, I'm pained that the NY Times, a tome many consider to be the arbiter of American daily journalism, seems to be okay with "It" as a proper way to start a sentence.

What say you? Am I too much of a linguistic fuddy-duddy? Or do the two usages above give you pause, too?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

ATM pwnage?


I'm at Shmoocon this weekend in Washington, D.C. Walking through my hotel last night, I saw the attached image on an ATM machine in the lobby. I waited a few minutes to see if the ATM was simply rebooting...but no, it wasn't.

Now, I don't want to say that this particular ATM has been compromised. But, needless to say, I won't be hitting the ATM while I'm here...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

C-loo-less

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bathroom product design. Seriously. Stick with me.

You see, I have a water resistant radio that hangs just outside my shower, enabling me to set a timer for a given amount of tune-age. I’ve almost always beat the timer by a minute or two, turned the radio off (to conserve batteries), and flipped on my AC-powered clock radio.

However, we recently installed a different shower head, which is much bigger and way more stylish. Unfortunately, the additional surface area of the shower head seems to be inversely proportional to its water flow; while I’m all for conserving water, the end result is that I’m now taking longer showers in an effort to feel clean. While this defeats the purpose of the low-flow shower head, I’ve also noticed something else--since I’m taking showers that are 2 or 3 minutes longer than my previously typical 6 to 8 minute showers, I’m not getting out of the shower before the timer on the radio goes off. Yes, I could (and probably will) start setting the timer for 10 or 11 minutes, to ensure that I’m out of the shower before I run out of time.

But, here’s the product design issue, which never really affected me before: when the music stops, the world’s most annoying alarm beeps for 60 seconds. This alarm would be fantastic if I needed it to rouse me from deep slumber. The challenge is, I don’t really need an alarm to tell me I’ve hit the end of my alloted time--the *&#(@^! music went off. That’s enough!

So, that’s poor product design issue #1. Testing this isn’t rocket science. I can’t believe that the manufacturer (Emerson) didn’t have *somebody* take prototypes of this unit home to test in their own bathrooms. If they had, they could’ve saved a few cents (and improved margins) by not including whatever little gizmo makes that horribly annoying alarm noise.

Product design issue #2 is on a much larger scale, and should’ve been much easier to test.

As I stepped into the lavatory on my flight this afternoon, I thought kindly of the previous user, who had the consideration to put the lid down. Unfortunately, consideration didn’t enter into the equation--no matter how diligently I tried, the lid/seat combination wouldn’t stay up. Male readers know how silly the next few moments were, trying to keep the lid/seat up with one hand. Female readers are likely snickering about this being karmic retribution for the legions of men who “forget” to put the lid down in the middle of the night.

The goal here isn’t toilet humor. The question is, who designs these things and puts them into service without testing first? I’m not sure what the book value is on a late-model 737, nor am I sure how many people worked their way through a mock-up of what the fore lav would look like prior to production. I have to believe that the answers are “many tens of millions” and “a bunch”. With all the time and expense that goes into the design of a modern airplane, it’s incomprehensible that Boeing couldn’t figure out how to move the pivot point on the lid/seat combination forward a few inches (or shave a few inches off the top of the lid/seat) to ensure that half their passengers don’t end up bumbling around like Mr. Bean whenever nature calls. This is certainly not the first airplane on which I’ve encountered this issue, and I know it won’t be the last, particularly with modern commercial airplanes having a lifespan of way more than 30 years.

So, there’s today’s lesson. Whether you’re designing a $10 product to be sold at Walgreen’s, or a $100 million-plus product to be used by hundreds of thousands of people over its lifetime, do us all a favor.

Do a little testing up front (with men AND women), and save yourself and your customers annoyance in the long run.

Friday, February 8, 2008

This doesn't just smell...it REEKS...

We have an early leader in February's BS of the Month contest. Aruba Networks just announced their quarterly numbers. The Street expected $51.5 million; they announced preliminary numbers of $40-41 million. Okay, hey, everybody has a train wreck of a quarter sometimes. Blame it on the channel, then move along. Nothing to see here. We'll fix the channel, one-time hit, pip-pip, cheerio, onto the next Q.

But, c'mon. If you're Cisco and you blow the federal number by $10 million, no worries. But if you're a company that misses numbers by nearly 20% and you blame the biggest piece of that miss on the federal channel, I assume you have one of three problems: A) your federal team has been so historically good, and the rest of your team so historically bad, that you're content to let the fed team be that big a piece of your business (and I'm sure they still brought in business during the previous quarter, since their customers in existing programs could obviously buy off of continuing resolution); B: whoever's running sales has never dealt with a federal component before, meaning he/she has no idea how to trust the forecast that the federal team provides; or C) whoever wrote the press release and signed off on it must both understand so little about how a federal sector contributes to a network equipment provider's business that they probably shouldn't be writing a press release like this...or sure as hell not being the one to sign it. Since I doubt it's the former, I don't see many other options but the latter. We're not talking General Dynamics here folks. We're talking a Silicon Valley startup. I highly doubt that they were counting on the federal sector to be that big a piece of their business, so I find it totally disingenuous to blame the shortfall on their fed team. Blame 'em second, after the channel. Blame 'em third, after the supposedly longer sales cycle. But don't blame the guys in D.C.

This is so smelly that I've just gone out to Edgar to look at Aruba's 10-Q from the previous quarter. If you know me, you know that I look at 10-Qs pretty much, uh, never. But I was curious to see what risk factors were called out. Sure, the 10-Q calls out everything top to bottom, including the fact that an earthquake here in the Bay Area or bad things happening in China could materially impact the business. Nowhere in the entire 10-Q does it even mention federal or government business, meaning that the thing that's bitten them in the butt didn't even show up on anybody's radar as recently as last quarter? C'mon...you're killin' me here.

I mean, maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill (and Lord knows, it wouldn't be the first time), but there's a ginormous disconnect. I've come across some really, really smart folks at Aruba over the years, which is why this is so surprising.

This comes down to one of two things. This could simply be a poorly written press release that was unfortunately signed off on by otherwise smart folks.

Or is it the canary in the coal mine?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Nickel me, dime me...

Yesterday, I had one of those conversations that seemed pretty normal at the time, but an hour later seemed a little more prophetic.

As The Wife and I were driving to the airport, I was going over our travel agenda for next week, which includes a 4-hour flight on Southwest. I've never disliked Southwest, but my appreciation for their consistency and service levels has gradually increased over the past few years, to the point where now, I'm a big fan.

The Better Half, not so much.

So, The Wife complained that she'd much rather be flying American (one of the two programs in which she has status for 2008) or United (where I'm a 1K Million), and began to list the items which make Southwest wholly unsuitable for a non-stop flight from the West Coast to the Midwest. In particular, the two key complaints were A) no in-flight entertainment (Southwest's flight attendants notwithstanding), and B) no food service. I then pointed out that not only did American not have either, but that Southwest gives you (for free, versus $4 on AA) a boxed snack on flights of that length (1201+ miles), and flies 737s with decent seat pitch, rather than the abysmal MD-80s (redundant, I know) dominant on so many AA routes.

This time, my logic prevailed.

Shortly after this exchange, I received an e-mail from United informing me of their new baggage policy. In a nutshell, if you don't have status, you're looking at $25 to check a second bag, On the one hand, I give United credit for pointing out that only a quarter of their customers check a second bag. On the other hand, I look at this policy and question the $100 million in cost savings and revenue that UA claims this'll realize.

Frankly, I think they're looking at spending about $100 million in customer service time with confused travelers trying to figure out what happened to their ability to check two bags.

Now, I'm a realist...in fact, I'm pragmatic to a fault (as The Better Half has told me time and again). Running an airline has never been an easy task, but it's been particularly tough the last few years. And, while I wouldn't say I'm sympathetic to the guys (and yes, it's almost exclusively a boys-only club) in the major airlines' corner offices, I absolutely understand the need to drive revenue and cut or contain costs.

But, I question at what point have the majors thumbed their noses at the traveling public once too often? Setting a realistic customer expectation, then delivering on that expectation, is all most customers can ever hope for from their service providers. Underpromising and overdelivering is the holy grail.

However, the issue that the six majors (with the possible exception of Continental) seem to have forgotten is that the expectations of the traveling public are still well above the service provided today, even as service (and, correspondingly, customer satisfaction) levels continue to decline. I'm on an airplane pretty much every week, so I've seen the gradual service decline and the nickeling and diming so prevalent in the airline industry today, but the infrequent traveler hasn't.

Me? I'm the frog in the room temperature frying pan, slowly heating up, boiling to death without really reacting to the bad stuff that's going on. The infrequent traveler? They're the frog dropped into the boiling water, who immediately senses that something's wrong. Of course, in the latter case, at least the frog can jump out, unlike the poor traveler who gets to the airport and learns that for his family of 4 to each take their second bags to Disney World, they're looking at another $200 added on to their round-trip airfare. Sorry Walt...one fewer lunch inside the park for the Joneses.

Sure, we'll never go back to the service of the pre-9/11 days, but at some point, the airline industry is healthier for it. The terror attacks of 9/11 were a forcing function to get airlines in better shape from a financial standpoint. I'm certainly not qualified to debate the pluses and minuses of all the financing maneuvers that went on post-9/11, although I personally believe that the U.S. should've had at least one airline failure to remove capacity from the market. Darwin did not prevail over the past few years, at least among the majors. But I will say that when most people, particularly infrequent travelers, think of airlines like American or United, they think of the full-service carriers with which they grew up, particularly if they'd cut their flying teeth prior to the dawn of the new millennium. And, for better or worse, lots of folks still associate the names of the six majors with service levels they became used to back in the last quarter of the last century.

You can't unring a bell, but that's precisely what the majors are trying to do. In the case of Ryanair, easyJet, and now Skybus, customers have started off with a very, VERY low expectation of customer service, which those carriers make no bones about. Want to check a bag? Ka-ching. Oh, and you have to pay for airport check-in since you have a bag. Ka-ching. Want to check a heavy bag (anything over 33 pounds)? KA-CHING. Want a can of pop, which is what it's called where I'm from? Ka-ching. Don't believe me? Click on the Ryanair link above to try to decipher their charges. They're mind-boggling.

But, from the start, Ryanair passengers know what they're getting into. Most passengers on U.S. majors don't. I absolutely don't envy those running the airlines, in particular their PR departments (save for that knucklehead at Air Canada who doesn't deserve pity for his stupid comment last week). However, the devaluation of the once great brands of the U.S. majors almost seems like a systematic effort by the guys in the corner offices to destroy their little remaining brand equity.

Building up a brand by gradually improving quality is a magnificent approach...just take a look at what Samsung has done over the last 20 years, or what Vizio has done over the last 5. Unfortunately, tearing down a brand is much easier than building one up. As reference, witness the majors (save for Continental) over the last few years.

Are efforts such as United now charging for a second bag misguided? That answer will depend entirely on your perspective. Do you own United stock? Do you fly United? Two simple questions which are not discontiguous, but which will likely provide diametrically opposite answers.

Scott McCartney's column in this morning's Wall Street Journal may sum things up best, reinforcing that Southwest may end up as the ultimate victor in the U.S. commercial aviation market. The direction of the six majors seems to be to match the model of the healthcare industry. While certainly not representative of U.S. healthcare in general, asking a patient for a $5 co-pay being wheeled on a gurney while having a heart attack seems like it's beyond the reach of U.S. carrier policies.

Or not.

In the meantime, see you on Southwest.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The January BS award goes to...

Well, it's a tie. As you're probably aware, I've been giving out a bullshit of the month award since Letterman first went on the air back in the late '50s. As we approach the final minutes of the final hour of the final day of the first month of the year, I *thought* we had an outright winner--the Air Canada spokesman for his ridiculous comment on the unfortunate event that happened earlier this week.

In case you missed it, the co-pilot of an Air Canada 767 had a serious behavioral issue (which some in the press corps have called a nervous breakdown, but that seems like a bit of a harsh judgement, since nobody really knows what happened) on a flight from Toronto (YYZ) to London (LHR). Luckily for all aboard, the captain and the cabin crew were able to subdue the first officer, enabling the captain to call for and safely execute an emergency landing at Shannon (SNN) airport in Western Ireland. Serious kudos to the captain and the rest of his staff for ensuring that what was an EXTREMELY dangerous situation ended safely for all involved.

However, the quote from Peter Fitzpatrick of Air Canada is priceless...

"The aircraft landed without incident. At no time were the safety of the passengers or crew in question."

DUDE. You're kidding me, right? You seriously expect people to believe that the safety of those on board was never in question. Seriously? I have two words for you, Pal. Egypt Air. MS990 plummeted into the sea from 36,000 feet in less than 3 minutes, the likely culprit being the 767's first officer. And you mean to tell me, Mr. Fitzpatrick, that your passengers on AC848 were never in any danger?

Bullshit.

But, just in the nick of time, Mr. Fitzpatrick has earned a reprieve from full ownership of this month's BS award. Howard Schultz, the brains behind Starbucks, delivered a comment that's totally out of character for him, a comment which earns him half of this month's BS award. I'm curious which junior PR staffer should be ridiculed for this silly quote, or whether it'll blow over (like the aroma of a cup of coffee).

Starbucks announced today that they were giving up on the breakfast sandwich market. Okay, so be it. This turned out to be tougher than they expected, so they're gonna put their eyes back on the prize of selling coffee as a lifestyle. Cool. Admit it, and we'll move on. Nothing to see here.

But, come on Howard...

"Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said Wednesday on a conference call that his company will stop selling breakfast sandwiches because 'the scent of the warmed sandwiches interferes with the coffee aroma in our stores.'"

Bullshit.

If you're selling $35,000 of breakfast sandwiches annually per store, that's (roughly) $100 a day per store. If I recall correctly, the sandwiches were priced around $4 each, meaning 25 or so sandwiches were sold each day. If one assumes a breakfast rush from 6-10 a.m., that's a half-dozen sandwiches per hour, or one every 10 minutes. That ain't a business. That's not even a junior high bake sale. Frankly, I'm surprised they rolled this offering out to 4,000 stores, then decided to can it. Seems like somebody's asleep at the wheel. Starbucks, do you not have a Peoria? Jeez, use Redmond or Austin if you need to. Go see Jerry's folks at Del Boca Vista. But test something, for Pete's sake. Pete might like it, or he might hate it, but he'll probably save you from a 4,000 store mistake.

I'm not a McDonald's guy for lunch or dinner, but yeah, I'll hit McDonald's on the road for a breakfast sandwich. Quick, consistent, easy to carry, and with a choice of bread carriers and options, I'll gladly stop at a McDonald's (or Burger King) to fuel up for the day. But Starbucks isn't a destination for a sandwich...it's a lifestyle destination that happens to sell coffee. McDonald's is anything but a lifestyle destination, but they sell sandwiches to a much wider demographic (with a much lower per capita income) than Starbucks could ever consistently reach.

Starbucks can afford to sell the other items Mr. Schultz talks about in the article, since there's comparatively little overhead--put the pastries on a tray in a glass case, and hope they move by the time the store closes that night. On the other hand, breakfast sandwiches require an entirely separate supply chain, all the way to the customer's hand. Sandwich ovens aren't cheap, the extra refrigeration space isn't cheap, yadda, yadda, yadda. Investors get that. Customers get that. Heck, I get that...and I don't even drink coffee. Another Diet Pepsi, please.

But to stand up in front of the world (okay, in a press release) and say that the smell of the sandwiches is goofing with the smell of the coffee?

Bullshit.

I'm really curious whether the PR professionals who wrote the statements for both Fitzpatrick and Schultz actually thought how inanely those phrases would come across. I mean, these statements don't even come close to passing the moron in a hurry test.

So, PR professionals, public company spokespeople, and otherwise highly regarded CEOs: how about just telling the truth sometimes?

It smells better, and doesn't risk your safety.



P.S. If you don't recognize the Letterman reference in the first sentence, you obviously weren't watching Dave when he really first went on the air in 1982. He often referred to the Top Ten List as something they'd been doing since they went on the air back in the late '50s. Since my blog's been on the air since all the way back in January, 2008, I'm taking a little liberty while paying homage to Dave, too.