January 31, 2007

Boston — Piling Up the Bad Decisions

Filed under: Media — Tom @ 11:38 pm

Boston was apparently in chaos today as authorities shut down streets and train stations and rushing in the bomb squad to combat… a bunch of Lite-Brites.

When you’re one of the people in charge and your people send a major city into mass hysteria, what do you do? Admit that it was a false alarm? Try to figure out how law enforcement, who are supposed to be trained to recognize terrorist attacks, mistook a marketing prank as a major attack?

No, of course not. You let the media to crank up the hysteria, as MyFoxBoston.com did. Check out this screenshot from the Fox site — despite the “suspicious devices” headline, you can see from the (tiny) caption that they already knew this was advertising.

Wind ‘Em Up

Then you get out there and demonstrate some outrage. And then you go arrest the poor guy who had the misfortune to be hired by Turner Broadcasting to hang these things in Boston. And it doesn’t hurt to get an editor to talk about how somebody else should have to pay because your people decided to take the city to Defcon 1.

It’s now apparent that these things have been hung up in cities all over the country as part of a national marketing campaign. Turner Broadcasting has said they’ve been up for weeks. No other city has devolved into the kind of scene you’d normally call Snake Plissken in to resolve.

Boston, haven’t you embarrassed yourself enough? Are you really going to indict this guy and hold a trial and everything? Where’s the video of a Turner Broadcasting marketing exec being escorted out of his house in the middle of the night?


Update on Thursday: Further demonstrating that Boston officials are trying to cover their ass after this massive overreaction — Boing Boing reports that apparently, there were two fake pipe bombs yesterday that were totally unrelated to this marketing campaign.

It appears that these were intended to cause panic, being placed at a hospital and a bridge. And although officials believe they’ve identified the individual responsible for the fake at the hospital, no charges have been filed. Maybe the Boston police are too busy arresting artists.


Now Portland, That’s Wow!

Filed under: Chicago, Portland — Tom @ 10:47 pm

Chicago vs. PortlandUnlike the uninspiring launch of Microsoft Vista, the weather in Portland has been a huge “wow”. Everyone told me how horrible the winter was going to be — I really expected it to rain non-stop from November to June.

Instead, it’s been warm, dry and sunny for more than a week. I keep a couple Dashboard widgets on my Mac to check out the weather here and back in Chicago. And while Portland’s been trying to break into the 50s, Chicago’s been sporting snow and subzero temperatures. Fantastic!

January 30, 2007


Filed under: Microsoft, Technology — Tom @ 11:12 am

One of my favorite blogs is Seth Godin’s because he always manages to find images that make his point for him. Today Seth points out the conflict between the marketing message and the people presenting it at the Vista launch.

Not so wowed

The full article can be found in the Times.

Even Microsoft’s execs and partners don’t seem very thrilled. Is anyone anxious to get Vista? (Personally, I’m looking forward to Office finally supporting the iCal standard properly — so I don’t have to send calendar items from Outlook using Parallels anymore.)

January 28, 2007

Biggest Loser Club: Old Media Failure

Filed under: Media, Technology, Weight Loss — Tom @ 5:38 pm

Old media really doesn’t understand the web. And the squandered opportunities seem to keep stacking up.

I recently signed up and quickly canceled my subscription to BiggestLoserClub.com. As most people who watch any television probably know this is a weight-loss-oriented site tied in to NBC’s Biggest Loser reality show. I’d signed up looking for a more robust alternative to the online tools available at Weight Watchers.

Unfortunately, BiggestLoserClub.com is a perfect example of old media missing the mark. It’s Web 1998. Interactivity? What’s that?

So why do I find this such a squandered opportunity? Well, here we have this reality show and it’s a huge success in traditional media. They have an existing audience that guarantees an enormous amount of traffic to their site (and they worked it, too, pushing the site repeatedly during the show). All they had to do was create a compelling destination to hold onto those people.

Instead, they build something that brings over a lot of the old media model — they’ll send me information and I’ll receive it. The value of the community itself is, as always, undervalued.

For my subscription dollars, here’s what I could do:

  1. Create a profile — weight, height, goal.
  2. Track my weight at weekly intervals.
  3. Get suggested meals. This included the ability to swap out components of a suggested meal and the ability to print a shopping list.
  4. Get a suggested workout. This consisted of listing “Rest”, “Cardio”, or “Strength” for each day of the week. Links would take you to more information on exercise suggestions and some information on how to do the strength training exercises.
  5. Message boards. These message boards were pretty poor; they supported very basic functions. (I get better forums with my City of Heroes subscription — and they’d prefer I was playing the game instead of reading the forums!) The screenshot in the BiggestLoserClub.com tour even sadly shows that most of the boards have zero activity. It’s rare that a website manages to actually depress me.

Old media continues to think they can leverage a brand and get us to buy whatever they’re selling. And they stick to the old tricks to keep us paying, too. Seth Godin discussed the fallacy in making it hard to leave a service recently. This was more of the same — it was just a few clicks and some credit card info to join. Quitting was another story. Try to cancel and you’re informed that you have to call them — and only during a six-hour window in the middle of the day. (To their credit, when I e-mailed support and told them I wanted to quit, they cancelled my account.)

I expect a lot more for my money from a website in 2007. At a minimum, I want to be able to log my food and exercise choices and get real-time tracking of calories in and calories used each day. Instead, BLC provides a journal. A journal! This is one of those choices that make me want to track down some executive and shake some sense into him or her. Big media, here is your free clue — we will not come to your website to do things that are more easily done with paper and pencil. Or a word processor. Or a blog. Or any of a thousand options that are better than a website’s database that I don’t have any control over. And I don’t want to go through a bunch of possible exercises and then find videos of how to do them — I want to be able to fire up a chat session with a trainer and ask what I should be doing.

And the message boards? Why even bother when they’re that bad? I want fully-featured forums — I should be able to flag a thread, choose to get notified when new posts appear in it, and send private messages to forum members who have opted in. But let’s go beyond that — why can’t I pair up with other members? Form individual relationships? Start individual support groups? Where’s MySpace for fat people?

In fact, let’s go all the way — what should a modern, socially-networked weight loss and fitness site look like? I’d better be able to put in what I eat, of course, and track my exercise. Which exercises? I should be able to identify what I own (bicycle or free weights, for example) and have access to (like flagging that I have a gym membership or a pool). Then the site can tell me what exercises I should do when and I can approve them. Now I just log in and say how much time I’ve got and the site can suggest something from my approved list. Thirty minutes — go for a run. An hour — head to the gym and do these exercises.

And then I set alerts — maybe I want a text message or e-mail if I haven’t exercised in 2 days, or logged food in the last 8 hours, or whatever. Maybe someone else should be getting alerts, too, assuming I’ve opted in. Trainers could receive all the data — everyone who hasn’t worked out in the last week, for example — and invite me to a chat session to discuss why I’ve fallen behind and help me find new activities that will freshen things up and get me motivated.

Meanwhile, I can make my profile public and information about my progress available to everyone — members can search for people with similar interests, or goals, or locations and find virtual or physical workout buddies. When I log on after dinner and enter my meal, maybe I see that my workout buddy is online. We can start a video chat and motivate each other to go for an impromptu run or bike ride. Members can also volunteer to serve as coaches for each other — I’d have the option of opening my workout and meal history to my buddies as well. We’d be able to set challenges with each other to inspire ourselves.

For the time being, I’ll be sticking with Weight Watchers online tools and I’ll talk more about why I think they’re a better option within the next few days (and where they still miss the mark). And I’ll be taking some of the fitness social networking sites, like SparkPeople, PeerTrainer, and Traineo.

In the early nineties, I recall critics worried that the Internet and the worldwide web were isolating people and we were all spending too much time interacting with technology and machines. But the lessons learned from those days — taught by the explosive growth of e-mail and instant messaging — are being re-taught by sites like MySpace and Facebook and LinkedIn and ignored by sites like BiggestLoserClub. The lesson that what really matters is not the technology we use but the connections it creates.

January 26, 2007

iPhone Bash Round-Up

Filed under: Apple, iPhone, Technology — Tom @ 1:35 am

Thursday was a big day for iPhone-bashing. Really stupid iPhone-bashing.

First, a couple analysts want everyone to understand that the iPhone is not a smartphone. At least according to their definition, which requires that the OS is open and supports third-party development.

For me, a smartphone has always been a phone that incorporates a fully-functional PDA feature set and a browser. The fact that my Sony Ericsson P910i allows additional applications to be installed was never what qualified it as a smartphone for me. But I’m not a fancy analyst like Stuart Carlaw and Philip Solis at ABI Research — I’m just a guy who uses a mobile phone.

Still, I think Carlaw’s prediction — “Consumers will not be willing to settle for a second-rate cell phone just to have superior music” — is way off. His description of the iPhone as a “feature phone” ignores the biggest feature of all. The phone’s interface has gotten raves from everyone who’s actually managed to touch one. And the OS X system can obviously run other applications.

The big question is how additional applications will get on the phone. Right now, it seems Apple is going to tightly control development. That’s a bummer, but still doesn’t mean that the phone won’t get a broad range of new features under Apple’s supervision.

Carlaw seems to be looking for the standard cell phone entry — take the base features of existing smartphones, rework the keyboard, add a dash of ingredient X (3G data services? MP3 player and FM radio? Instant messaging device?) and voilà. The UI? Well, they’re all pretty bad, so just do the best you can. Web services? Stick a WAP browser on there and let Opera fix the problem.

Apple’s decided to try and deal with a lot of things that make mobile phones suck. Is it going to be perfect? Of course not. I’m still disappointed that there was no mention of voice recognition dialing, for example. But I continue to think the iPhone is going to be a big hit. And when it is, please tell me where to report for my analyst gig.

Not to be outdone (outwronged?), John Webster, an IT advisor at another research company, makes some observations in a Computerworld article republished at Macworld.com today. Webster says the iPhone reminds him of Ken Olsen of DEC because Olsen was concerned about the PC and it’s potential for distracting software and the possibility that anyone could swipe sensitive data with a disk.

Webster reminds me of an analyst stretching to find some historical reference to support baseless fearmongering. He says:

How secure is the iPhone? What kinds of data does it store? Any data of a personal nature? How secure is that data? It’s way more portable than the PC and way more fun. But what could happen to you as an owner of the iPhone if it winds up, even momentarily, in the palm of the wrong person?

I’m trying to figure out Webster’s point. Is there one? There’s really no comparison with Olsen’s views on the move from dumb terminals to personal computers. And the concerns Webster raises are so old news they’re laughable.

I already carry around, every day, the kind of data an iPhone will contain in the form of my mobile phone and my iPod Nano. Am I supposed to be worried about — gasp — someone finding out that my music collection includes some Ace of Base tunes? Or see the photos of my dog that I carry with me, or scroll through my calendar? This is all stuff they can steal from me today — in the future, my thief will just be able to browse through my music library using the iPhone’s nifty cover flow view and will probably enjoy the entire stealing experience a lot more.

And really — haven’t enough stolen laptops containing sensitive info made the news for this to be a rather mundane observation?

No, Mr. Webster, I’m afraid the biggest tragedy of a misplaced iPhone will be that I’m out $600.

Finally, Rob Enderle posted some utter madness that is really beyond comprehension. John Gruber has some discussion at Daring Fireball about it. You really need to click through to Enderle’s article and see the photos of the concept phones that he thinks the iPhone has copied. Only then can you appreciate the depth of the insanity.

January 24, 2007

Mobile Phone, Reinvented

Filed under: Apple, Gear, iPhone, Technology — Tom @ 12:28 am

Seth Godin recently blogged about how the iPhone doesn’t really “reinvent” the cellphone very much. And while he makes some good points about what a reinvented cellphone would be like, I think that Apple may already be ahead of him on this.

Apple’s iPhone

There’s been a lot of criticism of Appe’s decision to tie itself to Cingular for the first couple of years. But once you get past all the whining (come on, people, phone exclusivity isn’t exactly a new model in the cell phone world), the decision starts to make a lot of sense.

It looks like Apple didn’t want to just build a device and throw it out there — they want to change the market itself. The iPod was successful because Apple did more than market a device. They provided a tightly integrated music library management tool and a fairly seamless user experience. (I’m not forgetting the store, but that came about much later.)

My hope is that Apple chose to partner with someone because they have features and services in mind that require more than a nifty phone — they require changes to the cellular network. Visual voicemail is the first of these but probably not the last. The kinds of features that Godin imagines, like using a group to distribute a voice mail or make a conference call with multiple people, will also require changes to how the cell network handles calls.

As to the question, “Why Cingular?” Why not? Does it matter? So what if you hate Cingular — you’re a cliché. Everyone has a story about the cell carrier that done them wrong that they’ll never use again. The bottom line is that Cingular’s the biggest — the second runner-up is as much as 20% smaller. Why partner up with number 2 when number 1 would be happy to have this dance?

Only time will tell whether Apple’s strategy pays off or whether they really have a series of cell phone innovations planned for the future. I’m guessing that it will, they do, and I am.

January 22, 2007


Filed under: Gear, Weight Loss — Tom @ 1:07 am

As part of my new attempt at fitness, I thought I’d see how I do with the 10,000-steps-per-day minimum recommended activity. I bought a shiny new pedometer, the Omron HJ-112, based on some Amazon praise.

Omron HJ-112

The gist of the reviews there was that the sensor tracked continuous steps, ignoring intermittent jostling and only counting once you walked for four seconds or more. It was also advertised as accurate whether it was on your belt, in a pocket, or tucked away in a bag.

This was what I really wanted — a “set it and forget it” pedometer that I didn’t have to wear on my belt and proclaim to the world my exercise habits. (Um, yeah, I realize I’m blogging this and there’s a contradiction in there.) I wanted to put it in my pocket and not worry about it for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, the HJ-112 doesn’t live up to the advertising. It’s a great pedometer, but it suffers from the same limitations as any other pedometer I’ve ever used. It needs to be kept reasonably perpendicular to the ground — although not mentioned in the description, “pocket” is limited to a shirt pocket.

I tried using it for a couple days in my pants pocket and jostling about while I sat was still a problem. It credited me with over 2,000 steps during my drive to work and another 1,000 while I sat at a computer all day.

So it’s a bust. I would still recommend it to anyone who wanted a high tech pedometer. It automatically resets its count each day, it stores a week’s worth of walks in memory, and tracks “aerobic steps” (walks longer than 10 minutes at 60 steps per minute) separately.

But if you just want something to track your walks and think you’ll need to mess around with this less, think again. You’ll still need to remove it while sitting to avoid false steps being counted. I now use it to count steps for single walks, rather than trying to get an all-day step count.

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