Archive for June, 2010

No escape from the perfect financial storm

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Already a steady stream of companies are lowering their forecasts, taking out any surprises as the typically more lucrative fourth quarter gets under way. The stock prices of the top tech companies are in the tank, which is indicative of a very spooked investor community. The investment community looks at those prices and sees a buy order–the stocks are really cheap–but after the last few days it’s difficult to have any confidence that a seemingly good bet would pay off.

The proverbial wheels are coming off. The financial crisis is spreading across the globe. The political mudslinging is getting into full gear as the U.S. presidential election nears its conclusion and inflation continues to rise. Basically, everything costs more, with the exception of gasoline spurred by slowing demand as consumers look for ways to stay afloat financially.

In the midst and aftermath of this perfect storm, brewed out of years of habit and taken down by mortgages for the masses, both consumers and businesses will be far more conservative in their spending habits in the coming months. As in other epochs, such as the tech meltdown at the end of the 20th century, only the strong will survive. Consolidation or extinction will be the exit strategy, reaching way beyond the broken banking industry, which has been whittled down to a handful of players.

For the tech industry it means hunkering down. A few days ago, the legendary Bill Gates said that companies will continue to invest while the economy sputters somewhat, but “nothing like a big recession or a depression.”

Click here for ongoing coverage from CNET News, ‘Tough times for tech’

His remarks seem overly optimistic, given the crisis of confidence in financial markets spreading like a virus throughout the world. A hacker or terrorist hoping to destabilize economies couldn’t have done a better job than the financial industry itself.

Out of this perfect storm new financial infrastructure and regulations will emerge that bring back confidence into the markets and reignite innovation, that is until the next destructive cycle driven by irrational exuberance comes around.

The well-heeled country of Iceland, with 320,000 residents (about half the population of Alaska in an island the size of Kentucky) is nearly underwater financially. Europe, not just the U.S., is in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis.

Governments, via taxpayer funds, are stepping into the breach with the equivalent of Band-Aids and bailing wire to stop the potential slide into financial oblivion. But there is no escape from this perfect storm. The financial institutions played fast and loose and now they can’t cover their bets. (See the 60 Minutes segment in which the credit crunch is explained in plain English.)

Zuckerberg ‘Change can be difficult,’ but the red

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

A post on the company blog, authored by Zuckerberg, wrote that the site’s new focus–which emphasizes the sharing of media and information–is “an important step for us.”

Some Facebook users freaked out over its News Feed in 2006, and its Beacon advertising program last year. But the concerns voiced there dealt with privacy, not user interface. That was something that could’ve resulted in much more PR damage than a design that a slim percentage of users vehemently dislike (and which most, it seems, don’t really care much about).

“Many people disliked News Feed at first because it changed their home page and how they shared information,” Zuckerberg’s post read. (”How they share information” is putting it lightly.) “Now it’s one of the most important parts of Facebook. We think the new design can have the same effect.” He added the company had gone through months of a “feedback” stage and that the final product was shaped largely in part by users’ input.

In response to some Facebook users who asked if they could have the option to use the old design instead of the new one, Zuckerberg said it wasn’t possible for technical reasons. “It’s tempting to say that we should just support both designs, but this isn’t as simple as it sounds,” he wrote. “Supporting two versions is a huge amount of work for our small team, and it would mean that going forward we would have to build everything twice. If we did that then neither version would get our full attention.”

And as for the members who have banded together to form Facebook groups protesting the new design (a bit meta, yes), Zuckerberg claims he’s not offended. “We appreciate the thousands of you who have written in to give us feedback,” the post read. “Even if you’re joining a group to express things you don’t like about the new design, you’re giving us important feedback and you’re sharing your voice, which is what Facebook is all about.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has caught on to the fact that a sizeable handful of his 100-million-plus users say they aren’t too thrilled with the site’s new redesign. But he won’t change anything, as Facebook occasionally has in the face of user revolt.

Facebook’s team isn’t exactly tiny–they have said they hope to hit 800 employees by the end of 2008–but running two Web sites that run the same property differently probably is a pain in the neck. Kind of analogous to Microsoft’s dealing with those holdouts who are still using Windows 98.

“In the last four years, we’ve built new products that help people share more, such as photos, videos, groups, events, wall posts, status updates and so on,” the post read. “As people share more, sometimes we need to change the site to accommodate how much information people are posting.”

How lame is lithium ion Don’t get me started

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

If my laptop drops dead one more time because the battery’s out of juice, I may go postal. I know. There are worse things in life. But how lame is lithium ion? I’m sure that my frustration’s not unique. Many (most?) of you have surely engaged in the same frantic race against the clock, typing furiously as the computer’s battery icon wastes down to empty. And Murphy’s Law being what it is, there doubtless was not an electrical unit in the same time zone.

Of course, some laptops are better at power management than others. Still, three hours, maximum, is about the best you can hope for. That’s no bargain. But such is life in the lithium-ion era.

Now a start-up called ZPower says it’s come up with a battery technology breakthrough which it claims will result in 40 percent longer laptop life than lithium-ion on a single charge. The company says it has struck a deal with “one of the major” PC makers to use its silver-zinc batteries in a notebook line slated for 2009. The CEO, Ross Dueber, declined to get more specific than that.

(Credit:
CNET News)

I don’t know if ZPower has the best answer, but speaking for the laptop shleppers of the world, I wish him well in his quest. Commercial lithium-ion batteries have been around since 1991, courtesy of Sony and an upgrade would be very welcome. Earlier in the week I spoke with Dueber, who was in town for Intel’s big developer shindig. Check out what he had to say in this video interview we shot together.

The last time I flew out of San Francisco, my laptop battery conked out as we passed Salt Lake City. Considering how I was stuck in cattle class with no chance to recharge the unit, I closed the computer in disgust and proceeded to slip into a deep sleep.

BlackBerry Storm parts pricier than iPhone’s

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

So why are Storm’s components more expensive than those of the iPhone?

These total device prices don’t include the cost of software, licensing of patents, or distribution, but rather just the cost of the actual physical components. While the roughly $29 difference may not seem like much, it certainly adds up after millions of phones are sold.

The Storm also packs in more wireless technologies than the iPhone. For example, it offers the EV-DO air standard, along with CDMA 2000, GSM, WCDMA, and HSDPA. This allows the device to roam around the world on different carrier networks.

Market research firm iSuppli has taken apart the BlackBerry Storm and discovered that the sum of its parts is worth more than those of Apple’s iPhone 3G.

The Storm, RIM’s first touch-screen device, was supposed to be Verizon’s iPhone killer. But customers who bought the device are complaining of buggy software and hardware glitches. A Wall Street Journal article published earlier this week suggests that Verizon and RIM rushed the device to market, perhaps before it was really ready. The newspaper notes that Jim Balsillie, RIM’s co-CEO, said the companies reached the Black Friday deadline “by the skin of their teeth,” after they had missed a planned October debut.

Neither Verizon nor RIM has disclosed how many BlackBerry Storms have been sold, but published reports suggest that RIM sold about 500,000 of the devices during the first month the phone was on sale. Apple sold 1.1 million units of the first-generation iPhone, by comparison, in the first two months it was on the market. And sales after that quickly ramped up.

There are a likely several reasons. For one, the iPhone 3G is a second-generation product, and Apple may be getting better component prices from suppliers. But iSuppli also notes that the Storm is a more complicated device that requires more components. According to the research firm, the Storm’s total component count is 1,177, of which 151 are mechanical in nature. The iPhone 3G includes 1,116 components.

(Credit:
James Martin/CBS Interactive)

The Storm is also more expensive than other RIM devices, such as the BlackBerry Bold, which costs about $177 to build. The Bold uses Marvell Technology Group’s PXA9xx Integrated Baseband processor, which is less expensive than the Qualcomm chip. But iSuppli says the cost differential can mainly be attributed to the Storm’s touchscreen and its supporting electronics.

Another reason the Storm may be more expensive is because it’s using an expensive chip from Qualcomm. The Qualcomm MSM7600 baseband processor costs about $35 and accounts for 17.2 percent of the Storm’s total component cost.

Components used to build new Research In Motion smartphone cost about $203, according to iSuppli. Verizon Wireless, the exclusive carrier of the Storm, sells the device for $199 after rebates and with a two-year service contract. Meanwhile, the total cost of components in Apple’s 8-gigabyte
iPhone 3G, which was introduced last summer, is $174. AT&T, the iPhone’s exclusive carrier, sells the 8GB device for $199 with a two-year service contract.

Get ready for Adobe Media Player (updated with vid

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Many video players have gone here before.

Either way, do try it. It’s both a good streaming player and a strong client for subscribing to and watching downloaded Flash videos.

Being an Adobe product, the player is primarily a platform for Flash videos. To compete technically with other video sites, it displays videos in up to 1080p resolution. And the interface is slick and simple.

When you want to sign up for content, there are nice TiVo-like options. For example, you can select “catch up” to start downloading a season of a show you’ve missed from the beginning, or you can have it show only the most recent shows.

The focus on advertising sets AMP apart from iTunes, which is sales-based. Adobe will likely offer paid content subscriptions and purchases in the future, however.

AMP gives you flexible fetching and saving options.

I see AMP as a competitor to Hulu (related stories), although Adobe’s Ashley Manning Still, who demonstrated the product for me, considers Hulu–an online-only Flash-based player–as complementary or perhaps a partner. But since both AMP and Hulu are competing for the same advertising revenues, I’d say that puts them at odds.

Content publishers keep a lot of control. They’re the ones who decide if their media can be downloaded to your computer or only streamed, when the media expires, and if it can be transferred. Publishers can also place ads on or around video files, and they can even send current advertising messages to run with videos that may have been sitting on a hard disk for a year already. Publishers can also direct the player to adopt skins or themes when specific media plays. Adobe keeps a portion of advertising revenues.

Later this month, Adobe will release out of beta the AIR-based Adobe Media Player that we first saw at the Web 2.0 Expo a year ago. It’s a very attractive video player, needing only a more complete catalog to become a compelling product. (See the product manager’s pitch and demo at the end of this post.)

If you want to try AMP, you can get the beta now at Adobe Labs, but you need the old beta version of AIR (also on Labs). If you want to try the shipping version, which works with the current 1.0 version of AIR, wait until later this month when AMP makes its way to Adobe’s shipping download page.

Missing from AMP, until some time in 2009 or 2010, is “multiscreen” capability–inherent support for portable media players and set-top boxes. Meantime, just hook your AMP-running laptop up to your TV. As mentioned earlier, it displays true HD video. No YouTube blockiness here.

As with many AIR programs, AMP is a hybrid online/offline app. If you use it while you’re connected to the Net, it will download the media you’re subscribed to in the background, allow you to play streaming-only files, and let you browse the AMP catalog of media. When you’re offline, you’re only able to watch all your downloaded files.

AMP competes with Joost, another video service that works offline (news). As of this writing, Joost has a larger video library, although Adobe has clout that will likely help it narrow the gap.

Score an Asus Eee PC 900 for $294

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Find more deals, coupon codes, and bargains on CNET’s Shopper.com.

(Credit:
Asus)

The rebate deal (PDF) runs through the end of October, so you’ve got plenty of time to research the Eee before buying. I’ll admit this is a very attractive price point, but I’d still be more inclined to pay $400-500 on a full-fledged notebook. Agree? Disagree? Inquiring cheapskates wanna know.

That said, people seem to really love these little guys, and the Eee PC 900 has earned high marks from CNET and users alike. This model features an 8.9-inch screen, 20GB solid-state drive, 1.3-megapixel Webcam, and Linux operating system–all wrapped in a 2.2-pound package measuring just 8.9 inches by 6.5 inches by 0.9 inch. Travel-friendly it is.

Are you looking for a lightweight, ultraportable PC that’s easy on the wallet? Mwave.com has the Asus Eee PC 900 20G for $294 (after a $65 mail-in rebate). Ground shipping will run you about $11.

In case you’re not familiar with the Eee PC, it’s one of the new breed of “Netbooks” that have become incomprehensibly popular in recent months. I say that because I’m not a fan–I prefer a full-size screen and keyboard, and enough processing power to do more than just check e-mail and cruise the Web.

Did online companies market their brands well at t

Friday, June 4th, 2010

Monster
Job search service Monster unveiled a 30-second spot for the Super Bowl that saw the camera swing 180-degrees around a wall. On one side, the boss of a company had a moose’s head hanging from the wall in his beautiful office. On the other side, the rest of the animal’s body was resting in the middle of an employee’s desk as the narrator asked if it’s time to find another job. After that, the narrator mentioned how many job listings are on the site and how to get there.

Priceline
Priceline, the online travel deals site, featured William Shatner in its ad this year. The ad starts with a married couple discussing their desire to go on vacation, but eventually realizing that they couldn’t afford it. Shatner, who was outside their home in a van, tells the husband to repeat after him and goes on to explain to the wife how they can save money on a four-star hotel by using Priceline. He does so, at times dropping into the old Captain Kirk-style of speech with its halting cadence. The ad ends with the wife agreeing to book the reservation.

Perhaps most important, Monster’s ad included the company’s URL: Monster.com. Many of the viewers may have already known it and even if the company didn’t add the “.com”, some would find their way to the site. But spelling it out makes it easier for the viewer and gets them to the site sooner. It’s a simple thing, but it shouldn’t have been overlooked by so many of the other companies advertising their brands at the Super Bowl–be they Web-based businesses or not.

CareerBuilder
Online career search service CareerBuilder offered up a 60-second ad for the Super Bowl that used the tagline, “It might be time (to look for another job)” after providing examples of thoughts some workers might have when they’re upset with their careers. My favorite: sitting next to a man who clips his toenails in the office…in his underwear.

GoDaddy
Domain registrar GoDaddy has always been known to provide sexy commercials to promote its brand. This year’s two Super Bowl ads were no different.

Cars.com
Cars.com is a popular destination for people who want to research, sell, or buy a
car. But the company’s Super Bowl commercial takes viewers through the life of David Abernathy, a supremely capable and confident individual who achieved great success in his life. Towards the end of the ad, Cars.com is finally mentioned as David worries about buying a car. Evidently, the online hub helped him in that endeavor.

The commercial did tell viewers that Cars.com will help them buy a car, but it failed to inform them about the other site features they may have been interested in, like research and the option to sell their vehicles. Maybe that was Cars.com’s intention all along, but I’m not convinced that talking about just one of its offerings for a few seconds in 30-second commercial is all that effective.

Hulu
Online video site Hulu offered up an ad, called “Alec in Huluwood” for the Super Bowl, starring veteran actor Alec Baldwin. The 60-second ad takes place in an underground laboratory where Baldwin discusses in detail how Hulu will ensure you won’t escape TV content, while reducing your brain “to a cottage cheese-like mush.” The spot ends with a tentacle emerging from Baldwin’s suit jacket and his claim that “we’re aliens, and that’s how we roll.”

Priceline’s commercials are barely different each time they air, but they work. The ad offered some entertainment value and throughout, the message was made clearly to the audience: if you want to save money when you travel, listen to Priceline. Whether or not that’s true is a different story. But the ad left little doubt in the viewers’ minds. It was well crafted.

It was a perfectly-crafted commercial from both an entertainment and marketing perspective.

Monster’s ad may have been simple, but it was extremely effective. It provided viewers with some entertainment–a must at the Super Bowl–but it used it to get to the marketing side of the ad, which mentioned the company’s “millions of job listings.”

Can you communicate what a Web site is about to millions of sports fans looking for entertainment above all else? Now that the Super Bowl is over, let’s examine how well the online firms that bought ads fared in delivering spots that effectively communicated their online services.

Hulu may have taken a decidedly extreme tack to promote its brand, but it did that exceptionally well. Combining a star from one of TV’s hottest comedies, 30 Rock, along with some comedy, the commercial kept audiences captivated as Baldwin skillfully laid out the business model of Hulu: “Hulu beams TV to your portable computing devices, giving you more of the cerebral gelatinizing shows you want anytime, anywhere, for free.”

GoDaddy’s “Shower” commercial didn’t say anything about GoDaddy’s services and its story had nothing to do with domain registration. That said, it did ask viewers to watch the “unrated” version of the commercial on GoDaddy.com. That’s a ploy the company has been using for years, so it must work.

Much like other companies, E*Trade used its Super Bowl ad to provide more entertainment value than brand promotion. Sure, the babies were entertaining and it got a chuckle out of me, but simply saying that users can “take control” of their investments with E*Trade doesn’t tell me what the company does.

Overstock.com
Online discount retailer Overstock.com made an appearance in this year’s Super Bowl with the help of NBA player, Carlos Boozer. The ad starts with Boozer at a computer scrolling through Overstock’s listings. Children standing around Boozer ask him what different products around his home are and he responds with the percentage discount. The ad ends with one child picking up his 2008 Olympic Gold medal asking him what it is. “That’s about 20 years of dedication, right there,” he responded.

Some companies did well. But it looks like others left viewers scratching their heads…

I don’t quite see the point of the ad. When Overstock’s Web page is shown in the beginning of the commercial, there’s no way to tell which site it is. You can’t even see its logo in the few seconds that it’s displayed.

Worse, the discount percentages Boozer throws out mean nothing without context, which eventually comes at the very end of the commercial when the company’s logo and name are displayed. In the process, there was little indication given to the viewer about why they should choose Overstock over any other online retail destination.

Most of the commercial had nothing to do with cars at all. And even when the narrator finally mentioned the site, it only left about 10 seconds for the viewer to gain a solid understanding of what Cars.com is all about.

The “Enhanced” commercial does a better job of discussing what GoDaddy actually does. That said, it only mentioned domains in passing and even then it was sandwiched between discussions about enhancements that may or may not have been made to the actresses’ bodies. Suffice it to say that domain registration wasn’t the memorable part of that commercial.

E*Trade could have promoted its brand more effectively if it eliminated the banter between the babies and had them discuss all the features E*Trade offers instead. Without that, users who have never used or heard of E*Trade only know that the company lets them “take control” of their investments. But how?

Before the commercial aired, Hulu was known to a relatively small number of people in the Super Bowl viewing audience. But after the ad aired, everyone knew what Hulu is, how it works, and most importantly, that it’s free.

Dubbed “Shower,” GoDaddy’s first ad showed race car driver Danica Patrick, jumping into a shower as a group of boys watched. The other, named “Enhanced,” brings Patrick and three other women into a courtroom to discuss “enhancements.” The ad is meant to make viewers believe that the women are discussing enhancements of the anatomical sort, but Patrick says that she “enhanced her brand” by buying a domain name through GoDaddy.

E*Trade
With the help of two babies, E*Trade Financial used its 30-second Super Bowl ad to promote its investment services. During the first 20 seconds of the commercial, the babies mentioned the troublesome economy and their need for a tool like E*Trade to help them “take control” of their investments. The ad ended with a narrator asking viewers to open one of the “1,000 new accounts opened each day” and “take control with E*Trade.”

It might have been somewhat entertaining, but CareerBuilder’s ad didn’t explain how the company would help job-seekers and opted instead, to deliver its URL at the end of the commercial. For those who have heard of CareerBuilder, that may have been enough. But for others who have never been to the company’s site, the commercial won’t answer why they should go there to find a job. Shouldn’t that have been the point of the ad in the first place?