Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wrapping Up 2011: My Noteworthy Stories from the Year

The end-of-the-year rehash of stories has been going on for ever -- for traditional media, it's a great way to rerun content and occupy time and space during the holiday break. Some blogs that publish regularly like to do the same sort of thing. In my case, I really wanted to come up with some sort of stupid, bad-marketing award for UPS and their international shipping. But then, as I looked back over the year, I realized that 2011 was packed with stories that seem bigger, stranger, and stupider.

For me, I think that the biggest WTF story of the year has to be the Netflix trainwreck. Netflix took shoot-from-the-hip to a whole new level, alienating their customer base and destroying their brand equity. For me, the service went from a small, unquestioned recurring charge for the convenience of new DVDs and occasional streaming content to an unnecessary expense. But beyond the "what this means for me as a customer" story, the whole thing unfolded in such a bizarre way. While you might want to use elements of the story as "a teaching moment", it sort of begs the question of how you might find yourself down that path in the first place.

If you had to pay for subscriptions to Techcrunch, 2011 would have been the year that I canceled mine. Somewhere between the AOL acquisition and the subsequent merger of AOL and Huffington Post, the site made a pretty significant pivot from the type of content that had initially drawn me to it. Gone were the insider stories that brought you trends and insights from the technology world; instead, their content became sort of a yet another 'press release+' site. Even when I occasionally click back looking for old content or for any news on a slow news day, I remain put-off by the layout. In contrast, Michael Arrington's personal blog tends to be much more of what I liked in Techcrunch -- real analysis of some of the things going on in the high-tech world, punctuated by a post about a company. Ironically, I just clicked over to catch this story about yet another departure from the Techcrunch old guard, Heather Harde.

I wrote several posts on the economy, jobs and hiring in 2011 that generated some good traffic. My post Growth Hacker vs VP of Marketing drew the most traffic for the year, with my post on daily deal sites following close behind. None of my posts will break any traffic records at Comscore, but sometimes it's nice to know people actually do read your posts.

Themes That Sparked My Brain in 2011
There are several areas that really lit a fire in my thoughts and will probably continue to shape my thoughts through the next year.
  • Moneyball, Stats, Analytics, and Big Data
  • The Internet of Things
  • The Psychology of Customer Experience
I think that these topics are converging in ways that will shape and reshape our world for years to come.

One of the Most Interesting Things that I Read in 2011
While I didn't post a link to this on the blog, I find that it keeps coming up for me in conversations. Long and short, here is a link to an interesting post from a Google engineer on what's wrong with Google+. I love the way that he explains platform -- and the unexpected repercussions when implementing platform at Amazon. It's a long post, but after you get through it, you'll walk away with an appreciation of why even some Google products that seem awesome just don't work the way that you might expect them to -- or evolve in the way that you might have liked them to.

Anyway, I think that's enough rehashing 2011 leftovers for me. Here's wishing everyone a wonderful new year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cool Tech from the Holiday Blogging Desk

Apple sent out a post-Xmas promotional email this morning that featured an interesting device / gift, the iBike Dash Cycling Computer.  They also sell the deluxe model. Being the cyclist and technology nut that I am, this link actually pulled me through for a look.

In years past, my friends and I have talked about how cool it would be to be able to use your iPhone as a bicycle computer. In our minds, it was the potential of being able to carry one less device combined with all of the cool functionality that is native to the iPhone that held such great promise. So I clicked through to check it out.

Brief Aside: My History of Using Cycling Computers
My first cyclometer was a Cateye Solar. This wonderful device logged speed, distance and cadence. When my Cateye Solar died, I didn't replace it (not much money and most cyclometers didn't display cadence). When I upgraded to my current bike, I went ahead and purchased a new Vetta cyclometer that just logged speed and distance -- my main interest at that point was simple distance tracking. But when I started training for The Death Ride, a coaching seminar that we attended recommended using a heart rate monitor. I have always been skeptical of heart rate monitors -- I've seen to many people addicted to the tech of cycling and miss the part about finding love in basic time on the bike. But the argument for using a heart rate monitor -- to maximize your body awareness and better manage your pace for demanding rides -- made sense to me.

My next (and current) cycling computer is the Polar 720i. It tracks all of the important cyclometer stuff -- distance, speed, and cadence -- but it also adds heart rate, elevation and temperature. It also uses this data to do an approximate calculation of calories burned. You can even add a power calculation by taking measurements off the chain, but I didn't see any ROI in investing in that option. Having logged many miles using the Polar, I can say that there are things that I like about it and things that I don't, but it has become the standard by which I measure other cycling computers.

Several years ago, Garmin introduced a cycling computer that integrated a GPS into the system -- functionality that I feel like marked the next logical advance in cyclometers. But when I looked at the early models, it seemed like there were some issues that outweighed the cool features for me (I think software support was one issue). Since then, I've hoped for improvements, but I haven't been logging enough miles to actively track the technology evolution.

Using the iPhone as a Cycling Computer: the iBike
The iBike brings the promise of using your iPhone as a cyclometer to reality. Basically, the unit is your iPhone, combined with a waterproof handlebar mount, and some Bluetooth-based sensors that can allow you to track speed, distance, cadence and power. Since it uses your iPhone, you have GPS tracking for route and elevation. All cool features.

One thing that I've always hated about the Polar is that it only works with Windows -- there's no software support for Mac -- it's one of the only reasons that I actually own a PC. Since the iBike works on the iPhone, I would expect that their software might have actually be better than the Polar, but I haven't explored it in detail. Another thing that might be cool about the iBike is that, since it uses the iPhone, they have more flexibility in designing the interface. In short, you might expect that this flexibility would translate to more options for you, the user -- I don't know if that's true, but it could be cool.

Of course, after looking at it more closely, the iBike has a pretty serious downside -- battery life. The site specs say "5 hours of continuous operating time when used with the spare battery". While this might be great more than enough for casual riders or shorter weekday rides, if you want to log serious distance on this thing, I expect that your going to wrestle with battery issues. This strikes me as the fatal flaw with this whole concept -- say what you will about the capabilities or problems with the Polar watch, even if you ran it continuously, you don't have to change the battery more than about once a year or two. It's also unlikely that your battery will die when you're in the middle of a ride. That may not be a big issue when you're riding back and forth to work, but if you've been out to Pescado, just left San Gregorio and you're on your way up Tunitas Creek, you're probably not going to find a place to plug in and recharge.

Imagine the Possibilities: ANT+
All that being said, the aspect that I found most interesting about the iBike is it's use of ANT+ sensor technology. Before reading about it in the iBike specs, I was unfamiliar with ANT+. Here's a clip about ANT+:
ANT+ facilitates the collection, automatic transfer and tracking of sensor data for monitoring information anywhere, anytime.  The key advantage of this unique managed network is device specific interoperability which enables wireless communication with other ANT+ products.  This interoperability function (added to the base ANT protocol) now facilitates the reliable transfer of data between sensors and display devices such as watches, heart rate monitors and bike computers.  Applicable in sport, wellness management and home health monitoring, ANT is proven with several million nodes shipped to date.
ANT+ is basically an interface standard for communicating with these motion sensors. On the site, they also show an announcement at Interbike where Fox has combined ANT+ sensing with their mountain bike shocks and a special adjustment mechanism to make dynamically adjusting shocks. Imagine your mountain bike adjusting it's suspension based on the terrain and your desired ride characteristics. Cars have been doing this kind of stuff for years, but there are wires and electronics and systems. With ANT+, small wireless sensors can be integrated into devices that previously would have been implausible. When linked to an intelligent central brain, imagine the possibilities. Very cool.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Unemployment Numbers and 'Given Up': The Hidden Side of an Economic Stat

With the economy still swirling around in the toilet and the politicians attempting to use the unemployment numbers to support their various positions, we are treated to a monthly dose of "the unemployment rate went up, down, or remained at fill-in-the-blank" from the news media. Often, this is published with the same matter-of-fact indicator status that one might use to confirm body temperature. Are we getting better? Are we still sick?

One number that they talk about not being counted are the number of people who have "given up", people who have been out of work so long and been unable to find work -- so they have essentially given up looking (or at least going through the vehicles typically used to track unemployment). Of course, this number gives come conservatives fits. "How could you just 'give up' when you don't have a job" is one of those threads on conservative channels that I've blog coverage of. 

But there is a hidden side to the unemployment numbers, and my guess is that it would probably be a better measure of the "health" of the economy if you could adequately measure it. Think about all of the people that you know who are frustrated or unhappy in their current jobs. Think about all of the ones that are actively searching for work even though they currently have a job. Now imagine the number of employed people who are working and would like a new job, but have given up their search.

Most of us work under "at will" employment conditions. Basically, this is sort of an agreement between you and your employer that says, if you don't like it, you can always quit and do something else. As a society, we've established this as a theoretical free-market check-and-balance against the demands of the work environment. And it works. Sometimes.

When someone is hired for a job, they often came from an existing job. When the job market is bad, people don't get hired and they don't change jobs. They are stuck in their existing work environment. Sure, they may have been looking for work from the safety of their existing job, but they have been looking for work. But if you already have a job and you make the effort to look for work -- if the economy is bad and there are limited opportunities -- at what point to you take that time and energy and focus it on something else? What does 'giving up' look like when you already have a job?

While it may be impossible to estimate the number of people with jobs who have given up looking, you can imagine the hidden cost on the economy. When it comes to marketing through customer service and front-line employees in the service industry, employee happiness is often correlated to positive customer experiences. And regardless of how much work they do and how much output you get from them, your unhappy, wanting-to-change-job employees are probably giving less than 100% of what they are capable of -- it's like an audience watching a bad movie, just because they haven't walked out of the theater doesn't mean that you have their interest.

What Real Economic Recovery Looks Like
When I hear the government and the media promote declining unemployment numbers, I prefer to look at the situation in a different light. Back in the era, the job market was so strong that many companies couldn't find bodies to hire. During that time, we often had to hire people who sucked simply because they were the best available body -- and you didn't feel bad about cutting somebody loose who sucked because they were likely to be picked up by some other company. We truly were free agents at that time.

In a recent piece, economist Paul Krugman called what we're in a depression instead of a recession. He noted that, while it wasn't as bad as the Great Depression, just because things don't suck as bad doesn't mean that they don't suck. How will I know that the Great Economic Downturn is over? It will probably start with a few handfuls of key employees jumping ship for another company. Then, like when key Google people started jumping for Facebook, established companies will start adding salary and benefits instead of cutting them -- they will need to remain competitive. Next, you'll start getting lots of emails and phone calls again, from recruiters desperately wanting you to consider some company.

Sadly, I don't think that we're anywhere near the start of that world, because it isn't going to come from austerity, belt-tightening, and tax breaks for 'job creators'. If you look back to the era (not as a bubble but as the time when there was economic job security in as much as there were opportunities to work for anyone that was willing), then you might suspect that real recovery will only take place when we experience some of the conditions associated with a bubble or a boom -- namely more job opportunities than we have bodies available.

So what do the era, the housing bubble, the social networking boom, and the green tech boom have in common? In the early days of all of these growth spurts, a new market appeared. In the race to compete for these opportunities, people invested time, effort, and money chasing the potential windfall -- like sailing and trying to catch that puff of air to fill your sails and carry you along.

Some of these booms are short-lived. There are only so many opportunities for an entrepreneur to build Angry Birds and dominate the iTunes App Store before their software becomes yet another game in the half a million apps. Large competitors learn from the fast-swimming pioneers. But a bigger part of the problem that we have is that the entrenched interests in our system have enough influence to strangle the life out of the up-and-comers, like traditional energy interests lobbying to undercut green tech or the ILECs strangling the competition out of broadband.

Remember back around 1998 and the Internet Tax Freedom Act?  
You might call it early-boom, but 1998 was in the time before e-commerce had really taken hold. There wasn't a lot of money being made on the web. There was no streaming media. Traditional media was still the main source of content. There were no blogs, no Adwords, or Adsense. Maybe it's because there was so little money there or maybe it was a brilliant, prescient moment -- but somewhere within the halls of the government, they managed to come together and protect the Internet from being taxed.

I write this not from some sort of pro-tax/anti-tax canard; but rather, here is one example government legislating the protection of potential economic bounty -- the future interests of competition -- from the lobbying, money, and powerful influence of the existing, entrenched players. Imagine if, back in 1998, Time-Warner had the foresight to see their empire collapse. Imagine if media companies could have lobbied for a tax on streaming traffic -- or perhaps a tax on any content that wasn't streamed.

Today, the entrenched players can clearly see the potential money in the Internet and they work to reshape their control market using things like DMCA, SOPA, and Net Neutrality. Imagine if, instead of attempting to rein in these markets, we were pushing to expand the markets through things like universal broadband internet access. As strange as it may be to imagine, there are people without access to the Internet. Remember when Google announced it's extremely high-speed Internet access initiative? There was almost a mini-boom of cities lobbying to win that contest. Why? Because the benefits of ubiquitous high-speed Internet access is easy to understand -- not to mention that it would also likely translate into jobs.

I Know, I Digress...
Sometimes when you are sailing and there is no wind, you find yourself scanning the water looking for signs of a breeze. The media is always looking for stories, looking for changes to report. Most recently, as a result of the holiday shopping window, they report that consumer confidence is higher than it's been in quite some time... but employment prospects look to remain flat in early 2112. They take you on a roller coaster ride with the news.

Recovery? For some, that may be as simple as having money to spend -- or less of a sense of guilt (or a political agenda) for not spending it. And while the economist definition of a depression or a recession may be measured by an economic tick here or a stock-market indicator there, for me, I'll believe it when I feel the winds of an economic boom blowing and that sense of energy and excitement of new possibilities on the horizon. Until then, we just have to fend off the damned cannibals that want to keep us trapped in a stagnant life raft. Does anybody have a motor and a compass?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Just Got Screwed by UPS: Hilarious Marketing Double-speak

So I was just in the process of trying to ship some marketing materials to Japan, hoping to reach offices in Tokyo in time for Semicon Japan. I dropped them off with the shipping department on Friday. Now, for those of you that haven't shipped overnight to Japan -- there is no overnight to Japan. Basically, the fastest you can get it there is two-day. All well and good.

Well, in this case, the shipping department selected UPS, but here's the funny part -- UPS offers two tiers of international shipping: UPS Worldwide Saver and UPS Worldwide Expedited. Now, if you were really, really wanting it to get there fast, which would you choose based on the name of the service?

Contrast that with Fed Ex. From slowest to fastest, their services are: FedEx International Economy, FedEx International Priority, and FedEx International Next Flight (which is basically, call them and they will get it there ASAP).

Bottom line: Don't choose UPS Worldwide Expedited expecting it to get there fast. In this case, FedEx wins in marketing and semantics -- I only wish that we'd used them instead. I think I press to switch all of my shipments to FedEx.