Archive for August, 2010

Innovators, Imitators, and Idiots
August 26, 2010

I read a recent post somewhere detailing that every product, service, and technology goes through 3 stages of release.

First, the innovators create the offering. They work out the initial kinks and get the base functionality down. Think of the innovators as building the first house. The first house has shelter, a bathroom, and walls. It works for what it is supposed to be.

Next, imitators come along and “steal” the core function of the offering. Along the way they add things that make their offering more appealing then what was given by the innovators. They add paint and windows and cable TV to the house.

Finally, the idiots try to jump on the bandwagon. They offer the same house the imitators created but try a variety of tricks to gain market share. Sub-prime loans, “free” upgrades, etc.

Here are some examples:
Innovator: Prodigy and AOL
Imitators: MySpace, Facebook, Freindster
Idiots: Ning

Innovator: HP, IBM, Texas Instruments
Imitators: Dell, HP (again), Apple
Idiots: Whitebox computer suppliers trying to compete on price alone

Innovator: Amazon
Imitators: Zappos, Overstock, Buy
Idiots: Yahoo Storefronts

Innovator: Alta Vista, Yahoo
Imitator: Google, Bing, Yahoo
Idiots: Dogpile, Powerset

Being an innovator is cool, being an imitator can mean big $$$, being an idiot means your offerings have a limited time (if any time at all) to make some cash before the next idiot comes along. And if another innovator enters the sector, it’s all over.

There seems to be some sort of disconnect.
August 24, 2010

My company uses Grasshopper (formerly GotVMail) for our phone service. Grasshopper is a web based phone system that allows different extensions, ringing options, hold music, etc. For about $15 a month we have a robust phone solution that literally follows me wherever I go. If I’m home, the office phone rings there. If I’m at work, it rings there. Pretty cool and cost effective.

Here is the problem: Grasshopper touts itself online and in ad material (including their near-constant radio ads on CNBC on Sirius radio) as being the best phone choice for entrepreneurs and startups. That’s a good niche to chase since those are the types of people, particularly in tech, that are willing to try a different type of service like Grasshopper. But for some reason, accessing voicemails online can not be done through Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. This BOGGLES THE MIND and causes tons of frustration. Startup folks, entrepreneurs, and early adopters are the people most likely to have ditched Internet Explorer, yet one of the core functions of the Grasshopper service does not work in the browser their target customers are most likely to use.

I’m not leaving the service over it, but how it is that no one on the Grasshopper team has recognized this problem – and fixed it – amazes me.

Killer CUstomer Service
August 23, 2010

I’m always amazed by companies that offer great customer service, primarily because it is so rare these days. A couple weeks ago, I was returning three Red Box movies and the machine was broken. When the slot opened for he return, the robot arm wasn’t there to take the movie and check it back in. So the DVD’s just fell to the bottom of the vending machine.

I called the 800 number and told them my problem. I’d rented the movies the night before so I owed them three dollars total. If the items weren’t scanned and checked in, the tab would keep running until two weeks expired and my bill would be $45. I told the rep my credit card number and the location of the rental. While I waited for about 60 seconds he fiddled around in the system and then told me, “I’ve checked them back in. Thank you for being a customer, we’ll have someone out to check on the unit right away.”

Red Box is living on borrowed time. Despite making money hand over fist right now, we’re no more then 7 years from DVDs being completely obsolete. NetFlix has wised up and moved to the streaming space and I imagine cable companies and online services will create and refine a market of online, on-demand viewing for movies. I can also imagine studios realizing that online distribution is cheaper then theater distribution and deciding that they’ll offer the same movies that are in theaters for comparable prices ($10 rental the first month its out, $7 the next 2 months, all the way down to $1 when the movie has been out a year). In fact, I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if mega-movie theaters go the way of the dinosaur and we see a future with fewer screens showing movies as an event (3D films, etc.) while standard viewing is pushed in to the home.

So, even though Red Box is in a race to make as much money before the paradigm changes (and it certainly WILL change soon) they don’t skimp on the present day: the customer service is excellent, the upkeep of the machines is fast, and the titles offered are usually pretty good. Kudos to Red Box for this. They may be out of business soon but I’ll be a customer as long as they are around.

This is the best you can do?
August 23, 2010

I toyed around with a Blackberry Torch this weekend. I moved to an EVO (sprint) from a Bold (ATT) in June and when the Torch was announced, I had a tinge of buyer’s remorse. I have always LOVED Blackberries but simply felt the OS was outdated and slow compared to Android, so I impulsively made the switch. When the Torch was announced, I halfway hoped that the new BB OS and the new hardware wouldn’t make me regret having switched; the idea of having all the things I loved about my Blackberry (keyboard, handling of mail) wrapped in with a smoking new OS certainly DID seem appealing.

Fast forward to this weekend, and based on my 5 minute review, I have concluded the following: Blackberry is in SERIOUS trouble. The Torch is a disaster from start to finish. For starters, the hardware is awful. Despite a sleek design, the screen is far too small to compete with iPhone/Evo/Droid X smartphones. The keyboard (which slides out from below) is much flatter then previous BB iterations and the lip at the bottom of the phone makes the keys almost useless. The OS is better, but it still trails Android substantially. The speed is best described as “borderline slow” and the new features really just look like “lipstick on a pig” regarding the old versions of the software. Toss in that the App market is still thin compared to Android and Apple and I think Rim is going to need to move FAST to stay relevant in the smartphone market this year.

So what would I do to fix things? For starters, on the hardware side I’d look for a good answer as to why the original Bold form factor was ditched. The new Bold’s are smaller, which is great until you realize everyone else is moving to BIGGER phones. Second, and more important, is the speed of the device. My #1 reason for leaving BB for the EVO was that the BB simply doesn’t “go” fast enough compared to the Evo. If I recall correctly, the Torch is sporting about half the processor speed of the EVO and the iPhone. And that creates a noticeable lag. Outside of the mail service (which continues to be top-notch) there is nothing about any current BB’s performance that is better then the Android or IpHone line. Finally, the new browser is an improvement but still falls short of Android and iPhone. Particularly, integration between the browser and other parts of the phone is lacking. The EVO browser works seemlessly with Maps and Contacts and YouTube, etc. I didn’t get that feeling at all with the Torch.

Why Location based services like FourSquare are already finished.
August 4, 2010

IN case you didn’t know, the hot spot in startups right now is location-based-services like FourSquare and Gowalla. The idea is that you “check in” to locations and activities using a smartphone app and in doing so you receive badges, coupons, titles, etc. Its a social network built around locations. Neat.

VC’s and Big Companies have been tripping over themselves trying to get on board with these companies. The FourSquare team closed a big round a month ago and are now spending lots of money on things like downtown NYC offices, harkening back to the early 2000 internet boom.

The general idea is that by knowing where people are, advertisements and service offerings can be more targeted. This is an awesome idea, actually, and one that should take flight eventually. Offering me a dollar off at the Starbucks I’m standing next to or 20% off lunch at the Bistro next door in real time is an exciting and smart development in advertising and marketing.

The problem is that like the majority of other web services, people lose their interest in “checking in” to places pretty quickly. To combat this apathy, FourSquare has been fiddling around with auto-check ins in their application. Essentially, your phone would ping your location at regular intervals and check you in to certain places. Of course this won’t work. Outside of the fact that most smart phone GPS’s are only accurate within 300 yards (or 4 city blocks), and outside of the fact that a single ping in a dense location could check you in to half a dozen locations at once, and outside the fact that GPS is near-worthless indoors so checking in at shopping malls and skyscrapers is out the window, the following problem exists: if the service has to work automatically since people aren’t using it on their own, isn’t it just a location based advertising network at that point? And even though the ads might be more alluring, if its just a location based advertising network then it should be expected that people will block out the advertising over time just as they do with billboards and radio ads.

The “exciting” part of location based services is that people interact with the service and thus are willingly consuming its content. Badges, advertising, awards, advertising, “Mayor of this location”, advertising, friends nearby, upcoming events at this location, advertising. If that willing interaction ceases to exist – which it sounds like is already happening – then the compelling part of the platform is done.

Advertising works great if I’m fiddling around on my iPhone and seeking out content and consumables in my physical space. It doesn’t work at all if my iPhone is in my pocket.