Monday, November 30, 2009

Doing things the expensive way

This article talks about how the Motorola Droid Android phone has sold well. But it seems insane to me to incur that kind of cost-per-customer. That high cost has to be reflected somewhere. One place I expect it to be reflected is in continuing high prices for mobile data plans. Also maybe it means they can't afford to prevent or fix simple problems, like the battery cover falling off. I have had a similar problem with the back of the myTouch Android phone--the back cover seems very prone to fall off.

However, the success of the Droid is coming at a cost to Verizon. They are spending in excess of $100 million on one of the largest marketing campaigns I have ever witnessed. Over the past month I have seen non-stop television, radio, internet, billboard, and print ads. Verizon also has about a $350 subsidy on each phone ($549-199).

When you add up the advertising costs and subsidy, Verizon is paying almost $450 to acquire each Droid customer. I guess when you are the largest United States carrier, you can afford to do that. Verizon also knows that each Android phone is attached to a data plan so the influx of customers should help increase their ARPU (average revenue per user). In an order to offset the high subsidy costs, Verizon recently raised (doubled) their early termination fee to $350.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Appreciating HD

We have the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on. In past years, I have had almost no interest in it. I can't say I am raptly watching this year--just too many other things to do. But as I pass through the room, or hear my kids exclaiming about one thing or another, I glance at it. And from a sheer aesthetic viewpoint, the HD experience makes it far, far more interesting and enjoyable than old (NTSC) TV.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Want to See this Stat on Football Penalties

In general, a team or player is never happy to receive a penalty. However, getting a penalty seems like only half the story. In some cases, the penalty may be a wash--if the offense was not committed, the result might have been the same. For instance, a 10-yard holding penalty that prevents a 10-yard loss on a sack is not a bad deal. In a few cases, the penalty may be a positive good--defensive pass interference that prevents a catch that could have been advanced for a touchdown.

I suppose those are still a minority of cases. But what bugs me is when the announcers make a big deal of a big play being called back because of a penalty, most often holding. In my view, in most of these cases, without the hold, the play would have gone nowhere.

Then there is the subtler analysis...even if a particular penalty is a bad deal, is it just the "price of doing business"? That is, for every 1 time caught holding, is the player getting away with it 4 times?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Google Ads More

Google doesn’t spend a dime on fancy TV ads, but the way it has designed its products represents a huge marketing cost. One example is the money it is leaving on the table by putting fewer ads on its pages than users would put up with, which helps build up its Zen-like brand.

But now, times are getting tough. Making quarterly numbers is getting harder. And Google is changing how it decides which ads to place in the yellow box above search results.
Seems like a baby step toward evil-ness. Undermining that "zen-like" brand just a hair. Those little things accumulate, though. Google has a great thing going, which is that most people are so satisfied with the Google brand that they don't even think of switching. In fact, they don't even think about thinking about switching. The thought literally does not enter the average user's head that maybe there are some serious defencies with Google, where competitors might do better. Eventually, though, the annoyances can add up enough to break through that "Google is perfection" zen-spell.

On the other hand, I continue to wonder about the limits of an adveristing-based revenue model.

Cellphone Apps

Cellphones over eReaders, for many users--I totally agree. Although I have, for various reasons, been somewhat disappointed to-date in my Android phone as a reading platform. Speed of access being the biggest problem

Start Load

During the keynote, he showed demos of how computer makers were able to make computers faster by not loading so many applications at start up time.
If this means what I think it does, it's a great idea. I used to have a bunch of stuff that started automatically, but that killed me on startup, so I went to the other extreme. A good middle ground might be to leisurely auto-load stuff, but not put it all on the critical path to the user's immediate access to the machine.

Of course with the trend away from fat-client apps, this may become less important over time.

DirecTV Mediocre

We've had DirecTv with HD-DVR for a couple of months. The selection of channels, the DVR and the HD are all wonderful (we upgraded from basic cable and no DVR). But I would rate the DirecTV software, and the experience it delivers, to be quite mediocre. Some complaints:
  • Scheduling via web doesn't allow adding extensions (most of what I DVR is sports).
  • I have been struglling to figure out how to get "Channels I Get" custom list to work. I have selected it, but it still keeps presenting me with channels I don't get. I had the supremely irritating experience of missing a football game I had set to tape on Sunday Ticket, because I selected the HD channel, but I don't have the Sunday Ticket Superfan, so I don't get the HD 704-1 HD channel--I just should have used the plain 704 channel.
  • The above brings another complaint--Sunday ticket is a super-premium add-on, but those greedy bastards want to squeeze even more money from you to get HD. Outrageous.
  • Speaking of Channels I Get--why isn ot that the default?? I mean, do they really think the typical user wants to see all the stuff on channels they don't receive? Of course not--DirecTV is showing their contemp for the customer, by forcing them to see all those unvailable channels. Why are they doing that? Because some marketing exec thinks that will drive users to upgrade to more expensive tiers. Never mind the vastly greater impact it has on every user, every day, by annoying them (at best) and sometimes causing them to DVR the wrong channel!
  • The UI in general is just kind of clunky, and response is a bit sluggish.
  • It doesn't all suck. The prompting to add extensions to sporting events is nice. Likewise for the helpful notices when you have scheduling conflicts.
  • Feature suggestion: un-delete.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Windows Scroll Box--Why So Small?

In a really long scrolling screen/page, Windows helpfully makes the scroll box extra-tiny:


as compared to the normal size:



I believe the idea is to give you a visual cue of just how long the scrolling contents are. However, it has the very unpleasant side-effect of making "target acquisition" much more difficult. Just one more little example of how Micro$oft never improves anything unless it will drive upgrade revenue, or there is a gun to their head.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Marketing Coup for Somebody

I think the wireless carriers have an increasing commoditization problem. One way to combat that is adroit marketing. For example, Verizon's Droid campaign has probably made a lot of people think that Android is synonymous with Verizon. It's pretty clever, seeing as T-Mobile had a 1-year head-start, being the only carrier with an Android offering.

So for the life of me, I can't understand why one of the carriers isn't pushing, hard, on the ability to allow parents to exert control to prevent texting while driving. Wait, maybe I can--they don't want to draw attention to the issue? Okay, then one of the handset manufacturers should push that angle.

Heavier Americans Lobby Group

I fall in the middle on this article. Valid point: it certainly not right to disparage people for being fat, and it probably would not be fair or right to penalize someone in terms of heatlhcare premiums solely for being overweight. On the other hand, the likely tendency of this lobby will be to decry any references that cast overweightness[1] in a negative light. And that would definitely be going too far. Because while they are correct in asserting that the real social goal is fitness and health--not thinness thinness' sake--the fact is that overweightness is very strongly correlated with health problems.

Which brings me to my next objection to the article: like almost all articles I read on the subject, it almost completely glosses over the importance of exercise. Yes, there is one nod to the importance of "movement" (movement--talk about euphimisms!), but that's it.

Overlooking exercise is a very unfortunate omission. Because unlike dieting--which is very, very, very hard to sustain because it feels like permanent deprivation--exercise is a positive good. So exercise is far more sustainable than dieting.

In my 20+ years of regular gym attendance, I have very, very rarely seen a confirmed, dedicated exerciser who is severely overweight. Some of us exercise addicts may be bulkier than others, but almost all have weight reasonably under control.

____________
[1] Using the term "overweightness" rather than, say, "fatness" would be the kind of thing that an interest group might push. I typically detest that sort of euphimism-promulgation by the langage police--detention center for jail, landfill for dump--and would normally resist it. But in this case I think it is justified. "Fat" is a pretty loaded, pejorative term. Likewise for obesity, and anyway, it only properly describes the extreme of fatness. So awkward as it sounds to the ear, "overweightness" seems like the best term available. (Heaviness doesn't really cut it, because it is absolute, not relative--Yao Ming for instance is quite heavy, but hardly fat.)

Texas vs. California

None of this happens by accident. California's interlocking directorate of government employee unions, issue activists, careerists and campaign contributors has become increasingly aggressive and adept at using rhetoric extolling public benefits for all to deliver targeted advantages to itself. As a result, the political reality of the high-benefit/high-tax model is that its public goods are, increasingly, neither public nor good. Instead, the beneficiaries are the providers of the public services, and certain favored or connected constituencies, rather than the general population.
This is the kind of insight that conservatives contribute, or should contribute, if they were doing their jobs, and not conspiracy-mongering about death panels and "this guy". This is the vital corrective to liberal naivete about the perfectability of government, humans and institutions. It positively dumbfounds me that California can still retain its "stranglehold" on high-tech employment, yet have so many terrible problems, including a really bad public-school system. I would think that would be the kiss of death for attracting and retaining smart employees. Maybe they all send their kids to private schools?

Here's my question, though. If the right can believe that the not-for-profit powers in California can develop such a dysfunctional, self-dealing arrangement, why is it such a stretch to believe it can occur in the financial services industry?

Android GPS

...especially appreciate the fact that you can just pop your Droid into a cradle in your car and it will go straight into the navigation and mapping environment.
That is the kind of little touch that is key. I was VERY disappointed with the phone as GPS unit when I got it. Screen too small, okay I could have predicted that, but no GPS-oriented version of Google Maps, no cradle, no text-to-voice without a subscription. My $70 dedicated GPS is way better.

Now if they can also make it super-easy to enter your target destination....

Android Carrier and Handset Commoditization??

While I am a big supporter of Android, and skeptical of Samsung Bada (see below), I can sort of understand the motivation. As this article says:
I can see why mobile marketing execs are struggling. They’re selling the same handsets as everyone else, using the same app stores as everyone else, all the content innovation is happening on the internet.
I could easily see Android significantly commoditizing both businesses. It's already poised to destroy the GPS market, it's pretty much eliminated any reason at all to buy stuff from your carrier at $5 per game and $1 per ringtone (not that there was much reason in the first place). So long-term, as much as I think Android and openness are great, I wonder if the carriers will ever be the same.

Samsung Bada, Really?

It seems clear that the Smartphone OS market is already due for a thinning of the herd. Windows Mobile seems most endangered, Palm OS maybe even in worse shape, and Symbian and RIM losing ground to iPhone and Android. And in the midst of this Samsung wants to launch a new mobile OS, the Bada?!

Death of WinMo

This is a great lesson to Micro$oft. Neglect product improvement and you pay the price. I wish it would happen more often--to SharePoint and Internet Explorer for instance.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Healthcare Reform Risk Obama Should Have Taken

If Obama wanted to swing for the fences, to have a chance to really make a difference, to leave his mark, here's the speech he could make on healthcare reform...

America has a healthcare crisis. This healthcare crisis has a moral dimension, and an economic dimension. The moral dimension is that our great and rich country does a poor job of providing 'health security' for its citizens. Many lack coverage, many more can barely afford coverage, and others face medical bankruptcy. In the meantime, almost all of us worry about our coverage.

Then there is the economic dimension. Healthcare costs claim one-sixth of our nation's output. And this number only continues to rise. This is simply unsustainable. For a full generation, we have seen that healthcare expenses are devouring our standard of living, but we have continued to postpone the day of reckoning. Fellow Americans, that day is fast approaching. As President, I plan to do something about it.

For too long, as a nation we have stuck our head in the sand, looked the other way, pretended the problem wasn't getting worse. The failure to face up to this problem and attack it has been disastrous. It has led us to the place we are now, where most families have seen zero or negative real wage gains for two decades, because healthcare inflation has consumed everything. It has led to all but the very richest Americans living in fear, fearing that one major illness could bankrupt them.

The healthcare crisis is a national problem, and to an extent, the entire nation shares in the responsibility for letting it grow un-checked for so long. Political leaders have increased expenditures without asking hard questions about the value being delivered, and have allowed ideology get in the way trying new ideas to bring down healthcare expenditures. Physicians have not been good stewards of the resources entrusted to them--too often, they have chosen expensive treatments which are not effective, when patients would have been better served by less invasive treatments. Insurers have not been good gatekeepers--while they may scrutinize individual claims, they have been happy to allow premiums to skyrocket, because their profit margins tend to be fixed, so the larger the premiums, the bigger the profit. Drug companies have spent far more resources on marketing and patent protection than on R&D, resulting in too few breaththroughs, and far too many "me too" medicines at high prices. Finally, patients have not been good stewards of their own health and healthcare dollars--as long as insurance paid all or most of the bill, individual patients had little motivation to pay attention to costs.

So we are all part of the problem, and we all have a part to play in a solution. But it is the elected politician's job to lead, and as your President, that is what I intend to do. So tonight, I am going to lay out a simple plan and proposal that can halt, and start to reverse, the endless upward-slope in healthcare expenditures.

I said the healthcare crisis has two dimensions: coverage, and cost. My party has traditionally been focused on the coverage crisis, and rightly so. It is indefensible that a country as rich and blessed as ours rations healthcare by letting it become unafforable for the working poor and, increasingly, much of the middle class.

However, this crisis has been a long time in the making, so if a real, lasting solution requires giving up a short-term goal, no matter how cherished, then I am willing to make that sacrifice. So I am going to propose a program that attacks the twin heads of this crisis. But as I said, we are all in this together, and a real solution requires real cooperation between both political parties. In order to reach out to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, I am willing to offer a plan that I think puts two of their biggest concerns ahead of covering the uninsured.

It has been often asked by Republicans where we will get both the money, and the healthcare provider capacity, to extend coverage to uninsured Americans. My plan addresses both of these concerns. Numerous studies show that 1/3 of all medical procedures are unnecessary, and sometimes even harmful. While it may never be possible to bring that number down to zero, if we could cut it by 60%, that would free up dollars and resources that could productively be transferred to providing care for the currently uninsured.

Our opportunity is to create an environment that encourages and allows doctors to practice evidence-based medicine. Evidence-based medicine means selecting the right treatment, based on the best available medical and economic research. It means not ordering extra tests and procedures, out of fear that in the event of a lawsuit, the physician will be endlessly second-guessed, if they omit any test, no matter how weak the medical argument for the test may be.

This is where our greatest single opportunity lies. If we can eliminate "defensive medicine", we can unlock vast cost savings within the system. The reduction in malpractice insurance--currently $80,000 per physician--is only the tip of the iceberg. For every $1000 spend on malpractice premiums, $10,000 are spent in unnecessary, unjustified tests and procedures, pursued for the sole purpose of protecting the physician in a lawsuit.

So here is what I am proposing. My program will be 100% revenue-neutral. We will only provide subsidized heatlh insurance to the poor, once we actually produced the savings through our reforms. Therefore, in the first two years of my program, there will be no coverage changes. The complete focus will be on achieving radical malpractice reform. Damage awards will be capped, and will be set according to uniform standards, applied consistently, fairly and reasonably. In short--we will start by cutting the trial lawyers off at the knees.[1]

At the end of two years, we will measure the savings, and will begin to apply those to extending coverage for the uninsured.

___________

[1] Of course Obama can't say it exactly that way. But his words should leave no doubt as to his intentions.

**********

In making this proposal, Obama would be risking almost everything, including fratricide from fellow Democrats. The trial lawyers are the biggest contributors to the Democratic party. They would oppose him ruthlessly. But by taking on one of the Republicans' biggest bogeymen, combined with his offer to save first, spend later, Obama would be making an offer that would be very, very difficult for Republicans to ignore, both politically and--if they actually care about governing--morally. And if he did this soon (ideally, 4 months into his term), he might, just might, hang on long enough to actually reap some of the benefits and get re-elected. Maybe then he could apply his political capital to taking on global warming.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Gestures for Android Speed of Access

I keep harping on speed of access. Especially for need-it-fast utility apps, such as Alarms, Timers, Calculators, Notepads. What I would like is a Launchy-style app launcher. The way I would like to see it implemented would be for the Home Screen to accept Palm graffiti-style gestures. For example, swipe out a "C" and you get your Calculator. Swipe a "T" and get the timer, and so on.

For bonus points: allow the lock screen to register the gesture, then execute it after you perform the unlock.

Speed Of Access Is the Key for Smartphone Apps

Today's smartphones are amazing in many ways, but in other ways, they aren't as useable as a turn-of-the-century Palm III. I've already written about the glaring lack of a PageDown key--a real miss, since they already have the hardware space, in the form of a pretty useless, or at least grossly under-used, trackball. Or better yet, maybe the volume rocker could do double-duty in reading apps.

What the Palm excelled at was speed-of-access. Just a couple of taps, and you could jot a quick note and attach a timer to it. That was one of my favorite uses for the Palm.

In contrast, have probably spent over 1 hour just downloading and evaluating alarm and timer apps for Android, and I still haven't found one that is very good.

Take Alarms, for instance. It is a fairly nice-looking paid app, but it just misses in terms of ease of access. Problems:
  1. 3 clicks to access an Alarm-creation screen. Should be 1-click from a home screen icon.
  2. This is really stupid--the datetime defaults to (I believe) the day I installed the app, rather than the current date.
  3. Setting Date and Time are different pop-up screens, thus requiring double the clicks.
  4. This is no surprise, since it is a common flaw in almost all Android apps, but the only way to set values are tedious up/down keys--no ability to key in the numbers of select from a list.
  5. Another stroke to scroll down, past infrequently-used options, so that you can access the SET button, to finalize your alarm.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Why I PREFER Virtual Keyboards

There are some definite advantages to a virtual keyboard. One is that you can choose among customized versions. In terms of customizations, there are some interesting features you can get. I have had TouchPal for a while, and I like it pretty well. Being able to up-swipe to get a capital, and down-swipe to get a symbol is very nice. Also, I think in many ways soft buttons are more forgiving of big fingers. And if that isn't good enough, you can use TouchPal's hybrid, compact Qwerty, 2 letters per key keyboard, with very good word prediction--those buttons are almost huge! And, if you don't want prediction, at any point, you still have the option of left and right-swiping. Did I mention that you can slide back and forth, to exchange the compact Qwerty for full Qwerty, on the fly?

One big problem with virtual keyboards, though, is that the keyboard frequently covers up the fields in a form. There has got to be a way around this. One idea would be to give the keyboard some transparency. Another would be auto-scrolling through the fields.

It seems like with Android 1.6, my other big, fixable virtual keyboard gripe has largely been fixed: the keyboard is much more likely to auto-launch in many obvious contexts: compose a Gmail, compose an SMS (ChompSMS), launch a Market Search. That all points out the core benefit of a real mobile platform--it gets better.

The one thing I don't understand is why Google, device makers and carriers don't ensure that the high-quality basics (TouchPal, ChompSMS, Quickdial) aren't pre-installed with the phone. Would greatly improve the mean user experience.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Facebook Needs A "Strictly Business" Posting Type

To me, Facebook is largely Face-Bore. Most of what anyone, myself included, would post just does not interest me much (I know, this may well be a male-female gender-difference thing), and even it it did, I just don't have time for it.

But I do like the idea of leveraging my social network for "Angie's List"-type feedback from local and known sources. So I would like to see Facebook implement a "Strictly Business" type of posting. I enjoy sharing my knowledge, opinions and experience to help people solve problems, so I actually would be willing and interested to spend a modicum of time doing that via Facebook.

An example would be the one I just put up:

Does anyone have any feedback on Xcel Energy's HomeSmart Appliance Repair program? $13/month to cover repairs on 5 major appliances. Normally I NEVER go for extended warranties or service programs, they are a rip-off and typically the most profitable item i n the store. But the price here seems very appealing. What I am trying to figure out is--what is in it for Xcel?