Thursday, September 30, 2010

Samsung Galaxy S Design Note

Recent 37Signals blog post talks about the trend to more and more of the real estate on mobile devices consisting of glass. That got me thinking. Obviously, glass is fragile. For the most part, that increased fragility is the tradeoff required for ever-larger display area. But I don't think it is a good idea to have any extra glass. With the Vibrant, there seems to be quite a bit of extra glass, especially in the vertical direction. Some of it provides the touch buttons, some of it seems completely unnecessary, just extended to the top and bottom edges of the device, for the sake of clean, visual uniformity.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Prediction: Vick Will be the NFL Story of the Year

My son and I have been wondering why the heck Philly hasn't been using Vick. As one sports commentator suggested last year, the guy is so talented, if you can't bring yourself to start him at QB, at least put him in at some position, like maybe wide receiver. After he came in the second game, we were ready to give him the starter job. So anyway, my prediction is that he will have a great year and that will wind up being the biggest NFL story this year.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cluetrain Time, Wells Fargo

My wife, Beth, is traveling home to upstate NY. She does that every year so. She used her ATM card a couple of days ago, and took out the maximum $200. Taking out the max was probably a mistake. When she tried to use her card again today, it was denied by Well Fargo (with no clear explanation, of course).

Now I just got an automated fraud-prevention call from Wells Fargo. I thought, okay, that's cool, I'll accept the call, they will put on a fraud-prevention CSR, I'll confirm my wife is traveling in the Albany area, and all will be well. An ounce of prevention, etc. Silly me.

No human agent, just a series of prompts. They wanted me to confirm, IVR-style, each of 5 real or attempted transactions. I would have been on the phone for at least 5 minutes. No thanks, click.

To me, this is another case of "more security is actually less security" (like mis-guided strict password requirements). A much better approach would have been one question:
Have you or an authorized party been traveling in the Albany area, and used or tried to use your ATM card? If not, please press 2 and you will be connected to a fraud prevention specialist. Otherwise, press 1 for yes, to conclude this call.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Latest Car-Alarm Abomination

I am on record as loathing car alarms. Well maybe the deity was out to of car alarms was out to get me, and got my wife, Beth, by mistake. Because the other day, for no apparent reason, she started the car and the alarm started going off...and wouldn't stop! Removal of the fuse was required to make it cease. We never did get to the bottom of the problem (it did not reproduce itself when the fuse was re-inserted)..

Have You Heard of ChaCha?

Have you heard of ChaCha? I hadn't until recently. It flies under the radar of even very tech-savvy adults. Apparently my kids have been using it for a couple of years. Although it has gone through a couple of business models, ChaCha is now known for providing very quick, free responses to queries you text it. If that sounds a lot like texting someone to Google for you--it is. Like TechCrunch, I am positively dumbfounded that this could lead to a profitable business model, but apparently it does (in no small part because many of its contracted employees do piecework for what amounts to way sub-minimum wage).

Cost of Driving

Even a modest car costs $15,000, and say lasts 150,000 miles. That is $0.10 / mile. But most people drive more expensive cars, and pay interest. So let's say $0.20 per mile. Then there is repair and maitenance--$.0.05  mile. Gas--if you have a reasonably economical vehicle, these days it would be about $0.10 / mile. Insurance varies a lot, but let's say $1000 per vehicle/driver for 15,000 miles/year, that would be another $0.07 / mile. We're already up to $0.42 / mile. And we haven't even considered the cost of infrastructure, ordinary pollution, or carbon emissions!

So if you are a two-car family and average 25,000 miles/year on those two cars (typical for the suburbs), then your annual cost of driving is over $10,000. Since you have to pay for that out of after-tax income (naturally), it probably takes close to $15,000 in earnings to pay for that mileage. Oweee. There is a school of thought that says people might drive less if the cost was on a pay-as-you-go, per-mile basis. I am inclined to agree. (Same problem--not pay-as-you-go--to a smaller degree with home utilities.

The Importance of Profit Margins

Apple sold 17 million mobile handsets [3% of the market] in the first half of 2010, compared with 400 million handsets sold by Nokia (NOK), Samsung and LG. Yet it pulled in 39% of the industry's profit during that period, more than the 32% earned by the world's three largest handset makers combined.[!]
That is a phenomenal achievement. I wrote recently about the importance of profit margins; this is a great example.

Sweet and Fattening by Any Other Name: High Fructose Corn Syrup

As we all know, high fructose corn syrup is a popular sweetener. I have noticed, over the past few years, that it was being singled out as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. Without paying a lot of attention, I had my doubts about whether the source of dietary sugar mattered much. Now there are some studies that say it doesn't matter, and the corn people are trying to re-brand their product.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NFL on DVR

I wrote "last night" above, but I watched most of the game on DVR over my morning coffee, with my thumb on the "skip" button. That's a big, recent change in the way a fan can experience the NFL—if you don't feel like a particular game is worth three and a half hours of your life (and you don't care whether you're experiencing the drama as it happens), the bloat and tedium that the league has packed into the broadcasts can be pared away. Without DVR, I wanted to stab someone whenever the NFL force-fed me its mandatory post-touchdown sandwich of commercial break-kickoff-commercial break.
So true, but it still amazes me how many people don't get the extent to which a DVR makes the process far more time-efficient as well as just giving it much more continuity. The other thing, related, that I don't get--why do people have such a hard time not looking up the score for an hour or two, while they are time-shifting?! Do they also open their  presents right away, when they arrive a few days before their birthday?

Working at 103

This guy is my hero:



At 103, a Judge Has One Caveat: No Lengthy Trials
Judge Wesley E. Brown of Wichita, Kan., still hears cases but no longer takes the stairs.
Judge Wesley E. Brown of Federal District Court uses an oxygen tube in his Kansas courtroom but has no plans to stop working.
Bruce Schneier quoting someone else:
...what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin's time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice -- either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?
There are so many hard truths that need to be considered and understood. I think this is one of them.

Aging Suburbs

Very good Star Trib article about graying suburbs. One challenge, of course, it transportation. My advice--start building really good bike paths! ;) I think they are also right about the surplus of large houses being a problem. It seems like various factors are making over-large houses less desirable--cost of utilities, cost of gas (large houses being farther out), increasing taxes, decreasing earnings, no longer prospects for rising values. Add to it an aging suburban population, I guess.

Bubble Prediction: Overbuilding by Mega-Churches

I will go on record as predicting over-expansion by large, (typically) non-denominational churches as being the next bubble. They just keep building and getting bigger. I believe they have sustained growth in large part by absorbing congregants from traditional, mid-size mainline Protestant churches. But that will eventually play itself out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Speaking of Reminders Functionality, Ecco Set the Standard

Ecco--a PIM that was around 15 years ago--set the standard for Reminders. You could call up and review Reminders, both set in the future, and, crucially, those that had passed. This was very useful, for the common, and potentially deadly, use case where you realize you may have dismissed a reminder without actually seeing it (can happen for a number of reasons, in particular with "focus-stealing". 

Google Not Updating Their Apps?

Microsoft is notorious for not improving the applications, unless and until competitors light a fire under them. There are features in Access and Outlook that have been flawed for more than a decade. Oh sure, Microsoft releases new versions, but they mostly add new features that nobody wants, without fixing/enhancing the stuff that really needs it. I am getting a little concerned that Google is showing similar signs.

Gmail is pretty good and has gotten some updates. But Contacts is pretty bare-bones, even though it has been around for years. Calendar is more full-featured, but doesn't seem to be improving very quickly. The Calendar feature that started me thinking about this is Reminders--frankly, they are terrible. And Reminder are not a niche feature--they are core to Calendar functionality. People rely on them. At a minimum, Google needs to allow you to snooze reminders an arbitrary amount of time. Almost as important is aggregating the Reminders, like Microsoft started doing in Outlook 2003. So you don't have 12 reminders windows open--you have 1 scrolling window, displaying 12 reminders.

Here is a bonus idea for Google--include the concept of "Travel Time" with appointments. So if you have a 1-2 appt that takes 15 minutes to get to and from, your calendar would sandwich the actual appointment in between 15-minute travel blocks, formatted in a visually obvious way. That way, I would no longer confuse myself, trying to remember "Was the appointment really at 12:45, or did I add 15 minutes for travel time to a 1:00 appointment?".

And here is another one. A great feature of Google Calendars is the virtual, aggregated view, which shows  family member's appointments, each color-coded, superimposed on your own calendar. It is a very common thing to create events that involve those same people. In other words, your events show up on both your calendar, and theirs. Especially if you have a family view that involves more than 2 calendars, this creates A LOT of clutter. So a very obvious feature would be to allow, or visually depict, suppression of the redundant events on your family calendars.

Cell Phone Crapware

...the last couple of Android phones I’ve gotten as demo units from Google: the EVO 4G and the Droid 2, have been loaded up with crapware installed by the carriers (Sprint and Verizon, respectively). Apple would never let this fly on the iPhone, but the openness of Android means Google has basically no say in the matter. Consumers will get the crapware and they’ll like it. Not only that, plenty of this junk can’t even be uninstalled. How’s that for “open”?
Sadly true, and very unfortunate. This is SO parallel to a  key difference in the out-of-box-experience, between PCs and Macs. Except worse--with PCs, you can at least remove the crapware (without rooting).

Sunday, September 05, 2010

No More Housing Intervention

NYT: Some economists and analysts urge a dose of shock therapy that would shift benefits to future homeowners from current ones: Let the housing market crash.

I am in favor of this--despite being personally PO'd for being caught in a housing bubble for the second time in my 20-year career as a homeowner.
  1. Government intervention is usually undesirable. There were extraordinary circumstances in the fall of 2008, when the Bush administration started intervention, but those are past. Time to eschew economic engineering and take the medicine.
  2. Related to point #1--the best way to diminish the chance of repetition of bubble behavior is to make sure the consequences are fully felt.
  3. In the biggest of big pictures, this is probably a good thing. Excessively expensive housing cost is a heavy burden. I used to ask people, during the boom, when they were relishing their increase in paper equity, "And where do you think your children are going to be able to afford to live? Wouldn't you like them to have some possibility of living in the same town, and not having to be subject to 50-mile commutes to find something affordable?" Nobody ever had a convincing answer to that hypothetical, of course.

Price-Cutting

As a consumer, I am a huge fan of all forms of price-cutting and discounting. As a student of business, however, I often wonder about them. This article about Pizza Hut says that they have cut prices across-the-board, and business is up as much as 10%. But does that really pay?

Net profit margins are typically pretty thin. Gross profits margins are somewhat better, but still, if you look at the math, it is tough to see the payoff. If you have a gross margin of 50%, and you cut prices by 15% (which I think it the minimum to be really noticeable), then business has to increase by over 40% before you break even. (The narrower the gross margin, the more unfavorable the math, of course--because your price cut comes off the top.)

Just to make the picuture bleaker, that is a purely static, purely quantitative analysis. Competitors will almost invariably respond to price cuts. So unless you think you have a strong and sustainable cost advantage, and you think you can permanently claim market share from your competitors (e.g., Wal-Mart), all you are likely to do is incite a price war. From the brand-equity side, any form of discounting and price-cutting tends to sully the brand.

Like I say, as a consumer, I love this kind of competition. But when I think back to strategy books I have read, such as Michael Porter's stuff, it seems mis-guided. Something I heard in business school has always stuck with me:
 In an extended simulation exercise, CEOs would sacrifice up to half of annual profitability, in order to "win"--with winning defined in terms of market share.
I think Apple would be the ideal counter-example to this behavior.

I have searched for citations of this study, and never been able to find them. So for all I know, this is apocryphal. However, it certainly rings true to me. I have some theories to explain it...in part, I think it is tied to male over-competitiveness (most CEOs being male). I also think is an interesting question as to whether the economy and society, as a whole, are better off or not, for this behavior. Those will have to be blog posts for another day.

USB Chargers

We have 5 cell phones in the family. At times we have had almost that many different chargers. However, over the past year, we have been moving toward all USB-based phones. I thought we were on the cusp of being able to all share the same chargers. This would be especially nice in the car--where it is bad enough to have one messy, USB cable permanently dangling from the dash, let alone multiple varieities.

So I was chagrined to find, when I got my new phone (T-Mobile Vibrant), that is used a different kind of USB connector. A micro, it seems, instead of a mini. I was cursing this fact, but apparently the micro is the future standard. So maybe in another two years, my dream of common chargers will be realized. Sigh.

DropBox: Latest Opportunity for PC Makers to Seek Value-Add

I have occasionally brainstormed about ways that PC manufacturers could add value. Past ideas have included built-in hardware encryption, and built in disk redundancy. I have an update for latter idea. As noted, we recently averted catastrophe thanks to Dropbox. I can't believe that OEMs aren't paying a small fee to bundle Dropbox and selling it as a value-added feature.

Think about it--how much would the average person pay if they were reasonably guaranteed that with the latest HP/Dell/Toshiba technology, all their data* would be automatically backed up to the internet, and accessible from any other internet-connected PC? I bet that would command a $50 premium, easily. The key, I think, would be a clever name that immediately commands consumer mindshare.

An alternative would be to sell it as a pre-installed, but additional-cost, service. I still think that bundling it and building the brand is a great opportunity, though.
_________
*First 2 Gb free, additional storage can be purchased in convenient, inexpensive increments.

Creeping Bilingualism

During the last election, I noticed that at the Republican town halls, people complained constantly about immigration. But what they complained most about wasn’t the possibility of lost jobs, or crime. It was that when they called their bank, a recorded message told them to press 2 for Spanish.

Gail Brooks is onto something--though I'm not sure she realizes it. Bilingualism can become very divisive--just look at Canada. Rightly or wrongly, I think a lot of "average Joe" Americans do resent the creeping intrusion of Spanish. Some of us elites might respond "You know, it is a really good thing, both practically and intellectually, to learn a second (or even third) language" (that is definitely my viewpoint, in principle). But that argument is just not going to resonate with 90% of the population. By-and-large, Americans have never been very interested in learning foreign languages (not necessarily a laudable quality, but a fact), and I don't think feeling they are now being "forced" to learn them, in order to do business in their own country, will change things.
Michael Miller:
The Wired cover story, "The Web is Dead," has driven a lot of discussion in the tech world this week -- probably due more to the provocative title than anything else. In many ways, it's like the conversation earlier in the year sparked by Steve Jobs' comment that the tablet would eventually supplant the PC, and that the PC was dead. Note that PC sales look likely to grow by 20 percent or so this year.
I am so tired of sensational, attention-grabbing headlines. Really, sick unto death of them. Dave Winer writes about this a lot. They are such a waste of time; more often than not, if you actually read the story, it doesn't comport with the headline, and often acknowledges as much. So I don't know, maybe it is the fault of the editors. I don't know why people continue to go for them. To me, it is a cue "do not read".

There is an analogy in radio--at this point, I can't stand to listen to anything but NPR. 98% of  commercial radio is truly unbearable.

Prediction: Sony Will NOT Become a Major Player in Android Handsets

The battle for Android market share should get pretty interesting over the next year or so. SONY Ericsson CEO, Bert Nordberg stated today that the company plans on becoming the world’s biggest supplier of Android powered smartphones. SONY Ericsson’s current Android market share sits at 17% while the leader of the Android segment has 23%. Bert Nordberg did not give a time frame or specify exactly how SE is planning on leapfrogging the competition. 

I'll believe this when I see it. I actually thought this would be a great path for Sony to take, 15 months ago, when Android handsets were (in the U.S.) limited to the G1 and nothing else. But they didn't act on that, and Motorola did.

I have no confidence in Sony. I have thought, for decades, that their products were over-priced. They simply do not seem to have the DNA to compete on price (Sony is raising their e-Reader price while Amazon is making a splash by lowering theirs), and they long since lost the mantle of innovator. They are stuck in no-man's-land of slightly more "luxe" products, with no real innovation, for much higher prices, with poxy proprietary twists (such as the memory stick) occasionally thrown in.

I bet Sony will be acquired within 5 years. Maybe a smart innovator will buy them up just for their name, the way Cingular did with AT&T.

Kindle: Still Hard to Beat Free (as in Library)

NYT: Auriane and Sebastien de Halleux are at sharp odds over “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” but not about the plot. The problem is that she prefers the book version, while he reads it on his iPad. And in this literary dispute, the couple says, it’s ne’er the twain shall meet.
“She talks about the smell of the paper and the feeling of holding it in your hands,” said Mr. de Halleux, 32, who says he thinks the substance is the same regardless of medium. He added, sounding mildly piqued, “She uses the word ‘real.’ ”

It's very ironic, since college days (c. 1985) I felt sure that one day reading and research would be conducted primarily via computer. People used to argue with me that they would never want to curl up with a computer, and I said that the technology would eventually evolve to the point where it was a good facsimile for a book.[1] Now that day has arrived, and I am still a holdout.

My reason for being a holdout has nothing to do with the technology. I have experimented with a Kindle, it seems good.  But I am very much in the cheapskate, "informatiion wants to be free" camp. A $10, or even $8, book on the Kindle simply can't compete with the library, where books are really, truly free.

The Kindle does have some intrinsic advantages, so it might be able to beat free, but for me, I think the price would have to be $5 or less. One of those advantages, as the article later notes, the eReader offers the ability to change the font size, which wasn't even on my young mind in 1985, but I now realize is a major plus. Searchability is another one. Also, I hate book clutter, so the ability to have books but not have them take up any space is also nice. Although the main reason for hanging onto books is to lend them to someone else, and you can't do that with the Kindle, so maybe it is not such a big advantage.
This crisis began decades ago when a new wave of technology — things like satellite communications, container ships, computers and eventually the Internet — made it cheaper for American employers to use low-wage labor abroad or labor-replacing software here at home than to continue paying the typical worker a middle-class wage. Even though the American economy kept growing, hourly wages flattened. The median male worker earns less today, adjusted for inflation, than he did 30 years ago.
But for years American families kept spending as if their incomes were keeping pace with overall economic growth. And their spending fueled continued growth. How did families manage this trick? First, women streamed into the paid work force. By the late 1990s, more than 60 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home (in 1966, only 24 percent did).
Second, everyone put in more hours. What families didn’t receive in wage increases they made up for in work increases. By the mid-2000s, the typical male worker was putting in roughly 100 hours more each year than two decades before, and the typical female worker about 200 hours more.
When American families couldn’t squeeze any more income out of these two coping mechanisms, they embarked on a third: going ever deeper into debt. This seemed painless — as long as home prices were soaring. From 2002 to 2007, American households extracted $2.3 trillion from their homes.
Eventually, of course, the debt bubble burst — and with it, the last coping mechanism. Now we’re left to deal with the underlying problem that we’ve avoided for decades. Even if nearly everyone was employed, the vast middle class still wouldn’t have enough money to buy what the economy is capable of producing.
I don't know if Reich is right about the cause, but I do agree with his three-phase analysis of why the problem has been submerged. You don't see this discussed so often--the enormous increase in GDP from two-income families.
Another step: workers who lose their jobs and have to settle for positions that pay less could qualify for “earnings insurance” that would pay half the salary difference for two years; such a program would probably prove less expensive than extended unemployment benefits.
This is also a very thoughtful idea. I think there is a pretty well-established conclusion that a strong side-effect of unemployment benefits is that people resist--right up until their benefits run out--making career changes that involve lower pay. Even if such a change is all-but-inevitable. This alternative approach might improve that "structural" problem.

Dropbox Saved the Bacon

Beth's new laptop experienced a catasrophic video failure. By catastrophic, I mean the screen displayed nothing, and output to an external monitor did not work, either. My recent investment of effort in setting up Dropbox paid huge dividends, as Dropbox worked flawlessly, allowing Beth to platoon between shaky backup laptop, and desktop, while waiting for the 2-week turn-around for the warranty repair..

$329 Laptop - Did I Get What I Paid For?

I was very happy with the out-of-box experience with our $329 Toshiba laptop. But then the video display went bust 8 weeks later--under warranty, fortunately, but we are without the machine for 2 weeks. Of course we are also left wondering about its overall quality. After all, the previous cheap laptop I bought experienced a motherboard failure at 6 months, and went on to be a big disappointment: overheating--due to poor fan placement I think; losing keycaps; and experiencing a hinge crack (for no obvious reason).

My philosophy has been that, with the occasional exception of very off-brands, the durability of laptops is not correlated to the price. I know, though, others of the "you always get what you pay for" school of thought feel differently. Now I have to wonder a little bit...
...Apple TV’s second remote control is the Apple-made mobile device that Apple TV customers probably already own...Seriously — what are the chances of someone buying Apple TV who doesn’t have an iPod, iPad or iPhone?...
I have been hoping for this for a while. Now we just have to move from it being an Apple-exclusive thing, to becoming standard in consumer electronics. I really think smartphone as remote, if taken to "the next level", by also providing superior guide-search and DVR programming capabilities (it wouldn't be hard to improve on them)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Net Neutrality Is Important, and Pay-Per-View is NOT Analagous

The complications notwithstanding, net neutrality, broadly speaking, is what exists now. Among the many benefits net neutrality brings is that it fosters innovation. The great fear of the net neutrality purists, however, is that without federal rules, the Internet providers will begin cutting deals with content providers to give certain traffic priority over other traffic. For instance, Verizon could cut a deal with YouTube that allowed its videos to stream faster than, say, a Hulu video. Or it could even block Hulu. Or it could begin charging consumers extra for Netflix movies that were of better quality than ordinary streaming. As Harold Feld, Public Knowledge’s legal director, puts it: “Companies do what companies do.”
(Which brings up one of the true oddities about the fervor over net neutrality. Cable television distributors make decisions all the time about what people can see and how much they have to pay for it. If special sports-only tiers aren’t an example of placing some content over other content, I don’t know what is. Yet because it is merely television, and not the sacred Internet, nobody seems to view this practice as a crime against humanity. But I digress.) [my italics]
The first paragraph is a good explanation of net neutrality, but the immediate following aside is completely irrelevant. The huge flaw in the second paragraph is that it confuses arrangements between content provider and consumer with the role of the traffic carrier in the middle. Nobody is saying YouTube can't charge more for streaming high-definition content, for example. The point is that it is not the business of the man-in-the-middle, the internet carrier, to get involved in that (or any other arrangement). Packets are packets; if you want to charge more for the volume of packets, that's fine, but make no distinctions about the content of a packet.

I have always been a free-market, low-regulation kind of guy (you might call that a traditional regulatory conservative) . But traditional conservatives would  generally recognize the need for a level of regulation in natural monopolies, and most particularly in utilities. The internet backbone is very much a utility--it carries a commodity that most people use on a daily basis. It is very appropriate that is be subjected to a minimal level of regulation

All the more so in the case of the internet, where most of the development costs were borne by the DoD and universities, not by the private carriers that now benefit from this wonderful invention of the "commons".

It's frustrating that elite professional journalists, and their editors (New York Times) could make such elementary mistakes.

Student Debt Insanity

Nobody likes unpleasant surprises, but when Allison Brooke Eastman’s fiancĂ© found out four months ago just how high her student loan debt was, he had a particularly strong reaction: he broke off the engagement within three days.
Ms. Eastman said she had told him early on in their relationship that she had over $100,000 of debt. But, she said, even she didn’t know what the true balance was; like a car buyer who focuses on only the monthly payment, she wrote 12 checks a year for about $1,100 each, the minimum possible. She didn’t focus on the bottom line, she said, because it was so profoundly depressing.
But as the couple got closer to their wedding day, she took out all the paperwork and it became clear that her total debt was actually about $170,000. “He accused me of lying,” said Ms. Eastman, 31, a San Francisco X-ray technician and part-time photographer who had run up much of the balance studying for a bachelor’s degree in photography. “But if I was lying, I was lying to myself, not to him. I didn’t really want to know the full amount.
Sad, but probably a sign of the times. Another example of the craziness of sky-high college costs, the folly of expecting 18-year olds to make judicious decisions about their future debt-load, and the overall insidious effect of the educational-financial complex.