Saturday, April 28, 2012

Is Competition Over-Emphasized?

This David Brooks article on competition versus creativity rings true for me.
One of [Peter Thiel's] core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition. We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead. In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.
Stipulated that competition will always be a big part of business. No doubt. But competition is a means not an end. I remember a former boss--who I never felt much affinity with--saying, "I wake up every morning and think 'let's go beat [Brand X]' ". I thought that was off-base. First of all, what does "beat" mean? Does it mean sell more units, or make more money? (There can be a big difference--just ask Apple.) Does it mean destroy the competition by any means? (Even if it risks violating regulations or laws?) Much better to wake up and think "let's go create, build and deliver great products that will delight customers, who will pay enough to provide a healthy profit margin".

Along the same lines, 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.

Pocket/Read It Later

The app I use by far the most on my phone, Read It Later, has changed their name. I don't love the name change. Pocket is okay, but Read It Later was wonderfully self-descriptive, and well-established.

I am completely indifferent to the snazzy visual stuff they have on their web view. I am text-oriented, and I use it mostly on my phone. The phone app does look a bit nicer, but only trivially so. I am very happy with the long-overdue near-full-screen mode[1] (all apps for which screen space is at a premium should have this). But I still have two ideas for improvement. One is a quibble, one is a legitimate refinement.
  1. First the quibble. I don't want to have to long-press the screen to turn on full screen mode, for each and every article. I want "default to full screen mode" to be a Setting. (Also, I bet a lot of users will never discover the ability to toggle this, since it is so hidden.)
  2. Now the enhancement. Along with point #1, the perfect implementation would be to automagically display the bottom toolbar when you scroll to the end of the article. So that the checkmark is right there, for me to click "done". They already do this at the top of the article, where you have buttons to toggle between offline text view and full web view.
[1] I say "near" full-screen because the Android notification bar is not hidden, like it is on Kindle and some other apps. I don't see this as a big deal, it's important and not too many pixels. Being able to hide the native Pocket function bar was the key thing.

T-Mobile: 0 for 3 on Rebates

This Valentine's Day I picked up a free-after-rebate HTC Sensation from T-Mobile. So I had to pay $150 at the counter, file the noxious rebate paperwork, cross my fingers and hope the promised $150 Visa card arrived 8 weeks later.

4 weeks after submitting the rebate, I received a letter stating my rebate had been rejected. The reason provided was cryptic, but seemed to suggest I didn't have a qualifying rate plan. I knew I did, though.

I've been through this drill before, so of course I saved all my paperwork. When I called the TMo rebate center, it took the CSR all of 20 seconds to figure out the problem. My rebate had been submitted on the wrong form. The very wrong form the nice people at the TMo store had handed to me. She nicely fixed the problem on the spot.

This is a perfect example of why I think rebates are unethical. It's the third time in 3 years this has happened with T-Mobile. The previous year, I took advantage of their "free data for a year" promotion (really not free, just $10 off per month--still a very nice discount on a family plan). For 5 straight months, I had to call to get them to give me the discount (they seem to have finally fixed it permanently). Then the time before that was another free-after-rebate handset, and again, the wrong form provided by the TMo store.

In all cases, the Tmo people were very nice, didn't argue with me, and came across with the credit. But SO much time and tedium, on my part and theirs. If I didn't know better, I would believe that there was some very powerful labor Union of Rebate Processors, furiously lobbying to require all mobile phone special offers be provided in the form or mail-in rebates!

I am actually a TMo fan, due mainly to their lower prices, but my loyalty is starting to wear thin.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Jargonwatch: (Information) Technology "Lift"

Definition: to enable a business capability through information technology.

Example: Rolling out the new online rebate status tracking system will require about $2 million of technology lift.

Assessment: not inherently objectionable, I think it is a riff on the aerospace term. Like most business jargon, though, it is starting to wear thin. 

Rebates: Unethical?

I think rebates are unethical. Or, at the very least, anti-consumer. One of the reasons that Amazon has my loyalty and goodwill is that I never feel like they are trying to screw me. Rebates are all about screwing the customer (they call it breakage).

Experiential Learning On The Job

This article hypothesizes that Google and Facebook employees are so cossetted that they don't actually experience many of the same mobile technology use cases that ordinary people do, and that is causing them to under-value the importance of mobile design. I don't know if it's true--and it would certainly be ironic in the case of Google, the purveyor of Android--but it stimulated an old thought.

In my early 20s, I read a business book (I think it was Tom Peters "In Pursuit of Excellence", but I can't be sure offhand) and one of the things I remember it talking about was the idea that executives shouldn't be insulated from the day-to-day challenges of their employees. The example I remember was that Disney required its executives to regularly take turns doing very, very mundane things, such as directing in the parking lot.

This has always stuck with me as a great idea. I worked for Otis Elevator the first 12 years of my career. The Otis HQ was in suburban CT. Most of the people who worked there were suburbanites. This matters, because elevators are not very important in suburbs. A suburb-dweller can literally go weeks without needing to take an elevator. So we had no feel for the usage, let alone "culture" of the product. It always seemed ridiculous to me.

Other examples:
  • Everyone in IT should regularly take turns using the product and working the Help Desk. I actually suggested this to a CIO once, and they brushed off the idea without even stopping to consider taking it seriously.
  • Forbid your insurance company (or any other service provider) from keeping VIP lists. Execs are throwing away a valuable window into quality of service when they allow themselves to experience the Potemkin Village version of the service.
This is all related to the "eating your own dogfood" concept, though not quite the same thing.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Standard Smartphone Feature: Auto-Dim Option

Any app which is likely to be used for extended periods in standby display mode should have the option to auto-dim after an interval. The #1 candidate app for this is the dialer. I use my phone a lot for conference calls, and I need Mute to be handy, so I can't turn off the screen, but it would be fine if it dimmed.

I would also like it in Navigation. Music players is another place it could apply.

It should go without saying that this needs to be a settings option, default to OFF.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wireless Chargers in Cars

Too expensive, probably not based on the Qi standard, but definitely the wave of the future (in cars, and out).
The wireless charging system consists of a dedicated charging “mat”, placed inside the center console where users can simply toss their compatible devices, start their car up, and begin charging.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What's wrong with "flip-flopping" on the issues?

Conventional political tactics says it's fatal to be viewed as a "flip flopper". There are commentators who lament this, rightly offering observations to the effect that "it can be a mark of growth and wisdom to change one's mind".

I couldn't agree more with that view, but there is a problem with the proposition. They aren't defining their terms. Flip flopping has a strong connotation (maybe denotation) of going back, forth, back, forth. So either changing one's mind, or pretending to, simply to cater to a particular audience or interlocutor. That is an inherently, strongly negative quality.

They are talking about a one-time, directional change of view. The kind of thing that takes time, wisdom, consideration, and, finally, self-honesty and the guts to admit it. A reasonable, honorable even laudable thing, assuming it doesn't happen too often.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Trying the Walled Garden Again

For the most common queries, Dragon Go usually bypasses search engines by taking users directly to Web sites of companies like Amazon, Expedia and OpenTable, which are Nuance partners on the app. If people don't find what they're looking for there, Dragon Go offers traditional Web search.
This is an insta-fail. One of the reasons Google was so successful was the purity of its results--no paid placement. I hate this already.
The benefit for consumers, Nuance executives say, is faster answers in fewer steps. In many cases, Nuance collects a small fee from partner sites when people make restaurant reservations or complete purchases. The app could be construed as a challenge to the likes of Google and Microsoft, which have their own voice products.
Yeah, sure, fewer steps down the walled garden path. Blech.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Phones: Silly, Apple-Inspired Fetish about "Build Material"

I really don't get the fixation so many reviewers and smartphone enthusiasts have on "build materials". It's just a phone, not jewelry, and will likely be replaced in 2 years, max. Subtle aspects of physical appearance are just not that important.
To me, the most important considerations are: 1) reliability--primarily resilience when you drop it; 2) weight; 3) cost. Intangibles about look and feel come a distant fourth, especially since they are largely canceled out when you put your phone in a case of some kind--which is usually still a good idea. A ceramic backplate may help ensure there is no *visible", cosmetic damage when you drop the phone, but I don't think it protects the innards from from the impact, which is the bigger consideration. Nothing protects better than a rubbery coating, and of course that covers up most of the cosmetics related to build materials anyway.
My wife has a Tmo Galaxy S2, the huge one. Yes it is noticeably lighter and thinner than my 4.3" HTC Sensation. Not a deal-breaker difference, but those qualities are more valuable to me than the intangible cosmetics related to build materials.
I "blame" Apple for the obsession with build materials and look and feel.