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Archive for the ‘Reviewed’ Category

Microsoft Surface gets mixed reviews, lack of apps a problem

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Microsoft SurfaceIf the reviews are any guide, the Microsoft Surface, which ships Friday, the device isn’t going to break any sales records.

Reviewers praise its attractive design and the sturdy kickstand, no one likes the cameras (one front, one rear) which are panned for being slow and taking so-so photos, but after that, opinions differ.

David Pogue at the New York Times writes that “You’d have to be fairly cold-blooded to keep your pulse down the first time you see the Surface….How incredible thhat this bold, envelope-pushing design comes from Microsoft.” On the other hand, he laments, “How ironic that what lets the Surface down is…Microsoft’s specialty: software.”

Pogue’s counterpart at the Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg, says the device is “historic,” and “is a tablet with some pluses,” such as the major office apps and optional keyboards. But he is otherwise unimpressed, dissing the cameras, lack of battery life, lack of apps, and a display that doesn’t measure up to the iPad’s.

Matt Honan at Wired rather like the device but criticized its lack of apps.

The Verge wrote that the Surface is “unfortunately more functional as a laptop…on a desk.” It also criticized the instability of the Microsoft Mail app and the way it handles threading, and it touchscreen’s ability to handle only five points at a time compared to the iPad’s 11.

Other reviews:

PC World

Engadet

 

Reviews largely favorable for iPhone 5 speed, battery, more

Monday, October 1st, 2012
iPhone 5

The iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 is praised for speed, call clarity and battery life on Viewpoints a consumer reviews and product rankings website. Some Apple fans even gush over the troubled Apple Maps feature some say was a $30 billion mistake.

Based on consumer sentiment, the iPhone 5 32GB ($299) is rated 94/100, ten points higher than the average smartphone rating.

Speed

Besides a larger screen, the most significant changes from the iPhone 4S are a faster processor and the ability to use advanced cellular networks, 4G LTE.

“I will say the web browsing does seem faster…the speed increase is noticeable.”–Matt

Battery life

Nearly everyone reports the iPhone 5 battery is stronger compared to older iPhones.

“With Wi-Fi turned on, playing games, accessing the web and on a hour-long conference call, the battery never faltered. After 24 hrs and heavy use, more than 60% power still available.” –TerryNakagawa

“…5am until midnight … can’t complain about that.” –Kyrshen

Maps

Apple replaced Google Maps with its own program, which lacks functionality, like display of public transportation, an “epic fail” according to one reviewer. The maps do offer turn-by-turn directions, as well as restaurants as landmarks. Most Viewpoints reviewers aren’t inconvenienced and like the look:

“The new Apple Maps are just stunning, the 3D angle and flying sensation are terrific.”–

GibOlander

Sure, there’s hubbub around Apple Maps. But think of it this way… the iPhone 5 has more computing power than NASA did when they sent a man to the moon in 1969. The phone is spectacular.” –rma288

Personally, here at the TechJournal, we’re amazed at how Apple fans even gush over features for which the company had to apologize, such Apple Maps. The iPhone 5 may have more processing power than when NASA sent a man to the moon, but just about every electronic device with a silicon brain on the market does.

I can’t see myself EVER going back to Android!…Gorgeous. Sleek. Modern” –Jnystul

Admittedly, Android has its problems: we recently downloaded a chess board app that is supposed to let you use it to follow a game in a book. We even paid five bucks for it and it doesn’t work. We’ve read that many apps don’t work properly or have fewer features on Android.  The folks at Appcelerator tell us that one reason for that is that there are so many flavors of Android.

Viewpoints General Manager Denise Chudy says, “Based on early reviews, people are obviously passionate about the iPhone 5. It’s our hope that those insights help others decide if the iPhone 5 is the right choice for their needs and budget.”

 

Smartphone Deathmatch: iPhone 4s vs. Samsung Galaxy S3 vs. HTC Incredible 4G LTE

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

By Joe Procopio

HTC Incredible

The HTC Incredible

Make no mistake. This is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill, spec-heavy mobile handset review. Furthermore, this isn’t about slapping down 1000 words to earn geek cred.

Not that I don’t do that. On occasion.

This is about the phone that is going into my pocket for the next two years. That’s huge. I love my phone. I mean, I LOVE MY PHONE. So read every word with weight, because this decision wasn’t handled lightly.

We’re in a convergence period

We happen to be in a convergence period in which there are two distinct handsets vying for the title of Best Smartphone in the World. Apple’s iPhone 4s is nearing the end of its run, which has allowed Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich (and even more so Jellybean) on the Samsung S3 a window of opportunity in which to catch up and pass iOS.

And I know what you’re thinking, but the HTC Incredible is the only recent entry into the Android ICS market that isn’t bigger than my head. This is key and I’ll get to it.

In any case, I spent way more time with these three devices than any socially-adjusted person should. You get the fruits of that labor. Plus you get a nice story.

See, I was on vacation a couple weeks ago when I was reminded that I had 48 hours in which to upgrade my phone and my wife’s phone without losing unlimited data on Verizon. The pros and cons of that deadline are best left to another column that I don’t want to write, the point is I had to get to the closest Verizon store and drop some cash.

Quite honestly, it was time. My wife and I were both way out of contract and she was still rocking a feature phone.

So while I had the opportunity to experiment, knowing that I was going to get my hands on the S3 and the Incredible within the next two weeks, I opted for two gorgeous iPhones and walked out of the door with a newfound smugness.

Who Needs the iPhone 4s?

iPhone 4SThe iPhone performed exceptionally well for both of us in terms of routine use. Within about half-a-day of setting preferences, creating accounts, and downloading apps, we were pretty much back to normal.

But here’s the funny part. Initially, I couldn’t get home.

Remember, I was on vacation, and had used my old Android phone, which was now a brick, to get to the Verizon store in the first place. So walking out of the new store (still smug), I discovered that the iPhone was more than happy to tell me how to get back to the hotel, it just couldn’t navigate me there.

Yeah, I found MapQuest and eventually got back, but that was a microcosm of my issues with the iPhone. As a long-term Android user, I expected certain things to be there and some were (Bluetooth connectivity to the car), and some weren’t (turn-by-turn).

My wife kept the iPhone. She loves it. And she should. It’s an awesome phone.

Who Needs the Samsung S3?

If the iPhone was the only 5-star phone, it isn’t anymore, because the S3 is probably the first 5-star Android. For every plus Apple has packed into the design, Samsung has crafted the same into the power and usefulness.

It’s sleek and big. The screen looks great and it’s big. It’s easy to use and intuitive. And big.

Samsung S#

Samsung S3 – the first 5-star Android phone?

The S3 and Android easily matched or surpassed the iPhone in terms of the screen, the user interface, the flexibility, the camera, and the speed. Further, Ice Cream Sandwich has come a long way in terms of making the mobile experience more mobile and less computer-on-a-phone, which was the main hang-up with Android.

Within 45 minutes, I was able to get the Samsung S3 exactly the way I needed it, everything from contacts to apps to preferences. It was the same experience I was used to, only better.

But it’s so damn big.

I’ve ranted about this before in previous reviews, but this time it really hit home. I just couldn’t USE the S3, not “use comfortably,” but use at all. I dropped it several times trying to manipulate my way around the interface with one hand (sorry Samsung!). I found I kept it out of my pocket because, while it is incredibly thin, it’s a lot of real estate in the pants.

Come on, you know I was going there eventually.

Who Needs the HTC Incredible 4G LTE?

HTC incredible

The HTC Incredible 4G LTE phone.

Me.

This is the phone I ended up keeping. And it all comes down to the size. The Incredible was always implied as an iPhone copy, and this version, while packing almost all of the power of the S3, is just slightly bigger than the iPhone.

I love my phone. I’m that guy. But I’m giving up screen resolution. I’m giving up the great camera. I’m giving up some battery life. I’m giving up a lot of style and design.

But technology-wise, the playing field is nearly level, for now.  So when it comes to the S3 vs. the Incredible, I’m not giving up a great camera for a crappy camera, I’m giving up a great camera for an average camera, so there’s a value-based decision to make.

Average camera vs. uncomfortable pants.

And it’s not that the iPhone is bad at the things that the S3 is good at, but there is a new user type to contend with. Apple had a huge advantage converting feature phone users, Blackberry users, and I’d even argue early Android users — but take a die-hard Android current and give him or her an iPhone and there are things they are going to miss.

Like the keyboard. Or widgets. And not that these are game-changers but they are things that we are already used to, and that, I believe, is going to be the determining factor is choosing a handset.

For the foreseeable future, these are the parameters of the decision-making process, not how awesome the streamed preview of 21 Jump Street looks or the quality vs. quantity argument of the apps. Or Siri. Or G-Noise or whatever the Android version is.

The Best Smartphone in the World is going to be the one that works for you.

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio (@jproco) heads up product engineering for automated content startup Automated Insights, which is also StatSheet. He founded and runs startup network ExitEvent, consulting marketplace Intrepid Company, and writers network Intrepid Media. You can read him at http://joeprocopio.com.

 

Flipboard launches on Android phones, Nook, & Kindle Fire

Monday, June 25th, 2012

By Allan Maurer

Flipboard, a digital service that lets users select their own news and entertainment sources and presents them as magazine-like pages users flip through, is now available on Android phones, the Nook, and the Kindle Fire.

For the first time Flipboard is available to the hundreds of millions of Android users as a free download in Google Play.

In addition, Flipboard is now available in the Amazon Appstore for Android, the Barnes & Noble NOOK Store and in Samsung Apps. For people in the United States, Flipboard will come pre-installed on the new Samsung Galaxy SIII via leading U.S. carriers.

I downloaded it onto my Kindle Fire last week and have been using it ever since.

Previously, I had been using another news reading app, Pulse, which also allows users to select their digital news and web site sources. It then offers stories from each site or user social network on a Cool Iris-like panel of stories with photos or illustrations. Users tap the story link and get part of it immediately with a link to the orgininal online.

I’ll probably still use Pulse from time to time, but Flipboard’s interface is more elegant and the magazine-like presentation of pages is attractive as well as fun to use. You can choose from topic areas ranging from news and tech to entertainment (among many others) and your own specific choices (mine, for instance, include chess and science fiction).

You can even connect it to your Google+ and Youtube accounts.

Freedom from typing in URLs

The benefit of these digital news reader/magazine services, Flipboard, Pulse, and others, is that it is still largely a pain to type in site urls via digital keyboards. Both Flipboard and Pulse make it easy to browse your topics of interest quickly and easily.

I do nearly all my web browsing on the Kindle Fire via one of those apps.

For me, they’re better than a daily newspaper used to be as a way to get a handle on the news and topics I care about in the morning, or just to kill time waiting for service at a restaurant or waiting for a train or indeed, during travel by car, plane, train or bus.

“People are amazed by all the things they can see on Flipboard, and often the most personal and interesting stories come from friends,” said Mike McCue, CEO of Flipboard.

“Today we have over 2000 featured content partners from around the world and, now with the addition of Google+ and YouTube, we have all of the popular social networks for our readers to sit back and enjoy.

The company is based in Palo Alto, California and backed by legendary investors Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer, Index Ventures and Insight Venture Partners.

 

A good case for innovative design: Targus and tablet accessories

Friday, March 30th, 2012
Targus lap lounge

The Targus Lap Lounge fits multiple tablet sizes

By Allan Maurer

Sometimes you find exactly what you want – even if you didn’t know what it was until you saw it.

I realized soon after I began using my Kindle Fire tablet that I would need some sort of stand for it.

I’m also considering buying a new iPad – and I know I’ll need a stand to use that for any length of time. I tested several of the 10-inch tablets and they’re cumbersome to hold in the hands for any length of time.

So I was browsing the local Tiger Direct and Radio Shack stores when I found the Targus Lap Lounge Stand (on sale with a lot of other stands and tablet cases I looked at – so I got it for $10 off the $39.99 retail price. I will say that the prices on tablet stands and covers seem quite high. I expect we’ll see lots more bargain pricing on them in the future).

Fits multiple tablet sizes

The Lounge stand has an adjustable stand grip that fits tablets from the 7-inch Kindle Fire (0r similarly sized devices) to the 10″ larger tablets. The stand adjusts to the angle most comfortable for a given use – typing or watching video or browsing the web.

As soon as I fitted it to my Kindle Fire and started using it, I knew it was exactly right for the job. I don’t know about you, but most of the time when I use the Kindle Fire or for that matter, my Kindle Wi-fi e-reader, I’m sitting back in a chair, lounging on the couch, or in bed at home.

This Lap Lounge – a fancy name for a lap desk with a bean filled-cushion – could have been a tad wider and I might have chosen black instead of white for the plastic desktop. But it is much handier than something you have to sit on a desk or table top. It has a plastic-lined zippered pocket that includes a cloth handle, a loop for a pen or stylus, and a sturdy construction.

You can hold the tablet firmly in the stand horizontally or vertically.

Lots of other stands are out there, and the Targus Blue Tooth Keyboard stand for the new iPad may be one of my next purchases if I actually buy the Apple tablet. From what I’ve read, the iPads require some protection.

Tests of the new one showed it shattered when dropped from waist height without protection. But I’d want something protective to use when attending events – as well as a stand-alone keyboard, since using a virtual keyboard is not my idea of a good time.

The Lap Lounge was not my first Targus purchase.

A good case

Citygear

Targus 10.2-inch Citygear case.

I bought my first Targus product, it’s CityGear 10.2 inch netbook case, with multiple pockets front and back and inside, all designed for the types of digital equipment many of us actually carry – cell phone, tablet or notebook computer, mp3 player, small camera, batteries, and so on. It sells for around $34.00. A Google search will turn up any of these products.

It’s an ideal size for carrying your equipment when you’re buzzing around doing chores or when you’re attending events. It’s also tough and shrugs off rough handling while protecting your equipment.

All too often, products we buy seem just a bit inadequate, lack proper human engineering so that ordinary functions are a pain, or look as if they were cobbled together by blind elves.

So, when I find a company making innovative products that have design savvy – besides Apple’s – the company gets a loyal customer.

These Targus products seem to be everywhere. I bought the notebook/tablet sized case at WalMart, the Lap Lounge at Radio Shack, and have seen their products at Best Buy and other retail stores. They’re also sold through many online venues.

 

iPad reviewers love the Retina display, speed, camera

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

David Pogue writes in the New York Times that the new Apple iPad should have been called the iPad 2S, because it makes only incremental changes to the iPad 2, like the iPhone 4S. The technical improvements in the new device, which is available Friday, “keep it at the forefront of desirability – just ahead of the snapping jaws of its Android competion.”

Like most reviewers, he’s dazzled by the “very, very sharp screen.” The new Retina dispaly is four times sharper than that of the iPad 2. Apps rewritten for the new screen are “incredibly sharp,” he says and high definition videos are “dazzling.”

He praises the new 5 megapixel back camera that will also shoot hi-def video.

The feature we’re personally most interested in – the new iPad’s ability to translate speaking to text – is unfortunately more limited than Siri in the iPhone 4S. It allows users to type email or in text apps, but not to set alarms or “snag facts from the Web” by asking out loud. Pogue suggests that may be an Apple marketing department hold-back. He notes it does work accurately with good Internet connections.

In any event, it’s a shame it doesn’t have the full range of Siri capabilities.

The major problem we have will all tablets and touch screen products, personally, is that typing on virtual keyboards is a real pain in multiple body parts. We would buy it just to be able to search the Web orally instead of via touchscreen typing.

Pixels, pixels, pixels, speed, speed, speed

John Gruper at Daringfireball.net, writes, “Pixels, pixels, pixels, battery, battery, battery, speed, speed, speed. That’s the new iPad. He also notes that RAM has been doubled (from 512MB to 1MB), which is mostly dedicated to the improved display -which is double the resolution of the iPad 2, but still makes apps feel faster.

He describes the retina display as similar to that of high end glossy magazine print – “Except that it updates live. It’s living, breathing print.”

Gruber says the new iPad reveals what is important about Apple’s priorities: how things look, feel, which means fast graphics processing.

He notes that Apple does not generally make devices that have less battery life than former models, so the new iPad is slightly thicker and heavier than the other models to accommodate a larger battery, since the high resolution display and more speed mean more battery drain.

Other takes on the new iPad:

Walt Mossberg, Wall Street Journal (loved its 4G LTE speed).

Joshua Topolsky at The Verge offers photos, in depth looks at multiple features, and this video review:

Kindle Fire a good value for the money

Monday, November 21st, 2011
Kindle Fire

At $199, we think the Kindle Fire is a good buy for the money

By Allan Maurer

I spent the weekend running my new Amazon Kindle Fire through its paces, using the much-ballyhooed cloud-based browser, downloading apps and games, reading books, watching videos, and listening to music.

I also read a number of early reviews in other tech publications and generally, I suspect some of the more negative ones reflect too little time spent testing the device by the users. Or, some of the problems they encountered, such as browser sluggishness, may have been associated with their connections.

The good stuff

Let’s start with the good stuff. The 7-inch screen is bright and its images and text sharp, although like other tablets and LED screen-devices, it isn’t something I”d want to use in full sunlight outside often. I still prefer my WiFi Kindle with its e-Ink technology for reading a book to reading on any LED screen.

Before it arrived I wondered if the 7-inch size would be adequate for watching videos and playing games. It is though. I watched Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire dance on YouTube, listened to an online tech show, and played chess, a zombie shooter game and Angry Birds. The screen size is just right for a handheld device. 

It is surprising heavy and solid for its size, weighing in at 14,6 ounces, but unlike larger tablet computers such as the 10-inch Xoom or the iPad, it’s fairly easy to hold in one hand and I have small hands. It has 8 Gigabytes of built-in memory and allows you to keep books, videos, and music in the Amazon cloud or on the device.

I barely strained the memory in mine with half a dozen books, five games, and a dozen free apps from Amazon’s AppStore (Apple Inc. is taking action to get Amazon to change the name, alleging it owns the “AppStore” name).

Touchscreen quirks

The touchscreen has some quirks, but honestly, I have yet to use a touchscreen device of any sort that didn’t. The worst problem, which other reviewers have noted, as anyone who uses a Kindle Fire will, is that it seems overly sensitive to accidental thumb touches if you hold the device with your thumb on one side as is natural.

On the other hand, the screen is not always as sensitive as one might wish when you’re trying to access controls to get back to the home screen or to get a link to work or to navigate the Carousel that provides access to your books, apps, and tools. The Carousel itself takes a bit of getting used to. It really whips the content by, but after a while I was able to stop where I wanted without overshooting.

Some early reviewers complained about that, but I suspect many of the complaints about the Fire are a result of inadequate time using it to learn its rhythms and peculiarities. I fell into that trap reviewing devices in the past, which is why I used mine several days and rather heavily before writing this one.

I’ve already adjusted the way I hold the device to compensate for the problem with those accidental thumb touches – which do result in the screen suddenly doing all sorts of things you don’t want it to.

Adjusting to the device

Using the virtual keyboard has never been my favorite way to type, either, and the one on the Fire gave me as much trouble as any of them. Again, however, all digital device require a certain adjustment to its peculiarities and as I use it, I get faster and more accurate. To some extent, it’s about placing you finger properly (a bit off-center to the left to get the right letter or number works for me.)

It’s not that different from learning the dynamics of a digital game such as Angry Birds. I did, I confess to my shame, actually drop a bird from the slingshot before firing it at those snotty pigs using the Fire. That’s one Kindle first I hope doesn’t repeat itself, but you know, it’s a minor detail. Dern pigs are still laughing at me.

In a perfect world, the device would adjust to you rather than you to it. But I use a large number of digital devices, and they all require getting used to the way they work.

Get a case

The Fire has a rubberized back that makes holding it easier, but I do think a case that let’s you set it up on a surface will be useful for this (and probably for any tablet). It’s also a good idea to protect it.

Some reviewers had problems with the browser, but mine worked smoothly right away. I have learned the touchscreen trick of expanding the copy (when that can be done) before trying to click on a link. Otherwise, it is really easy to hit a different link and go back and forth, back and forth trying to get the right one to respond. I have the same problem with touchscreen phones of all makes and operating systems.

Others mentioned problems with Google apps or reading email. I had no trouble signing into my email via the browser or the gmail app I downloaded (free) from the Store. It’s not ideal for answering email any more than a phone is, but it never ceases to surprise me how we adapt to technology.

I’m a reader, so I buy a lot of books from Amazon, among other things, particularly music. I love having my music (which is a memory hog) in Amazon’s cloud, but I also downloaded the Pandora app and signed in. The speakers provide really decent sound for a small device – better than my mp3 player’s built-in speakers and on a par if not better than my Acer laptop’s. You can also plug in earphones.

No microphone

It doesn’t have a microphone, which may be a drawback as voice recognition becomes more common ala Apple’s Siri and Dragon Naturally Speaking. Operating these mobile devices via voice seems a natural and inevitable evolution.

There has been a fair amount of carping in the tech community about Amazon using a proprietary version of Google’s Android operating system, which means that not all Android apps are available for the Fire (at least not yet). But my experience with app stores is that their are only a handful of actual app categories, games, utilities, and lifestyle aids, and so forth, each of which has a gazillion different apps for each purpose.

Just how many weight loss or movie time or note-taking apps do you need?

Just as an aside, do download and install one of the free (or paid) antivirus programs. Malware is already a growing problem on mobile devices.

An Amazon fan

As a Web access device, I really like the Kindle Fire. The browser showed none of the sluggishness some reviewers mentioned. I also really like the Pulse app, which provides Web sites in a Cool Iris-like display not dissimilar to the Carousel. It makes checking out many of my favorite sites, from Boing Boing to science sites quick, easy, and entertaining.

I downloaded the Facebook and Twitter apps and used both with few problems, although they require a short learning curve. Typing in my passwords was the hardest part. But by Sunday, after I had used the Fire extensively for three days, my typing was already much faster and more sure, if still not without mishit keys.

I suppose I’m an Amazon fan the way lots of people are Apple fans. That doesn’t mean I love everything Amazon does. But I do like its products and its store.

The company’s customer service is just unparalleled in my experience. I dropped a Kindle that was out of warranty and they still overnighted me a new one – which is probably just smart considering the number of books I buy from them, most of them for the Kindle these days. They are always responsive, it’s easy to get to a real human being, they don’t waste a lot of your time solving a problem and they always solved my problems.

But I think the Kindle Fire is a great deal for the money. At $199, Amazon is selling it slight below the cost to make it, hoping to sell more goods, no doubt. But I’d be willing to bet you’re going to see a lot of these around after Christmas. The Kindle Fire may not be an iPad killer, but it is winner in its own right.

Kindle a good bet to win the e-reader wars

Comparison of Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook spex

 

 

Your phone is thinking: the iPhone 4S and Motorola Droid RAZR

Friday, November 11th, 2011

By Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

What could possibly go wrong?

You can no longer joke about the robot uprising. The entire concept used to be good for a chuckle or a catch-phrase-heavy Schwarzenegger summer blockbuster. Computers were plugged into the wall, for God’s sake. They couldn’t move, and even if they could, they were pretty much restrained by the length of the extension cord.

Now, not only can they move, but they know where you are, they’ve got your credit card number, and apparently they can drunk text your wife. Look, I’m just saying that they’re already intricately tied into things that can kill you. How long before Joshua figures out that Tic Tac Toe is just a horrible plot device and he launches the nukes out of spite?

The good news is, right now they’re just waking us up and finding us questionable Thai food.

But that’s about to change.

Siri, Phone In My Column

SiriSo it took about five minutes for Siri to stop being about voice recognition. But Siri as personal digital assistant, for all its commercial-friendly wow factor, is actually only scratching the surface of what’s possible. What it comes down to is not how well Siri listens, but how well she understands.

In other words, the power of artificial intelligence, or at least this brand of it, is not in the regurgitation of facts, but the collection of data points needed to come to an actual decision.

“Siri, do I need an umbrella?”

Easy.

Or is it?

That Depends

Siri just checks the current weather conditions, right? But wait. Not to give her a headache, but let’s make sure I’m actually going somewhere. So she checks the calendar and the current weather conditions.

Well, am I leaving right away? Better have her check the calendar, the current weather conditions, and the forecast for the time of the event.

And while we’re at it, how far am I actually going? Will it be raining there? Just to be safe, she should check the calendar, the current weather conditions, and the forecast for the time of the event at the location of the event.

So now we’ve happily pieced together all the potential contextual options.

But you know what? Turns out I’m just standing in an umbrella store trying to remember whether or not I have an umbrella.

Intelligence Fail

Seriously. It’s always the one stupid “who could possibly be thinking that” scenario that trips up the logic of artificial intelligence. Well, that and the paradoxical nature of Asimov’s laws when it’s basic robot nature to kill everything that isn’t metal.

It’s time-consuming to pull out my phone, open up the umbrella app, have it check the umbrella database for my umbrella inventory, and then I have to make the decision on my own as to how many umbrellas are enough.

But at least I know I’ll get the right answer. Automating all those actions with a single voice command and interpreting that command correctly is what makes Siri, or the potential of Siri, so powerful.

But what about the context?

The Droid RAZR and Smart Actions

Droid RAZROn your store shelves today, the Droid RAZR features the debut of Motorola’s attempt at AI from another angle with Smart Actions. And again, you’ll note how they use words like “smart” to keep the lid on the fact that these are really just death merchants in a little plastic boxes. I mean, the RAZR is encased in Kevlar. Why? Maybe so you can’t shoot it when it goes for your jugular.

Smart Actions are designed to give you push-button access to rules that are based on context the phone already has, like where you are, what time it is, etc. There are apps that do this kind of thing already, like auto-reply when you’re driving and you get a text.

But this is more universal, as in you tell it to set itself to vibrate at the movies and then every time you’re in a movie theater it sets itself to vibrate and then resets itself when you leave, and here’s the important part, without you having to think about it.

 

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone had this. Now imagine what it would be like if someone stopped Adam Sandler before he made Jack and Jill.

Utopia

Beyond that, the RAZR is ridiculously thin. And yeah, while this kind of plays into marketing, based on the popularity of the original RAZR, it’s kind of crazy how much power they got into the package.

You’ll note that we seem to have settled on a handset size, one that I’ve lovingly referred in these very pages as the “clown phone,”  but the RAZR got the depth down to about half. That means there’s another half of the acceptable size of the device that could easily hold things like umbrella databases.

AI is the next big play in mobile. As the processing power, bandwidth, and features like the camera and GPS get more powerful, it only makes sense that the phone will soon start living up to it’s “smart” designation.

Then it can check my workout app, count my calories for the week, and alert me that I can top them off with a special Wednesday-only meal deal at the Taco Bell I’m about to pass. And when I respond “Siri, let’s do this,” she’ll make sure it’s paid for and waiting for me when I walk in.

Utopia.

Right before they wipe us all out.

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for tech media startup Automated Insights (formerly StatSheet). He also owns consulting firm Intrepid Company and creative network Intrepid Media and runs the startup social ExitEvent. Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco (http://www.twitter.com/jproco) and read at http://joeprocopio.com.

 

Many bidders at penny auction sites spend lots to end up empty-handed

Friday, October 14th, 2011
Consumer Reports

An issue of Consumer Reports magazine

Have you ever been tempted to bid at one of those widely advertised online penny auction sites with the clocks ticking away on iPads, iPhones, and wide screen digital TVs? The deals look almost irresistible, with high end products going for pennies on the dollar. Uh huh. Don’t you believe it.

The discounts offered on online penny-auction sites might be tempting, but a new Consumer Reports investigation reveals that for all the people who click their way to an amazing deal, most end up spending a lot of cash only to end up empty handed.

Encouraged by TV and Web ads promising as much as 95 percent off of retail, swarms of people are signing up for the piece of auction action at sites like Bidcactus, Bid Rivals, HappyBidDay and QuiBids. These sites hawk items like an $1,800 high-definition television for $73 or a $15 store gift card for 28 cents.

Small chance of winning the amazing deal advertised

But actually winning a big-ticket item for pennies on the dollar from one of these sites can take an extraordinary amount of effort and is hardly a given.

“You could get a bargain, but generally, you stand a very small chance of winning the amazing deal they advertised,” said Tony Giorgianni, associate editor, Consumer Reports. “For everyone who gets an amazing deal, many others spend a lot of money only to be disappointed.

The full story, Penny-Auction Sites Offer the Thrill of the Bid,” will be available at www.ConsumerReports.org/cro/pennyauctions.

How they work
There are scores of penny-auction websites. The ones Consumer Reports investigated work and look pretty much the same, although the rules and costs differ. The sites typically run dozens of auctions at the same time, with items of different value, such as gifts, electronics, and appliances, all of which are offered by the site itself.

Like traditional auctions, participants bid on items, with each bid increasing the price. To bid, you click a bid button. Auctions are timed so when the clock runs out, the last and highest bidder wins the item at final price.

Often that price is ridiculously low. That’s because bidding starts at or near $0, and each bid raises by a fixed increment, usually just a penny or two. So an item that gets 1,000 bids in one-penny increments sells for $10, even if it would cost you hundreds or thousands at retail.

Bidding is not free

But unlike with traditional auctions, bidding isn’t free. You must buy bids up front—typically for 50 cents to $1 each. To get bids, you register a credit or debit card or use PayPal. Bids are sold in packs, with the minimum pack costing around $25 to $60, depending on the site. Unused bids are refundable on some sites though sometimes within only 30 days of when you buy them.

One key difference between traditional and penny auctions is that any bids you make are gone, whether or not you win. So if you’ve made, for example, 100 60-cent bids on a $2,000 computer but you aren’t the winner, you’re out $60.

If you wind up the winning bidder, you and only you would have the right to buy the computer for the winning price. So if the bidding ends at $14, the computer would cost you $74: the $14 plus the $60 you bid. If you lose, some sites give you the option of buying the item at a higher retail price, minus all or part of the amount you’ve bid. Not every site has this option.

Whether you’re buying a product at the winning price or at retail, you also have to pay for product shipping and handling, which varies by product and by site. Return policies also differ from site to site. BidCactus.com has only a seven-day return policy. And ArrowOutlet imposes a 15 percent restocking fee on some returns.

Bidder beware
Getting an auction deal appears simple enough: Just wait until the clock is about to run out, place your bid, and hope for the win. But it’s not that easy.

Lots of your fellow bidders will have the same plan, which is why a flurry of bids often comes in as the clocks winds down from it initial setting. And whenever someone bids, 15 to 30 seconds or so is added to the remaining time.

As a result, you never know when an auction will end, even if the clock has ticked down close to the last second. Participants often bid again and again, extending the auction sometimes by hours or even days.

That’s especially likely to happen for hot products such as iPads, big-screen TVs, and other electronic gadgets. Some bidders get so carried away that they’re determined to win no matter how many times they have to bid and how unreasonably high the price goes.

Complicating things further, many sites offer an automatic-bidding feature—names include Bid-O-Matic and BidRunner—that bid on your behalf until the price reaches a certain level.

So you can end up bidding not only against dozens of real-life bidders but also against a mindless, tireless computer, which won’t doze off in the wee hours of the night.

Sites usually limit how many items a participant can win within a given period, supposedly so others can have a chance. For example, among other win restrictions, QuiBids allows participants only three wins per account each day and 12 wins over 28 days.

Critics and happy customers alike say penny auctions amount to gambling. After all, you spend money with the hope of being the winning bidder at the end of the auction. But the websites reject the gambling label. The main reason, they argue, is that there’s no element of chance, as there would be when you play a state lottery, for example. They also say that you control how often you bid and when to stop.

Penny Auctions 101
If you decide to try your hand at penny auction, keep the following in mind:

  • Be prepared to lose whatever you bid or the bids you’ve purchased.
  • Bid only on sites that allow unlimited refunds of purchased bids, offer advice and tips, and have a buy-now feature that lets you apply all your losing bids towards a purchase.
  • Find legitimate sites by checking out user reviews. Look for a consensus among many reviewers instead of relying on just one or two posts, since Consumer Reports has seen one report of a sites’ paying or otherwise rewarding people for posting positive reviews.
  • Run a search with the name of the site you’re interested in with such words as “complaints” and “rip-off” to see what problems people might have had. Also get a report for a site from the Better Business Bureau, but don’t rely solely on the BBB’s letter grade. Read the entire report, paying special attention to the number and types of complaints and any government actions.

Windows Phone 7 Is definitely not a huge failure!

Monday, July 11th, 2011

By Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Microsoft, dammit, you had it right there in front of you. Your much-anticipated “for-real-this-time” entry into the mobile OS game that was going to make everyone forget about the Kin and go head-to-head with Droids and iPhones is now officially in the mainstream with Verizon’s entry, the HTC Trophy, and you never even once considered what could have been an enormous branding coup.

The MicroPhone.

You’re welcome.

Instead, we get Windows Phone 7. And this speaks directly to my problem with the Windows Mobile Strategy since they first figured out it’d be super sweet if the iPaq could make phone calls.

1)      All they’re doing is playing catch-up.

2)      They’re not sprinting.

Microsoft, I still love you. As a proud former Cassiopeia owner who still has a Windows laptop in a Mac shop even though it happens to have an untouched Vista partition because that was your advice to me when I couldn’t retrowrite it with XP – anyway,  I had high hopes for the MicroPhone, and I’m desperately trying to avoid jumping on the bashwagon, but I’m not seeing the mobile strategy equivalent of Halo.

Xbox Live Integration!

In 2011, Microsoft has two things going strongly for it. One, Macs are still expensive.  Two, the Xbox.

Everything about the Xbox is exponentially cooler than its competition. The Kinect is a terrible exercise in setup frustration that is rewarded with too few games, but it’s cool. I still can’t watch ESPN3 on my Time Warner Cable connected Xbox, but every time I see the logo on my dashboard, I can’t help but imagine how cool that’s going to be.

Work it out, jerks.

So it stands to reason that Xbox Live integration into the MicroPhone should be heralded as the coolest thing to happen to a phone since someone else’s voice came out of it.

But hold on. It’s Xbox Live.

When I do use Xbox Live on my console to play the occasional online game, it’s because I want to play a shooter or a sports game against someone other than the computer. I want to immerse myself in intricate playability, the unspeakably awesome graphics on my big-ass living room television, and the enhanced 6.1 Surround Sound cranking out of my speakers.

Online! Banking!

HTC Trophy phone

HTC Trophy smartphone

The mobile gaming experience is the polar opposite. If I want to play a game on my phone, it’s because I’m waiting in line at the bank. I don’t care about the graphics or the sound or even the depth of gameplay, as long as I can start and stop quickly and do it with one hand.

Which is pretty much the drill for everything you do with your mobile.

Microsoft brought the ages-old PC practice of cheap downloadable non-blockbuster games to the console, and in this they’ve had some hits. So instead of building around the Xbox Live brand to make the mobile gaming experience something unique, they just shoved Xbox Live games into the phone.

But in the mobile universe, WinMo7 is starting out already woefully behind iOS and Android in the app and gaming department, and the Xbox Live brand is just not enough to make Microsoft a mobile gaming contender out of the box.

I’m looking at my game selection right now, and I’m being steered towards Plants vs. Zombies and Angry at the Birds.

No, I typed that last one correctly.

It’s So Much More Than Games!

Every other aspect of the Xbox Live experience is pretty much the equivalent of what you’d expect from an iPhone or an Android phone. Or for that matter the MicroPhone itself. Xbox Live has Netflix. WinMo has a native Netflix app. Xbox Live has Facebook. WinMo has a native Facebook app.

Both have Zune, so there you go.

There’s the Xbox Live community, sure, but I’ll go ahead and admit that I have no friends. Wait. I have Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Google + and actual friends, but since those friends and I are rarely waiting in line at the bank at the same time, we’re probably not going to be mobile gaming together.

In fact, if we were in line at the bank at the same time, we’d probably just put our phones away and strike up a conversation.

Preemptive Comment Strike: I’m sure hardcore gamers can probably get a lot of use out of Xbox Live for MicroPhone, but are you guys really leaving your house that much? Aren’t you there right now?

MS Office in the Palm of Your Hand!

Well…

1)      Google Docs: I’m barely running Office on my laptop anymore. In fact, if it weren’t for all the time I spend in bars and movie theaters during work hours and the fact that I’m too cheap to spring for mobile wireless, I wouldn’t use Office at all.

2)      Tablets: It’s the size, not the software. A mobile phone is simply not an effective business device replacement. A tablet is.

3)      RIM: The convergence of the business mobile device and the personal mobile device has happened. When? A quick glance at RIMM’s stock chart shows it was 2/18/11.

Business functionality requires a small subset of features compared to personal. RIM aced the former and blew the latter. Again, Office isn’t enough of a brand to force a change from iOS or Android for business reasons and give up all the apps.

When I showed my kids Angry at the Birds, they looked at me like I gave them a Payday candy bar. Like… thanks?

Even Without Xbox Live and Office, It’s a Perfectly Adequate Phone!

And that leaves all the things that a mobile device is supposed to do. Camera? Check. GPS? You betcha. Email? Of course.

The MicroPhone does all of these. The presentation is beautiful, the navigation is a little shaky in terms of relearning menus (“pivots” scroll across the top). It rings when people call you.

The HTC handset is phenomenal, by the way, once more boosting my admiration of HTC products. (Editor’s note: we recently tested an HTC Windows 7 phone as well and also found the HTC handset an excellent piece of equipment and the Windows 7 operating system the easiest and most intuitive to use of all those we’ve tried.)

Like I said, I had high hopes for MicroPhone™. I’ve gone so far as to ask around hoping my own ignorance had kept  me from discovering that new new thing that way.

It may be there, but if it is, it’s down the road. Maybe with the Mango update later this year.

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for sports media startup StatSheet . He also owns consulting firm Intrepid Company and creative network Intrepid Media  and runs the startup social ExitEvent. Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco and read joeprocopio.com.

 

Nine skills required for great company leadership

Friday, April 29th, 2011
John Hamm

John Hamm

Do your employees trust you? The brutal truth is probably not. It may not be fair, and you may not want to hear it, but chances are that previous leaders have poisoned the ground on which you’re trying to grow a successful business.

Make no mistake: Unless you and all the leaders in your organization can gain the trust of your employees, performance will suffer. And considering how tough it is to survive in today’s business environment, that’s very bad news for your company.

Why is trust so pivotal? According to John Hamm, it’s a matter of human nature: When employees don’t trust their leaders, they don’t feel safe. And when they don’t feel safe, they don’t take risks—and where there is no risk taken, there is less innovation, less “going the extra mile,” and therefore, very little unexpected upside.

“Feeling safe is a primal human need,” says Hamm, author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, February 2011, ISBN: 978-0-47092843-1, $24.95, www.unusuallyexcellent.com). “When that need isn’t met, our natural response is to focus energy toward a showdown with the perceived threat.

“Our attention on whatever scares us increases until we either fight or run in the other direction, or until the threat diminishes on its own,” he adds. “Without trust, people respond with distraction, fear, and, at the extreme, paralysis. And that response is hidden inside ‘business’ behaviors—sandbagging quotas, hedging on stretch goals, and avoiding accountability or commitment.”

Hamm calls trustworthiness “the most noble and powerful of all the attributes of leadership.” He says leaders become trustworthy by building a track record of honesty, fairness, and integrity. For Hamm, cultivating this trust isn’t just a moral issue; it’s a practical one.

“Trust is the currency you will need when the time comes for you to make unreasonable performance demands on your teams,” he explains. “And when you’re in that tight spot, it’s quite possible that the level of willingness your employees have to meet those demands could make or break your company.”

Hamm has spent his career studying the practitioners of great leadership via his work as a CEO, venture capitalist, board member, high-level consultant, and professor of leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. In his new book, he shares what he has learned and brings those lessons to life with real-world stories.

In his book Hamm explains that most employees have been hurt or disappointed, at some point in their careers, by the hand of power in an organization. That’s why nine times out of ten leaders are in “negative trust territory” before they make their first request of an employee to do something. Before a team can reach its full potential, leaders must act in ways that transcend employees’ fears of organizational power.

The first step starts with you, Hamm notes. As a leader, you must “go first”—and model trustworthiness for everyone else. Being trustworthy creates trust, yes. But beyond that, there are very specific things you can do to provide Unusually Excellent, trust-building leadership at your organization:

First, realize that being trustworthy doesn’t mean you have to be a Boy Scout. You don’t even have to be a warm or kind person, says Hamm. On the contrary, history teaches us that some of the most trustworthy people can be harsh, tough, or socially awkward—but their promises must be inviolate and their decisions fair.

“As anachronistic as it may sound in the twenty-first century, men and women whose word is their honor, and who can be absolutely trusted to be fair, honest, and forthright, are more likely to command the respect of others than, say, the nicest guy in the room,” says Hamm. “You can be tough. You can be demanding. You can be authentically whoever you really are. But as long as you are fair, as long as you do what you say consistently, you will still be trusted.”

Look for chances to reveal some vulnerability. We trust people we believe are real and also human (imperfect and flawed)—just like us. And that usually means allowing others to get a glimpse of our personal vulnerability—some authentic (not fabricated) weakness or fear or raw emotion that allows others to see us as like them, and therefore relate to us at the human level.

Hamm offers Carl, a self-made success and CEO of a venture-backed software company, as a great example. Carl had a Ph.D. and held senior management positions at several large IT companies. But he came from a family with humble roots. In fact, he was the first kid in his family to go to college. The stories Carl used when leading his team came from his own rural upbringing.

He told them from the heart and with great humility. He would emphasize a point not by reference to some academic theory, but rather with a story about working in the corn fields. His team not only trusted him more because he wasn’t afraid to show that side of himself, but they loved him for it.

“Carl knew that if he was authentic, it would be much easier for him to earn his team’s trust,” says Hamm. “The best leaders consciously present themselves as accessible and open and vulnerable—that is, they talk about their fears, challenges, and failures with humility, candor, and at times even some humor—so as to break down the barriers with those whom they wish to know. They know this does not threaten their power, but, rather, increases their influence.”

No matter how tempted you are, don’t bullsh*t your employees. Tell the truth, match your actions with your words, and match those words with the truth we all see in the world: no spin, no BS, no fancy justifications or revisionist history—just tell the truth.

“Telling the truth when it is not convenient or popular, or when it will make you look bad, can be tough,” admits Hamm. “Yet, it’s essential to your reputation. Your task as a leader is to be as forthright and transparent as is realistically possible. Strive to disclose the maximum amount of information appropriate to the situation.

When you feel yourself starting to bend what you know is the truth or withhold the bare facts, find a way to stop, reformat your communication, and tell the truth.”

Never, ever make the “adulterer’s guarantee.” This happens when you say to an employee, in effect, “I just lied to (someone else), but you can trust me because I’d never lie to you.” When an employee sees you committing any act of dishonesty or two-facedness, they’ll assume that you’ll do the same to them. They’ll start thinking back through all of their conversations with you, wondering what was real and what was disingenuous.

In his book, Hamm describes an incident that took place at a famous, fast-growing technology company. A young, inexperienced, but talented associate had what he thought was a plan for a powerful new marketing initiative. So he asked the CMO to broker a meeting with the CEO to make a presentation on the subject. The CMO agreed, and the meeting took place.

During the presentation the CEO was polite, if noncommittal. He gave the presenter a sort of passive accepting feedback—“Nice point,” “Interesting,” and so on—and wrapped up the meeting quickly, thanking the presenter for his initiative. But the CMO could sense a duplicity in the CEO’s behavior and attitude as the parties all headed back to their respective offices.

Then, ten minutes after the meeting, the CEO called the CMO into his office and said, in essence, “That presentation was absolutely terrible. That guy’s an idiot. I want you to fire him, today.”

“The story of this harsh and unjust firing spread (as it always does) throughout the company, morale slipped, and the CMO never completely trusted his boss again,” writes Hamm. “The CEO’s reputation for trustworthiness had been wounded forever. The wreckage from one seemingly small act of dishonesty was strewn all over the company and could never be completely cleaned up.”

Don’t punish “good failures.” This is one of the stupidest things an organization can do—yet it happens all the time. A “good failure” is a term used in Silicon Valley to describe a new business start-up or mature company initiative that, by most measures, is well planned, well run, and well organized—yet for reasons beyond its control (an unexpected competitive product, a change in the market or economy) it fails.

In other words, “good failures” occur when you play well, but still lose. When they’re punished, you instill a fear of risk-taking in your employees, and with that you stifle creativity and innovation. Instead, says Hamm, you should strive to create a “digital camera” culture.

“There is no expense associated with an imperfect digital photograph—financial or otherwise,” he explains. “You just hit the ‘delete’ button, and it disappears. No wasted film, slides, or prints. And we are aware of this relationship between mistakes and the consequences when we pick up the camera—so we click away, taking many more photos digitally than we would have in a world of costly film.

Because we know failure is free, we take chances, and in that effort we often get that one amazing picture that we wouldn’t have if we were paying a price for all the mistakes.”

Don’t squelch the flow of “bad” news. Do you (or others under you) shoot the messenger when she brings you bad news? If so, you can be certain that the messenger’s priority is not bringing you the information you need: It’s protecting her own hide. That’s why in most organizations good news zooms to the top of the organization, while bad news—data that reveals goals missed, problems lurking, or feedback that challenges or defeats your strategy—flows uphill like molasses in January.

“We must install a confidence and a trust that leaders in the organization value the facts, the truth, and the speed of delivery, not the judgments or interpretations of ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and that messengers are valued, not shot,” says Hamm. “Make it crystal clear to your employees that you expect the truth and nothing but the truth from them. And always, always hold up your end of that deal. Don’t ever shoot the messenger and don’t ever dole out some irrational consequence.

“Unusually excellent leaders build a primary and insatiable demand for the unvarnished facts, the raw data, the actual measurements, the honest feedback, the real information,” he adds. “Very few efforts will yield the payback associated with improving the speed and accuracy of the information you need most to make difficult or complex decisions.”

Constantly tap into your “fairness conscience.” Precise agreements about what is fair are hard to negotiate, because each of us has our own sense of fairness. But at the level of general principle, there is seldom any confusion about what fair looks like. Just ask yourself: Would most people see this as fair or unfair? You’ll know the answer (indeed, as a leader, you’re paid to know it).

“If you treat your followers fairly, and do so consistently, you will set a pattern of behavior for the entire organization,” says Hamm. “This sense of fairness, critical to the creation of a safe environment, can be reinforced not only by complimenting fair practices but also by privately speaking to—or if necessary, censuring—subordinates who behave unfairly to others in the organization.”

Don’t take shortcuts. Every organization wants to succeed. That’s why, inevitably, there is a constant pressure to let the end justify the means. This pressure becomes especially acute when either victory or failure is in immediate sight. That’s when the usual ethical and moral constraints are sometimes abandoned—always for good reasons, and always “just this once”—in the name of expediency.

“Sometimes this strategy even works,” says Hamm. “But it sets the precedent for repeatedly using these tactics at critical moments—not to mention a kind of ‘mission creep’ by which corner-cutting begins to invade operations even when they aren’t at a critical crossroads.”

Plus, when employees see you breaking the “code” of organizational honor and integrity to which your company is supposed to adhere, they lose trust in you.

“Betray your organization’s stated values when you’re feeling desperate—by lying to clients or ‘spinning’ the numbers to get out of trouble with your boss—and you devalue the importance of trust and honesty in their eyes,” adds Hamm. “They see you breaking your own rules and suddenly they see you as less trustworthy. After all, if the client or the company’s executive suite can’t trust you, why should they?”

Separate the bad apples from the apples who just need a little direction. The cost of untruths to an organization can be huge in terms of time, money, trust, and reputation. As a leader, you have to recognize that you are not going to be able to “fix” a thief, a pathological liar, or a professional con artist—all of these must go, immediately.

“In my coaching practice, there are three failure modes that I will decline to coach: integrity, commitment, and chronic selfishness, that is, manipulating outcomes for individual gain at the expense of the larger opportunity,” says Hamm. “These are character traits, not matters of skill, practice, knowledge, or experience.

“That said, one huge mistake leaders make is to doubt or distrust someone because their work or performance disappoints us,” he adds. “Performance problems should be managed fairly and with little judgment of the person’s underlying character, unless that is the issue at the root of the trouble. Ultimately, unlike my failure modes, improving performance is often merely a matter of feedback, course correction, and some coaching.”

“Trustworthiness is never entirely pure,” says Hamm. “Everyone fails to achieve perfection. So the goal for a leader is to make those wrong choices as rarely as possible; admit them quickly, completely, and with humility; fix them as quickly as you can; and make full recompense when you cannot. Trust is the most powerful, and most fragile, asset in an organization, and it is almost exclusively created, or hampered, by the actions of the senior leader on the team.

“A working environment of trust is a place where teams stay focused, give their utmost effort, and in the end do their best work,” he concludes. “It’s a place where we can trust ourselves, trust others, trust our surroundings, or—best of all—trust all three.”


John Hamm is one of the top leadership experts in Silicon Valley. He was named one of the country’s Top 100 venture capitalists in 2009 by AlwaysOn and has led investments in many successful high-growth companies as a partner at several Bay Area VC firms. Hamm has also been a CEO, a board member at over thirty companies, and a CEO adviser and executive coach to senior leaders at companies such as Documentum, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, TaylorMade-adidas Golf and McAfee. John teaches leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University.

 

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Xoom vs. iPad2: The Final Battle

Monday, April 4th, 2011
Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

By Joe Procopio

Ian Meyer is an iOS architect and consultant. He is an expert in all things Apple and a former genius (currently just “clever”). Ian be reached on Twitter @frijole

JP: First of all, why don’t you tell the readers a little bit about yourself, and how you came to be a religious zealot at the altar of Microsoft. Sorry, I mean Apple, I’ve been getting them confused lately.

IM: I’ve been having fun with Apple gadgets since Android was just a Blackberry-killer. Since then, the iPad came out and Android morphed into a fullscreen platform, but still can’t get over those button-loving roots.

JP: So we’re looking at the iPad2 and the Xoom today, side by side. I’ll  let you go first. What’s the main reason the iPad won’t lose as much market share to the Android tablet as the iPhone has lost to the Android phone?

IM: Nobody who wants to get an iPhone is happy with an Android, and nobody who wants to get an iPad is going to be happy with anything else. I mean, have you noticed how all the iPad competitors look like iPads? What does the Xoom look like?

JP: An iPad.

IM: Exactly.

JP: But that’s on purpose.

IM: Right. Motorola knows people want the iPad, they’re just hoping they won’t notice they got something else instead.

iPad2

iPad2

JP: So you’re saying that when people notice that the Xoom outspecs the iPad2 in every entertainment aspect, including screen size, resolution, audio, and camera, they’ll weep with tears of sadness?

IM: Ultimately, what’s all that good for? How does it improve my life? I believe that if they spent less time worrying about hardware and more time worrying about software, the experience wouldn’t suck so much.

JP: So you’re saying it’s all about the apps. The device is immaterial?  I guess the iPad could have just been the Newton 2 in that case.

IM: There are still things I can do on my Newton that you can’t do on your Xoom.

JP: You’re right. I didn’t get the model with the stylus. However, that kind of illustrates my point, if I have to have one. And that’s that Apple pretty much reinvented and thus saved the concept of the tablet by educating the user on what it was supposed to be used for.

IM: You’re welcome.

xoom

Motorolla's Xoom

JP: But that’s done. Now the race is on to make the better product. And here it is. The Xoom is more than a warning shot, it blew a big hole in the boat. Is Apple going to re-do the 90s and keep everything closed to the point where they lose market share and have to fire Steve Jobs again?

IM: You mean it blew a hole like the holes those Android Market apps created in your personal information when they were stealing it? I saw a post for an Android app that will fight back against apps that steal your data. That’s awesome for you guys. I like not having to worry about that.

JP: I like being able install what I want, not what Steve tells me to.

IM: In that sense, the Android model just emulates the PC model. Anyone can create and upload apps for the Xoom. Great. Where’s the pressure to make a great piece of software? That approval process is a black cloud, yeah, but if developers create something that gets past that process, the chances are better that it will succeed.

JP: I’ve got three responses to that. 1) Yes. I totally agree that there’s never been a terrible app released to iTunes. 2) I’ve got firsthand experience that the almighty process is just slightly more than arbitrary. 3) I was actually going to say that the process is “capricious,” but that sounds like something an Apple guy would say.

IM: In that, Android is doomed to be the NC State to Apple’s UNC.

JP: Step back, Ian.

IM: Android’s customers aren’t users. Their customers are the carriers, the manufacturers and most of all, the advertisers. That’s what Google optimizes for. Let’s face it. Your phone comes from the world’s biggest advertising company.

JP: And my coffee comes from Starbucks. In the end, it comes down to the viability of the product and the experience. What happens when all these developers are creating perfect apps for a device that got left behind like Kirk Cameron?

IM: Kirk who?

JP: The 1980s. Growing Pains. Bad movies. It doesn’t matter.

IM:  There’s no question that the Xoom is competition, and probably the first serious competition. But there was competition with the iPhone and the Android phone too. And ultimately it was a good thing. I mean, you guys try so hard. It’s hard to root against you. But what are you competing for? Is it the user or is it the ad dollars?

JP: Why can’t it be both? And also, are iAds just little friendly reminders for those things you might need but aren’t thinking about right now?

IM: Well, we’re not morons, there’s a whole industry being built around these apps and advertising, and the ad side came out of the competition with Android.

JP: So wait, you know I’m not a huge fan of the term “iPhone/iPad killer.”

IM: And I actually went to NC State!

JP: Yeah. Android is the underdog in this fight in an odd Goliath versus Goliath way. The Xoom, more specifically the Xoom as the first successful instantiation of Android’s Honeycomb on the market, is the alternative. The battle lines are drawn,  but maybe this kind of bullheaded pigfighting could actually be good for both platforms?

IM: No! Wait. Maybe. It might just be a mirror of the battle around the Mac. The PC was never intended to be a Mac killer, but it was supposed to be more useful.

JP: But… you can’t deny that the Mac was set up to be a PC killer. 1984. Superbowl. Hammers. Lemmings.

IM: Ouch.

JP: Yeah, and ultimately Apple lost that battle. But… it was lose/lose because the user also lost that battle some 15 or so years later. Exhibit A: Windows ME.

IM: (uncontrollable laughter)

JP: I’m not going to lie to you. That’s when I got off the bus. But the first battle didn’t force one company to innovate against the other, they wound up innovating in two totally different directions and were marketed to two totally segmented and opposite groups.

IM: I’m Justin Long. You’re John Hodgman.

JP: Step back, Ian! But couldn’t we learn from those mistakes?

IM: Yeah. I’ve been messing with the Xoom while we’ve been talking and there are a lot of things I like. Notifications are awesome. Search integration with the web. But it still feels like a 1.0 release. Honeycomb has some cool stuff, but it doesn’t feel… finished.

JP: I get that. And that’s what I want. I want openness and access, and frankly, that’s not hard to do and it was evident even with the first of the Samsung tablets. But I also want it to deliver the finished experience that Apple puts so much detail into. The Xoom feels like that.

IM: Somewhat.

JP: Morewhat. Look, as Android embraces the reinvention of the tablet, polishes it, adds sheer processing power, specs, app integration, and the open nature of the Android market, it raises the bar for Apple to innovate…

IM: And if that causes the iPad 3 to blow the doors off …

JP: The bar is RE-raised for Android. We, you and me, Apple and Android, Justin Long and… who could be the Google guy?

IM: Zach Galifianakis! He went to NC State!

JP: Long and Zach could be friends.

IM: We could stop all this mindless Android vs. iOS garbage.

JP: Everyone wins!

IM: We’re going to Disneyworld!

JP: Yes! Can I borrow your iPad?

IM: No.

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for sports media startup StatSheet . He also owns startup consulting firm Intrepid Company and creative network Intrepid Media . Joe and Ian just proved that any, ANY disagreement can be solved over good IPA. Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco.

 

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6 keys to recovery after a customer service fail

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

And the clients went wildIt’s 8 a.m. and you’re in an upscale hotel in Times Square—part of a well-known chain you regularly frequent—getting ready for a crucial business meeting. As you turn on your hairdryer, the power goes out. A bit nervous but not yet panicked (it’s just a blown fuse, after all), you call the “At Your Service” number and hear “Someone is on the way.”

Fifteen minutes pass. Then twenty. All you can think about is the hotel’s constantly looping “At Your Service” video assuring you staff will get you anything you need, anytime, anywhere. Your meeting is drawing closer, and your hair still hangs in wet strings. Twice more you call, anxiety turning to anger, both times getting the same (evidently canned) response from the “service” person. (Once she even asks, “What do you want me to do about it?”)

Finally, the power comes back on, followed by a knock on the door. It’s the maintenance man explaining that it wasn’t his fault but the front desk’s and making excuses about what went wrong internally. At no time does anyone acknowledge your inconvenience—or apologize for taking thirty-five minutes for what should have been a five-minute fix.

“This customer service nightmare was experienced by a business associate of mine,” says Maribeth Kuzmeski, author of the new book …And the Clients Went Wild! How Savvy Professionals Win All the Business They Want (Wiley, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-60176-1, $24.95, and The Connectors: How the World’s Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-48818-8, $22.95.

“It follows the arc of the many customer service breakdowns that came before it,” she adds. “One thing goes wrong, and then because a service recovery plan isn’t completely understood by a business’s entire staff, everything snowballs. The end result is an angry customer who vows never to return—and who may decide to share her anger with countless others with just the click of a mouse.”

According to Kuzmeski, many companies spend tons of money and time on big customer service initiatives in order to woo new customers—but they end up losing their regular customers over little things.

“Customer relationships are made or broken when something goes wrong,” she asserts. “If you don’t have well-developed service recovery techniques in place, you’ll lose the customer every time.”

Below Kuzmeski explains what the hotel staff should have done and offers service recovery advice every business can use:

Learn to recognize (and truly understand) your customer’s situation. Provide an individual care approach for your customers. For example, someone with children will have very different concerns from a busy businessperson and vice versa. Therefore, you must train your customer service people to recognize these key differences and adjust their responses accordingly.

“Teach service employees to understand the context of a situation and to sympathize with customers,” says Kuzmeski. “At this New York hotel, the ‘At Your Service’ rep simply said, ‘Someone is on the way.’ When the problem still hadn’t been fixed after almost thirty minutes, it became clear that she didn’t understand that guests getting ready at 8 a.m. are probably in a bit of a time crunch. Otherwise, she would have put in more effort to reach the maintenance man more quickly.”

Make sure what you’re saying is happening really is happening. In other words, customer service is a lot more than just reciting a “Someone is on the way” script.

“When the hotel guest made the second call, it’s very likely the front desk representative didn’t actually check to see where the maintenance man was,” says Kuzmeski. “By simply taking the time to locate him, not only would she have gotten the guest the service she needed more quickly, but she would have been handling the problem in a way that helped to build goodwill with the guest rather than just more headaches.”

Be very specific about how the problem will be handled. When handling a customer service issue, let the customer know what is going to happen and when it is going to happen. The more information a customer has, the less anxious she feels.

“The front desk representative could have said, ‘Someone is on the way. We will have your power back on in ten minutes,’” Kuzmeski explains. “That way the guest would have had a timeframe for when she could expect to be back in business. At the ten-minute mark, the employee should have then called the room to make sure the power was back on. Then, even if it wasn’t, her guest would at least know she hadn’t been forgotten.”

Anytime you receive complaint #2, treat it like an emergency. Most people are fairly forgiving after one mistake—assuming you address it promptly. But when you get a second complaint, well, it’s time to go into emergency mode. At that point there’s no room for further delay or error. If you want to keep your customer, you must make sure the problem is taken care of immediately.

“At her hotel, my business associate had to call the customer service rep three times before the power came back on,” says Kuzmeski. “And in a customer service situation, the third time is not the charm. At that point, a problem that could have easily been solved has turned into a service recovery nightmare. Unfortunately, for the hotel, it doesn’t seem like anyone understood that.”

Make sure the service brand permeates from top to bottom. The New York hotel in the anecdote is part of a larger chain, which has a rewards program for repeat customers.

When the guest called to complain, the rewards people naturally asked why. When she explained what had happened, they really seemed to get it. They understood the inconvenience and tried to make it up to her by offering additional rewards points.

“This hotel chain spent a lot of money on a special commercial touting its ‘At Your Service’ program, but when it came down to it, they hadn’t properly trained their onsite staff,” says Kuzmeski. “Essentially, the rewards program department was functioning as one company, the front desk person as a separate company, and the maintenance man as yet another company.

“The moral is clear,” she adds. “Don’t allow employees to silo your company. Make sure that everyone understands the customer service plan and that everyone knows how to work together to solve customer problems.”

Don’t assume your customers will give you a second chance. Think about it this way: If a customer has taken the time to call you about a problem, you are already getting lucky, so you’d better take care of it immediately. You don’t always get a chance to make it right. Often, customers will just move on.

“Remember, your competition is constantly trying to sell the same product cheaper, faster, and better than you,” says Kuzmeski. “Don’t make it any easier for them by providing inadequate customer service. In this case, the hotel had three chances to salvage the relationship—and struck out all three times. Now my associate has said she’ll take her business elsewhere. By completely mishandling a problem that could have been easily fixed, the hotel lost a very loyal client.”

And here’s the real concern: In an age of social media, it takes only one dissatisfied customer to create a PR disaster for a company. In fact, lately several national stories have cropped up featuring blogs and YouTube videos that customers have created for the sole purpose of sharing their tales of bad service with the world.

“The internet has really amplified the customer’s voice,” notes Kuzmeski. “It’s increased her power exponentially. If someone were to ‘go viral’ with a negative story about your company, you might lose a lot more than one customer. It pays to do everything possible to make sure you have a strong service recovery plan in place.

“Remember, you can absolutely keep and create loyal customers in today’s economy, but you have to have the service chops to take care of them,” she concludes. “Make your customers and your relationships with them a priority—always! When you do so, you can create clients for life and guarantee the success of your business.”

Venture capital investor offers a new handbook for entrepreneurs

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

StartupBookCoverWith nearly 20 percent of the country out of a job, take the road less traveled: start a company. “Startup: The Complete Handbook for Launching a Company for Less,” is a new book that shows entrepreneurs how to start a business on a shoestring budget.

Edwards has written a modern textbook for entrepreneurship, covering all aspects of starting a business. In concise, plain English, “Startup” explains the finer points of branding, advertising, venture funding, grants, SBA loans, patents and business law.

Part manual, part manifesto, the nearly 400-page handbook is packed full of templates, do-it-yourself tools, and proven strategies for bootstrapping.

“I heartily recommend this book,” says Bill Payne, founding member of the Angel Capital Association, Tech Coast Angels, and an Entrepreneur In Residence at the Kauffman Foundation. “Elizabeth does a great job of explaining how to start your company for less – and why it costs less to start companies today than ever before. She offers great tips on personal finance and provides a detailed listing of sources of capital for startups,” says Payne.

“Startup” tackles both strategy and tactics – discussing high-level business strategy concepts and illustrating back-of-the-napkin calculations to help entrepreneurs make good decisions. Edwards offers three tests for feasibility (to minimize risk), 14 creative ways to finance a startup, and a formulaic approach to marketing (to grow revenue). The book also outlines a $20,000 personal financial makeover and tips for getting individual health insurance.

“On average, entrepreneurs are six times wealthier than their employed peers, so we know that the risk and the effort pays off. But most startups – and even mature businesses – are challenged with how to create a profitable business model, conserve cash, and get operational fast. That’s the focus of this book,” says Edwards.

“Most startup books are either not comprehensive or simply outdated, given the rapid change we’ve seen in the startup landscape in recent years. This is more than a guide; it’s a startup bible,” says Michael Cerda, VP of Technology at MySpace, former Entrepreneur in Residence at Venrock, and author of Cerdafied.

The book is available on Amazon.com, www.elizabethedwards.com, on the Kindle, and will debut in major bookstores in the spring.

Elizabeth Edwards serves on the board of the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association and teaches at Xavier University. She has been featured in more than 50 media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and BoingBoing, and is a popular speaker at universities and conferences. Follow Edwards on Twitter @eedwards.

Preparing for the cloud lifestyle with the Google Chrome Cr-48 laptop

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

By Joe Procopio

RESEARCH TRIANGLE, NC – In a lot of the first impressions I create, I’d say too many, I get pegged as a writer. This is OK, I suppose, but I’m more techie than writer, as anyone who has read me can attest to. As a writer, I’m just a guy who can crack jokes and use spellcheck. As a techie, I go way back. Powerbuilder back. Compuserve back. Sony Walkman back.

But you know what? That’s OK. I’ll take the underestimation (or overestimation, depending on which circles you travel in), as long as it gets me in the door. Or gets me a free laptop. 

See, as a writer, I kinda sorta write reviews of technical things like gadgets, conferences, and cargo style khaki pants. But these are not your typical reviews with stars and grades and pros and cons and suggested retail prices. There’s a whole industry for that and they do it well.

I like to be a bit more immersive.

Free Nerd Toys! 

I used to get stuff sent to me all the time – cameras, GPS systems, interns – and I’ve even done a couple of half-hearted “real” reviews that you can probably find if you search for them (don’t search for them).

But honestly. What am I going to tell you that doesn’t sound like advertising copy?

“The HP XR451 Dual Reverse Osmosis Touchscreen Bluetooth Device will change the way the world thinks about the stylus!”

Yeah.

The only other avenue, especially if I’m going to, you know, do the writing part of the writing, is to smack the product around and squeeze out jokes at the expense of the manufacturer.

“Smooth move, Xerox!”

But that gets old real quick.

Anyway, a while back I decided if I was going to review something, I’d have to do three things. 1) Make the thing a part of my day-to-day life 2) Use it for a while and 3) Write a piece that puts the thing in context either culturally or in business.

So far, so good. Sure, not everybody (APPLE) wants to play along. And because of the economy, manufacturers don’t send as many devices out, but they invite you to webinars where you can watch someone else play with the whatever-it-is and take notes. I’ve never done this, but it seems incredibly lame, like reviewing a movie by listening to one of your drunk friends describe the plot in a loud bar.

I feel like the ones who get the point get a return in the form of a public, real-world use of their product, documented for their target demographic.

And if the product can’t stand up to that, then they should probably just list the suggested retail price and put out a press release with a bunch of good advertising copy.

The Death of Insert Technology Here

I’ve got two PCs at home that are dying, and as I debated Lenovo vs. Dell and Windows vs. Mac and hard drive space and RAM and eyeball scanners, I had an epiphany.

Can’t I just do that cloud deal?

Which, in geek speak, is: Can I shift from the traditional PC/OS/Local Application structure of personal computing to the Cloud/Device/Web App paradigm?

I know. I know. If it’s any consolation, in the same week, I was also thinking about football, muscle cars, and I invented a new way to party.

And also, I know some of you are doing this already. You’re cooler than me, OK?

To clarify, the question isn’t “Will I shift” to the cloud and web apps, because that’s just plain going to happen. I want to know “can I shift” as in now, before the hard drives on these PCs spin themselves into dust.

One is a Pentium III. The other one isn’t as new.

A Hard Drive Free Household

As I’ve mentioned before, the laptop got us away from the PCs on our desks, the smartphone allowed us to leave the laptop in the office for brief stints, and the tablet turns those brief stints into larger stints, even whole days.

So the next obvious questions is: How long before we don’t need hard drives at all?

This is a question with a long tail, one that would take some serious investigation and trial and error.

And then, like a visit from Santa Geek, Google shipped me the Chrome Cr-48 laptop, which arrived on Christmas Eve.

The Longest Review Ever

The Cr-48 is a laptop with the Google Chrome OS, which boots directly into the web. If you can’t reach the Internet, the thing is nearly useless. But the beta program under which I received the laptop also offers discounted Verizon access. So you can essentially be on all the time.

After that, it’s all browser. You do everything through the web – Gmail, Docs, Apps, everything. And all the data stays in the cloud.

So that became the impetus for what will be a year-long look (or until it becomes ridiculously boring) at the personal move to the cloud.

In my next column on the subject (I’ve got other things to write about in between, like Launchbox’s Demo Day, Southern Capitol Ventures’ Entrepreneur Breakfasts, and why they still can’t get TRON toys right), we’ll start with the Cr-48. Is it the next step, or is it just a head fake, an unnecessary device caught between tablet and laptop?

Joe Procopio owns consulting firm Intrepid Company (intrepidcompany.com), creative network Intrepid Media (intrepidmedia.com), and heads up product engineering for startup StatSheet (statsheet.com). He’d like to point out that he’ll still pretty much accept a free anything. He can be reached via twitter @jproco.

Review: Kindle still a good bet to win the e-reader wars

Friday, December 24th, 2010

KindleBy Allan Maurer

DURHAM, NC – I love my new wireless Kindle. It has a few drawbacks, like most digital devices, but by and large, if you’re a reader, sooner or later you’ll be buying an e-reader, and you could do worse than a Kindle.

The electronic “ink” technology is as easy to read—usually—as ink on paper. You occasionally need to adjust the way you hold it to eliminate minor—and I emphasize—minor glare. It doesn’t have back lighting, so you’ll need a clip on digital light if you plan to read it in the dark.

But because the device does not need any power to keep the page live while you read and lacks that back light, its battery lasts what seems like forever. I’ve gone a week without recharging and never got close to exhausting the battery.

It’s capacity—text does not take up much space—is enough to hold up to 3500 books. Mine has 270 digital books, including some hefty reference books, and has only used one-third of its 3 gig memory.

The six-inch size is too large to drop in a shirt or pants pocket, but drops into extra storage areas in most attaché cases and messenger bags. Google sells a leather case with a built in light that seems pricey at $50. I used an old automobile manual cover that fit it perfectly and protects it with a padded cover.

The wireless worked perfectly the first time and the only problem I had was that it dropped its wireless connection and then features—such as the one that keeps what you’re reading on top in the home page—stopped working. I called Amazon, which had me install updated firmware, but that didn’t help. Then, an online search took me to a Kindle blog post on the topic. Others had experienced a similar problem. It recommended unplugging my router and then plugging it in again, which I did.

Problem solved.

Includes browser and audio feature

Using the wireless browser, which is labeled experimental, can be a little awkward until you master moving around and typing in urls. But it worked instantly everywhere I tried it, from my home network to a McDonalds. Now when I go out for breakfast or lunch, I’ve got the New York Times, Washington Post, Raleigh News & Observer, TechJournal South or any other site right at my finger tips without needing to haul my netbook or pocket PC along.

It will also read books aloud, although I’m not crazy about the electronic voice, despite efforts to make it sound more human. You can chose a female or male reading voice. The audio is another “experimental” feature and my guess is that it will get better on future versions.

I love that the Kindle automatically opens to where I was last reading in a book. Not needing to hunt for bookmarks or guiltily dogear pages is a small but valuable feature. One thing I do not like is that navigating to deep chapters in books placed on the Kindle from other sources that the Kindle app (which is MobiPocket) is difficult.

The MobiPocket app on my Pocket PC lets me move around via the bar at the bottom, but that appears to be inactive in the Kindle, which has no touch screen features. Basically, that means if you upload a word or text doc to your Kindle, the only way to get to the back of the book is to click through page by page.

Lacks color

Other e-readers are offering color screens, but I don’t miss color on the Kindle. While I’m glad to have the web browser, I don’t plan on using it to do anything except read news and so on. While the lack of color isn’t important to me. It might be to some.

But to get color, you’re back to needing that LED screen, at least so far. If I want to read on an LED screen, I’ll use my netbook (and indeed, have read books on that, my pocket PC, and my regular computer screen). But after working with an LED screen all day and using one for other purposes as well most evenings, I really enjoy the low eye strain of reading on a Kindle.

The navigation controls, while not entirely ideal, are not so much trouble that they bother me and as I’ve gained experience using them, I barely notice their occasional short-comings. It allows you to place your ebooks in collections, a useful feature if you have as many as I do. It also lists all the titles you opened most recently if you prefer. I generally use that option.

Another experimental feature, the voice reader, a male or female electronic voice, is still a bit cold and unnatural sounding to me to use it with much pleasure, but nevertheless came in handy when I was riding in a car at night and didn’t have my LED light with me.

The ability to define any word easily and quickly while reading, to clip segments or make notes and save them to a My Clips file, is particularly useful to a student, writer, teacher or anyone else to whom reading is both necessary for work as well as pleasure.

I’ve bought several books and subscribed to a magazine and a blog, and Amazon delivers a new purchase in seconds. Amazon’s sample feature allows you to read a significant portion of a book—a couple of substantial chapters—before buying it. I’ve used that feature repeatedly. Once, the sample gave me everything I really wanted from a rare book that would cost $80 to buy. Several other times, I was sufficiently hooked to buy books I sampled.

One real plus with all e-readers that will allow you to put text, MS Word, and pdf files on your device, as Amazon does, is that you can now obtain a massive collection of fiction and nonfiction classics for free from the Gutenberg Project and other sources online, including Amazon itself and Google books. Here’s another place for classics that also has a nice selection of modern thrillers, mysteries and sci-fi that’s out of copyright: Munseys.

The Kindle software, essentially identical to Mobipockets, can also be used on a PC and assorted other mobile devices.

Amazon grumbles

I’ve heard some rumblings in the digital community about Amazon’s digital rights policies and their pressure on publishers to keep best seller prices under $10 for digital editions, but my guess is that Amazon is so much the dominant book seller now, it will continue to be a dominant player in the e-reader market, not something I’m as comfortable saying about the Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony’s entry or other devices.

The NOOK also uses E-Ink technology and allows you to lend the books you buy. I read recently that someone even downloaded the mobile game “Angry Birds” and played on a color Nook. From what I’ve read and heard, it’s likely to be a strong player, especially now that it offers competitive pricing (with the least expensive model only $149. Although you have to be concerned about the state of Borders’ survival, considering its financial difficulties, lately.

While those other readers offer some enhanced features and clearly have their fans, I’d bet money that the Kindle stays right up there in the e-reader wars.

Azio wireless mini-keyboard controls PC multi-media up to 30 feet away

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010
Azio

The Azio Wireless Mini Keyboard with Trackball

By Allan Maurer

RESEARCH TRIANGLE, NC – Do you connect your laptop or another computer to your TV or multi-media center? Or perhaps you do some work on your laptop in your living room? Either way, the Azio Wireless Mini Keyboard with Trackball (AZIO KB351RT) really comes in handy.

Connecting a computer to a TV is a fairly simple operation on most, if not all flatscreen models. You use the same cord you use to connect a monitor to a PC, navigate via the TV controller to the PC screen, and you can treat it like a second monitor or play movies on the TV from the computer (although you may need to hook up better speakers than the internal ones on most laptops if you want decent sound).

The Azio Wireless keyboard connects to your computer via a thumbnail-sized USB radio transmitter. A plug and play device, it works with Windows XP and MAC OS X or later. Mine worked exactly as advertised. I plugged it in, my laptop loaded the software and I used it within

The keyboard is about 11 inches wide and 3 and 3/4 inches tall. It’s unbelievably light – lighter than TV remote controls and a bit smaller than most laptop keyboards, but very responsive. The Trackball is easy to use, although the right-left mouse button keys on the upper left of the keyboard take some getting used to if you’re right-handed. I like it much better than using touchpads on laptops.

The big plus for using it with multi-media applications is that you can easily carry anywhere in the room (up to 30 feet) and control a movie streaming from netflix or music from Pandora without needing to sit at your laptop.

The feeling of freedom it gave me reminded me of when I first started using wireless phones.

I also work on my laptop frequently. Home networks make that much easier to do nowadays too, but sitting in on the edge of an easy chair and  bending over a laptop is not a good ergonomic position. Putting the Azio mini keyboard on my lapdesk and sitting back comfortably reduces the strain on wrists, arms, and back considerably.

For multi-media use, I’m thinking about parking my spare laptop right next to the TV and using the Azio to control it, which among other things, will mean I don’t have to stretch the VGA cable across the floor to the laptop, which requires some fancy stepping once its hooked up in my living room now.

When I first used it I neglected to read one section of the directions and couldn’t understand why it was typing “0″ when I hit “m.” Fixing it only required hitting the number lock key – which transforms part of the keyboard into a numeric pad. I think I’ll likely stick to a standard calculator app if I need to do any number crunching though. It doesn’t seem well suited to that.

It does have some other differences from a standard keyboard layout, but they’re minor. Typing on it is silent and reasonably comfortable for such a small form factor.

It also has seven embedded multimedia keys, back track, next track, play/pause, stop, volume up, down or mute, which increase its utility as a multi-media control device.

It sells for $69.99, which is pricey, but it doesn’t seem out of line with other mini keyboards I looked at.

This is the kind of purchase where your need for it probably determines its value. A full-sized wireless keyboard you can sit on your lap might be a better work-in-the-living room-option if you’re going to do it a lot. But full-sized keyboards are heavy and bulky compared to this Azio model. Personally, I find it really useful for both work and play.

Email TJS Editor Allan Maurer: Allan at TechJournalSouth dot com.

Internet radio ends signal chasing, offers global variety

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

By Allan Maurer

Squeezebox Radio

The Logitech Squeezebox radio

DURHAM, NC – I finally bought a standalone table top Internet Radio. I picked up a morning, evening and late night NPR habit years ago, and have been signal chasing local NPR FM signals on conventional radios indoors ever since. No more.

Most NPR stations are easy to pull in on a car radio on highways, which is where the majority of people listen. Pulling them in elsewhere can be dicey. In my condo in North Durham, you need the hands of a safe cracker to dial in any of the three NPR stations near each other on a conventional radio. I almost always had static or interference tuning when listening early in the morning or late at night at home.

Now WUNC, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill NPR station broadcasting from the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, NC, comes in perfectly clear on a digital signal every time I press the power button on my Logitech Squeezebox Internet radio.

Shop before you buy

I’m not sure I bought the best Internet radio available. The Squeezebox model, which seems to be the one most widely sold in brick and mortar retail stores- sells list for $179, which is what I paid unfortunately. It’s available from other sellers online and in stores for about $149. This is the first time TigerDirect (Comp USA) let me down. It’s store prices are usually comparable to the best Internet prices.

The Squeezebox also has drawbacks that I don’t mind as much as some might. It has a single speaker system with separate woofer and tweeter elements so the sound is rich and full. You can get full stereo from the headphones or plug in speakers. It connects to your home Wifi system when you turn it on the same way a computer does.

It only has six presets, but you can add favorites to the menu (though not all that easily without going through a fairly cumbersome process of putting the station url into the system’s PC-based connection. It’s easier if you add favorites using a “More” button, but that won’t work when it’s connected to the MySqueezebox.com site for some reason. Programming the radio is cumbersome using either the manual interface or the Squeezebox.com one.

Better human engineering would be helpful

Whoever designs the interfaces for devices such as this should be required to take courses in human engineering. There is really no excuse for any number of things to be as time-consuming a trial and error process as the Squeezebox makes them, especially for a device that is somewhat overpriced.

It is light and portable, so it’s easy to move around the house or even take outside. It connects to my 802.11n Wifi just fine even out back on the patio – where I am again pleased that I don’t have to fiddle for reception.

It has many other advantages over conventional radio. The Squeezebox, while a pain in the nether regions to program via its dial a letter or number system, connects to my favorite Internet radio service, Pandora, among others (such as Live365, BBC, etc.) easily. It also makes it relatively simple to find music, talk, or special programming from any of the thousands of global Internet stations

Exploring is fun

If you enjoy exploring that wealth of music, talk, old time radio, new radio, the BBC, the major city NPR stations (NYC, Boston, LA), podcasts, dramas, and more, it really is entertaining, informative and a time-stealer (as if we needed another one, huh?).

You can listen to Internet radio from any PC or laptop, of course, but that does pose other problems of other sorts if you listen in bed at night and in the morning or outside.

If you decide to buy a stand alone Internet radio, shop online first. I found that most of the currently available Internet radios seem to have problems that troubled buyers, generally different problems for different units. At least one has built-in memory that allows users to record a song or program. That could certainly be useful. Others have many more presets, which is something I miss on the Squeezebox. Be careful, though. At least one model does not allow you to program in stations yourself.

I’m certainly far from alone in listening to radio streaming online and preferring it over-the-air broadcasts.

Half of those who listen to online radio do not listen to over-the-air broadcasts

Nearly half — 48% — of Americans who listen to streaming audio do not use the “over the air” broadcasts of AM and FM radio stations. This is the latest finding from the “Successful Audio Streaming Strategies” study from Coleman Insights, which was conducted during the second and third quarters of 2010. Coleman Insights released previous findings from the study in September.

“On the surface these numbers should be of some concern to radio broadcasters,” said Coleman Insights Vice President Sam Milkman, who authored the study. “However, our findings suggest that they are not the result of many streaming audio users disengaging from radio brands, but simply changing the distribution platform they use to consume radio content.”

Additional findings from the “Successful Audio Streaming Strategies” study include the fact that younger streaming audio users — particularly young males — are even less likely to use “over the air” signals than older streamers, minority streaming audio users are less likely to listen to broadcast signals than non-minority users and that the mostly positive perceptions of AM and FM radio that streaming audio listeners have are shared by those streamers who do not listen to “over the air” signals.

A supplement to the original “Successful Audio Streaming Strategies” report is available for free download at www.ColemanInsights.com/streaming. In addition, visitors to Coleman Insights’ website can download the report and view an online presentation from the original release of the study, which debuted at the RAIN Summit East in Washington on September 28, 2010.

Samsung Galaxy Tab Opens the Third Device Niche

Monday, November 29th, 2010

By Joe Procopio

Man! Why did I use up all my clown phone jokes on the Droid X column? The Galaxy tab situation is ripe, RIPE I tell you, for a plethora of this kind of thing:

Models courtesy of Prestige Worldwide

And while calling the Droid X a clown phone was just a way to poke harmless fun at the (viable) oversized handset trend, there is actual substance to said comparison when it comes to the Galaxy.

On first glance, and even over several slapstick-style double takes, the Samsung Galaxy tab is a giant Android handset. Same buttons, same interface, same apps, same screens. It also runs current Android 2.2, which we know isn’t optimized for tablet performance, so for the early adopter, the Galaxy really is a giant Android smartphone that can’t make calls.

Although why they didn’t support basic mobile phone is a puzzler. Give me a headset and there’s no reason why I wouldn’t make calls on the device. In fact, that very capability would allow me to leave my mobile at home in the exact same scenario that would make me choose to leave my laptop at home and bring along only the Galaxy.

Business Lite

That’s the scenario I’m referring to. I think the iPad has been in existence long enough to make this concept self-explanatory, but I’ll summarize it just to make sure. My mom reads this column, you know?

I got my hands on the Galaxy exactly five minutes before leaving for this year’s Internet Summit. The device was absolutely perfect for the event. I could take notes, write, follow the tweetstream and add to it, check my mail, even do some light work.

The Galaxy allowed me to accomplish way more than I could with my smartphone, and I didn’t miss any functionality from my laptop – based on the fact that I knew ahead of time that I wouldn’t be doing anything labor-intensive at the conference.

Except groaning at puns. A whole lot of Internet puns.

The Third Device Niche

That opens up the third device niche. My laptop replaced my desktop long ago, allowing me to work anywhere. My smartphone replaced a razor thin slice of said laptop functionality, allowing me to go to some meetings, events, and weddings without lugging around a bag. The tablet expands that thin slice dramatically.

So unless I’m in my home office or my office office, I can keep the laptop on my desk or at least in my car (it’s in the trunk so step off, thugs!), and just bring the Galaxy. Thanks to the cloud and the size of the device, I can even get work done.

Android vs. Apple?

If you’ve read me before, you know I just want everyone to shut up about Android versus Apple. These arguments usually make New Kids on the Block versus Backstreet Boys screeching contests sound nuanced. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of that reference being relevant again. Also depressed.

Anyone in their right mind has to give Apple props for inventing the gadget with the funny name that was the wrong size and didn’t do anything new. Once everyone realized that this was way more than just a really cool multimedia player, the third device niche became a real possibility.

The Galaxy ups the ante in two ways.

One: The entry of a second established player into the niche creates competition, which creates choice, which creates mainstream acceptance.

Two: The Form Factor.

Having used both devices in my day-to-day, I can say without hesitation that the 7-inch Galaxy is a much better size for my (and to repeat as a preemptive strike before the comments start getting all flamy) MY third device niche.

It’s actually not a clown phone, it’s a little tiny iPad.

Let me explain. Much like the iPad and iPhone, it takes about ten seconds for an Android user to figure out how get everything they need out of the Galaxy. It’s the same device, true down to the OS, with some cool add-on functionality to take advantage of the bigger screen.

But unlike the iPad, I can hold it vertically and type, like I would hold my smartphone (well, not exactly, but I can do the thumb thing). It’s big enough for apps and video, big enough to use on a desk and type, and small enough to fit in a jacket pocket.

However, beyond that, the differences are just flavor.

But how great is it that amidst the dawn of the tablet wars Microsoft finally released a working smartphone? Momentum!

Android + Apple vs. Amazon

This is the real battle now. The addition of Android to the tablet mix creates a kind of a Venn diagram of what you can do in the third device niche, where the limits are, with the common area being what should become the norm.

And if “Read E-Books” is in that common area, you can draw another little tiny circle around that and label it “E-Reader.” Yeah, they do other things. In fact, the Nook is basically a skinned down Android tablet, but that actually makes my point stronger.

Again, Apple created the market, Android expanded it, and the two together force the Kindle into obsolescence. Or at least shrink its niche market way down to basically people who read a lot and straight-up technophobes.

Building products for either one of those groups is pretty much a sign you’ve wandered off the cutting edge.

Chick Magnet?

 

This is not a groundbreaking device on its own. When my friends first brought their iPads to conferences (and who’s the man now?), they were inundated with attention. This did not happen with the Galaxy. The looks I got were either along the lines of “damn, that’s a big phone” or “wow, that guy has HUGE hands!”

I’m paraphrasing.

As Android has done before, it provides the alternative, nicely done, with a lot more freedom and all the issues that come along with that. It’s reportedly selling like crazy, so when the tablet-optimized Android OS is released, the Pad Wars will heat up again.

The cool thing is that regardless, you and I win.

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for StatSheet. He also owns consulting firm Intrepid Company (intrepidcompany.com) and creative network Intrepid Media (intrepidmedia.com) He’d like to reiterate that he’s ready to be an Apple fanboy as soon as they return his phone calls and potentially creepy emails. He can be reached via twitter @jproco.

New book culls selling tips from the top sales gurus

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

book coverEveryone is selling something, but in today’s difficult economic climate, not everyone is buying. The ultimate challenge for today’s salespeople is finding a way to get their piece (or pieces!) of the pie when companies have cut sales training and education budgets to the bone, and there is more competition than ever.

Authors Eric Taylor and David Riklan say not to worry. Despite today’s unique challenges, it is still possible to master the world selling.

“Every day every self-respecting salesperson is in the trenches, fighting for market share and trying to keep his existing client base,” says Eric Taylor, coauthor along with David Riklan of Mastering the World of Selling: The Ultimate Training Resource from the Biggest Names in Sales (“Often, all it takes is one good idea to give you a competitive advantage and repay your investment many times over.”

Mastering the World of Selling presents hundreds of great ideas from the best people and organizations in the business—including Jeffrey Gitomer, Dale Carnegie Training, Zig Ziglar, the Napoleon Hill Foundation, and many, many more. The book helps companies and entrepreneurs overcome today’s major obstacles with candid advice and winning strategies from the leading sales trainers and training companies in the world.

“To become a master salesperson, you must know the value of self-improvement and the importance of constantly building on your sales skills,” says Riklan. “Whether you are just starting your sales career today or have been closing complex sales transactions for decades, there is always room for improvement.”

Here’s a few samples from the book:

The Master: Dale Carnegie Training

Master of Selling Tip #1: Dig for sales opportunities. In today’s business environment, it is critical that sales professionals uncover sales opportunities rather than wait for leads or for customers to come to them. The best performers recognize that even if there is a lot currently in their sales pipeline, a regular percentage of their time must be focused on uncovering new sales opportunities. Here are four ways the sales masters at Dale Carnegie Training suggest for finding new opportunities:

  1. Create an opportunity chart. Many average salespeople assume their existing customers already know about everything they have to offer them. This belief is nonsense and actually opens them up to having their competitors walk into their accounts and service their clients’ additional needs. To address this issue, create a spreadsheet that has a list of your full range of products and services in the left column. On the top row list your existing accounts. Then simply fill in which products and services each client is using with an “A.” Place a “B” in empty boxes that represent good selling opportunities for clients. Then call your clients to discuss with them how you can help fill these need areas.

The Master: Jeffrey Gitomer

Master of Selling Tip #2: Know what it means to be a sales rock star. When you hear a boss talk about her best salesperson, she often refers to her as a “rock star.” It’s the highest praise a boss can give. Every salesperson aspires to be referred to in that manner, but very few make the grade. If you’re a rock star, it means (among other things):

  • You have superior talent—you can play and sing.
  • Your fans don’t just like you—they love you!
  • You are respected by your peers.
  • You have proven yourself over time with consistent quality.
  • You know the business of rock and roll.

Most salespeople would like to think of themselves as sales rock stars, but they don’t display the talent to match the definition. Think about the best rock stars: Elvis, the Beatles, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen. These people (and lots more like them) achieved their status by putting in years of hard work. All of them love what they do. They wouldn’t trade their positions or situations for anything in the world. They rose from humble beginnings to stardom by taking advantage of their talent.

Remember, the love of what you do, combined with your belief in what you do, will not determine your success. It will determine how hard you will work and how dedicated you will be to achieve it. Success just shows up from there. If you want to become a sales rock star, that’s great. If you want others to refer to you as a rock star, that’s greater.

The Masters: Zig Ziglar and Tom Ziglar

Master of Selling Tip #3: Sell with integrity. The number-one tool in your sales arsenal is integrity. Belief in your products or services is essential but not enough unless you build this belief on the foundation of integrity. No matter how much a prospect believes that you believe in your product, he will not do business with you if he does not trust you, and trust begins with integrity.

It works like this: Values determine behavior. Behavior determines reputation. Reputation determines advantages. In today’s sales world, you need every advantage you can get. Long-term sales success is absolutely dependent on your integrity. With integrity you do the right thing. Since you do the right thing, there is no guilt involved. With integrity you have nothing to fear because you have nothing to hide. You can talk to customers whom you sold to yesterday—you can talk to them tomorrow, next week, next year—because you know in your heart that they made the best deal, and that’s where the integrity comes in.

The Masters: Eric Taylor and David Riklan

Master of Selling Tip #4: Evaluate how you communicate. Unless you’re a hermit, living in a cave or under a rock, you’re communicating virtually every waking hour of every day. In sales, or in any activity, the level of your communication will often equate to the level of your success. It’s critical to assess the clarity, likeability, and effectiveness of your messages.

Consider all of the mediums your communication is now exposed to. You are speaking to prospects, clients, service providers, internal customers, tech support, and administrative assistants all day, every day. You are communicating face-to-face, over the phone, by e-mail, text messaging, and fax. Hopefully, you are using social media platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more. And remember, it’s not just words. A look or a gesture “communicates” volumes.

It’s endless. And your ability to communicate effectively, with confidence, cuts both ways. The great challenge, and the tremendous opportunity, is that you express your personal brand to others 24/7/365. So how successfully do you communicate throughout every day? To help you evaluate, ask the people who are closest to you to appraise the effectiveness of your communication. Accept the feedback and evaluate what you are willing to change without compromising your self-beliefs.

From: Mastering the World of Selling: Wiley, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-61786-1, $19.95, www.masteringtheworld.com.

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