Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Kudos for the creative

The other day, I was reading an online article on vunet.com about the PS3. Since I get most of my news from online news sites, I have become accustomed to seeing embedded ads in the articles. I am so used to it, that I routinely mentally skip the ads without flinching. I just got used to it.

The ads that include flash animation with complicated overlays and other fancy techniques are a little more problematic, but are also easily overlooked by a frequent web surfer.

What caught my eye with this particular article was that the ad was actually a screen of snow. That snow is the kind seen on your tv screen when your cable goes out, not the kind that makes you go, "burrr". See the screenshot below.

The ad was made to look like a TV without a proper signal. It didn't have a picture of the product or any information about the subject. I was intrigued. I knew the game, the ad sponsors were hoping that I would be so curious that I would click the ad just to see what it was, even though I may have no interest in their product.

Normally, I would never knowing click on one of these ads because they are for things I'm not in the market for. But, I decided to reward the creative used by the ad and click on it. What was the product? IBM blade servers. If IBM's strategy was to get a very high click-through for their ad, I think that they were spot on. I imagine that more people will click on the ad just through curiosity (like I did). However, any good marketing campaign is going to have other metrics to measure success in addition to clickthroughs. My guess is that they will see very low numbers of users actually stay on the destination site or even continue on to learn about or buy the main product being sold through the ad. The ratio of users clicking the ad and users taking the additional second or third steps will be very low. If this were a product aimed at the youth demo, where creative viral campaigns can be effective if executed correctly, this ad would be better. But since is IBM selling blade servers (to medium and large and mega-large companies) I don't think that the ad will be effective.

IBM's target customer doesn't want to be surprised by a creative ad, they want to buy something solid, reliable and secure. A snow ad isn't going to impress them and isn't going to be a way that CTO get his/her information on what type of servers to procure.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Apple gets into SAAS

As the iPhone continues to expand its sales, a couple of things are beginning become apparent. First, users, especially business users, really like the web browser functionality of the device. Second, mobile phone competitors won't let iPhone have this definite advantage for very long. Considering that the iPhone has such a hefty price tag, it shouldn't take too long for some of the main features, including better web browsing to make their way to lower market devices.

This is where SAAS comes in. Software As A Service allows users to use software that isn't installed locally on the computer. Salesforce.com basically pioneered SAAS by allowing businesses to keep their sales information online. It took a long time for Salesforce to convince businesses that their confidential data was safe and that the software was top notch. As more and more people go from having a home desktop or laptop plus a mobile phone with full internet capabilities, the need to have access to information on the go will increase. Already there are companies altering their website code to run smoothly with Apple's Safari browser. If phone OEMs are smart, they will form a partnership with Mozilla and put a modified version of Firefox on their devices. Seeing as how there are some versions of Firefox small enough to run off of USB drives, it should not be a large ordeal to have it be the standard in mobile phones.

In the end, all of these possibilities mean that sites that offer online solutions instead of download and install software will get a boost. Imagine if Intuit, makers of Quicken, offered a secure, online service you could access right after you made a purchase to keep your account information up to the minute instead of stacking receipts and waiting to get home. Or if a mobile blogger could take a digital picture or video and post it right on the spot instead of having to first move it to a laptop and find a wireless connection.

Whether or not the iPhone will come to dominate the market is yet to be seen. However, SAAS providers should already be making a move to accommodate the influx of possible users once the competition against the iPhone ramps up.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Next-gen home networks

Okay, I'll share with you my million dollar idea about one of the next great personal computer products. This is an idea that has been in my head for a couple of years. Here is it, in a nutshell: a pre-configured home network that comes in a ready-made case or "tower" that can be expanded and used for all the members of a family.

Here is the basis for this idea: As families become more connected, each person in the family may want or require their own computer. It is generally a pain for one person to manager the home network. Windows has tried to work through some of these issues to streamline the process and maintenance of a home network, but it is no where near where it would have to be for mass adoption. What is needed is a system that is plug and play, without the fuss and complication of current networks.

The basic premise is that each home will have one central computer rack. This will function as the hub for the home. When only the first computer is there, it will look and feel just like a regular home PC does now. The computer will have a modem, hard drive, processor and any other necessary components (video card, etc.). As the family expands (spouse, children, etc.), so too could the number of needed computers in the home. Here is where the magic comes in. Instead of buying a new computer for the new family member, the first rack can just be expanded to accomodate a new computer "module" in it. This module will include its own hard drive, processor, etc. but it will automatically be connected to any other existing computers in the rack. And, it should cost less than buying a completely new computer. If this is followed for several new computers, the main rack should look like this:

Instead of the more traditional way that many networks are put together:

Why is this any better than the current way of building a home's computing power? Because this is intended specifically for families. With all of the family's computers together, it is easier to have an administrator (read "parent") control what happens with the other computers. The administrator can make sure that all the computers have updated anti-spam software and the latest patches. S/he can also make sure that anti-virus software is running and that data backups occur regularly.

All of the data storage and processing takes place at the central location. If there is a wireless network set up, all that the users need are wireless cards that connect to a monitor and some I/O hardware.

This is a family network, sold to growing (or grown) families that need tech computing power. All of the maintenance can be taken care of through the main, initial computer. The network can grow as needed and individual devices can be updated as needed. A key to this
whole product is the marketing of it to potential customers. The initial computer must have a terrific administrator control dashboard to allow everyday moms and dads the ability to manage the maintenance of each of the computers in the networks. It should allow:
  • easy to understand network and computer status
  • one click data backup of any computer
  • automation of important tasks (defrag, backup, anti-virus check, etc.)
  • easy adding and removing new computers & peripherals
The seamless integration from start to finish of the entire experience is what customers demand now and what will set this product apart from other possible competitors.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Digital gold mine

Today, I was introduced to MyMileMarker via one of my favorite sites, Lifehacker. MyMileMarker (MYMM) is a way to keep track of your car's mileage and use of gasoline. Anyone who cares about their car or their wallet knows that doing these things is prudent. Well, MYMM has made it easy for people to do just that. I have had this idea for quite some time. The thing that MYMM does that no one else (that I know of) has been able to do is provide both a web interface and a way to update your information via text messages.

Text updates are really important because people will always forget to write down their mileage on their gas station receipt or just forget to go online and update their account when they do or something like that. Being able to send a text message each time you fill up with your current mileage, gallons pumped and price per gallon is an important step in helping people keep track of a major source of yearly spending.

For commuters around the country, this is a needed tool to provide real-world information about their cars. Why? Because most people don't realize how much they spend on gasoline, and many more don't know what kind of MPG they are getting. Sure, the EPA has guidelines that are used by auto companies to determine the average MPG for a certain car. But how does your car, with your options package, your commute and your driving style actually perform? Who knows? It's time people had an easy way to do that.

Why is this called the digital gold mine? Because this is exactly the kind of information that can be used to create an invaluable database of information about cars and drivers. If MYMM can build up its user base, it will be sitting on a digitial gold mine. Imagine if you could go to Edmonds.com, and when you compared cars it presented you with average MPG of real drivers in your city, or with your commute. Many people will notice that the car rated at 29 MPG actually gets 21.

But other than Kelly Blue Book and Edmonds, and sites like Yahoo! Autos and eBay Motors, car manufacturers themselves could really benefit by having this kind of real-world information. A database like this could provide them with customer usage data they can only extrapolate right now.

The greatest benefit could go to companies that are in the high mileage/alternative fuel vehicle race game. A company like Tesla Motors, whose cars run solely on electricity could use the information to show how wasteful internal combustion engines are and how great their electric vehicles are. A company like Toyota or Honda could probably play that same game in a slightly different way considering their creation of relatively fuel efficient vehicles.

The real question is whether MYMM will be able to build up the user base needed to make it marketable to much larger companies, if not for purchase then at least for partnership. I think there are enough people out there who want an easy way to keep track of their information that the market is there. I have set up my account, and can't wait to start downloading reports about my vehicle. I just wish I could have started using this a long time ago so that I could have seen my car's progress as it accumulated the 70k miles it has now.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The most on four wheels

Last Saturday, I had a chance to go to the qualifiers of the San Jose Grand Prix. It was a great day to see and hear some cars burning high octane fuel.

Although the race was not until the next day, there were plenty of people in attendance and things to keep them occupied. There were everything from merchant booths, comedians, raffles, and a silent auction (of which this Ferrari was a participant).

Although I almost made it to the pit area (before the security guards looked too intimidating to test), there was a very large building with the team trailers where they were doing repairs on the cars. Being around these trailers and taking pictures like these:

reminded me of when I helped design and build this beauty in 1998:

Our car (on the left - notice the lack of sponsorship stickers) built for $2000 compared to our neighbor's car, from Purdue University (they didn't start the project unless they secured $45,000).

I have to admit that the most fun race was the drifting competition. It seemed that the racers were really having fun. The fan favorite was definitely the drifter whose car was made up to look like a police car, with the flashing lights and everything. Later, I thought that his ploy only really works if he is never in the lead. Oh well.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Product or Feature?

I first heard about Obopay 1.5 years ago while doing research for a project on mobile applications. Now I have been re-introduced to the company by way of a Kevin Bacon six-degreesines.

Basically, Obopay is trying to get people to send money to each other via their phones. This kind of thing is common in places like South Korea, India and Europe, where they are not encumbered by things like legacy incompatible cellular systems. These conflicting systems have been a large part of keeping products like this away from the US until now. Companies like Obopay are making up for the lack of phone company support by creating their own systems.

Obopay creates an account for you that is linked to your checking account. You add money to your Obopay account and can send that money to anyone you know that can receive text messages. Or, you can get a MasterCard that is linked to your Obopay account to spend your money.

The downside is that other people have to be on the Obopay network to get the full benefits of sending/receiving this money. You have to wait until the number of users gets large enough that most of your friends have an account and use it. At this point, I think that Obopay needs to work hard to get small businesses on board. Imagine if you could pay your restaurant bill by sending a text message instead of waiting for a bill and then credit card slip. Obopay touts the easy with which your friends can send you money for dinner, but the real hassle is waiting for the waitress when you are ready to go.

If a restaurant had an Obopay logo on their menu and indicated that the bill could be paid with a simple text message, that would be the real killer app. Users are relieved of the need to wait around after they are done eating, and restaurants avoid paying the transaction fees that come with traditional credit card transactions. Plus, it's an advertisement for Obopay for every customer at every participating restaurant. Creating these partnerships will allow Obopay to get into the mainstream and gain acceptance.

The real question here is whether Obopay has what it takes to be a standalone product, or whether it is a feature of a larger, established product. Well, it's both. It must first create the trust with users and merchants, then it will be appealing enough for a large company to buy it out and make it a feature. If it's lucky, it will get PayPal and Google into a bidding war over it. This product is an obvious extension for PayPal, and Google could use it to continue to trumpet its Google Checkout, which hasn't really caught on.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Life on the fence

I have always found myself to be on the fence on many things. I tend to make decisions based on context and nuance; the situation provides meaning for the question. That's why the result of this quick survey doesn't surprise me one bit. I found it on Diego Rodriguez's blog. Try it for yourself here.

You Are 50% Left Brained, 50% Right Brained

The left side of your brain controls verbal ability, attention to detail, and reasoning.
Left brained people are good at communication and persuading others.
If you're left brained, you are likely good at math and logic.
Your left brain prefers dogs, reading, and quiet.

The right side of your brain is all about creativity and flexibility.
Daring and intuitive, right brained people see the world in their unique way.
If you're right brained, you likely have a talent for creative writing and art.
Your right brain prefers day dreaming, philosophy, and sports.