Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Payphone and the iPhone

If Barack Obama could be compared to the iPhone, then it might seem that John McCain is the payphone. But before I get any further in this post, I should disclaim that I have yet to decide whom I might vote for this November and I am a huge Apple product fan and love the iPhone. Now for some fun…

Why do people like the iPhone? Lots of reasons. I think we can characterize it as something that feels genuinely new in the already tired category of smart phones. It screams “change!” like no other product in the category. No keyboard, beautiful and elegant user interface, modern base operating system and what looks to be an unlimited potential.

But … it also has it’s short-comings. When you dig deeper, with a level-head, you see a product that not until next month will get 3G, a technology that has been shipping in the rest of the world for years. The camera is nice but lots of phones already have movie capability. Push mail, a hailed new feature of the next iPhone, has been a pervasive standby of Blackberry for years. So while the iPhone is very new, when you look closer at some of it’s most herald features it’s not very new at all.

I will not bore you with all the numbers of the payphone market in the US. Suffice to say, it’s pretty dismal. What was once a common street corner companion now has become an endangered species by the mobile phone. Today there are less than one million operational payphones in the US. A decade ago there were nearly three million. I cannot remember the last time I used one myself. They will soon join the train and horse-drawn buggy as popular modes of transportation in the US.

But wait. There is a resurgence of payphones in the developing world. And not like you might think – imagine GSM-based payphones. I saw a similar phenomenon on my trip to Phnom Phem in 2001. The poor cannot afford their own phone so like the party-lines of the 1940s in the US, small groups of people use one GSM phone as a community phone. Today in China they are installing mobile phones (without the need for wired infrastructure) that include a card reader and change depository.

So when we superficially evaluate the iPhone and payphones we cannot see the full truth. On the one hand, anyone can see payphones are literally an aging idea from a technologically distant past. They are tired and old – much like how many might characterize McCain and his politics. But when you look harder you can see the concept is still very much alive and is of great value to many around world. The iPhone has been celebrated as a change agent in a slow moving industry – much like the moniker of the junior Senator from Illinios. But, as we’ve seen, when you dig deeper much of it really isn’t that new after all and in someways it isn’t much better than other products on the market.

Like I said, I have no idea whom I am going to vote for in November. And analogies aside, I still love the diea of an iPhone. That is, at least for a test drive.

Bluetooth v Cluetrain

This year is the 10-year anniversary of both Bluetooth technology and the Cluetrain Manifesto; probably the two biggest influences in my professional life over this past decade as well. It got me wondering, “which one has been more successful?”

Most of you likely already know about Bluetooth and my role with the trade group. Certainly a very successful wireless technology as measured by radios shipped in products, but perhaps not so much in the way of customer usage. The dream that was Bluetooth was no less to become the universal low-power wireless interconnect for electronic products. Arguably, today it is solely a connection method for headsets and mobile phones. A gigantic market to be sure, but a far cry from it’s original aspirations.

Some of my old colleagues in the Bluetooth market will take issue with my assessment saying there are dozens of other use cases for the technology and so while I agree there are lots of use cases, today there are few uses. Stereo music, until embraced by Apple, is a complete full stop. The computer industry is a sad hodgepodge of limited usefulness and frustration. Imaging? Printers, cameras and the like have yet to materialize in meaningful significant numbers. So while you can technically use Bluetooth to make these connections both manufacturers and consumers have yet to do so in measureable numbers.

The Cluetrain Manifesto (cluetrain.com) is likely less known by most but I can make the argument, unlike Bluetooth, it’s pervasiveness and influence continues to accelerate. In its 95 theses the manifesto (and book) describe the direction of marketing in the digital age – that new technologies will make marketing a bidirectional interaction not a passive receive phenonemun. In fact, the first of its 95 theses are: “Markets are conversations.”

We can see the explosive adoption of participatory engagement marketing all around us. It is ridiculously easy for any delighted or disgruntled customer to share their experience with others: though online social networks, discussion forums, blogs, and even on your Facebook Wall. Feedback is instantaneous, direct and often shared with others. And the long tail can assure vocal customers will find an audience.

Customers can now talk amongst themselves about which is the best product. Corporations no-longer own the message about their product. Before recent technology, corporations controlled when, how and what you knew about new products, problems and policies. Today a college kid can host a wildly successful blog just speculating what your next plan might be.

Cluetrain encourages us to participate in the conversation. It’s happening anyway; and most would rather be a trusted source of information in the discussion as opposed to a helpless bystander.

Sadly one principle of Cluetrain that has yet to have the adoption I would like to see concerns transparency. Corporate spin is alive and well. Some still carefully choose to hide secrets that arguably could make products and the markets they serve more efficient with higher velocity. Consumers are saying “tell us where you’re going and we’ll be glad to tell you if that’s what we want.” They are also saying, “tell us the truth when things go wrong, tell us when you don’t know and just be honest and open with us.” Sounds pretty simple to me.

It’s been a wild ride these past ten years. In my book, I’d have to say over the past decade hands down the winner is the Cluetrain.