Information and the Chatter

[From my day job]

For the past several years, Water.org’s social media engagement strategy has not only focused in growing online conversations but has also looked to leverage the Twitter API to quantify, measure, and manage these efforts. Starting with a base of just under 2,000 followers in late 2009, @water now boasts over 375,000.

One recent example was our approach to supporting Blog Action Day in October of 2010. Each year Change.org selects a global topic and promotes conversation in the blogsphere and in 2010 it was the water crisis. Water.org saw this an opportunity to further extend its reach on social media channels while educating new audiences on how the water crisis impacts peoples’ lives in the developing world.

By spending a few short hours with the Twitter API, we were able to develop a few simple applications to help us measure not only the reach of of the chatter on Twitter but also what conversations got the most traction. It all started with encouraging the use of a hashtag for the campaign and @change selected #BAD10. Our monitoring code checked the Twitter stream for use of this hashtag and logged each tweet. A secondary application then collected basic user demographics of those who were posting these tweets.

Here are a few of our findings. During the days leading up to Blog Action Day, the #BAD10 hashtag was used in over 5,200 tweets. We know that 20 of the top 25 tweets from that week were either authored by @water or retweets of our posts. What got the most traction? Not self-promoting fluff. Tweets that included interesting and provocative facts about the water crisis like “More people have a cell phone than have a toilet” were by far the most retweeted during the campaign week.

By collecting user demographics of those tweeting we were able to established new mutually following relationships. For instance, if someone tweeted for the campaign and had a quality following (not just “how many followers”), we followed them. Nearly half that time, they followed us back. In another study we did earlier in 2010 we found that when we followed influential folks who tweeted about the water crisis, fully 60% followed us. Mind you, this wasn’t auto-following, it was intentional-following that was data driven. We believe that online there is “following capital” and because it has real value, we are deliberate who we follow.

Given 17% of all tweets the week leading up to Blog Action Day either mentioned @water or were tweets of ours that were retweeted, we estimate Water.org made 18.9 million brand impressions in less than five days. Not bad for a little bit of thoughtful planning ahead of time and a daily commitment to encourage a conversation. Few, if any, other outreach efforts of Water.org have cost so little, performed as well, or were as measurable as Blog Action Day 2010.

We have reused many of these and other learnings, to inform our daily Tweets, how we select search terms for Promoted Tweets, and how we design future campaigns. While we continuously monitor the online chatter, we believe that by transforming that into actionable information we can extend the reach of our cause and build a following of people who want to solve the water crisis in our lifetime.

Of Ants and Elephants

anantIt’s safe to say that since the dawn of the personal computer industry, tech marketing has been modeled after the theories of generalized technology adoption. The advice: one should market to the early adopters and grow into the early majority of the bell curve of adoption over time being ever cognizant of the chasm between the two.

More recently folks like Malcolm Gladwell and others have gotten us to focus on the long tail, outliers and the edges of markets to find the connectors, tipping points and influencers. Much of this work has celebrated social media and networks as proof these trends theories are correct and sound.

I’m beginning to believe we may have missed something in our rush to anoint the latest round of social scientists and their approach to using new media for marketing: ants. Or should I say more specifically the immense size of small numbers. So here’s a tangent. Some time ago I read that ants make up the largest cumulative biomass of species that walks the earth. The problem with looking for the connectors makes us elephant hunters when maybe we should consider what would happen if we leveraged the strength of the ants.

Could it be that 1,000 complete nobodies impact a market more than one somebody in the age of new media? Have we devolved to the rule of the mob? Let’s assume I have 150 friends on Facebook and 50 followers on Twitter and I decide to compose a glowing post about a movie I just saw. Judging by what I’ve seen on these networks 3-4 people will comment on or like my post and then if flows out of sight in the stream of news for my friends. What’s interesting is the 3-4 people’s comments will show up on their newsfeed which means their 150 of so friends will have access to my post. In the end I can see that from my one post there’s the potential of nearly 500 people hearing my voice.

So what? Newspapers land on millions of doorsteps each morning. Get to an editor, the elephant, and you’re home free. Or maybe not. If I go back to my previous story and use the 500 viewers of my comment and multiply that by the other 999 complete nobodies that made a similar comment we can see that 500,000 viewers have seen a similar post. Yes, the paper gets delivered and you can use the old school “impressions” metric but in the end we all know a small percentage of those who get the paper will ever see a particular story.

I haven’t been able to mathematically prove it but I’m beginning to think all the latest thinking on new media hasn’t deeply internalized how it actually works in the wild. How many people are influenced by one person’s comment on a social networking site? I don’t think the math is simple; rather I think it’s quite nuanced.

In my day job I’m going to test the idea of marketing to the middle. We are going to test the strength of ants. I’ll keep you posted on the outcomes.

Incredible India

mm_women_communitypoint1The local tourism slogan here is “Incredible India”. It would seem to do a fair job of helping to inspire travelers to explore the deep richness and variety of Indian history and culture. While it is not tourism per se that brings me to India, it is to sample in the incredibleness that is India.

Home to over a billion persons, India is one of the more densely populated countries in the world to still maintain a traditional rural and bustling urban life. I am here to learn about the water crisis. I suppose most westerners would be surprised by this, since many consider the water crisis only an African issue. It is profoundly not. In fact nearly two-thirds of those who lack access to safe water live in south Asia. And to my surprise, the number of Indians who lack access to improved sanitation is nearing double the number of people on the entire continent of Africa that lack these basic services.

But like anything, to really understand an issue, you have to peer behind the numbers and walk the streets to see it first hand.

Just yesterday, I visited four different urban slums here in Trichy, India. The conditions are visibly harsh, but the people I met didn’t seem troubled by their station in life. Here, many families will earn the equivalent of USD$2-3 per day, ususally for jobs such as loading trucks, working lower-end retail positions, selling small items, or providing other services or manual labor. This level of wealth will put these families in the “middle third” of the world’s poor and well ahead of the 10 percent of Trichy residents who live below these means. Many have bank deposits, and surprisingly, some own property – be that as it may. Most of the residences I visited were barely the size of a suburban American bedroom; five, seven or eight people, their belongings, and their entire livelihood fit inside this residence.

The water crisis here is unique. Over the past decade, municipalities have constructed massive water towers which are filled with river water and then redistributed to community water points throughout the slums. Usually 50-60 families will share a single water point – a single tap. We arrived early this morning to see water collection; as often is the case, water is only available from 6:30 a.m. to around 8 a.m. every morning. Women are only allowed to take three vessels for their family’s needs. If they don’t arrive early enough to take their place in line, they will go without for the day. Women here will spend two hours a day collecting water. These are actually comparably favorable conditions, considering what many others in India and other developing countries must endure.

Sanitation in the slums is what one might expect. There are community latrines which charge a one-rupee (about two-cent) use fee; however, every latrine I visited was without customers. I did see open defecation and other sewage flowing through the “gutters” of the slum into a nearby stream. So, I am unsure of the logic of charging people for latrine usage.

On the edge of town, water is provided via water tower or water lorry, the latter being a large tanker truck that delivers water on a set schedule to neighborhoods. We visited one such place today but discovered water is delivered only every other day, not this morning as expected.

Finally, I did see families enjoying the convenience of household water connections and latrines in the slums. These were provided through our WaterCredit initiative here in India. They still have schedule limitations but the convenience can save them hours a day compared to their fellow neighbors.

Given the nature of construction in these villages and the need for water pressure, the water connections are normally 1.5 to two meters below street level. As I visited these families, I was proudly ushered to a step-down cement area, normally just inside the front door, where women were happily filling water vessels. In groups of 12-15, these families (or, more accurately, these women) borrow money through microfinance institutions to finance a water connection. The terms are favorable and are often repaid prior to the loan term which is normally 12-18 months.

India is most certainly incredible.

Chapter Next

riverAs many of you know, for the past 20 or so years I’ve been enjoying an nice career in the technology industry. Nice stops at the Bluetooth SIG, Apple, Intel, Iomega, iModules and few other startups along the way. It has been a fantastic time and I have been fortunate to have a knack for something that also pays relatively well.

Since I was in my late 20’s I had always dreamed of my turn as the founder of a high-tech startup. It was going to be my fast ride on the big IPO/buyout fantasy of “never having to work again” – unless I wanted to. Over the past 4-5 years I have come to the conclusion that this dream has passed me by while also growing disillusioned with the “toys for boys” mantra of new technology. Lord knows I love new gadgets, but catching the next big thing, in my analysis, has become little more than catching the wind. It is nothing.

About a year ago I was introduced to WaterPartners (water.org) through a good friend. During a laid back casual lunch we talked about the state of technology, social networking and the direction of online engagement. It was a good time and led to a fun proof of concept consulting project this past summer. I didn’t realize it would open a new chapter for my professional, and hopefully personal, life.

On 13-Feb I will be starting a new position with WaterPartners leading their marketing and individual donor engagement efforts. I am humbled I’ve been given the opportunity to help them and terrified by the challenge. The folks there do fantastic work – my job will be simply to focus a lens on their accomplishments and energize a community to support the effort. If you haven’t heard of them, WaterPartners delivers clean water projects in the developing world. We in the western world might find it difficult to imagine how desperate this issue is in places like Eastern Africa and rural India but it very tragic. As I learned more and more about their mission and philosophy, I could see how helping them would not only provide me new challenges but could also reshape my perspective on myself and others by doing something that matters.

Please don’t mistake my story as being judgmental. We all have our life journeys. It is only because of my years of work in the tech market that I’m able to consider such an opportunity and certainly living in the midwest eases the transition. I’ve also been very lucky to work on some very cool products and technologies over my career so in hindsight I really didn’t miss a thing. It’s just time to start the next chapter of my life.

Keep an eye open to water issues over the coming few years. If I’m up to the challenge you won’t have to look very hard, it will be coming to you.

Deja Vu it’s 2002

Over the past six weeks I’ve noticed editors in the tech space looking to make a horse race out of OpenID and Facebook Connect. Of course this makes for some interesting bylines and helps energize the public versus private identity discussion but the comparison is as misplaced at the one in 2002: Wi-Fi versus Bluetooth.

Back in 2002 the press, fresh off the browser wars, was looking for a new race to call. Personal wireless was new, confusing and there were many standards vying for the hearts of engineers so it looked like a good candidate. Bluetooth was way over-hyped, under-delivering on it’s promise of ubiquity while a newcomer was making huge in-roads in capturing major design wins in the notebook market.

The US tech press was deeply familiar with the PC industry and had long ignored major developments in the mobile phone market. Bluetooth was tearing up design wins in phones, which was delivering scores more users, but the press kept “the race” going – at least for a few years. Then all of sudden someone finally figured out Wi-Fi was really about connecting devices to an IP network and Bluetooth was solely for connecting mobile devices to one another and the race was unceremoniously cancelled. Bluetooth did not kill Wi-Fi and neither did the other; they have in fact lived happily ever after.

A few weeks ago Facebook released Facebook Connect and the coverage was deja vu to me. The technology includes several nice features but the one many in the press have mistakenly focused on is its “portable” identity. Not only is this feature not the killer feature, it is not really portable at all – you can use your Facebook credentials to log into other sites. And of course since only Facebook has the rest of your “identity” I’d expect it will be a long time they let it go much of anywhere. So your Facebook identity is anything but portable.

However, by focusing on identity, the press have looked to compare Facebook Connect and OpenID. And with comparisons naturally the question is asked, “who will win?” So while the press looks to make a horse race of it, to me I have to say the two technologies are not comparable at all.

With OpenID, the user gets to decide where they would like to register their identity. There is no central place or single site where someone can do this and in fact there are dozens of these “relying” parties. While not part of today’s specifications, I can easily imagine the OpenID initiative providing mechanisms where I might be able to choose to include and exclude a multitude of information that can be selectively shared with sites that implement the technology. And since there will be competition, I can see some relying parties offering full “data portability” where others might take a more restrictive approach.

Facebook Connect is an attempt to expand the value of Facebook as the primary portal of the net generation. Both the social and monetary value of Facebook I might add. OpenID is the real deal, at least on paper, when it comes to portable identity. Being an standards effort there is still much work left to achieving that promise; again a reminder of Bluetooth in 2002. Where Bluetooth got usability right it has thrived (like in mobile phones and handsets) but where they were distracted it has essentially died (like the PC market except for a small selection of keyboards and mice).

My definition of a good comprise is one where neither party feels completely happy. When a technology is developed that selfishly enriches a single party, one entity is happy but ultimately everyone loses. Facebook Connect is fantastic and will provide value to those who’s lives center around the social utility site. OpenID is confounded with compromise but is best positioned to become the portable credentials of the web. It will be fun to watch both technologies thrive and live a life happily ever after.

Next Time it will be Different

Tomorrow is election day in the U.S. While there are many other races at stake, I think it’s safe to say nearly every voter I know is sick of the entire presidential race. Rather than talk about change or maverick behavior, here’s my top five list of how next time it could be different.

1) Shorten the campaign season. For goodness sake, narrowing down the field during the primaries shouldn’t take so long. It seems like the Democrats started nearly two years ago. In addition to our sanity I’d like to ask a very simple question, what would your current employer do if you left you full-time job for nearly two years trying to get your next one? I assume all the candidates still draw a paycheck from the U.S. or Alaskan government while they are out job hunting. At a fundamental level this just seems wrong. And if they really have that much free time, maybe they’re getting paid too much in the first place.

2) Stop the hate. Few things have depressed me more this year than to endure the name calling and negative campaigning. Both candidates talked about change but whenever I turned on the TV I saw the same old thing. Name calling, ridiculing, misrepresentations of voting records – both camps are guilty of the offense. There was a moment in one of the debates when either candidate could have pledged to end the negativism but neither didn’t. If you believe in karma you have to agree neither candidate is going to have a smooth ride once they get into office.

3) Answers to questions. Speaking of the debates, perhaps we could just have candidates vote yes or no before they give their long winded questions to the moderators. Far too many times I got very irritated that neither Obama or McCain could not, or would not, answer a question. My favorite, “Given the $700B bailout plan, what programs will you cut given this reality?” Neither candidate gave a satisfactory answer in my book. Maybe I’ve been through too many media training sessions but all I saw was rehearsed talking points and rarely a straight answer.

4) Spending limits. It is absurd how much money is being spent to influence and get out the vote. And what’s terrifying, the fundraising numbers cannot match the incalculable number of volunteer hours contributed to the effort as well. If Google can become a worldwide brand with little to no advertising why on Earth do candidates, at nearly every level, spend gargantuan dollars to advertise themselves. With all the incredible innovation in social networking, social media and online connection we desperately need a version upgrade to the Candidate 2.0.

5) Outlaw yard signs. It occurred to me last week that eventually all those fancy yard signs are going to end up in a land fill. Oops. I hope candidates who supports green initiatives don’t print signs. I did the math, if all the signs were made of paper (not all are), nationwide we destroyed 180,000 trees for yard signs. So there is an environmental cost to the election as well. I won’t get into carbon emissions of travel, and on and on. My recommendation, if you’re running for federal office, ask your supporters to simply fly an American flag in their support. Not only is it patriotic, doesn’t destroy the Earth, but you can keep using it after your candidate wins or loses.

Bonus 6) Let it go. Practice acceptance and impermanence. I have to believe there will be voting day issues but please, let’s not see a repeat of 2004. And whomever loses, remember our government is designed to correct itself. The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will be back up for reelection in 24 months. Then just 24 months after that we’ll get to vote for President again. Given the length of our campaign season, the losers shouldn’t wait around too long to get started for the next time. Or, as evidenced by Mr. Gore, there is life after politics which can include spoils like Board seats and Noble prizes. Good for Mr. Gore.

Get out and vote.

An Election Observation (2008)

I have been interested in presidential elections since 1976. It was a little odd, but yes, I basically watched every minute of both conventions that summer. Ford and Carter. Over the years my interest has ebbed and flowed but I always try to keep an eye on things. The first election I voted in was 1980 having just recently attained voting age and I proudly cast my vote for John Anderson. I guess I was a contrarian even back then.

For me this year’s election, for obvious reasons, is more interesting than the past several. Over my 20 year or so career I’ve learned a lot about marketing, positioning, messaging and spin. I know about talking points, media training the importance of a memorable quote. And this year we have a bounty of back and forth.

But over the past week or so I’ve started to grow uncomfortable with the spectacle of the sport. Crowds yell, hoop, holler, laugh and happily applaud razor sharp barbs tossed at opponents. It seems the more personal, the better these days. For some reason it’s what we want to hear – a quick punch right in the kisser.

More alarming are the conversations I’m having with friends about the election. I’m curious to hear what people think, why they do, and what they make of each party’s ticket. Even in crowds I would not expect it, resentment and divisions in our country are alive and well. And it’s not that we only disagree with one another it seems we find another’s view inconceivable. I actually think there are people out there who really do hate this candidate or another. It feels personal and it saddens me. We also know the media is no better and often they love to fuel the passions.

After reading just about everything I could get my hands on these past two weeks of conventions and all the points and counter-points made by the candidates, parties pundits and reporters I am disappointed no one has made a rather simple observation: no matter who wins, no matter who, a historical barrier will be broken. In January we will either be inaugurating a person of African decent to the presidency or a woman to the vice presidency. Gender and race will be a big step.

When I think about the election in this way I don’t think any of us can loose since no matter what happens we all win.

California is #42

As some of you already know, I like to dig into the numbers. Not financials and budgets per se, but demographics and adoption trends. For firstly a marketeers’ task is to persuade the audience of inevitabilities; not that the world can be different, but it will be. That success is inevitable despite insurmountable odds. It is simply the epitome of selling hope in a bottle.

One cannot ignore the ever growing adoption of Facebook, especially in the teen audience. When will it’s success become “inevitable?”

I’ve been following the age distribution of Facebook for the past few years and in particular the teen crown; given I have two kids in that demographic. One question that did intrigue me was geographic differences: what state have the highest per capita adoption of Facebook among? I did some digging and the numbers are surprising.

So which states comprise the top 10 in per capita usage of Facebook by teens? High-tech hotbeds like California, Texas, North Carolina, Washington or Virginia? No, the highest rank of these states is Virginia at #18.

The top ten in order are: District of Columbia, South Dakota, Connecticut, Missouri, Kansas, Massachusetts, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New Jersey. The list above is Virginia (#18), North Carolina (#25), Texas (#37), Washington (#39) and California (#42).

Think things are weird? Per capita, Kansas has nearly three times more teens on Facebook compared to California. Think that’s a rural thing? Not so. Massachusetts boasts similar numbers compared to California.

The chart shows off the results. Darker colors indicate highest adoption, lighter colors lower. Enjoy. If you’d like the spredsheet with the numbers, leave a comment

How to be a Rebel, Just Like Me

While I like to think my personality is both delightful and charming, occasionally it seems people think I’m just being a rebel. Sightings happen both in my personal and professional life and although I am not always consistent with my demeanor I certainly don’t try to be difficult – at least all the time. So here are my tips on how you can be a rebel just like me.

#1 Be right. One could soften this and simply striving to be only opinionated but I don’t think that completely nails it; you must confidently and consistently be right. I normally (there are exceptions) mull things over privately for a long time. I play devil’s advocate with myself, try to see things impartially, view a situation from many different angles, reflect on what I’ve observed thus far and anticipate what might happen. Then I take a position. And once I’ve taken a stand I require solid reasoned argument to refute it. There are many times I can recall of admitting my error but I can also recount many far many more times where I stood alone and to this day know I was dead right.

#2 Ask people to pick. I’ve noticed this issue most frequently with managers I’ve worked for in my professional life. Very often in business you are faced with competing priorities and limited resources. My strategy for these situations has been to reassess goals and choose the objectives which can be achieved while deliberately choosing to not work those which are not achievable. More often than not, you have to pick, and it seems people don’t always like to have to do that. And worse, some have the habit of reminding me of the things not accomplished to which I remind them we made a conscience choice to not do them.

#3 Work for the company, not your boss. While we are on the topic of work, one of my favorite pieces of advice given to me during a performance review was, “Mike, remember you work your boss, not the company.” He was right but I have never been able to fully digest this concept. I always go back to “what would the shareholders think?” Being a manager is no assurance of right-minded thinking, clairvoyant nature nor sound decision-making abilities; I know, I’ve been one. I’ve only worked for a few command and control type managers and thankfully for all parties affected it was short.

#4 Challenge conventional wisdom. In part due to the pace of modern life, to stay ahead of the pack it is an imperative to challenge conventional wisdom. I’d like to believe one of the reasons I have found a home in the technology industry is that the soul of this industry is about proving people wrong. The conventional wisdom is “it can’t be done” and all I can think is “like hell, watch this.” Go to nearly any meeting in corporate America and you can see the effectiveness of conventional thinking in action. Too often organizations do something based on the momentum of the group but I like to challenge commonly held beliefs.

#5 Playing the contrarian. It is not in my genes to be a lemming so instinctively I take to the opposite position of most groups. When there is optimism I can often be found to be pessimistic; where there is despair I’m the first to find hope. I don’t know why I’m like this, I just am. There is a method to my madness. I’d like to believe having protagonists in a group makes the group better.

So there’s my list. Do people think you’re a rebel too?

Has Apple Done it Again?

Let me start out admitting I’m a total Apple homer. I worked at the fruit company a digital lifetime ago but still consider it one of the better jobs over my 20+ year career. While I still haven’t broken down and bought an AppleTV I’ve certainly pacified my fetish for Apple gear most recently with an iPhone 3G. Over the past week I’ve started to ask myself the question, “has Apple done it again?” Has Apple reinvented the software business the same way it did for music?

We all know the story about digital music and the iPod. I’m sure there are many angles to take on this one; the piracy story, the compression story, the record-label view, the artist view, the consumer and on and on, but I think it’s easy to argue the iPod saved the music industry. Yes, musicians and their handlers hate to admit it, but I know more people who, after buying an iPod, have bought more music than they had on their own without an iPod for years – or in my case decades. A buck is easy and often times it’s an impulse buy. How else can I explain buying The Knack’s “My Sharona”? (If you didn’t graduate high school around 1980 you won’t get it). It also helps the model let’s you buy only exactly what you want – not the industry-preferred packaging of albums.

And another funny thing happened. Today, even a good many of the teens I know are going legal as opposed to downloading ripped music from illegal file sharing sites. Apple made it easy to be legal, provided value over a free download with things like cover art, and simplified the process with the iTunes store and gift cards. What’s the standard birthday gift for a teen these days? A gift card to the iTunes store.

I can still hear the music industry complaining – but I ask, “where would they be without the iPod?”

So let’s now turn our attention to the computer software industry. Today, MS-Office withstanding, most folks rarely buy software these days. More and more free shareware and web-based tools are becoming available online so dropping more than $20 on an unknown feels like a real gamble. I know the velocity of the packaged software industry of 2008 is radically different from a decade ago.

In some ways you can see parallels between the historical software and music industries: (1) their packaging strategy is customer-hostile, (2) market consolidation was bad for consumers and (3) they both have unnecessarily long (non)value-add chains. Let me explain.

Both industries have pursued a packaging strategy that is customer-hostile. To buy the single song we wanted, we had to buy the entire album. Similarly, in the software business to get the 10% of a program we really need we have to buy 80% we don’t want and will never use. Of course this strategy was pursued to increase margin through perceived value: the hardware delivery cost for one or ten songs was the same so why not bundle a bunch of stuff together and charge more?

More and more, there are only a few big record labels just like software vendors. Once you get past Microsoft and Adobe who else is out there? And what do they do about packaging? You can hardly afford to buy a standalone version of their products since bundling makes them more attractive. Fewer market-makers leads to fewer choices which means bigger profits for those who are left.

And finally, both industries built a wide chasm between the “artist” and the “buyer”. The infrastructure necessary to successfully run a package software business, or that of a record label are sizable. You have distributors and resellers to pay-off. You have gatekeepers to the market like radio stations and product reviewers. You need to market, sell and support these complex products and supply chains; and of course, everyone wants to get paid along the way. In the end the artist or developer got whatever was leftover.

Now, last month, we get the $0.99 software program – enter the App Store for the iPhone. It was an epiphany for me. Here on my phone, while I’m idling away a spare five minutes someplace I can find a little “one-hit wonder” of a software program, download and pay for it in a matter of seconds all for less than the price of soft drink at my local convenience store. If it doesn’t work out, so what? It was only a buck. Shamelessly I have to admit it, I have purchased more software (for me, not work) in the last week than I have in the last five years. And I love it.

Has Apple done it again? Did Apple reinvent the software business? We’re not even close yet but I see the signs pointing an interesting direction. What does it mean for ad-based business models? What does it mean to software development overall? Do we just go and build really tightly targeted apps and sell them for a buck with the developer keeping 70 cents on the dollar for each product sold? Why not? Hmmm… gotta run and go download the iPhone SDK.

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.

“Uncle”

Ever since 1991 I have dreamed of running a software company. You know the drill. Couple of folks working insane hours in a no-rules, no-stupidity environment to deliver an insanely great product that will be the talk of the industry. And for me the point of doing it was to just to just do it, not to focus on the big IPO or buyout for untold riches. No, it was my dream simply because it sounded like a load of fun.

Over the past 17 years I have written up a dozen or so business plans, forecasted businesses over four year horizons, developed pitch decks and tried to excite investors or partners. There was the electronic calendar to-do list manager in 1991 all the way through the relevant news readers in 2006. Along the way there was a Bluetooth switch product, a mobloging product, and a precursor to the SurfWatch products today that ensure a safe online experience. Even over the past two years I’ve shared and heard some great ideas that I have yet to go to the effort for the eventual disappointment of developing a business plan that no one found of interest.

But this past weekend I decided that’s it, I give up. Uncle. It is not suppose to be and me fighting it only makes me miserable while facing tremendous life opportunity costs. I’ll never say never, but I’m not going to actively pursue this dream any longer. I’m going to follow that road that unfolds before me. This was the epiphany I had over the weekend that has led me to this decision.

In 1997 I temporarily abandoned this idea of running a software company and just followed the river downstream. What happened? I got a great job that landed me in California. That one led to an even better job in Geneva that despite a shortened stay led to an even better job working on Bluetooth at Intel. That one ultimately worked it’s way into the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had, running the Bluetooth SIG. And then I got the itch to start a software company. I won’t go into the details but I made decisions to help me back onto that path and now I can see how it failed spectacularly.

When I was letting the plan unfold before me I was following my life path. When I tried to make it go the direction I wanted it didn’t work out. When I wasn’t pursuing my dream to run a software company I learned I was a great pragmatic strategist who could develop innovative plans that moved markets. When I wasn’t pursing my dream to run a software company I learned I was an incredible evangelist for new ideas who could easily hold his own with the toughest of analysts, customers or editors. When I didn’t pursue my outdated dream I came into my own and found respect, empathy for others and greatness. This is why I must abandon my dream of running a software company; it withholds me from my path.

So watch out, I’ve given up my dream. Who knows what might happen next.

Your Most Cherished Dreams

meditate.jpgA few months ago I got an interesting note in a fortune cookie. It read, “Hold onto your most cherished dreams.” As usual, this fortune was authored as a generality and therefore would apply to most anyone but for some reason it really stuck with me. And the questions I started asking myself were, “what are my most cherished dreams?” and “how would I prioritize them?”

I wrote, re-wrote and then re-wrote them again. Only after a few weeks was I happy with the results. So while I know I need to get better in directing my daily habits and actions to achieve them at least now I have a list:

  1. Be at peace with my healthy body, calm mind and charitable soul
  2. Raise responsible, caring and inspired children
  3. Enjoy loving relationships while living in a warm, nurturing home
  4. Blissfully wonder in experiencing the beauty and mystery of creation
  5. Have prosperous, invigorating work that leaves a positive impact

Being at the top of the list, my most cherished dream is to be at peace. I need to have a healthy body to chase my dreams so I need to exercise, eat well and (occasionally) get plenty of sleep. I need to keep an uncluttered mind and strive to be calm and emotively disconnected with the outcome of events in my life. What will be, will be. I also need to find ways to soulfully respond to events and challenges in my life in a kind and loving way that helps others.

Certainly as a father I want my kids to be happy, but I also want them to grow into respectable adults. I think to do that they need to be responsible, learn empathy for others and find something they are passionate about. I am a firm believer that much of this world’s sadness comes from people who don’t pursue their own dreams and passions. Like the saying goes, do what you love and you’ll never work another day of your life.

It is important to have caring relationships to encourage and care for us on our journey through life. Healthy ones go both ways as friends carry you a few steps after you’ve carried them. For much of my life I’ve felt home has been too hectic and seclusive. My habits contribute to the current state of affairs and I know why my life was like that when I was younger.

Finally I want to have impactful work for my days. I’m trying to use the term “work” generically but yes, I also mean the work for which I draw a salary. I believe my skills are mixed in a rare and valuable way so I hope I can find fiscal prosperity. My work should challenge my thinking, my skills, push me and help me grow nearly every day – and not just in the obvious ways but also put me into situations that push me out of my comfort zone and into a better understanding of my life. All this, while looking to make a positive lasting impact. I’m not so sure dedicating my life to an I.P.O. moment makes the impact I’d like to leave. This is not judgmental, simply my view of the type of footprints I want to leave when I’m gone.

So there’s my list. What’s yours? I know it’s a rough one and I’ve got some work to do, but even at 45 it’s okay to have dreams, right?

Product Diversion – An Innovative Notebook

While I’m less of a “toys for boys” kind of guy these days I am staring at five years on my current notebook and have been thinking about the new MacBook Air. You know, the one they slide out of a manila folder in the ad? Lots of cool ideas but in a lot of ways I’m actually disappointed.

Let me first tell you, over the past twenty-five years the best computer I’ve ever used was a Powerbook Duo in 1994. It was fast, light, small, and highly focused on the mobile experience … and it had a great docking solution. I always had all my stuff with me and I had only what I needed where I was. It didn’t have a PC Card slot (standard in it’s day), a floppy drive (standard in it’s day). Nor did it have a CD-ROM drive or wired ethernet. Those features were in the dock. Interesting.

So when I look at the Air I see the Duo with 14 years of speed improvement with a little wireless neatly tucked inside. Pretty cool, but in a way a sad statement of how slow we have innovated the conceptual design of a notebook computer.

What would break the mold and demonstrate real innovation in the market? Basically an oversized iPhone. So before you chronicle the sad efforts with pen based computing let me explain how this one could be different.

Firstly, the primary UI would be the iPhone Launcher. Windows is a crappy operating system for a pen interface. It always felt bolted on and clunky. The TabletPC too often tried to be everything to everyone – a useful desktop computer, notebook and tablet. My next mobile computer would be the ultimate digital notebook. What I am imagining is a flat (thin) device like the iPhone about 8×10 and less than an inch thick. There is no “cover,” only the touch screen like the iPhone. Perhaps Launcher could be modified to have dynamic icons that would be more like Dashboard widgets with mini views of your calendar, your notes and content on the web.

But what about a keyboard? First, you need to understand that my tablet would really be a portable display in disguise. The “dock” would be a stand for my tablet on my desk so I could use a standard keyboard when tapping away all day long at the office, connect to power and other interfaces. But … when I’m ready to go I just grab the “display” and I’m off.

Come one, what about a keyboard? When I’m on the plane or in a meeting, I would be able to invoke a software defined keyboard that takes up 30% of the screen (with transparency so it’s floating over your desktop and documents). In fact there would be several different versions of keyboard, one for landscape, one for portrait and one for two-hand gripping – the iPhone keyboard broken in two on each side of the display. And having a software defined keyboard would solve a tremendous problem in international markets – since they keyboard could easily be configured to be vastly different from English-centric QWERTY.

But alas, the breakthrough here is the observation that you don’t really need a keyboard for most of the stuff you do when you’re mobile. Think about it. When you’re away from your desk you do some typing but often we’re just surfing to a web site, peaking at e-mail or when on a plane, watching a movie or listening to music. Oh, and that bigger display would be sweet for watching videos when I’m away from my desk. And when I return I drop the display into the dock and in about an hour I’ll be ready to head off to my next appointment.

So there you have it. The first innovative notebook since the Duo.