Friday, February 23, 2007

What's Uploading, Doc?

So now it's out of the bag. Google is actually going to charge money for software. Its collections of office tools will put it in competition with Microsoft Office, a huge cash cow for Microsoft. These tools include documents, spreadsheets, e-mail, calendars, etc.

The Google differentiator is that these will be Web-based. You no longer have to worry about which version of your document is on which machine, or how you will access one spreadsheet from anther computer. Everything will reside with Google. Moreover, you can identify others who will be able to access the same documents, spreadsheets, etc., so everyone can collaborate.

Of course, the question on everyone's lips is "How will they fare against Microsoft.?" Some think the Web functionality will be enough of a draw to lure customers away from MS. Others argue that Microsoft has the brand that conveys reliability. (Actually, reliability is not what most people think of when they think of Microsoft.)

Moreover, Google's got pretty impressive brand recognition itself. In fact, in light of this week's product announcements, last year's purchase of makes more sense. Why would a company spend over $1.5 billion on a bunch of home movies? Because they can!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

New Vistas

Microsoft has committed the blunder of the century. By introducing Vista, a supposedly revolutionary version of Windows, they are essentially inviting their customer base to consider upgrading both operating system and hardware.

And once you consider upgrading operating system and hardware, you might as well consider a Macintosh! After all, the Macs not only have the reputation for reliability and ease of use that Windows is striving for, but they can now run Windows! So you don't even have to change all your software at once.

Apple has, of course, wasted no time in playing this up in their marketing campaign, inviting PC users to upgrade to a Mac. It certainly sounds tempting.

Follow-up to "Space Case"

As a quick follow-up to my Tuesday note, Astronaut Lisa Nowak is now charged with attempted murder, not merely attempted kidnapping. NASA may finally consider doing periodic mental health evaluations for its team of astronauts. Geez, it's about time. Did they think the term "space cadet" was a compliment?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Space Case

I'm a child of the space age. I had picture books about the as-yet-unrealized hope of landing on the moon. I had records (yes, records) of songs about outer space. We left elementary school classes to go down to the gym to crowd around a small black and white TV, watching the historic flights of Alan Shepherd and John Glenn. And I was a young teenager when men did finally walk on the moon, marring it forever with footprints and litter.

I always knew that the space program, and the moon landing in particular, were phenomenal accomplishments of engineering and technology. Humankind always needs heroes, so we saluted the brave astronauts who flew these historic missions, but the real work was done by the engineers. The astronauts could, and sometimes did, fill the jobs that could have been performed by a dog or a chimp. Of course, having humans enabled us to learn much more on these flights, and to salvage missions that would otherwise have gone awry, but the actual accomplishment of space travel was an engineering feat. This is why Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, and the later movie, were so misguided. They depicted the engineers as a bunch of buffoons who needed the astronauts to set things straight. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nevertheless, the astronauts were unquestionably heroic. They were certainly courageous and valiant. They underwent arduous and grueling training. They confronted unknown obstacles. And when problems arose, they proved themselves resourceful, energetic and fearless. In fact (and in fiction), they were the ultimate role models ... cleaner then boy scouts, hardier than baseball players, and more wholesome and American than a Norman Rockwell painting.

And that is why the news of an astronaut's being arrested for attempted kidnapping is such a blow. This former shuttle crew member was involved in a tawdry love triangle which included a shuttle pilot from another mission. She drove 900 miles, donned a disguise, and attempted to abduct her love rival in a parking lot.

I'm not sure which is more shocking ... how the entire profession of "astronaut" and the values linked to the space age are now horribly debased, or that some TV writer didn't come up with this first! Well, they will now.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Geeks vs. the Heads

Some people may care about the Colts' upset victory over the Bears in yesterday's superbowl, but most people between the ages of 20 and 70 know the really big story is the victory of the Geeks over the Heads. In more modern lingo, it's the triumph of Apple Inc. (formerly Apple Computer) over Apple Corps, the Beatles' business entity. The computer wonks have won out over the greatest pop band of all time.

For decades, the two Apples have been duking it out over the use of the name, and of the eponymous fruit depicted in their logos. Initially, the music business and the computer business were so widely divergent that no one would ever have mistaken one trademark for the other. In recent years, though, Apple's (the computer one) ventures into the iPod and iTunes have put it squarely in the path of Apple (the Beatles' one). Yet another lawsuit was pending when the current deal was announced. Basically, the computer company now owns the Apple trademark, and will license it back to the Beatles' music company for some uses.

This is the triumph of medium over message. The company that controls the technology dominates over the company that creates the actual content. The Beatles and Apple Corps have been making money hand over fist since the 1960's, but the (1970's vintage) computer company is the real powerhouse. In some sense, it was ever thus. The fortunes of all the big recording artists have been dwarfed by those of their managers and record labels. But somehow, this Apple v. Apple resolution seems to bring this ironic disparity into sharper focus. These were two giants, in some sense each the pinnacle of its field: groundbreaking counter-culture music vs. technology.

The silver lining that everyone's hoping for is that maybe the Beatles' recordings will finally be available through iTunes. Neither Apple is commenting on that, but hey, at least it's not Microsoft!

Friday, February 2, 2007

Real World Spam

There are as many opinions about the recent Boston bomb scare/ad campaign as there are blogs on the Web (4.3 gazillion, at last count). Some claim the Boston authorities overreacted, and some say it was necessary. Some say the two men who planted the devices were reckless and irresponsible, and others that they were hapless pawns of big money advertisers like Turner Broadcasting.

The fact that seems to be overlooked is that this is an incident of real world (i.e., non-e-mail) spam. Yes, spam, pure and simple. This is advertising that's meant to circumvent the normal channels in order to get in your face. Technology watchers often talk about disruptive technology ... technology that changes the way lives and business are conducted in significant ways. The TBS Adult Swim ads are an example of disruptive advertising. It works precisely because it defies your expectations about where advertising should be and how it should reach you. The bomb scare was the best publicity Turner could have wished for.

In fact, the advertising is scarier than the bomb threat! Actual bombs would have been either the result of a few deranged individuals (Think Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph or Theodore Ka... uh, the Unabomber), or the work of a determined subversive organization like al Qaeda or the Aum Shinri Kyo cult. Subversive advertising, on the other hand, is the product of our own culture and economy. It is the inevitable outcome of our technology and economic system.

As technology advances, we are confronted with more and more media outlets. Only 60 years ago, there were newspapers, magazines and radio. Now there's television, the Internet, downloadable software and content, and a host of other ways for messages to reach us. Not only does the technology give us ways to filter out advertising (pop-up blockers, fast forwarding on VCRs and DVD players, etc.), but we ourselves become numb to the ever-present advertising that confronts us. We learn to ignore it. How many people actually look at the ads on their Google search pages? (Please look at the ads on this blog!)

So, like an organism adapting to a changing environment, advertising itself has to become at once more intrusive and more tightly integrated with content. Product placement in movies and TV shows is everywhere. People drive cars and wear clothing festooned with billboard-style ads. Busses and taxis carry animated displays. Public buildings and sports venues are named after sponsors. And, of course, FAX and e-mail spam are out of control

This kind of unrelenting, in-your-face advertising is much like the tobacco companies' increasing nicotine levels in cigarettes in order to hook more smokers faster. This is strictly a corporate survival tactic.