Throwing the baby out with the bath water

January 28, 2008

From today’s NYT:  In reply to a blogger’s complaint about a current Target ad, Target sent an email to the blogger that said “Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets.”  (emphasis mine). 

Wow!  The notion that any company has the chutzpah to completely disregard a major communications channel takes my breath away.  I’m not commenting on how seriously they should take ShapingYouth.org, the founder of which sent the complaint — I don’t anything about that particular blog, though I’d guess they’ve had record traffic today.   

I do know that “conversational marketing” is the most fundamental shift in marketing that’s happened during my career.  To eliminate all blogs – one of the major manifestations of conversational marketing — from consideration, with the arrogant-sounding, broad-brush, across-the-board statement that Target used makes me wonder what they’re doing over there in the marketing department.  (Jeez guys, at least don’t say it that way, even if that’s what you’re doing.)

Figuring out how to “participate” with the blogosphere is hard.  It requires resources and it’s messy because there’s no control on the number or quality of bloggers.  It requires a willingness to slog through a lot of meaningless drivel to make sure you don’t miss the important stuff and to engage on some issues that normally wouldn’t get your attention. 


When giving credit, get it right

January 22, 2008

Mitch Kapor, in Jim Fallow’s blog, has weighed in on who did what back in the early days of spreadsheets.  While I gave him credit for being the first to adapt the spreadsheet to the IBM PC, Mitch points out that both VisiCalc and MultiPlan (Microsoft’s first spreadsheet product) were available for the IBM PC before 1-2-3 shipped in January 1983.  He’s right of course and I should have remembered that. Thanks to Jim for straightening that out.

Dan Bricklin and  Bob Frankston’s distinction stands:  they invented VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet product for personal computers and one hell of a killer app.


Give credit where credit is due

January 20, 2008

In the category of “this really bugs me.”  In his NYT tech column today, G. Pascal Zachary credits Mitch Kapor with inventing the spreadsheet.  Specifically he says: 

While at the Lotus Development Corporation, Mr. Kapor created another such “killer app,” or application: the spreadsheet for the PC.”

He is just plain wrong.

That distinction goes to Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, the inventors of VisiCalc for the Apple II, which was singlehandedly responsible for moving the Apple II into widespread business use.  Lotus’ 1-2-3 was notable as the first spreadsheet on the IBM PC.  It propelled PCs even more into the mainstream of business and that was a big deal but not close to the level of innovation in the original invention. 

I know this first hand.  I was one of the original editors for Computing Retailing magazine when VisiCalc was introduced (yes I know this dates me).  Much later, Dan, Vern Raburn, Tom Byers and I started Slate Corp., one of the early efforts at software for the pen interface.  Bob Frankston joined us there soon after and I have very fond memories of working with both Dan and Bob.


Just stay home?

January 15, 2008

I’ve started following more closely efforts to reduce airline greenhouse emissions so today’s story that Virgin Atlantic will test fly an airliner powered by biofuel generated caught my attention.  My local paper The Seattle Post Intelligencer gave this a lot of ink, as did the Dot Earth blog in the New York Times. 

My increased interest follows my recent epiphany that air travel is the single largest contributor to my personal carbon footprint.  I found this out when I recently calculated my footprint using two different free online calculators:  Carbon Footprint and TerraPass.  While the results were somewhat different (accounted for, presumably, by differences in inputs as well as calculation assumptions), the conclusion about air travel was startlingly clear.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  I put about 6,000 miles on my car each year, yet I fly, by Terra Pass’s calculations, more than 46,000 miles between regular business travel, two trips to Atlanta to see family each year, plus one international trip just for the fun of it.  Holy mackerel!  So much for my puny efforts to walk more and stop using disposable water bottles. 

I applaud Richard Branson’s high-profile efforts.  He has pledged billions of dollars to find energy sources for transportation that don’t contribution to global warming (and presumably DO contribute to oil independence).  There’s tremendous controversy about the viability of biofuels of course with a sister story in the NYT today about banning some biofuels in Europe.  But at least he’s trying. 

In the meantime, airlines and manufacturers are scrambling to increase the fuel efficiency of their existing fleets – economically motivated by oil at $90 barrel plus.  That’s great news for my friends at Naverus, whose technology lets airlines save fuel by flying highly efficient routes.


Wikia and Big Think: Contrasts in user-generated content concepts

January 7, 2008

The New York Times today featured articles on two nascent web sites: Wikia Search and Big Think.

There’s an intrinsic marketing problem in launching any site built around user-generated content:  The site is useful only once there’s lots of user-generated content, which is really hard to get until you have lots of users, which you achieve by getting lots of press coverage for your new site.  But of course, the PR drives people to a bare bones site that doesn’t showcase the site’s vision very well.  The more interesting question is whether the core concept will be compelling once the site is well populated.  In this case, I think there’s one potential winner and one site that’s missing the mark.

First a little background:

Wikia Search (by Wikia, the for-profit sister organization of Wikipedia) launched the alpha of its search engine today. The idea behind Wikia is laudable – it will rely on the user community to fine-tune search results by allowing users to rate search results for quality and relevance.  To his credit, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales admits that people using the search engine “should understand that they are part of the early stages of a project to build a ‘Google-quality search engine.’” Read the article. 

The Times also featured a large article on Big Think – a kind of YouTube for intellectual ideas.  It features video interviews with public intellectuals from a variety of fields, broken down into short snippets on various topics.  Users can post comments, creating an online debate, and also post their own original ideas. 

Of the two sites, Wikia Search has much less value as of today – the search results are laughable and the features to allow users to refine the content aren’t really there.  Yet I can easily see its potential. 

Big Think worked diligently to pre-populate its site with interviews of intellectuals and celebrities ranging from John McCain to Calvin Trillin, to Alan Dershowitz.  But I have a much harder time ever seeing it succeed as founder Peter Hopkins envisioned it:  “a web site that could do for intellectuals what YouTube did for bulldogs on skateboards.”  The sad truth that is that most people are pretty darn dull when they’re giving a monologue to a camera.  The short snippets are banal and the longer pieces are downright tedious.  (No, I didn’t check out every single example — but enough)  The big opportunity is to figure out how to empower the user community’s version of Charlie Rose or James Lipton to truly engage with Alan Dershowitz or you or me.  Till then, Big Think will have a bigger problem than just chicken and egg.


On long poles, sportiness and belly buttons

January 6, 2008

Each Sunday, as those who know me well can attest, I read William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times Magazine before pretty much anything else.  If you love language, you love his column.  This week I was surprised to see him credit “long pole in the tent” as the hot metaphor emerging in the new year.  But it all made sense once he identified the expression as an “aviation term.” 

It took me back to my days at Eclipse Aviation (2000-2005), where the long pole in the tent was a topic of regular discussion.  Among the various definitions Safire ponders, the one closest to our use was the one attributed to Tony Velocci editor of Aviation Week as “the thing among a list of tasks for a project that will take the longest to do, or alternatively, the thing that will ‘hold everything up.’” 

I’d come from the high-tech world into Eclipse, a company that was composed of equal parts computer industry folks and aviation world folks with a sprinkling of military veterans.  It was a fertile environment for cross-pollinization of metaphors and buzz words.  “Long pole in the tent” was the first of many expressions I picked up there. 

Two other favorites: 

Sporty – aggressive, optimistic.  A schedule could be sporty, as could a sales target or an aircraft spec.  I believe that Ken Harness, our VP Engineering, now COO North America of Diamond Aircraft, brought this phrase with him from a previous life at Sikorsky, though fellow Eclipsers should feel free to correct me. 

Belly button – responsible person.  As in “Who’s the belly button on this?”  Gene Garnes, our VP Program Management, contributed this expression and if memory serves correctly, he brought it from his former career in the U.S. Marine Corps. 

Put them all together and you get.  “X is the long pole in the tent for getting into flight test, which we’re planning for May.  That’s sporty!  Who’s the belly button on this?”


Free Rice

November 9, 2007

I came across the site Free Rice today, courtesy of Seth Godin’s blog.   It is an ultra-simple, fast-paced vocabulary quiz.  The twist is that for every correct answer you give, the advertisers donate 10 grains of rice on your behalf to the United Nations World Food Program. You don’t even have to register. If you like words at all, you will love this site. 

We’re seeing an extraordinary escalation right now of philanthropic programs of every size and variety (read Bill Clinton’s book Giving for hundreds of anecdotes).  Free Rice is a new and welcome twist that builds giving into everyday fun.  I love its cleverness and I hope it will become a Facebook app.