Monthly Archives: January 2010

Web appliancification: Why new cars have old GPS

To understand the future of the web, look at the dashboard of this 2010 Toyota 4Runner. It’s sweet. Studly. And it has an old, outmoded GPS system.

For years the 4Runner has been one of Consumer Reports’ top-rated SUVs, so when Toyota redesigned it recently manly men were intrigued. It has strong lines, influenced by the blocky FJ Cruiser, and some clever improvements such as an overhead console allowing quick tweaks to 4-wheel-drive traction.

The new electrical network

And this is the challenge of the modern Internet. The 4Runner has an old GPS model with a flat 2-D map that shows your pinpoint crawling across it. No 3-D images of the roads looming ahead such as you’ll find in modern $100 units from TomTom or free from Google on a Droid cell phone. This little design problem is endemic across all auto brands, even among the upscale BMWs and Jaguars, because automakers fill their production pipelines years in advance of a car getting to market. When this car was actually sketched back in say 2006, the GPS system was state of the art. Now, in 2010, we have a brand new SUV with technology years behind the curve.

We call this web appliancification — or the constant improvements in devices that plug into global information systems. The Internet was once a vast wilderness that could only be accessed with a specialized device called a “web browser,” but now it’s turning into an information electrical grid, where you can plug in any device and it will work in a device-specific way. Josh Bernoff over at Ad Age calls it the “Splinternet” and suggests that after a golden age of 15 years in which we all used one window to get online, we’re now approaching an era with splinters of connectivity working on gadgets that have incompatible formats. This is true both from a hardware perspective — cell phones, smart phones, tablets, laptops, netbooks, GPS units, and web-based appliances — and in content ecosystems.

The ecosystem battle is most interesting because this is where the big money lies — including the billions of dollars in advertising spent each year chasing ecosystem audiences. The Apple iPad doesn’t play Flash video formats, because Steve Jobs wants you to buy video through his iTunes store — an ecosystem for music and now books and film. The Kindle is tied into Amazon’s competing ecosystem. Hulu wants to own TV viewers, Twitter your future connections, Facebook your past friends, Netflix your film entertainment, Google your commercial searches, Microsoft your work tools, Rupert Murdoch your paid news. In essence, the 1990s “portal” strategy in which content producers fought to find ways to lock in their customers is back, alive and well.

This pressure of micronetworks vying to control your online life has created a new brand rush of content positioning. Why has Google launched a cell phone? Because it wants to lock in audiences in the emerging mobile channel. Consumers have only so many modes — entertainment, news, work, friends. There can only be a few leaders for each modality. The challenge for marketers is as devices continue to shift, our connections to these new online portals mutate quickly too. It’s very hard to maintain market leadership in an information ecosystem when the gadgets that hold the keys keep transforming. The risk for your business is no matter how solid your product, like Toyota, your information appeal to consumers may get left on the road behind.

Google, sex, Utah and chocolate. We’re not making this up.

If you haven’t toyed with Google Insights for Search yet, get going. It’s Google Trends on steroids, allowing you to glean from global search information which regional markets are most interested in your products at which times of the year. There were more than 137 billion searches on the five major U.S. search engines in 2008, making Google a tremendous free database of market interest in products.

Take lingerie. Did you know that the highest concentration of interest in diaphanous negligees is in Utah? Or that the most frequently searched terms revolve around “plus” sizes? A savvy marketer, thinking of how to attract this larger friskier audience, might dream up a chocolate promotion. Google Insights then reveals the highest search volume for chocolate is in the month of December.

And voilà! You target a Christmas holiday promotion for nightgowns in Utah that, rather than 50% off price, offers a free gift of chocolate to every online buyer. And instead of Victoria’s Secret super-thin models, you load your web site with images of real women in larger sizes.

Google Insights is worth playing with for your business. Godiva, call us.

Why Apple hates Flash and the Droid has a search key

Apple and Google have something in common: They are both furiously trying to protect their content ecosystems. Apple launched the iPad yesterday with no Flash support — meaning the majority of video on the web won’t work on the tablet device, including clips from (Word is the New York Times demo had a frozen pane for video in the iPad launch presentation, not a pretty sight.) This is not a design oversight; Apple obviously wants you to watch video by downloading it (and paying for it) from iTunes. Apple is telling Adobe, which controls Flash and thus the majority of online video, it’s game on.

Google, as the above ad demonstrates, takes another tact. Mobile phones are filled with handy apps that allow you to get online with a single tap — and oh yes, by the way, pass Google. Who needs to search on mobile with a search engine when a restaurant, news, sports or map icon gets you to web-based information instantly? If anything, the emergence of new tablet devices could make app onramps to the Internet even more popular. So Google has invested in a phone OS and hardware design which notably has a hot key that launches a Google search browser. Then, to educate the public, Google is running full-page ads in Wired magazine trying to convince you that searching via Google on a cell phone is just as important as doing so on a PC screen.

Apple wants you to buy its videos. Google wants you to use its search engine. And you’re learning entirely new devices — smart phones and tablets and soon other task-specific Internet-wired gadgets — that may lead you in entirely new directions. It’s fun to see the current big players in technology so worried as consumers shift their media habits once again. Wonder if old habits will stick.

The hive mind of Apple desire

You, dear reader, are an ant that is part of a much larger colony — a hive mind, or what artificial intelligence designers call a “swarm intelligence.” This is what happens when you see flocks of birds, each acting alone according to simple rules (fly fast, don’t bump into each other) swarm instantly in new directions. We observe group awareness in insects and in schools of fish. You might think that evolved humans are above such collective behaviors, but an observer of the financial markets or a passenger aboard a plane flying into JFK can see groups of humans moving masses of resources to terraform our planet. Really, people: We’re only 4 billion years into the 10 billion-year life cycle of the Earth’s sun, so if you think humans are the apex of evolution, you’re wrong by about 60 percent. As animals do, so do we.

So if we assume hominids act in groups like all other animals, and that all large groups of creatures make intelligent collective decisions to protect their species, and thus our society has a collective consciousness, what can we make of the fanfare of speculation about the Apple Tablet? Why, that 2010 humans are making a prediction that a new device will fill several gaps in our societal infrastructure: Our ability to consume content, move ourselves, broadcast to others, and salvage the struggling publishing and advertising industries. The Apple hyperbole newsgroup is judging as a whole that our peripatetic culture is about to receive a missing tool, a device that connects the world more easily.

This is more than thinking Apple will make a good product — what marketing scholars Raquel Castaño, Mita Sujan, Manish Kacker, and Harish Sujan have called a cost-benefit consumption analysis. Hive minds act as prediction markets, making decisions not on what they think will happen, or what they believe others think will happen, but what they think others think still others think will happen. Society, like a savvy investor, is three steps removed from logic, trying to game the future that will play out among all the other players. We’re like single spectators in a bar guessing who will hook up with whom to better our own odds. Society is judging the tablet as something that others think everyone will find useful.

And what is that? A future world in which panes of glass make true communication — sight, sound, video, text — portable at last. When tomorrow’s Apple Tablet is remembered a decade from now as the first real effort at portable screens — in 2020, when such panes cost $20 and are in every schoolchild’s backpack — we may look back and laugh. But it portends a future when the Internet has come unbound and unwired, where two-way video is everywhere, where information is finally at every fingertip, when you can cast your own face to your social network anywhere. Don’t trust us. The hive mind of hyperbole says it must be true.

Image: Toastforbrekkie

Why Foursquare clowns around

From our guest post at Jim Mitchem‘s Obsessed with Conformity:

A curious trend in social media is how most of its tools start out as perceived toys, worthy of laughter, and then gradually migrate to the mainstream. When Facebook and Twitter launched, early adopters in the business world were often kidded by colleagues. “That’s great,” an old friend emailed me in 2008 upon hearing I was on Facebook, “now you can stay in touch with teenage girls.” Yet soon Twitter is tied in to CNN feeds and chief marketing officers are networking with their ad agencies inside Facebook. In 2010, if you are not using these tools you risk looking stupid.

So here we go again, with geolocation-social media tools. Relatively new services such as Foursquare and Gowalla update your friends when you reach certain physical spots — in essence, broadcasting your location on a map into your online network. Like early social networks, the premise makes sense yet combines a whiff of immaturity that gives grownups pause. Sure, in a busy world it could be useful to get pinged by a colleague when she reaches a certain point. But the services include stupid-sounding updates. “Hein V. in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, became mayor of Vespuccimarket.” “Patrick unlocked the ‘Adventurer’ badge.” The only mature response is: “WTF?” And this month, in the latest goofy Foursquare update, Jan. 28, 2010 has been decreed “International Day of the Toilet,” wherein you can let your friends know exactly when you hit the can.

Gaming psychology

But pause. Reflect. Before you deride such silliness, realize the two real undercurrents. First, early creators of new technology must always push the boundaries of maturity, because none of us really needs anything new — so first forays often come off as gimmicks. (Remember the first camera on your cell phone, and the jokes about who needed to take a picture of their ear? Now most people love them and real camera makers are watching their business slip away.) And second, in a world where everyone is now leaping into social media, creators of new social media networks must create game-like mechanics to try to boost adoption and break through the clutter. Gaming psychology is extremely powerful; the “follower” counts on Twitter have become high score rewards that help boost loyal usage. So it’s no mistake that Foursquare updates users’ networks of colleagues with the strange-sounding whimsy of “mayors” and “badges”: It’s a way to get attention, to wake you up, perhaps to get you to try the damn thing.

As such geolocation technology becomes prevalent, we expect the maturity levels to rise and the gimmickry to settle down. Soon, you’ll be updating everyone about your whereabouts, too. Just be careful when you’re in the can.

Image: Drop Nineteens

Cheerios: A cauldron full of seething excitations

To understand Americans’ hunger for self-pleasure, simply read this box.

Cheerios has launched a new chocolate cereal that must compete with hundreds of alternatives in the aisle. In the U.S., Cheerios is a favorite of moms who want a wholesome, feel-good breakfast for kids. Yet General Mills knows that the real consumers — children — love a sweet treat in the morning. So here comes its new product with 9 grams of sweetness per approximately 25.5-gram serving, more than one-third pure sugar. When Sigmund Freud wrote of humanity’s lustful, chaotic “cauldron full of seething excitations,” he could have meant this.

So how can Chocolate Cheerios break through? By appealing to both Freud’s Id (lust) and Ego (restraint) at the same time. Chocolate Cheerios is “made with real cocoa” (natural ingredients), it “may reduce the risk of heart disease” (what mom doesn’t worry about her family’s health?), and of course comes with a “whole grain guarantee” (this is not just real natural food, but General Mills is so certain this is real, it guarantees it). Even the colors of the cereal itself are half white and half cocoa, visually meeting Id and Ego halfway.

Cheerios, you’ve hit our logic-restrained desires perfectly. How sweet it is.

Adidas whacks Nike with a lightsaber

“What the hell?” you think, watching TIE fighters zoom over Snoop Dogg and David Beckham with an urban backbeat. And then it clicks: Adidas is moving in on Nike one sports demo at a time. In January 2006 it bought Reebok, bringing total athletic shoe sales to No. 2 in the world. In April the same year it won an 11-year deal to be the official sponsor of the National Basketball Association. Adidas is all over Major League Soccer, in 2007 it announced a move into lacrosse, and it recently began stuffing computer chips and kangaroo leather into its highest-end shoes seeking halo differentiation. It now has little kids covered with a Disney tie-in. So, how to get more attention?

Star Wars! Um … Star Wars? Adidas’ new Darth Vadar mask seems curious, since the last Star Wars film was released in May 2005, until you realize it’s a smart tactic for infusing Adidas’ brand with a meme we all love. What better brand to jack up Adidas adrenaline than a big-bold outer space dream filled with fight scenes? And since nothing happens with Star Wars without George Lucas’s approval, it also makes you wonder … is more to come from the franchise, perhaps the 3-D film versions Lucas hinted about back in 2005? Is Adidas an early blip on the Luke Skywalker master marketing calendar?

Adidas’ current marketing slogan is “Impossible is Nothing.” That’s not as catchy as Nike’s old “Just Do It,” but as far as catching Nike, Adidas has $15.2 billion in sales vs. Nike’s $19.1 billion. Maybe nothing is impossible.

Via @chicalibre and AdRants.

News, now

Is social media no longer a toy? Christian Borges, VP at Deep Focus and a first-generation Haitian-American, feared for his loved ones’ lives in Haiti this week. He wrote in Ad Age:

“I needed to know what was happening — the not knowing was maddening. Twitter and Tweet-deck of course have played the dominant role in keeping me informed with ‘real-time’ updates and links to deeper pieces of information. Tweets from all the major news organizations and journalists from @breakingnews, @latimes, and @CNN to @GregMitch; tweets and re-tweets from @Wyclef started to populate my Twitter feed encouraging the masses to text ‘yele’ to 501501 and donate $5 for relief; others started to Tweet similar text initiatives as well. I also saw Tweets with links to a Flickr Haiti Earthquake group with photos that captured the devastation, as well as Twitter lists such as @NPRNews/Haiti-Earthquake and YouTube videos of Wyclef and Haitian author Edwidge Danticante on CNN Live with Anderson Cooper from the night before…”

It’s only one case study, but shows how new tools are catching up to our human need for immediacy.

Image: John McNab