Monday, October 31, 2011

Good product, bad pitch

Today I called in to Dick Smith Electronics because my wife, who now has a brain injury, wanted to take a look at the Kindle ebook reader.

She particularly wanted to evaluate the Kindle because it offers a text to speech function that has the potential to significantly restore much of the enjoyment she used to get from reading.

Unfortunately, since her injury, reading is now very difficult and she finds it much easier to follow the words while they're read out-loud -- hence, the Kindle sounded like the perfect answer to her problem.

We entered the Dick Smith store and asked an assistant where we could find the Kindles. The woman, obviously more interested in doing something else rather than serving nuisance customers, gestured towards the back of the shop and continued with what she was doing.

Off we strolled in the general direction of her pointing and eventually found a pile of empty Kindle boxes labeled "Take this empty box to the checkout to purchase your Kindle". Atop this pile of empties was a working unit operating in "demo mode".

I showed the wife how the buttons worked and we marveled at the high contrast and resolution of the e-ink display.

However, the real reason for the visit was to experience the quality and practicality of the text to speech function so I called over another young shop assistant in the hopes he'd be able to produce such a demo.

He fiddled with the unit for a few minutes before deciding that perhaps the demo model had that functionality disabled.

Another customer came up to us at this stage and began to expound the wonders of the Kindle, saying that he couldn't live without his -- but still no demo of the text to speech.

While we were talking to this customer, the youthfull Dick Smith salesperson finally managed to get the speech system working -- but we couldn't hear it over the extraordinarily loud music that had been screaming from one of the stereo systems throughout our entire time in the shop.

No matter how hard we listened, the Kindle's sound was obliterated by the thumping base and crashing treble of this stereo -- which was right across the other side of the shop.

We said "we can't really hear it over the music" -- to which the sales assistant simply looked blankly at us. Perhaps he couldn't hear us over the noise either.

By holding my ear really close to the Kindle I was able to hear a typical monotone computer synthesized voice which may have been okay -- except that it was reading very fast, far too quickly for my wife to keep up with.

"Can you slow it down?" I inquired.

"Dunno" I was told -- and no attempt was made to find out.

What should have been a very easy sale for DSE was totally ruined by the seeming disinterest of the staff and some strange need to fill the showroom with the emanations of the local radio station to such an extent that a demo was virtually useless.

I'll probably just import one now by purchasing online. After all, if this is the level of service one gets before you lay down your money, how bad would it be afterwards if something went wrong?

DSE -- epic fail!

Now I'll use the Net to find the answers to my questions. Thank goodness for technology.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Google's monopoly to be strengthened?

Word on the wires is that Google is seriously contemplating a buy-out of Yahoo.

Well actually, they're not being quite that blatant about it because a direct attempt at acquisition by Google would likely be disallowed by anti-monopolies (antitrust) legislation and thus would fail.

However, there is more than one way to skin a cat and information has come to light that Google may attempt an indirect buy-out by funding a third-party group of companies to bid for what was once the Web's most valuable property. I say "was once" because Yahoo has fallen on hard times in recent years and is now ripe for takeover.

However despite falling from its once mighty position as "the defacto hub of internet content", Yahoo still has a larger share of the search market than its nearest competitor, Microsoft's Bing. It is because of this that a direct pitch by Google would fail.

Right now, Google has a massive 65% of the market and Yahoo has around 16%, versus Microsoft's 15% so a complete acquisition would give Google more than 80% market-share, clearly a situation that would cement its current move towards "owning" this sector of the industry.

Of course Google has another reason for wanting to buy Yahoo -- simply to avoid Microsoft doing the same. If the boys at Redmond were to purchase Yahoo, they'd double their share of the search market with the stroke of a pen (and the rustle of dollar bills) -- and that would erode Google's own position.

According to reports, Microsoft's Bing has not been the success they'd hoped -- in fact it's bleeding red ink quite significantly. Although Yahoo itself isn't exactly massively profitable, the synergy of the two search engines and the resultant ability to rationalize costs could see a turn-around on the Microsoft ledger for this part of its business.

Google has a mantra of "do no evil" which it has managed to keep to (by and large) so far. There are grave concerns however, that if it does establish such huge dominance in the search market, the temptation to stray from this ideology may become too great.

You know what they say... power corrupts, and ultimate power....

Perhaps what's needed in the online marketplace is more competition rather than less.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Plug and prey

I'm a bit late with this week's column and that's because I'm still recovering from the painful experience of passing a kidney stone.

However, the ordeal was not without some useful insight into our technology and the way we use it.

When the ambulance arrived in response to my 111 call (yes, it was *that* painful and I was getting really concerned that I might pass out and vomit at the same time), they rolled up and threw a blood-pressure/pulse monitor cuff on my arm.

This unit is attached to a fancy box with big LCD display, touch screen, knobs, buttons and a price-tag that would probably make your second car look cheap.

When they pushed the "go" button, a firm but polite voice said "please connect".

The ambo lady frowned and pushed the button again....

"please connect"

She wiggled the wires, removed and reinserted the plugs -- then frowned again when it continued to say "please connect".

Eventually it started working and the cuff inflated, my BP and heart-rate displayed and there was a barely perceptible sigh of relief from its operator.

For a moment I was wondering (amidst the pain) if I'd have to start diagnosing a fault in the medical gear before we'd even get into the back of the ambulance.

When I got to the emergency room I was wheeled behind a curtain and, after the usual questions (are you alergic to anything? What is the capital of Peru? etc, etc) an ultrasound machine was wheeled out.

The probe was greased up and applied to my abdomen which, fortunately, was now not as painful as it had been just 15 minutes earlier.

This ultrasound machine was pretty new apparently. It too had a big LCD display with touch screen and lots of blinky lights.

Unfortunately I saw the doctor frown as he began stabbing at the screen.

Was I going to die? Had he seen something awful inside me?

No... as it turns out, he was having trouble making the machine work.

Or, to be precise, he was having trouble figuring out *how* to make the machine work.

After much poking (of the screen, not me) it finally started behaving and he had a good old virtual rummage around inside me.

Nothing wrong there -- everything about the right size and in the right place -- although he couldn't find my left kidney but attributed that to a little gas in my intestines.

It was becoming increasingly clear however, that our medical people are often quite naive when it comes to the use of their hi-tech gear. Obviously, in making these things fool-proof we remove any need to understand the basics of how they work.

Unfortunately, that means that when/if they don't work -- all you get from those trying to use them is a nasty frown.

This drawback to uber-friendly technology has been a trend apparent ever since the middle of the 20th century, when automotive technology changed from something you could easily understand and fix with a screwdriver or hammer -- to a big box of "magic" that requires shelves of diagnostic computers and a PhD in nuclear physics to properly comprehend.

Now, so long as all this new-fangled stuff works as it should, we all benefit.

Unfortunately, when it doesn't do what it's supposed to, I can easily see that (at least in the area of medicine), doctors and nurses could become to focused on "fixing the machine" rather than fixing the patient.

Me thinks there's room for improvement here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Time to stop imitating and start innovating!

A growing number of tablet makers are discovering that they have to drop their prices to compete with the iPad.

In fact, Amazon has hopped straight onto the discounted hardware model and is shipping its Kindle Fire at a give-away price from day one.

Even with the move towards fire-sale prices however, most of the tablet-makers are not doing brisk sales -- in fact, some industry insiders believe that the tablet market is turning out to be a major bust for "brand name" players, except Apple.

Why is this?

How come none of the other "big names" can replicate Apple's success?

Well I'm wondering if it's not actually the "tablet" computer that has people (and their wallets) captivated. I'm starting to think that it's actually just the iPad.

The iPad may be a tablet computer but no other tablet computer is an iPad. This is a one-way equation and as such, means that other wannabe tablet-makers are wasting their time and their money trying to compete because... they'll never be able to build an iPad.

Today I received some junk mail in my letterbox from Noel Leeming and two items made be think "they have to be kidding!".

The first was a "Pre-order Now" ad for the new "Sony S" -- Sony's new tablet computer.

Now I'm sorry but there's just no way I (or anyone else I know) will spend $950 on a tablet that isn't an iPad.

This product is being pitched as a device for music and gaming -- are they kidding? Tablets are not gaming platforms and I can buy a rather nice little MP3/MP4 player from China for $50 that will do the job very nicely.

The other ad which made me look twice was a pitch for the new Sony e-Reader. Once again, I'm not spending $230 on an ebook reader that isn't a Kindle.

No, I'm not a brand-name snob -- I'm just aware that the Kindle is "the" ebook reader. It has everything anyone might want *and* it comes with wireless or 3G access to Amazon's incredible ebook shop. Why would I spend as much for a second-tier device as I would for the recognised industry leader?

I'm afraid that companies like Sony, LG, and all the others will have to learn that the days of making money by playing the "me too" game are quickly drawing to a close.

Simply trying to out-tablet the iPad or out ebook the Kindle is only going to earn you red ink on your sales ledger.

Come on you people -- stop imitating and start innovating!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Software clash - the case for a single-source

Something very interesting happened this past week.

Microsoft declared Google's Chrome browser to be a piece of malware and suggested people delete it.

Was this a cunning ploy to try and promote Internet Explorer as the best browser?

No, it was a simple human snafu that resulted in the kind of software clash nobody likes to contemplate.

It seems that Microsoft Security Essentials was updated with an erroneous signature which happened to match that for Google Chrome and, acting on that errant information, some users were mistakenly told by MSE that their computers were now infected with the Win32/Zbot piece of malware, renowned for stealing login details and credit card numbers.

Microsoft quickly posted an advisory detailing their mistake but by then it was too late for some users who'd already acted on MSE's recommendations and obliterated Chrome from their PCs.

Unfortunately, in a world where multiple software vendors are competing for a slice of your IT spend, such clashes are occasionally inevitable and I'm sure this won't be the last.

It is interesting that the new model for software distribution, as used by Apple for those wishing to buy iPhone apps, is to vet each and every program before it's released for sale. Once given this "seal of approval" and made available for purchase, customers can buy with a slightly increased level of confidence that major clashes won't occur.

I say "slight increase" because, as we've seen, even this model of software distribution is not infallible.

While Microsoft's blunder was surely accidental, there can be no doubt that it will likely result in a benefit to the company, within a market that may now be more inclined to use a browser they could expect to be more compatible with their operating system -- because it's from the same vendor.

For those who acted on MSE's directives, Google has announced that it will be releasing a "fixup" that should restore affected systems to their previous configuration.

System administrators will likely now be adding up the cost of "putting things right" and whether they reconsider the use of MSE and Google Chrome (or any 3rd-party product) as bed-partners on their systems.