Archive for April, 2009

Spray-on computer design

Some people use spray-on hair.  Likely they are worried that their authentic hair is inadequate.  However, the look achieved tends to confirm and reinforce the shortcomings of the underlying thatch.

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I was reminded of this by the new fashionable laptops from Dell.  Here is one of 110 options (the match to the shirt above is pure coincidence…or is it?).

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This is like a Dell competitive strategy presentation in a single image.  Paraphrasing:  “We’ve lost the #1 spot to HP, which is dominating retail.  Note: HP puts graphics on their laptops. Acer is coming up our tailpipe like Speed Racer, with low priced products.  Note:  Acer likes to paint products to look like cars, and so does Asus, not to mention bamboo, etc. So we’re cutting costs at every turn, including through product compromises.  We got into retail at the low end (even Wal-Mart).  But good news: we’re covering those shortcomings with a vast array of low cost graphics options.  Customers can choose.  We’re going to out-personal HP!  Summary: we’re challenging HP on personalization, and we’re holding off Acer on cost.”

This is product differentiation through spray-on design, and I’m afraid it has mesmerized leaders across the PC business, not just at Dell.  How many car themed laptops have we seen?  I’ve counted four.  And HP has a new graphic pattern every month (I will admit, their taste in graphics is better than competition).  Concurrently, average build quality is not improving.

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I question the wisdom of this trend.  Look at other durable goods categories, and electronics categories:  appliances, cars, TVs.  Do they use loud graphical patterns to drive brand choice?  No.  Because most people don’t want it.  [OK, Mini has an angle on this.  Keep reading, please.]

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“But computers are personal!  Look, it’s even in the name.”  Even cell phones, the most personal of products, have gotten away from loud graphics and skins, in favor of materials that reinforce brand choice.  Shiny surfaces and metal = high tech, high quality.   Rubber paint and leather = user focused.  Do people put stickers on their favorite products?  Sure.  But the manufacturers don’t do it for them.

Please refer again to the picture above of the Dell Pastel Carpet Series.  Note the merits:

1)  The Dell brand is completely obscured.  2) The underlying product’s design is incongruous with the top surface.  3) The product is unrecognizable, unless they sell enough such graphics to cement an association with Garish.

PC makers are faced with a very difficult design challenge:  make it really desirable for no money.  Margins are tiny, and prices are falling.  So, I feel for them, and understand why they are trying this stuff.

But frankly, it is further commoditizing the PC space.  There is a lot of cheap plastic stuff in Wal-Mart with loud graphics, since the underlying design has no differentiating merit.  This is what I fear PCs are devolving to.

A few computers get a premium, with appreciable share and loyalty: Apple Macs and Lenovo ThinkPads are good examples (Sony used to be).  Their designs are recognizable, unified (the tops and bottoms look like they came from the same company), and authentic.  Authentic, meaning the materials, colors, shapes, usability elements, sounds, etc. are all based in the brand intent of the product – they are designed to earn an image consistent with the promise of value.

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I hope the PC makers turn from this surface level design and attend to what really drives desire:  user experience.  If they firmly believe customers want expressive graphics, I suggest they turn to Mini for inspiration.  Customization of a Mini is part of a holistic personal experience.  And everything Mini lets you do to the car enhances its Mini-ness, rather than obscuring it.  They are firmly in control of the image of the car, while enabling the buyer’s self expression.  Very different.

It’s not easy being green

Kermit was prescient.

If you want to be a green brand, it’s hard.  The first brands to claim greenness were distinctive outliers.  But they didn’t have many customers with aligned motivations.  Years hence, we are rapidly drawing toward a point where being green is an ante, minimum table stakes.  Consumers are increasingly conscious of environmental responsibility, or are at least discomfited that their product choices might have some adverse effect (like the derision of greener neighbors).  So, they look for some label of greenness:  “natural,” “fair trade,” “organic,” or “made without (some substance they never heard of before).”  Or they buy at Whole Foods.  But since the supply of green claims has kept pace with higher demand, it has become difficult to achieve green leadership or differentiation.

In the personal computer market, there is a constantly changing list, published by groups like Greenpeace, of which manufacturers are the greenest.  Each brand one-ups the other in removing chemicals, planting trees, reducing waste, etc.  But it’s impossible for customers to perceive a consensus winner.  In grocery and personal care products, there are no end of natural claims, but again, lack of clarity about what is really good for the world.

This is in part due to lack of standards — unbiased ratings that help the customer rank products by greenness.  In electronics, there is Energy Star, but not much understanding of its levels, or whether it goes beyond energy use to manufacturing and sourcing responsibility.  In personal care, Burt’s Bees recently took the initiative, with other industry members, to create a standard for products labeled “natural.”  If products meet certain criteria they are allowed to bear this seal.

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Another difficulty of positioning relates to the cacophony of claims being made.  With the number and variety of reasons brands are giving to establish their greenness, it is very difficult for a brand to stand out. 

Interestingly, credibility does not seem to be an issue.  A recent article in Advertising Age reports that green claims tend to be believed, but that consumers worry about the performance and cost of such products.  Another reason it’s not easy being green.

So what to do?  Let’s learn from Burt’s Bees.  They have substantial momentum in personal care products, and a firmly green (responsible) brand reputation.  They built this reputation the old fashioned way:  they earned it.  I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Burt’s CEO, John Replogle, last week.  He explained the many ways that the company serves the greater good, through natural products, minimal packaging, waste reduction, employee care, and more.  It was obvious that to John and his company, green and responsible do not originate as marketing messages.  It’s not easy for Burt’s (to be green), but it is powerful because it’s real.

While it’s not easy truly BEING green, it will separate your brand from the morass of others trying to be on trend with shallow commitments.  At some point, the market will move past its current ambivalence, and become discerning on responsibility and environmental fronts.  Then the wheat will be sorted from the chaff.  A brand’s identity will eventually converge with the truth.   

Netbooks could change everything

When Intel introduced the Atom processor, which ushered in the netbook, they seemed very conflicted about it.  They wanted to sell some, but not at the expense of the mainstream Centrino business.  It turns out they had good reason for caution, because now everything could change.

Previously, any computer with less than a nine inch screen and not running a normal OS (Windows or Mac) was a tweener – too small to be a serviceable laptop, and too big to be a smart phone.  Netbooks, combined with a price/value focused market, open people’s eyes to the utility of a small computer that delivers decent Web functionality, very low price, great battery life, and not much else.

What could happen as a result…

Manufacturers have been testing the market for Linux netbooks, to save money on the OS.  But users are frustrated enough by computers they know how to use, so an unfamiliar interface has met resistance sufficient to keep Linux out of the tournament.  I think this will change, though.  Let’s look at a few trends and market enablers.

ARM processors enable smaller, cheaper, netbooks with better battery life.  But they don’t run Windows (yet).  So, to minimize cost, and make a thinner computer with longer battery life, PC manufacturers are motivated to invest more into Linux.  This investment comes in the form of software development to improve the user interface and drivers to make Linux less frustrating – like HP’s Mi on their Mini.  But will people accept a non-Windows interface…?

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The iPhone brings the benefit of a browser in your hand, and shows that it needs to have a certain size to be great.  A barrier has been crossed.  What could only have been done on a computer, can now be done on a phone — not as well, but the user is thrilled that a phone can even come close.  All other phone manufacturers are following.  What OS is demanded by the user?  Answer:  they don’t care as long as it is good!  I buy a new phone, I learn a new interface.  So, if the netbook becomes more like a phone…

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Along with browser-phones, wireless carriers are beginning to offer netbooks, because they can bundle wireless broadband data service.  The killer app for netbooks is being always online, kind of like the iPhone…

So.  Now we have phones moving toward the functionality of PCs, and we have PCs selling in phone stores, offering the utility of the iPhone, but with a bigger screen and better keyboard.  There are new PCs with smaller screens than nine inch 16:9 in the market already, and more coming.  The tweeners are back!  But this time they will stick.  Because…

If it is light, hot looking, with great battery life, and has good Web functionality, the user will accept a new interface, because they have learned from phones that it will be OK.  And they are standing in the cell phone store while they think this over.  Therefore…

Non-Windows, non-Intel computers will get a foothold. This is big.

There is a huge financial incentive for PC companies to gain more of the value capture (margin) available in the market.  They can’t do this without viable options to Windows and Intel processors.  So, the PC makers are surely eager to try the path I describe above.

On the other hand, Intel and Microsoft can read the tea leaves and will act.  Intel has already announced roadmaps for Atom variants designed to fight off ARM (and NVIDIA), and is assaulting the mobile device space which ARM has owned.  Microsoft, I predict, will enable lower power processors, like ARM, with Windows.  But they won’t have time to work on this until after Windows 7 launch, so there is period of opportunity for Linux.

There are lots of moving parts, forces and counter-forces.  I won’t predict the winner, but I will predict that we’re about to see a lot of enticing product experiments.

Why so emotional?

Perhaps you’ve seen this video of an audition for Britain’s Got Talent. It likely brought a tear to your eye.  It brought many to mine, and I’ve rarely been accused of emotionality.

[click here to view]

Assuming I’m not alone, perhaps this is an opportunity to discover something important about ourselves.  So let’s use the test of whys to dig toward the root of this.

Why are we moved by Susan’s performance?  My answer:  Human excellence inspires; and excellence is present here in an unlikely person.

Why does human excellence inspire?  We have an internal compass which points to perfection.  Perhaps this is a matter of belief, but see Plato for an endorsement.  When someone achieves excellence, it resonates with our true north.

Why is Susan unlikely?  Because we favor and invest in and direct attention to people who look like the blonde judge (Amanda Holden), not like Susan.  If a Holden lookalike had been on stage instead, we would have said “well done, as expected” (no tears).

Why do we favor the physically beautiful, to the detriment of others?  Because our hierarchy of values is broken.  Beauty is good, and we have an innate ability to recognize it.  But higher forms of beauty have been subjugated by the lesser.  How it got to be broken is a separate discussion.

Why the emotional response?  There are two motivators: 1) joy in beauty, and 2) remorse for our misaligned values.  The surprise of excellence in the person of Susan exposes our brokenness.  We are reminded of higher forms of beauty, our relegation of those to lower positions , and the harm yielded by that misalignment (we imagine Susan’s pain at the hands of our collective prejudice).  For a moment, we respond in love to Susan and hope for healing.

I like the new Windows campaign

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Having participated in the PC business as a manufacturer for 12 years, I’ve had a varying relationship with Microsoft.  The manufacturers chafe at their much lower value (profit) capture in the PC equation, but rely on Microsoft to catalyze demand, and do all other manner of enablement in a $250 billion market.  So, PC makers work and hope for success in Microsoft’s marketing, while aspiring to less dependency.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had opportunities to engage Microsoft in discussion on their marketing strategies, [thanks Kevin, Dave, and Bill…no, another Bill].  So I have a view of facts and philosophies that underlie the campaigns we see in market.  I’ve had concerns with certain approaches taken in the past year, but the TV advertising running now I think is quite good.

Things I like about the campaign, called Laptop Hunter:

1) it claims ownable points of positioning in the name of all Windows PCs:

a) variety of product options

b) value-for-money vs. Apple

2) using real people makes it credible

3) there is some support for PC brands (HP, Sony, Lenovo…)

Laptop Hunter establishes Windows’ own voice, and takes initiative in the argument, rather than responding.  [The start of the “I’m a PC” work last fall I thought was too shaped by Apple’s “I’m a Mac.”  It sounded like Windows finally stood up to the playground bully that had been taunting it for years, but was just shouting “I’m not a dork! I’m cool!” in a strained voice.]  I love the moment in the new Lauren spot where she sarcastically says “I guess I’m not cool enough for a Mac” – a frosty defense of all PC owners against the derision of Macophiles.

I also like the support for PC manufacturer brands.  Note: when people tell you they bought a computer, they say “I bought a Dell” (or a ThinkPad, or an HP) or “I bought a Mac.”  If they bought a Windows PC, they do not say “come and see my new Windows computer.”  They name the manufacturer brand.  So, while I certainly believe Windows PC as a category needs to take some high ground back from Apple, it is important that the final package, the manufacturer brand, is also strengthened.  And the PC makers can’t afford to do this on their own, so they work with Microsoft.  The challenge for a PC brand is to ride the Windows wave while retaining a distinctive identity.  (See post PCs are not commodities for more on this.)

My two minor reservations:

1) The spots throw in the “I’m a PC” line at the end, which I don’t like, because it is simply not something a person would say, so it undermines credibility; and it reminds of the entertaining Apple ads.

2)  The shopping environment portrays PCs as commoditized.  There are huge numbers of options (i.e., permutations of speeds and feeds), and even comments about the coolness of the niftier Mac section.  This is, sadly, an accurate portrayal, but it skirts the edge of reinforcing Apple’s image of betterness.

Overall, kudos Microsoft!  I hope you keep going in this direction.

Good news

A dogwood I thought was dead is alive.

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Happy Easter!

Jump rope competition

Yes, there is such a thing.  Try to put out of your mind images of little girls in pigtails (they all have French braids in this sport) hopping along to rhymes about school.  This is Serious Business.

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I have three daughters who are members of the five-time (in a row) national champion Bouncing Bulldogs of Chapel Hill.  They have been spending 15-20+ hours per week, including two-a-days, in the gym prepping for Regionals.  The throwdown was a couple of weekends back.  Regionals is the gateway to nationals for individual team members and their event groups.

The day starts with hair braiding at 6:30 (yes, there are also boys involved, most of whom do not braid their hair).

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Then come the speed events (single, relay, and double-dutch), freestyle (again with permutations), endurance (successive triple-unders until contestants collapse), and team show.  I spent the day (13 hours) scorekeeping and eating quantities of peanut M&Ms.

Some stats:  triple-unders went to around 165 for girls (try to do one); the fastest single rope speed competitors did six turns per second for a minute; the fastest double-dutch speed group was uncountable with human thumbs (they use those little thumb activated counters like you see at stadium events to count every other turn).  There are no stats for freestyle, but it is jaw-droppingly cool at times.  Even the names of the tricks are cool:  Two-Footed Frog, Awesome Annie, Jawmie…

Jump rope has been great for our girls.  I keep threatening to join in, but the kids shriek in horror at the thought.

I’ve attached a few more pictures (some from nationals) and here is a link to video of some good stuff.