Hip To Be Square

28 02 2010

I love to go out to eat with friends. In fact, for me, eating is almost a competitive sport…not so much to see the quantity I can consume, but to see who can one-up the others by finding cool new places to try.

The problem comes at the end of the meal if the server is not willing to divide the check. What was once a great meal digresses into money-changing. “I only have Yuppie food coupons. Anyone got change for a $20?” And it takes a half hour to settle up the bill. Many times I’ll just grab the bill and hand over my Visa to the server.”Here…I’ve got it this time.”

The Square iPhone payment dongle solves everything. “Just gimme your card and I’ll hit your account for your part,” is what I’ll be telling my dining companions.

Imagine the possibilities for P2P transactions…Craigslist, garage sales, Girl Scout Cookies…you name it. Anything that once involved cash or checks between peers can now be paperless and instantaneous. And your server will love you for not keeping his table occupied any longer than need be.

Even better, the Square is the perfect solution for small businesses in need of mobile credit card processing. Wireless terminals are expensive and carry hefty transaction costs. Square allows Mom-and-Pop businesses to be ready to make the sale regardless of location…just as long as there is a decent cell phone signal.

The Square app provides for photo verification (if an image of the payee is stored online); all the payee need do is sharpen their fingertip so they can sign the iPhone touchscreen.

There has long been a need for alternative payment systems, both for businesses and between individuals. Cash is dead, and checks are so 1975. While the Square does not necessarily do away with transaction costs, it is a step in the right direction…a direction that minimizes the ability of third-party players to stick their hand in your pocket every time you swipe a card. TwitPay, PayPal and (yes) even iTunes are variations on this theme, with direct payments via Twitter, streamlined web shopping carts and payment gateways, and apps that can charge subscriptions.

It’s enough to make me want to grab lunch with some friends today. I’m not buying…but I’m happy to pay. If you know what I mean.

Dr “Fair and Square” Gerlich

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A Smarter Phone

27 02 2010

At the risk of turning everyone off from the very sentence, I will go ahead and say it anyway: I love my iPhone. It changed my life, and continues to do so every day I use it.

But I also have had this nagging feeling that there is something more…a lot more…that could be done to smart phones to…well, make them smarter. While Apple may have raised the bar a few feet higher than Blackberry, Palm, et al, they left plenty of room for improvement.

And sometimes being late to the party can be a good thing, because Microsoft’s forthcoming WP7 operating system for smart phones is about to redefine the genre. It’s going to add some smarts that Apple and everyone else left out. Like search.

It is hard to believe that phone developers have overlooked what is without doubt the most important application on the internet. Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t Google at least a dozen terms or phrases. In order to do, I must be able to search. Every phone in which WP7 is installed will have a little search key (a magnifying glass) that will automatically put users on Microsoft’s Bing search engine (hmmm…go figure). Now try doing a search on an iPhone. You have to first of all find your Google app. Given that searching is so critical to our online experience, it makes sense to give it a prominent location.

Like on the main screen.

But that’s not all. Microsoft has bundled a bevy of cool functionalities onto that main screen, like access to Xbox live (for online video gaming), a Pictures hub that integrates images from the phone, your computer and social networking sites, and a People section that includes Facebook and Twitter access.

My iPhone should be so easy to navigate.

Ironically, all of this goodness is coming from a company that has a hard time producing a decent computer operating system one out of every three tries. Vista is a joke, and the jingle emanating from every PC upon start-up is one of the most despised sounds in the world (because it is most commonly associated with computer crashes in the first place). And it is coming from a company that saw fit to move everything around in the Office 2007 Suite so that long-time users couldn’t find anything.

And now you know why I’m a Mac.

So will I be in line next Christmas to buy a new phone running on WP7? Nope. Because I know that, while Apple could have done better with its first few iPhones, it won’t have any problem one-upping Microsoft on this. I am, however, thankful to Microsoft for kicking the can farther down the road…way down the road. At least I won’t have to search much longer for a phone that can truly do everything.

Dr “Search Me” Gerlich





Boom Boom Wow

26 02 2010

Ten billion. That’s 10,000 million. Or 10,000,000,000. No matter how you display, it, that’s one huge number.

It’s also how many songs Apple’s iTunes has now sold. If songs were seconds, it would take 115,741 days to count them. Or 317 years.

A 3-minute song is about 3MB digitally, which means a 40GB iPod would hold 13,333 songs. To date this means iTunes’ sales could completely fill 750,000 of those iPods.

And when you consider that each song costs, on average, $0.99, you quickly realize why Apple’s stock continues to hover around $200 per share. Cha-ching.

iTunes has been around since 2001, the same year the iPod was introduced. It took a while for it to get traction, simply because it involved a major paradigm shift for consumers. We were in the midst of a music piracy revolution the likes of which Somalia has never seen in its waters. Slowly but surely, though, iTunes gained the financial and musical affection of listeners, and is now the biggest music retailer in the US.

This is a case study in consumer behavior writ large. The evidence is not just in the sales numbers, but in the list of iTunes’ Top 20 downloads. Consider these songs:

  1. I Gotta Feeling, Black Eye Peas
  2. Poker Face, Lady GaGa
  3. Boom Boom Pow, Black Eyed Peas
  4. I’m Yours, Jason Mraz
  5. Viva la Vida, Coldplay
  6. Just Dance, Lady GaGa\
  7. Low, Flo Rida (featuring T-Pain)
  8. Love Story, Taylor Swift
  9. Bleeding Love, Leona Lewis
  10. Tik Tok, Kesha
  11. Disturbia, Rihanna
  12. So What, Pink
  13. I Kissed a Girl, Katy Perry
  14. Single Ladies, Beyonce
  15. Hot N Cold, Katy Perry
  16. Stronger, Kanye West
  17. Live Your Life, T.I.
  18. Hey There Delilah, Plain White T
  19. Right Round, Flo Rida
  20. Party in the U.S.A., Miley Cyrus

Notice something? Only one song in this list was released before 2007. In Gladwellian terms, 2007 represents the tipping point for iTunes, because that’s when it not only got traction, but exceeded the speed limit. It says that we have embraced the idea of paying for our music. It says that we really like the iTunes experience. It says that we are, like it or not Microsoft, endeared to Apple.

And it says that we are now raising a generation of consumers who buy their music online just like I once went to Sears to buy my 45s.

It’s not the case that pop music suddenly got better than it was in 2001. Far from it. My 70s musical sensibilities are offended daily, but no one seems to care. Black Eyed Peas? I thought that’s what southerners eat on New Year’s Day.

It just means that the revolution has not only begun, it has won the battle. I speak from experience. My 12-year-old daughter has painlessly made the transition from CDs to iTunes, and knows that this is the only way she is going to get any future music. About once a week she looks up at me with sad puppy dog eyes and asks, “Can we buy more music today?”

I am the Keeper of the iTunes Password in this household, and although I am a crusty old curmudgeon in demographic terms, I know most of those songs on the Top 20. Because I have bought them. For her. She then tells me to get lost so she can sync them with her iPod. Sheesh, Dad.

While there will always be music piracy in the iTunes era (it’s just a high-tech version of shoplifting, you know), the rest of us, old and young alike, will be buying our music in stores that don’s have walls. Don’t have inventory. And never close.

There will be new artists, and no doubt the Top 20 downloads of today won’t even crack the Top 100 ten years from now. BEP will be a distant memory, Jason Mraz will be an old man, and nextgen kids will be asking “Beyonce who?”

As for my daughter, I’ve already told her we can download some music tonight. We’re doing our part for the 11th billion. She’s carefully editing her list of must-haves. She’s previewing snippets on iTunes. And she’s managing her playlists like a seasoned pro.

Because tonight’s gonna be a good night.

Dr “I Gotta Feeling” Gerlich





From Annual to Eventual…Demise, That Is

25 02 2010

In the middle of Indiana, on the campus of Anderson University, there is a part of me still strolling through The Valley, still working until 4am every Monday night, still handing out copies of the Andersonian every Thursday morning after chapel. Still living in the misty memories of a tangible world.

I was Editor of the Andersonian for the 1980-1981 school year. It was one of the best years of my life. I was Woodward and Bernstein wrapped into one, the arbiter of all things newsworthy on our academic island on the Hoosier prairie.

We shared office space with The Echoes, the campus yearbook. While our deadlines were weekly, theirs was an ongoing exercise leading up to One Big Thing at the end of April. Often staffers would straddle the mediums, toiling for both and creating printed proof of all that happened during those nine months.

But something happened since then, and I wonder if that wandering wispy vestige of a younger me got the memo that paper is out and digital in. You see, The Echoes ceased publication in 2007. And the Current Me works at an institution (West Texas A&M) also wiping a lot less ink from its hands, with The Prairie student newspaper now a “magaper” with a glossy cover, a bunch of ads and little content. The Eternal Flame has gone from big-and-heavy bound coffee table book to annual photo magazine with a DVD. Shadow of former existence? That may even be a bit too upbeat.

We are witnessing the end of an era, especially when it comes to yearbooks. In fact, some have nominated the college yearbook for the endangered species list.

It is one thing to recognize that our daily media consumption habits have changed, thanks to the internet. We just don’t read newspapers often (unless you are in my age group). But with production costs of yearbooks often exceeding $100 per copy, there just aren’t many takers for the college annual, so few that it’s just not worth the effort. Who wants to pay the yearbook tax every April? And who wants to wait until late Spring to see what happened early last Fall? Can’t we just admit that square dinosaurs don’t fit through round technological holes?

I think it’s time for me to use the F-word. As in Facebook. It’s not just the ultimate Contact List (if you use the iPhone FB app, you have come to this realization). No, it is the visual soundtrack of our lives.

I realized this the other day when I noticed one of my high school peers was busy posting ancient pics from The Postscript, the yearbook at my alma mater, T.F. South High School. And tagging individuals, thereby making those some pics appear in other people’s FB albums. If only it had been this easy in 1977.

Yes, I still have every yearbook from my high school and college years. I will do everything I can to protect them as long as I live, but the ravages of time may preclude that ambitious goal. Another of my high school peers was grateful for the picture uploads because his ex had made off with his annuals (I guess the CD collection wasn’t worth taking?). Any number of things could send those bound memories to the landfill of media past.

And today’s print media students had better be thinking about where their careers are going. Yearbooks are almost dead, and newspapers are helping push them down that slippery slope, headed together to their eternal flame out.

If I listen carefully, I can hear my echo from the steps of Park Place Church. I can see an inky tattoo on my thumbs that just won’t go away. I can feel the haze from that week’s all-nighter still pushing my eyelids down.

And I know that things will never be the same. Except for the fact that I need to ride down to the end of my driveway. Like I do every day. Like I have done for the 21 years I have lived in this house.

Because my newspaper is there, waiting for me. To take. Smudge. Read. Because that’s what will be written in my postscript rewind, a volume about a place called Indiana. A state of mind. A place of mine.

Coffee anyone?

Dr “I Love A Good Metaphor” Gerlich





I’ll Leave The Door Open

24 02 2010

I grew up in Chicagoland. Which is another way of saying we were always paranoid someone was going to steal everything that wasn’t bolted down. We locked ourselves in the house. Every car door was locked. The garage door was down and locked.

See a pattern here?

Heck, even though I am a rural dweller these days, I still find myself locking things down. All the time. I guess I am just a creature of habit.

But I also Tweet and Facebook. Which is another way of saying, “Hey, my life is an open book. Turn a few pages.”

That’s why social networking sites scare me that they could easily be used as an invitation to crime. The more you post, the more the world knows about your comings and goings, to the point that PleaseRobMe.com is now scanning the Twitterverse and location-based social networking sites like FourSquare and BriteKite looking for foolhardy folks who say things like “left home.”

Would you guys like some help loading my TV in your truck?

While I post lots of stuff online, I am careful in how I phrase things. I often time-shift my entries so that I am already home from whatever activity I am tweeting about; or, there are other people at home when I say I am in a specific location.

Of course, old-school criminal methods like just casing a joint from across the street have not gone away, nor have they lost their effectiveness. Most USAmerican homes are empty between 8:00am and 5:00pm anyway, making them all prime burglary targets. But to take the time to invest in locks and programmed lighting systems to make it look like you are home is just silly when you tell everyone you’re vacationing in Cancun for the next two weeks. And I suppose we can never fully stop invasions of occupied residences, like what happened in Canyon a week ago.

While many of us have agreed to the new Public Persona resulting from web-based activities, it’s time we all start thinking like big city folks and lock the doors. All of them. Twitter. Facebook. You name it. Because someone’s watching.

Dr “Left Home For SBUX…But Then Again, Maybe I Didn’t” Gerlich





Black Magic Walmart

23 02 2010

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. We heard that throughout our Wonder Years. We’ve tried to embrace it in our personal lives. And we’ve seen companies like Pepsi live it and breathe it (how many times are they going to introduce a different diet cola aimed at men?).

And now Walmart has joined the Hey, I’m A Believer Club. Yesterday WM announced they are buying online video download service Vudu in an effort to stave off sagging sales in tangible merchandise.

You see, three years ago WM tried to do this. They have read the tea leaves along with the writing on the wall: Tangible stuff is dead. Music. Movies. Even video games. Dead. Without a pulse.

It was just last year that WM was toppled from its berth as top music retailer, sent packing by…drumroll, please…iTunes. Who woulda thought? And Having seen B&M movie rental chains like Blockbuster and Movie Gallery taking a beating at the hands of Netflix and old-school-but-cheap Redbox, they figured they had better try again. It hasn’t been all that long since WM could claim up to 40% market share of new DVD releases. But since ownership is so 2005, fewer and fewer people could care less if they actually have the product sitting on their shelf.

The ticket to WM’s success with the Vudu venture will be to simply leave it alone and not rebrand it under the Walmart umbrella. While WM is without doubt the premier retailer in not just the US, but the entire world, there just isn’t a whole lot of cachet in saying “Hey, let me tell you about the movie I just downloaded at walmart.com.” Sorry. Not cool.

You see, we shop at WM for daily consumables, and often more because it is there (OK, omnipresent) and usually has competitive prices. It’s not like we actually like going to Walmart. Shopping online for highly discretionary products is an entirely different activity from buying cereal, underwear and laundry detergent on the weekend.

I give credit to WM for buying talent where it exists. It is the Google way, after all. Now if they will just be smart enough to let Vudu work its own magic, Walmart might actually become competitive again in the entertainment arena.

Because trying and trying again does not always mean eventually succeeding. Just ask Pepsi.

Dr “Anyone Remember Jake’s Cola? Thought So” Gerlich





Practicing What I Preach

22 02 2010

“This Marketing thing is hard….”

So said WTAMU Provost & VPAA Dr. James Hallmark to me this morning. Dr. Hallmark and I are hosting a Distinguished Lecture featuring Dr. Michael Shermer this Thursday on the WTAMU campus (Alumni Banquet Hall, 7pm, and free to everyone), and were pondering how to spread the word to a society faced with an increasingly cluttered mediascape. Shermer is co-founder and Director of the Skeptics Society, and a frequent debater in the evolution vs. intelligent design dialogue. He’ll be presenting his popular Why People Believe Weird Things lecture.

Now I know that Dr. Hallmark was probably taking a friendly poke at me, because, after all, I am the Marketing guy. if anyone should know how…well, you get the picture.

But it simply is not that easy. We live in a time when traditional methods just don’t deliver traditional results. Sure, we have three half-page ads in the Amarillo Globe-News this week, as well as 10,000 run-of-site impression on Amarillo.com. We’ve also had email blasts, along with press releases hitting the street today. But is that enough?

No.

You see, just as Shermer is skeptical of a lot of things, I am equally skeptical about the effectiveness of mainstream marketing tactics. Yes, you probably still have to do a lot of them, but the fact of the matter is that unless your message goes viral, it is probably going nowhere.

And what better places to go viral than on Twitter and Facebook?

So I have been busy today spamming all of my Friends and Followers. We’ve mirrored that content over on the WTAMU Facebook and Twitter feeds, and it reinforces material on the WT web site. And all you have to do is ReTweet and/or Share to all of your buddies. (I thank you.)

The efficacy of viral marketing today is really no different from how folks did it a couple of decades ago, before email and all manner of online tools: word-of-mouth down at the water cooler, over the backyard fence, or through the leaves on the grapevine. The result is the same, although it is achieved much faster today. Crowdsourcing has never been so easy.

Of course, the people do need to actually show up.

This Marketing thing is pretty hard, but it’s only because the rules have completely changed. We can no longer count on people to see half-page ads in the paper (I admit…I missed it the first time through the paper, and it was right beneath the weather report…which I did read). We cannot count on people to click on banner ads (or even notice them amid all the other ads).

All we can really count on is your propensity to behave like humans have for millennia: Tell everyone you know.

Dr “Please Quote Me On This…All Of It” Gerlich