Fa La La La La

30 04 2010

I admit. I am confused. But then again, so is everyone else. Apple is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. And no matter what they do, they somehow manage to come out of it smelling like a rose garden.

Just last December, amid all the speculation back then about what would eventually be the iPad, Apple bought online music service LaLa.com, ostensibly for the ability to better leverage iTunes and streaming music.

But now news has leaked that LaLa us shutting down at the end of May. Users will be issued credits at the iTunes store, but the whole idea of LaLa is going away. Poof.

So the big quest is this: What the heck is Apple up to? Did they purchase LaLa simply to make it go away? Or do they plan to roll LaLa’s engineering into iTunes to make that a better product/service offering?

Good questions. I, for one, will miss LaLa, because I love being able to access my music library via the cloud. As a LaLa user, my library is uploaded on their site. I can also purchase listening rights to other songs for a dime. At the College of Business holiday party last winter, I played DJ by hooking my MacBook to a PA system, and streaming my Christmas mix into the room.

The geek in me loved the technology that was being deployed, but I’m afraid it was lost on everyone else. They just wanted music. Of course, I had to complicate things.

But I digress.

My hope is that Apple will one day soon incorporate LaLa’s key features into iTunes so that we can not only share our library across computers in our homes, but also access them from anywhere. And I also hope that Apple adds an inexpensive listening-only option.

Why? Because ownership is really not the issue these days. We have so favorably bought into the notion of legal music downloads that having tangible product in our hands is no longer important. No, all we really want to do is listen to the music, and if we have to pay a small fee to rent it, the so be it.

As for Apple and their snarky business practices, I hope they are not killing LaLa for good. Because to do so would leave a soft, mushy bruise on an otherwise perfect piece of fruit.

Dr “Download This” Gerlich

Road Does Not End

28 04 2010

The end of a semester is always a bittersweet time for me. While my students and I are always relieved to finally be able to take a breather, a big part of me wants the journey to go on. It’s like practically any other journey I take. Endings can be sad, and you want the road to keep going.

Which is why I have always loved the sign pictured below. It is another one of the quirky signs appearing around Amarillo typical of the wit and wisdom of Stanley Marsh 3 (think: Cadillac Ranch). While I am not exactly sure what the sign painter was thinking at the time, to me this sign symbolizes my take on classes and on life in general. That barricade you see is just an illusion; that large body of water ahead simply means you may need to take another form of transportation.

It was on January 11, 2010 that we began this journey. My first blog of the semester pushed you out of the boat and into deep water as I discussed Everything Is Miscellaneous. Now I will confess: I have blogged about that book before. But it is such a challenging idea that it is worth hashing and rehashing.

And for the last 3.5 months I hope that I have continued to challenge you with what probably seem like radical ideas. My goal has never been to make you comfortable. No, I want to make you exceedingly uncomfortable. You see, to navigate the choppy waters ahead, you have to be willing to row through the night, through uncharted territory, amid sharks and numerous other threats to your very survival.

It is my hope that your journey does not end. Sure, as an academic, my year repeats itself quite nicely. There are seasons of academia, and I follow them like the seasons of earth. Heck, I get to teach this course again in 5 weeks.

But there is one thing you can bet on: It will be a completely different experience from the one we just had. Because everything is in a constant state of flux, and if you can’t handle all that flux, you had better find a rest area. No, every time this course is offered, the content changes to reflect what is happening right then and there.

And so must you. Your content, your very “put together,” as someone I recently met so eloquently said, must be in a constant state of flux.

So as I sign my final blog for this semester, please know that I am plowing ahead. And I hope that you do, too. Keep going. Drive right around that barricade. Blaze a new trail. Cross uncharted waters.

Because the end is nowhere in sight.

Dr “Best Wishes To All” Gerlich

Bicycle Democracy

27 04 2010

When future ethnographers and anthropologists look back on the early 21C, they will certainly attribute nearly every social trend to the popularity of the iPod. While there were certainly other tangible influences prior, the iPod established the era of mass customization.

And if that sounds just a tad bit oxymoronic, perhaps you have been living in a cave this last decade. We are a nation of 304 million individuals, each with a different soundtrack.

And we have carried that notion of personal playlist into nearly aspect of our lives. Custom tennis shoes. Custom jeans. And now custom bikes, via Republic Bike.

Everyone from urban hipsters to grizzled old racers wanting a simple ride are repurposing old bikes as fixies (aka, fixed gears), each one a unique piece of bicycle art. Republic Bike has raised the bar by allowing customers to literally design their own new fixie online. Everything from wheel and hub colors down the chain can be spec’d as you see fit. Want a pink seat? Ya got it, Paula. Yellow rims? Roll on, Rocky. Red frame? It’s in the box, Buddy.

And to Republic’s credit, they have now partnered with way-cool Urban Outfitters to sell their bikes. With over 100,000 possible color mashups, Republic stands right up there with Waffle House in combinatorial supremacy. The link to UO is a match made where the rubber hits the road.

But from my perspective as critic of all things online, Republic is a master stroke. It is a bike factory and bike shop wrapped into one, but without the haughtiness that often goes along with shops catering to Lance Armstrong wannabes in a hurry to drop $8000 on a cool bike. No intimidation. No insecurity. No dudes with shaved legs making you feel uncomfortable (OK, I am guilty here).

Until just recently, Republic offered only one model (the Aristotle). They recently added the Dutch-style Plato, which is equally customizable.

The simplicity of both bikes allows Republic to sell them at ridiculously low prices. Letting customers in on the design phase is like the chef inviting you to the kitchen to help prepare your dinner. The $400 price point is extremely competitive for fixies. By comparison, this year I have acquired two fixies, spending $700 on an Origin8 custom, and $1100 building out a 20-year-old Paramount frame.

I don’t need another bike, but that has never stopped me before. I vote for a black frame with all white accessories.

Dr “Under My Wheels” Gerlich

Flip Flop

26 04 2010

One of my favorite movies is War Games, the Matthew Broderick/Ally Sheedy suspense flick from 1983. Maybe it was the Sheedy who captured my attention. Or maybe it was all that electronic gear. You know, tech porn. Everyone who knows me knows that a cool gadget will probably grab my attention before anything (or anyone) else.

Like that very cool Imsai 8080 computer Broderick had in his bedroom (with the 8″ floppy disks), which he then used to hack into the WOPR mainframe housed at NORAD. Sure, it was a bit of a stretch, but it made for good silver screen drama.

It was just a couple of years after War Games that floppies started shrinking. At first they were trimmed to 5 1/4″, followed a few years later by 3 1/2′ hard sided dual-density not-quite floppies. As the size shrunk, the capacity increased (Gordon Moore, take a bow).

But somewhere along the line, floppies of any size fell into disfavor, starting with Apple’s dropping support for them back in 1998. Today, Sony announced it will cease production in Spring 2011.

And the world asked, “You’re still making these things?”

It is hard for me to fathom someone still toting floppies around. Heck, all of mine became drink coasters years ago, even the 100MB Zip disks I had bought into. CD-RWs, flash drives, and more recently, cloud computing, made floppies obsolete for me a decade ago.

Ironically, though, it was just last year I had to purchase a USB external floppy reader, because I had discovered some floppies from 1999 loaded with pics of my oldest daughter when she was but a year old. But once I uploaded all of them to the cloud, I quickly resumed my position on the bleeding edge.

I suppose one could rationalize hanging onto a small niche market to serve the Luddites among us, but Sony? This is a company supposedly leading the vanguard of All Things New. For them to hang on to a piece of the past is laughable, if not reckless. I bet the stockholders won’t be too happy when they find out their investment dollars have been helping support an ancient technology.

As for me, I’ll hang on to a few floppies, along with a bunch of the other detritus of tech gone by. It will make an interesting home museum one day, to go along with my “old” digital cameras. I will regale my daughters and their progeny with tales of what life was like in the good old days. I will tell them how those old floppies used to become corrupted so easily, and had to be reformatted (thereby deleting all stored data). I will recall with great horor how every once in a while a floppy would become stuck in that little disk drive and had to be pried out with a screwdriver and pliers.

And I will tell them how, four years ago, I completely gave up on Sony…for computers and digital cameras, because they didn’t seem to be as close to the edge as they let on.

Pardon me while I go shine my Apple.

Dr “Ally Sure Was A Cutie Back Then” Gerlich

On Three Legs

25 04 2010

I have been teaching this class for over a decade now. It started out as the then-revolutionary topic of e-commerce. Few universities had even broached the subject in curriculum meetings; after all, academia is often the last place new things happen. If anything, a special course in a topic is probably the best validation there is that a topic has merit.

So revolutionary was this subject that back in 1998 I quietly co-opted what was once my Marketing Channels class, and changed the entire course during cover of night. Students were expecting another boring semester learning about distribution methods and strategies, which is about as exciting as watching an old brand die a slow, painful death.

It took another year before I could convince the Powers That Were that the course should be renamed. Naturally, there was resistance. “Are you sure this thing is even going to be around in 10 years?”

Yeah, I’m pretty sure.

And so I was off (and running, not off-base).

Back then, a company’s online strategy had but one leg…the website. If you had one, you were cool and definitely ahead of the curve. This one leg would more than likely be basic brochureware, although there were a few avant garde folks actually selling things from their site. Everyone fell in love with the metaphor of an online shopping cart, for it made the e-commerce experience very relatable.

Fast-forward to 2010, though. That one-legged online strategy has grown considerably, and so has my course (hence the new name, Evolutionary Marketing). We have grown a couple of appendages to the point that a company must use a tripod to prescribe a firm’s online strategy.

And so as we continue to evolve, the three legs of our online strategy must now consider the following:

    • The website.

    • Social Media.

    • Apps and Permission-Based Marketing.

The website is still the website, but it has a much different role today than it did a decade ago. No longer is it the bleeding edge; in fact, it is now really just a necessary evil. Everyone has to have one; you may or may not conduct sales from it. No longer is the website a badge of honor; it is more like a lowly business card. Show up at a meeting without one, and you look pretty foolish.

As for social media, it is now imperative for companies to consider not only The Four Pillars I pushed a few days ago (Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube), but also take a look at LinkedIn for employees to network with other associates, and now location-based social network providers such as Gowalla and 4square.

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy here, because not all companies will need the same cocktail. Bars and restaurants will definitely benefit from using the leading-edge GPS-based locater apps in order to crowdsource, but an office supply store would probably be stretched to just have a Facebook Fan Page.

Finally, and growing quickly in importance, is Permission-Based Marketing, under which umbrella I lump mobile phone apps and outbound SMS blurbs along with the more traditional email blasts. Email is so last-decade anyway, and pretty HTML-based email newsletters may look nice, but only reach the 50+ segment who still actually opens them.

But outbound text messages are the perfect way to reach customers if they are under 30, for they are glued to their phone. There is perhaps no faster way to communicate directly with a customer short of actually calling them (which is so last century).

Finally, apps are invited by users too reside on their phone, but can be used not just for pull activities, but more importantly, for push messaging. The CNN app lets users accept breaking news pushes; Gowalla pushes my location to my friends whenever I check in somewhere.

Like all tripods, the thing only works when all three legs are functioning. Depending on the shot you want, as well as the surface on which you stand, those legs may vary in individual height. But you still need all three to make it work. It just depends on the situation

And as for this class, I suspect when I step back from the forest again in 5 years, much will have changed. We may very well have evolved a fourth leg. And there will be no denying there are evidences of that vestigial tail of traditional old-school marketing (print and broadcast). It’s hard to make things go away, but in this business, it is not only possible, but desirable, to keep evolving and growing.

As long as we can avoid tripping over all those new feet.

Dr “Channel This” Gerlich

Missing The Point

24 04 2010

Sometimes I just don’t get it. Big companies can sometimes be the slowest to respond to market changes. I suppose it’s not a lot unlike trying to turn a large ship around. Too bad, because you can miss a turn that way.

And such is the case of CBS Radio, which bought Last.fm way back in May 2007. Last.fm, in case you have forgotten, is in the same league as Pandora and Slacker, providing customizable stations. Pandora is clearly the most successful in the genre, with over 40 million registered users. It also scored its first quarterly profit earlier this year.

Earlier this week I wrote about how Pandora has partnered with Ford to include an app in the 2011 Sync model this fall. Pandora is poised to appear on more and more car dashboards in the years to come, making it as analogous to music as is Facebook to social networking.

So what has CBS been doing with Last.fm? Nothing. Pretty much.

Now I don’t know if CBS bought Last.fm with the notion of simply putting it on the shelf and effectively killing it, but it sure looks like it. One would think that, with the financial wherewithal of a media giant like CBS, Last.fm would have been promoted to the ends of the earth. There really is not reason that Last.fm isn’t the Pandora of 2010, but its luster is fading faster than an unwaxed automobile in the hot Texas sun.

At least Slacker is doing something, although I think it may have arrived at the party a few hours too late. Slacker, too, is fumbling for a foothold, insisting on also selling another gadget in our pocket.

Still, it is CBS’ lack of action that befuddles me the most. Three years ago I fully expected Last.fm to jump to prominence, but instead it has gotten shoved farther and farther back in the center drawer of the CBS desk. For $280 million, that’s one expensive acquisition to let sit idle.

If CBS were really thinking, they would be partnering with an automobile manufacturer to get a Last.fm app on a different dashboard. Because it really is all about being everywhere. It’s about never giving your customers a chance to try the other guy’s product. It’s about turning that ship around to avoid icebergs and other threats.

And because if you miss the point, that point can turn around and stab you in the back side.

Dr “Finishing Last Sucks” Gerlich

Hanging Around

23 04 2010

The wheels of my mind are always spinning, always looking for yet another way to make money. I don’t care what other people say. All of the good ideas have not been taken. In fact, they sprout like dandelions on a mild spring day, year after year, without fail. And although I have several projects in development with my partners, I still cannot help but stand in awe when I see other people doing what their heart tells them to do. Regardless of what others say.

I suppose we can thank the French for giving us the word “entrepreneur,” for it is one we use to describe those risk-taking, dream-chasing free spirits. They are fuel that drives the economic engine. They are the garden of creativity, the hearth of fresh baked ideas.

Take, for example, the relatively new industry of printing on canvas. Sure, artists have been painting on this stuff for centuries. But imagine putting photographs on canvas…large canvases…and hanging them on your walls. With stock photos.

And better yet, your photos.

And this is exactly what companies like Canvas On Demand and Canvas Pop have done (along with some of the photo storage sites). More recently, yet another new kid on the block (Your Photo On Canvas) has lowered the bar (that’s what competition does, remember) by offering cut-rate pricing via its partnership with Costco.

Walk through our College of Business and you will see numerous large pieces of wall art, all featuring breathtaking panoramas. Every one of those was purchased through Canvas on Demand. But for about $90, I could also get a 16X20 featuring my superb amateur photography (he boasts).

And therein lies the beauty of this industry. It#039;s not just about being able to buy someone else’s photography printed and mounted for hanging on your wall. No, it’s about personalization. This is more than just a simple photo enlargement. It is making your lenswork a piece of art.

In other words, wall art has now been put in the same league of music playlists. Just as the iPod made each of us a DJ in our own mind, we are now free to create our own art playlists…a playlist populated either with stock photos, or ours.

Now let me tell you just how tempting this is. I have been doing digital photography since 1996 (when I paid $600 for a Casio that gave me a whopping 320 X 240 pixels with each picture snapped). I have well over 15,000 images stored now. While the vast majority of those are simply part of my family pictorial history, there are many worthy of enlarging on canvas. And hanging on my walls (he says ever so humbly).

Because my walls are an art gallery for all who live within them. If I say that pic of my daughters by the campfire, the one with Long’s Peak as a backdrop, is worth turning into a hanging wall mural, then so be it. For I am the curator of art in my house.

I just wish I had stumbled into this gold mine myself, for selling self-declared art is the mother lode of business ideas. The 110 million USAmerican households have all been enabled to be photojournalists in their own right, and to host their own private gallery showings. Genius.

The canvas of my life is still waiting for that one Big Idea to pop. In the mean time, I keep working with my partners. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, you know. Take a picture of that.

Dr “Coming Into Focus” Gerlich

In Your Face

22 04 2010

It’s always nice when someone pays your way. Doors are opened. Meals are served. Tabs are picked up. The full belly of Other People’s Generosity is a tasty delicacy.

Visa may have paid an ad agency to create its “Everywhere you want to be” campaign, but Facebook is now livin’ it, and so are we. Someone else is paying, and Facebook has invited all of its 400 million friends to tag along. After this week’s F8 Facebook developer’s conference, it will now be easier than ever for us all to eat at the Facebook buffet…but on another person’s nickel.

How’s that?

Simple. Mark Zuckerberg and Company successfully convinced Other People’s Sites to help pave the roads that all lead to Facebook. It started with Facebook Connect, the one-size-fits-all login that uses your FB info to check in elsewhere (but inexorably link back to FB). And now it extends to the familiar “Like” icon that will now appear, in the words of Zuckerberg, on at least a billion places within 24 hours.

Here’s how it works: You see something you like on Slate.com or other participating sites, and if you click the “Like” icon, instantly that bit of digital trivia is transferred to your Facebook Wall.

Like I said, all roads lead to Facebook. Your good taste is instantly there for the world to see. No longer do you need to labor over a separate Status Update linking back to that Slate article. No, it’s one click browsing and bragging.

And it is sheer, unadulterated genius. It would be no less than any other company or individual being able to insert a button on every web page that sends visitors directly to their site. Free. No strings attached. Facebook gets ever more eyeballs, which means ever more advertising sales. Cha-ching.

Now why, you may be asking, would Slate or any other destination site wish to provide users with an easy escape like that to Facebook? Simple. Facebook is the new gold standard, very possibly en route to usurping Google as the place to be online. There is still value to Slate if someone noddingly approves of a feature story, even if that nod appears on Facebook. Because the hope is that your friends will see your good taste in creative writing, and then head over to Slate to see what all this “Liking” is about.

It’s a strange dinner arrangement. Someone else is paying, but what they’re really hoping for is just to be seen with you. It’s all about validation, you see. Hip and cool by association, even if you have to buy dinner for everyone.

And if that is all the visa I need to travel to Facebooklandia, then so be it. I’m just waitin’ for that IPO, because it’s going to be a good one.

Dr “Taking Stock Of It All” Gerlich

App For That

21 04 2010

While we are all waiting with baited breath for apps to find their way onto our TVs, there’s another screen that just popped onto the radar. And it’s one that we look at more often than we think.

It’s called a dashboard.

Ford is proceeding with plans to offer dashboard apps on its Ford Sync starting with the 2011 model year. And while there are only three apps currently available (including Pandora, the broadcast radio killer), there is bound to be a gold rush ahead as developers scurry to put their little icons in front of your eyeballs.

Eyeballs moving at 70 mph.

I suppose it was inevitable, and to be honest, I do not loathe this latest attempt to reduce our lives to handy little clickable widgets. Each one is like a Swiss Army knife of information, entertainment and more. They simplify. They streamline.

And (drumroll, please) they present ever more marketing opportunities.

Go ahead and crash that cymbal, because that is where this is all heading. I can see the day rapidly approaching in which we will have, for example, a Pizza Hut app on our dashboard. With one tap we could order dinner while moving down the road. That’s much safer, I suppose, than having to drive and dial.

If the car’s OS is also running a 3G cell phone connection, we’ll have always-on internet connectivity, making these apps more and more useful as they are developed. Pushing Pandora through the car stereo will be a snap. Real-time traffic conditions will be the norm. And current radar shots will help us steer clear of tornadoes and hail.

Naturally, this raises the question of exactly where all this tapping will occur in the car. In the name of safety, it must be on a centrally located console so that a passenger can do the bulk of the tapping. We really do not need to replace one road hazard with another. Furthermore, the apps would have to have some limitations, with the emphasis on simplicity.

But this is all doable. I see the greatest opportunity in reaching out to motorists while they are rolling down the road. Forget billboards, for they clutter the landscape. Far better to simply push the adverts onto the dashboard LCD, and better yet, through location-based apps. Yep, just like Gowalla and 4square. While the driver must have ultimate on-off privileges, GPS tracking will allow marketers to push extremely relevant information to us at the exact right time.

Like when we’re a half-mile from a Red Robin.

Critics will no doubt scoff at the intrusion of our so-called private vehicular space, but I respond by saying we have had broadcast radio for decades…and they do plenty of location-specific advertising. The only way to avoid commercial messaging today is to do what we have been doing for years: Just turn it off.

As for me, I am an information junkie. I probably won’t buy a Ford Sync, but I would happily purchase an after-market retrofit for my Hyundai. I want to pump my Pandora stations through my car speakers without having to fiddle with bridging to my iPhone. I want to be able to order pizza while heading from Amarillo to Canyon. And I really do want to stay out of the way of tornadoes.

It’s that time of year again, you know.

Dr “Driving Force” Gerlich

Phone Home

20 04 2010

You would think there had been a leak in the CIA, a national security breach of the worst degree. Agents gone bad in the line of duty, co-opted by greed and personal gain. Fire up the missiles, we’re at DefCon4 and ready to launch.

But all that happened is that a prototype iPhone was found in California. Brake lights clogged the internet freeway as everyone paused to take a look. And the tech world is ga-ga about what looks like the NextGen iPhone.

Up the road in Redmond WA, Microsoft could have given away a truckload of its new Kin phones to the denizens of Seattle, and no one would have given a cow pie. Really. Or any other phone manufacturer, for that matter.

Of course, media mouths have been running nonstop since the incident last weekend. A young engineer out of school only a few years has been pegged as the fall guy on this one, having somehow absentmindedly left it laying in a bar. Tech rumor mill Gizmodo reportedly paid $10,000 for the phone, and has been having a field day with its “exclusive” reportage.

But I have a hard time believing Apple would allow anyone to leave its campus with such a valuable prototype. The future of the iPhone is in that camouflaged device, including a camera lens on both sides, a flash and other features. How could a company of Apple’s stature carelessly allow this to walk out the front door?

Or is this just one massive, exquisitely executed PR stunt? Sure, Apple has never done this brazen before, but there is nothing to stop them. And let us recall that Apple always leverages PR to its advantage. Its legions of followers are witting players in this drama, with all manner of Mac Rumor sites set up to report and tweet the latest insider gossip. Intentionally planting a prototype in a place where it was certain to be found (and hawked to the media) could generate priceless buzz.

Which it has.

As one of my colleagues opined this morning, though, it would be risky for Apple to be found out on this tactic. But I reminded him that all it takes is an ounce of plausible deniability. It would not be hard for Apple to shake its head and say, “Those younguns…always taking stuff home with them!”

Adding to the confusion is the fcat that Steve Jobs has now publicly asked to have the phone back. “Hmmm…how much is it worth to ya?” Gizmodo must be wondering. Of course Steve Jobs “wants” it back…he has to want it back. What started out as a careless mistake or genius stunt has now morphed into a hostage-and-ransom situation. And Apple just keeps on getting lots of free press.

We may never know the truth. But the fact of the matter is, I want one of those phones. I covet me one. Soon. Right now. Because my old 1st-gen iPhone is gasping and sputtering.

And as for our missile defense system, we really don’t need to send folks into control centers to do this deed. I bet there’s already an app for that.

Dr “4G” Gerlich