How Long?

21 01 2012

Every year, many of my friends observe Lent. It’s six weeks of sacrifice and spiritual growth, with some folks giving up meat, others forgoing the booze. Whatever the sacrifice, the goal is to make it real by skipping something of personal importance. In other words, if it doesn’t hurt a little, it really isn’t much of a journey, is it?

I have a former student who for the last two Lenten seasons has eliminated social media from his “diet.” I know that it is difficult for him, because he is a social media expert. In other words, he lives on social media. To disappear for six weeks is huge. But I also know that his spiritual quest is made all the richer by his resolute abstinence.

Apart from spiritual journeys, others have sought to go an entire year forgoing something of great importance, or by doing something for a similar period. A.J. Jacobs wrote of The Year of Living Biblically, which must have been tough for a self-professed Jewish agnostic. Some of those Old Testament laws can get tricky. Others have sought to spend 365 days buying everything via e-commerce, or eliminating technology.

Which raises the question posed by USA Today: How long could you go unwired?

Heck, my former student has my undivided praise for six weeks of social media abstinence. Jacobs has my $25 (it sits right up there on my shelf). But self-imposed Ludditism (yeah, I made that up) for anything longer than Lent is just crazy. Sorry.

I have a one-word reply: Why?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know we all lived without this crap not too many years ago. We read newspapers. We talked to people on wired telephones. We wrote letters. And before that, as comedian Louis C.K. points out, we went cross-country on 30-year journeys in which the group that arrived was vastly different from the group that started.

If anything, all this technology from our oh-so-wonderfully wired worlds has made it possible for us to stay in touch with our peeps, and for companies to stay in touch with us. And you know what? I don’t wanna go back to Egypt (to pick a handy Old Testament story). I kinda like the techno-Promised Land.

I remember my first cell phone. It was one of clever “bag” phones that weighed about 7 pounds and had to be plugged in constantly in order to work. It was around 1997, and I used it while directing the bicycle Race Across America. In the span of 3000 miles, I racked up over $700 in calls. Cell phone service was a little more expensive back then.

Today, though, I am seldom if ever more than a few inches away from my iPhone4. My iPad is usually withing another two feet.

Even when I sleep.

And for those times when a mobile device just won’t cut it, my MacBok Pro is waiting quietly to be fired up.

So, to answer the rhetorical question, I probably could not go more than about a couple of hours being unwired. Sure, there are exceptions (like the 9 hours it took to fly to London last May). But we had no sooner hit the tarmac at Heathrow than I had lit my internet cigarette and checked in.

Addictions can be funny that way. Hell, I was five hours into the future. I needed to tell everyone back home that all was OK and they would at least make it to breakfast.

Sure, I can imagine a world in which I am unwired, but I do not like the picture. I rather like being wired (in a wireless kind of way, of course). I don’t want to go back to Egypt or the Land of the Luddites.

Furthermore, I like being in touch with everyone important to me…and that includes companies and media outlets. I don’t want to wait to read about it tomorrow. I want it now.

And if I ever get brave enough to try a six-week period of spiritual piety and abstinence, I know who to contact. But it’ll have to be on a land line.

Does anyone remember how those things work?

Dr “G—the G Is For Gigabyte” Gerlich


21 01 2012

Change is a funny thing. It pushes people and companies outside their comfort zones, but it this very discomfort that produces stronger people. And companies. I have been told for many years that if you’re not changing, then you’re dying.

Yesterday’s headlines told the story: Kodak Files For Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

It’s not that Kodak didn’t try to change. It’s just that when they did, it was way too little. And way too late.

And irony of ironies, Kodak was the one that invented digital photography. Go figure.

And while bankruptcy is just another way of saying life support, I see no clear path for Kodak to recover. Sure, they have introduced some nice digital cameras, and they have lots of photo kiosks in drug stores around the country. Their photographic paper is still good. I also saw some of their high-end imaging hardware the last time I visited my endodontist.

But I’d really rather not think about that. It was a painful visit.

You see, all of these products are weak attempts to stay alive in a market that changed starting back in the mid-1990s when consumer digital cameras were introduced (and not by Kodak, mind you). It’s almost as if Kodak saw the future, but didn’t like what it saw. So it politely ignored the changes afoot. Kind of like newspapers today who still fight with the reality that we probably do not need printed editions much longer.

I quit using film the precise moment I purchased my little Casio digital camera in November 1996. I never turned back once. I have burned through quite a few digital cameras since then (plus two iPhones); technology is my Kool-Aid.

Too bad Kodak didn’t like the flavor.

As for the company that once owned Rochester NY (or, as my friend from Rochester once called it, Rah-Cha-Cha), all they have left are 11000 patents that might or might not fetch a few bucks.

Oh yeah…and the pensions of tens of thousands of former employees. Ouch. That one’s going to leave a mark.

Case study writers will be crafting missives about Kodak for many years to come. It is a classic example of an iconic company going all ostrich on its employees, stockholders and customers. Sand may be cool and comforting when the light is too bright, but eventually you have to come up for air.

And to realize that the world has changed while you’ve been down below.

Yes, it is truly sad to see such a giant of American industry with barely a pulse, but it brought it on itself. Paul Simon forever etched Kodachrome on our musical memory card some 35 years ago, but he’s the one getting the royalties, not the company in New York.

And that’s a picture I’m sure Kodak doesn’t like to see in any album.

Dr “Two 8X10s and a Wallet Size” Gerlich

Shake It Like A Polaroid Picture

19 01 2012

I am a camera nut. I have taken close to 20,000 images with my Canon 50D since June 2010. I was once taught by a very competent photographer that if you shoot enough, you’re bound to get a few nice shots.

He was right. Along with a bunch of bad ones.

Ever since I got my first iPhone (in 2008), I have been a picture-taking fool with it as well. To date, I now have over 3700 images on my phone (upgraded to an iPhone4 during this time). I am all over the idea of posting to Facebook and Twitter, as well as sending images via MMS to friends and family.

In October 2010, a quirky new photo app was introduced for iPhones. Called Instagram, the sole purpose was to go retro and let users shoot pics much like they were back in the 1960s. A variety of cool filters allow users to tint their shots in such a way as to replicate many of the hues those vintage Polaroid prints did back in the day.

And while there are dozens of photo apps available today (e.g., Camera+ is one of my favorites), Instagram has completely dominated this market niche. It has over 15 million avid users, people who not only shoot, filter and save images for private use, but also post to Instagram’s own social picture sharing site (as well as cross-posting to the major social media outlets).

Instagram has proven to be a puzzlement for marketers and analysts alike. To date, it has sold absolutely nothing, but it has received at least $7 million in angel funding. And perhaps even more compelling has been the question of how companies might use Instagram as a marketing tool.

After all, 15 million people is nothing to sneeze at.

But companies are starting to get it, and in fact are rushing to jump in the Instagram photo album.

It’s a tricky question, because it requires a lot of creativity. We’re dealing with imagery here, not so much content.

One of my favorite applications so far has been that done by Medalla, a beer from Puerto Rico. Several times each week the brewery will post an unusual photo that invariably features a can, bottle or other such branded item, but always in a slice-of-life setting. No caption required (although users can attach a short description if they so desire).

And I have two words to say in response: Sheer genius.

No words are needed when marketing a beer in a medium like this. Most users are going to view Instagram images via a mobile device anyway, so words are more a distraction. Just seeing a plate of food with a sweating bottle of beer beside it speaks volumes.

What was that saying about a thousand words?

While Instagram’s revenue model still leaves a lot of unanswered questions, it is encouraging to see that its potential as an advertising tool is being embraced by marketers. In fact, this might be the ticket for Instagram: selling corporate “channels” much like one can have on YouTube. It’s a very subtle sell with Medalla, but sometimes those are the best.

And maybe add-on filters for a small charge (can anyone say “freemium?”) can serve to keep people from straying to other camera apps. Adding more borders and effects could go a long way toward keeping people locked into this app and not another.

In the mean time, I find myself becoming more and more hooked by the stylishly retro things I can do (and post) with Instagram. It’s almost like being back in the 60s again.

And if you see me wearing bell-bottomed pants, feel free to take a pic.

Dr “Say Cheese” Gerlich

Pandora’s Box

18 01 2012

Before the tech-tectonic plates drifted to form the internet as we know it, people used to listen to the radio. You know…over-the-air. Static. Mono. AM.

OK, I am waxing nostalgic here. I am thinking roughly 1972, my peak musical memory year. I was a mere 13 and seeing the world through the lens of puberty. All I had was a cheap transistor radio, and I listened to WLS and WCFL in my cozy suburban Chicago home. I was finding my music, the music that would shape my life.

And while I quickly transitioned to FM (thanks to a new radio), I, like everyone else at that time, was limited to just a few stations playing records, disc jockeys spinning tunes as their general manager’s playlist dictated.

You could only hope your favorite song was next in the queue.

But today, 40 years later, our radio listening habits have changed dramatically. In fact, a full 40-percent of USAmericans now listen to Pandora, the internet-only site at which users can build their own dang radio station.

And broadcasters had better be scared.

No, this doesn’s mean that over-the-air radio will go away any time soon (no more than the continue surge of e-commerce spells doom for brick-and-mortar retailers). but pity the fool who ignores the sound of advancing warriors intent on pillaging the village.

Sure, Clear Channel, with their hundreds of broadcast stations and distant second-place iHeartRadio web app, sneers at the prospects of web-only apps killing the radio stars. But the reality is this: Pandora is working its way into our cars, now that it has forged alliances with 16 automakers. With the ubiquity of cellular internet, it is no big deal to pull in Pandora in a moving car.

Pandora sits in the driver’s seat in that it was an early player in this business, and is certainly the biggest. But with Pandora finding its way into dashboards and car stereos, it can only be a few #1 songs until competing web services like MOG, Rdio, Spotify and Rhapsody likewise hop in for a ride.

And then it’s going to get increasingly difficult for broadcast radio to survive.

Critics will scoff, of course, because we had a similar threat posed with satellite radio a decade ago, and radio survived quite nicely. But this is different. The new services are very customizable, ranging from build-your-own stations to specific artists, albums and songs on demand. Who needs to put up with cheesy hometown ads (“P-E-T-E, that spells Pete” comes to mind) when you can have a class act?

The folks in the radio biz need to awaken to a new reality. We have been spinning our own tunes ever since the Sony Walkman came out. We like being in control. We do not want to wait next to a radio, hoping “our song” will be next. At the buffet of music, we don’t want someone else dishing out portions.

Broadcasters may argue that Pandora has opened a box of poison for the radio industry, but if anything, it is a nourishing nectar for listeners. After all, as Sony implicitly sold us 30 years ago, it really is all about me.

I just wish I could find that old transistor radio. Because a big part of me was defined by what came out of its lone speaker.

Dr “I Got The Music In Me” Gerlich