Thursday, April 30, 2009

Differentiate or Die, But How?

I’ve been thinking lately about differentiation. I work in the PC industry, which is a well-developed market. Some would say it is “commoditized”. PC’s are an example of an industry where, with rare exceptions, companies struggle to differentiate their product offerings. To some customers and influencers, most of the offerings are so similar that price becomes the one controlling factor of consideration and purchase.

And yet, companies must differentiate. There is overwhelming evidence from across many industries to suggest that differentiation and profitability are positively correlated. I’d go so far as to suggest that if you show me a company that makes above-median profits in their category, I’ll show you a company that is well-differentiated from competition on one or more dimensions.

There are more options available to companies than purely product-feature differentiation. I’d assert that product-based differentiation is most effective as a strategy during the formative years in any new category. I wrote in an earlier posting about Apple’s iTunes, and my belief that it was iTunes, and not the iPod, that was so well differentiated as to create a sustainable position for Apple in the emerging digital music arena a few years ago. But as markets mature, in order to disrupt the position of a well-entrenched or product-differentiated leader, companies must look to non-product-based differentiation.

As product categories grow, I believe they hit “false maturation” points. This is when it looks to all of the established players as if the rules are clear, and then someone or something changes all of the rules. Business model differentiation is usually what brings about this change. Dell Computer changed all of the rules on how PC’s get manufactured and delivered to the customer, resulting in a set of advantages to them on product cost and mass customization for the customer, that sustained them for years, and earned them the lion’s share of profits in their category. Superior business models, ranging from how a company produces products and services, to how it conducts business with its suppliers and partners, to changes in the distribution model, usually result in lower costs for the innovator, and often result in sustainable differentiation on either lower-costs, better customer experience, or superior availability of products, or all three.

By “availability”, I’m referring to how easy the product is to buy. Is the product or service offered where the customer prefers to shop? Does it intercept the customer and create opportunities for unplanned purchases? Is there a sustainable advantage in the availability strategy of the company? As I write this post, I’m at an airport. It strikes me that Thomas Cook has an availability strategy. It seems like every time I get off the plane, they are right there in the most convenient spot offering me currency exchange services. It’s an otherwise commoditized market, but I’ll bet they get above-median profits based only on being in the right places.

As a society, we’re moving beyond the “stuff” economy. As a result, sometimes even price, availability, and business-model superiority isn’t enough. As services and “experiences” increasingly become the sources of growth in our economy, differentiation in these areas becomes more and more important. I recently met and spoke with Joseph Pine, co-author of “The Experience Economy” and a number of other books. Mr. Pine asserts that there has been a progression in our economy from away from products and toward not just “services”, but toward “experiences”. I agree. Arguably, companies like Starbucks, W Hotels, Disney, Lexus, and many others have built massive growth engines based in part on staging experiences for customers.

So how does all of this affect the differentiation options available to a company in a maturing market? I think of differentiation on four dimensions (see illustration).

To me, differentiation happens on the four dimensions of Product Offering, Customer Connection, Business Model, and Availability. The best companies sustainably out-pace their competition in more than one dimension, or else, really dominate in the one dimension that is most important in their category. In the illustration above, the oval denotes the position of a company that is very undifferentiated in product or customer connection, but very differentiated in business model, leading to sustainably low costs, and in availability. In this case, which might represent a computer company such as Acer, the company reinvests cost advantages to create distribution (availability) advantages.

In contrast to that example, some companies focus on product differentiation. Clearly, product differentiation remains an important dimension. But in my view, it is changing in nature. Today, product differentiation is less and less about rational features and more and more about intangibles. Products that are well differentiated make us FEEL something. Their features may be differentiated at a rational level, but the real magic comes when those features, taken together, add up to an emotional benefit for the customer. The best products resonate with our idea of ourselves, and how we want others to perceive us. This is one of the most powerful drivers of product-differentiation-based profits.

BMW comes to mind. I don’t own one, but I have driven one. Arguably, this is a differentiated product experience, driven by a number of rationally differentiated features. But more importantly, the differentiation flows from how the company translates those features into an emotional benefit. The product, and its selling proposition of “The Ultimate Driving Machine” are well-synchronized, and as such, the brand feels authentic in its promise. The result? BMW’s have the ability to make the customer FEEL something.

Customer Connection is a challenging one. It is easy to set-out to deliver it, and hard to actually accomplish it. The companies that do this best have been successful, against strong odds, at ingraining a customer-connection culture into every aspect of their companies. Done well, a sustainable profit advantage can emerge. Amazon comes to mind. There were several different aspects to Amazon’s strategy that resulted in their success, but the most obvious one to me, as a user, is their (unlikely) ability to create an intimate relationship with me, even as an e-commerce company. Because they keep such a good profile on me, and provide me with useful recommendations, and make it easy to shop (and even easier to buy), I come back time and again. In fact, I usually ONLY go to Amazon, and choose online alternatives only if they don’t have what I am looking for. Somewhere, something about the experience made me loyal – I call this Customer Connection.

Zappos (the online shoe retailer) may be an even purer example of Customer Connection. They really have nothing going for them except their ability to delight customers with a great experience. Shoes are hard to shop for without touching them and trying them. And yet, Zappos thrives, based on an end-to-end passion for customer connection. Their buying experience simply isn’t matched by anyone else in their space.

So, companies can differentiate and drive profitability based on sustainably out-pacing competitors on one or more of the four dimensions – 1) a differentiated product offering that motivates customers, ideally on both a rational and emotional level, 2) a disruptive business model that results in sustainably lower costs, translating to pricing advantages, 3) a better strategy than competition on availability and distribution, outpacing competitors on putting the product right where the customer is likely to buy, and 4) a level of customer connection that competitors can’t match, usually based on offering customers experiences that they value, and will come back for again and again.

But how does a company choose? In my opinion, three factors play into the decision: 1) What are the customer needs and benefits in the category that really motivate purchase? In other words, at the moment of truth, what do customers really value enough to sway their decision? This is easy to ask, but answering it accurately is an art form. Traditional “customer unmet needs” research doesn’t do the trick. I’ll comment more on this in another posting sometime. 2) What is the competition doing? Do they have well-staked claims? Are established, well-run players already famous for certain differentiated positions? Are their competitive vulnerabilities? And 3) What is special about our company, and our capabilities? What can we sustainably deliver that out-performs the competition? The answer lies at the intersection of these factors (see figure).

“Sustainably” was the key word in #3, above. The trick to identifying a defendable position lies in figuring out whether it can be held over time. Will the competition be able to switch gears and neutralize us? If it is product or customer experience-based differentiation, the answer depends partly on the company’s ability to execute. How long will it take to become “famous” for the proposed positioning? I’d argue that right now, it would be difficult for a new online shoe retailer to position around customer experience and depose Zappos. They can sustainably defend their position, because they grabbed it early in the category’s life and executed like hell. The question for a company like Zappos is not whether they can defend their position, but rather whether their position is really important at the moment of truth. Do customers really value it, more than they value walking into a traditional store? The answer seems to be yes, for enough customers to give them a viable business.

The best low-cost multi-room entertainment scenario?

I’ve been asked lately what kind of multi-room entertainment scenario I have set up in my own home, so I’ll describe it here. The approach I use is actually pretty simple and low-cost, which got me wondering, is my set-up actually the lowest cost multi-room entertainment approach? Read my requirements and set-up, and tell me if you have a different / better approach that meets my requirements, for less money.

First, let’s define “multi-room entertainment”. My requirements were:

  • Audio only (I’ll discuss multi-room video separately – this is an emerging topic and the solutions here are changing rapidly)
  • Play music and other audio content which is stored on a computer in my house, and also stream online audio content. Extra credit if it can play back my protected iTunes content (further discussed below).
  • Access and play back song playlists that I make on my computer (because I think it is easiest to actually make the playlists on a computer, vs. on a playback device).
  • Remote control: be able to walk around the house, select and control the content, and which zones are playing it, as well as control the volume. Extra credit if the remote is actually good (meaning small, attractively designed, intuitive controls, actually works as you walk around the house).
  • Not overly complicated or unique, meaning I’m not the only one in the world who can easily use the system as configured.
  • Play back two different pieces of content in two different zones.

Although, I’ll admit, I have subsequently nixed this last requirement. Our home’s public space (living, kitchen, family, and outdoor areas) really isn’t big enough for two separate audio streams from the central entertainment system. To me, different content in different zones turns out to be called “NOISE”. And just to be clear, the kids bedrooms aren’t part of the central system. They have their own local-only media going on in their rooms, and everyone likes it that way. More commentary on kids’ media, parental controls, etc. some other time.

So, with all of these requirements in mind, I looked at a number of approaches. One that came to mind right away was Sonos. First, let me just say that there is something special about Sonos, because everyone I know who uses it has an intense loyalty to it. I know the investors behind Sonos at Frazier Capital, who are very smart, and I’m also very impressed with Sonos CEO John McFarlane, who I have spoken to on a couple of occasions. Sonos meets all of the requirements. Three issues swayed me away in my final decision.

First, Sonos turned out to be pretty expensive. Although they market themselves as a low-cost alternative to the more sophisticated and complex custom systems, they didn’t anticipate the level of “cheap” that I apparently represent. A two-zone Sonos system, complete with a remote, an amplified zone, and a non-amplified zone (hook the second one to an existing stereo or amplified speakers) -- will run you about $950. Not bad, but I thought I could do better.

Second, they wouldn’t play my protected iTunes, or my iTunes playlists. The DRM issue turns out, after the fact, to be a decreasing problem, and I predict the end of DRM music will be a good thing for Sonos.

Sonos does allow you to make playlists, but I’d have to start over. I already have a bunch of perfectly good playlists that I made in iTunes, and it actually took me some time and thought to compile them.

Third, while I really like the Sonos remote, it is SO five-years-ago. By that, I mean it has a scroll-wheel circa iPod 2004, and a big-brick-like design that would prevent me from carrying it around my own cocktail party. It’s just too big. To be fair, Sonos recently released an iPod/iPhone remote control, which significantly enhances the appeal of the system in my view. The remote app is getting good reviews.

So, while it was close, Sonos didn’t win my business, yet.

Next I looked at the various remote-playback products that from Roku, Logitech, and other players. Each approach was less elegant than Sonos, but had the same drawbacks as Sonos. So they were discarded. It turned out this would be a two-horse race.

Finally, I looked at Apple’s Airport Express, which turned out to be the right solution us.

I purchased two Apple Airport Express WiFi access points (for $99 each), which also double as music servers using a feature Apple calls “Airtunes”, and added them to my home network. Each of the Airport Express units is attached to a second-hand stereo, which in turn powers the music in a couple of rooms or outdoors. Our stereos are pretty simple affairs. Any receiver that pumps out good quality analog sound and with sufficient power to drive the speakers in your rooms, will be adequate. Our speakers are varied in size and shape, depending on the room. Some bookshelf speakers, some in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, and some outdoor speakers. All are wired back to two stereos hooked to two Airport Express units, which in turn are joined to our home computing network. These stereos each have only one input that is being used (set to the Airport Express), and only one volume setting that is ever used (fairly loud, because this sets the max volume that your remote can access, discussed below) -- so the only thing you ever have to do with the stereos is power them on and off.

Our primary home computer houses our iTunes library, and we leave the iTunes application running on that computer. That computer’s library becomes the music and audio content source for the whole house, because it can be accessed remotely from the Airtunes-enabled Airport Express’s. This computer can be placed anywhere on the WiFi or Ethernet network. It does not have to be near one of the music zones.

For remote control, we use an iPod touch, and an iPhone. We happen to already own these items, which was a bonus when comparing costs of different approaches. Apple offers an application for iPhone and iPod touch called “Remote” ($4.99) which allows you to very easily remote-control your iTunes content, and play everything back on stereos connected to Airport Express’s. The application is beautifully designed, almost identical to the familiar built-in iPod interface, and allows me to select content all the usual ways: by song, album, artist, genre, and yes, playlist. All of my iTunes playlists show up automatically. I can control which zone gets the content, and even control the volume, all from my iPhone. This is actually a decent demo at parties.

OK, let’s tally up the costs. Two Airport Express’s at $99 each. Two second-hand stereos with at least one input and decent quality sound (the ones we are using actually have exceptional sound). No remote controls needed, no other fancy features. Just the kind that wind up on eBay and other second-hand sources for $50 each or less. And one iPod touch, for $229. Total of $527 to meet all of my requirements above, assuming you don’t already have iPod touch and a couple of second-hand stereos (I did). With Sonos, you are in for about $1000, for the Sonos two-zone system plus one second-hand stereo.

I’m assuming you already have a computer and home WiFi network. And for all of the approaches, I’m assuming you already have speakers placed and speaker-wire run. If you don’t, the cost of doing this will be roughly the same, regardless of the approach you choose (Sonos or iTunes with Airport Express).

Sonos does give you some things that Airport Express doesn’t easily do. One is Internet radio. I’m a big fan of Pandora, for example, and it doesn’t play easily through Airport, and can’t be run from Apple’s remote app on the iPod. If you aren’t wedded to iTunes, you might like the subscription music services like Rhapsody that Sonos offers. And, Sonos is a pretty elegant solution that gets good marks from its customers.

So here’s what it boils down to in my opinion. If you value the idea of one music database, one set of playlists for your home entertainment and iPods, and one relationship with iTunes, then Apple’s Airport Express and iPod remote is the way to go. You’ll give up the ability to run subscription music and easy, built-in Internet radio, but you’ll get superior iTunes integration. And you’ll save about half of what you would have invested in Sonos.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Some thoughts on what makes good marketing good

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently took a new job as CMO at Lenovo. It has been a few years since I have had a CMO role, and the job transition has me thinking about marketing – and particularly, about what makes good marketing good. Over the years, I have developed a number of principles that help guide the marketing decisions that I make. In truth, I’m a pragmatic thinker, so I have generally made decisions based first on judgment, and then looking back on those decisions, deduced the principles from them. Regardless of how I came to them, I have found that these thirteen “truths” guide me as I lead marketing teams and campaigns. I thought I’d share them here, and I welcome your feedback.

1. The Product is the Brand, and the Brand is the Product. I think this statement becomes more true every year. Today’s consumers are increasingly savvy. Just because you say something is true on a billboard, web ad, or TV-spot doesn’t mean they will believe it is true. Yes, advertising does influence people, more then they acknowledge. But I believe that consumers’ most important perceptions of brands are build from their experience with products, and their interactions with others. A surprising, innovative, emotionally-charged product can do more to enhance the brand it comes from than most any advertisement. Some companies call this the “Halo” strategy. A break-through product can serve as a “Halo” on the brand. But I think the strategy works best when innovative features are woven into the fabric of a brand’s products, vs. reserved for one high-end, expensive model. Years ago, Audi built a powerful brand built on Quattro, which they claimed was a superior way to deliver power to all four wheels of a car. They put it in nearly every part of their line-up. That feature said a lot to consumers about the company, and the brand.

2. Speak When you Have Something to Say. This is a good principle in life, and an even better one in marketing. If you don’t have a persuasive promise for your offerings, your business is in trouble. And you can’t market your way out if it. If your message isn’t distinctive and persuasive, marketing is (usually) a complete waste of money. Note: I said message, not product. You can certainly create a unique point of view, a unique way of connecting with customers, even if your product is less differentiated than you’d like. I call this a “customer intimacy” strategy as opposed to a “product differentiation” strategy (a good topic to discuss in more detail in another post). If I really believe that I don’t have a story that will resonate with, and motivate customers, I’ll cut marketing to near-zero until I do. But be warned, cutting away marketing is a temporary fix. Without a differentiated message, almost all companies are destined for near-zero margins and return on capital.

3. Efficiency is Important, but Effectiveness is MORE Important. Marketing is a leveraged expense item, because its impact is on the top-line. Given the choice, I’ll always invest more time and energy in making the marketing work well, than in making the marketing less costly. Here’s an example. When you have one agency supporting your company, it is undoubtedly more cost-effective, for a number of reasons. Certain functions don’t have to be duplicated, and you get billed for those functions. But in my experience, having only one agency doesn’t usually lead to the most powerful creative. Getting great creative requires a number of factors (including good behavior at the client), but one of those factors is whether the agency puts their best creative talent on the account. When the business is at stake, I’ve found that there is more urgency at the agency, and usually, more effective marketing follows.

4. Marketing is about Results, and Marketing Decisions Should be Made by People Accountable for Results. It seems there are as many ways to organize marketing as there are companies. It would take an entire post to debate the merits of the two or three most predominant models. But when I weigh in on questions of organization, I usually bring this simple principle to bear: I want the people who decide the day-to-day customer-acquisition marketing budgets, plans, tactics, and creative to be closely aligned with the profit centers in the company. In many companies this means decentralizing marketing, since P&L’s in many companies are decentralized. Certainly stewardship for the brand and some other responsibilities should be managed centrally regardless of how the company is managed. But, marketing is mainly about results, and the best tactics emerge when the people managing it can see the outcomes and make rapid adjustments, supported by “best-practices” known across the company.

5. Some Marketers Like to Spend Money, but the Best ones Like to MAKE Money. Whenever I hear a marketing person saying that they are “fighting for budget”, I squirm a little. When marketing people are more interested in spending money than making money, something is wrong with the org structure or decision-making approach. I want the marketing people and the business-people to be the same people, or at least, aligned to the same outcomes. The whole process works best when marketing budgets flow from units accountable for business-results. When this is the case, then the tension of marketing people wanting money, and business people withholding it, usually eases. Smart business people (who are sometimes one-and-the-same with marketing people), will willingly fund marketing when the marketing is delivering revenue and profit results. Surprisingly, few companies, especially tech companies, are set up this way.

6. Marketing is about All Five P’s. Technology is a very marketing-fueled industry, which is why I find it so surprising how few tech companies really understand the definition of marketing. Marketing is NOT the “Marcom” function. We aren’t the guys who make the collateral material and “brand ads” at the end of the development cycle. This is important work, but it is only part of the job. When companies run this way, limiting the definition of marketing, then consumer insight isn’t infused into the product process from beginning to end, and the chance of a differentiated product and message that really motivates customers is very low. Price competition and low profits follow. Even with incredible consumerist examples like Apple computer, most tech companies just keep doing stuff the old way, without tight integration between product strategy, pricing strategy, distribution strategy, and communications. Oh – what is that “fifth P?”. The five are Product, Promotion, Place, Price, and Performance. That fifth one is my own. Remember, marketing is about results (see above).

7. Ninety Percent of Market Research is a Complete Waste of Money. But the Best 10% can Literally Save the Company. In most of the companies I have worked for, market research is used for Powerpoints, not real decision-making. People want facts to put in their presentations, to support the decisions they have already made. What a waste. It is amazing how little it affects the performance of a company when you slash most of the market research, because in most companies, it isn’t being used well in the first place. But those who use it well have a powerful advantage. To me, the most powerful research is concept research. A concept is a one-page description of a product or marketing idea, with a photo, brief explanation, and usually, pricing information. By studying the appeal of concepts, you can understand what is really important to the customer, in advance of making product and marketing decisions. It is amazing to me how little good concept research is done in tech companies in particular. The PC business, for example, is a single-digit margin business. Companies in this market simply CAN’T AFFORD to introduce a product that’s not a hit. And yet amazingly, we sit around in conference rooms and debate features and design-points without the right kind of concept research to truly understand what will motivate customer purchase. Done right, a company can built a database of concepts over time, correlating concept results with market results. What it enables is smart risk-taking. And smart risk-taking is what leads to margins and growth.

8. Your Target Audience is Simple: It’s the People who Like your Product. We have a lot of debates in tech companies about who is the target audience for each of our products. But we use some pretty blunt tools for the discussion. It usually devolves into a discussion of how large the customer is, in terms of employees, and the price-bands of the products offered. Neither of these are particularly relevant factors of customer targeting, in my experience. Customers should be segmented according to what they value when they make their purchases. As such, the “target audience” for your product is all of the customers who want what you are selling. It may sound backwards, but it’s not. The trick is to develop a suite of products that have distinct value propositions which address the real purchase motivations of the profitable customers in a category. And of course, once you understand the mind-set of your customers, and have products that will motivate them, you have to figure out how to target them with marketing tactics. So in the end, you need to know how big their company is, or how premium a product they typically buy, and plenty of other target-able factors. But don’t start there. Start with what they want, and what they value when making purchase decisions. That’s how you segment a marketplace.

9. Good Marketing Doesn’t Trade-off “Demand Generation” and “Brand-Building”. It Does Both. Let’s stop the debate, happening in companies everywhere, over whether the priority should be on “brand-building” or “demand generation”. It is a false trade-off. Good marketing does both. Good marketing is about persuading customers, helping them understand that you have what they want to buy. Brands play a huge role in this, because they help consumers simplify a complex world. But let’s be clear – every time you engage in marketing, the objective is to motivate a customer toward a purchase. You can’t start-over the conversation with the customer every time. Brands help you have an ongoing dialogue and relationship with the customer, moving them toward purchase or repeat purchase. That’s why building the brand is required. As such, every marketing campaign, and every demand-generation tactic must do its part to build the brand. If it doesn’t, the conversation is between strangers.

10. Customers Make two Separate Decisions – to Consider your Product and to Buy it. Consideration and Purchase Decision are the two “moments of truth” in customer-acquisition marketing. It is important to understand the occasions, the context, and the influences that are in play for your target audience at each of these two steps. Really understanding how they make these decisions, when and where they make them, and what influences them, is the only way to build effective marketing. And, the same marketing tactics might not work for both steps. So for each piece of the campaign, it’s important to understand the objective and not get them confused. I don’t think there is quite enough discussion about all of this among marketing teams during the planning of campaigns.

11. The Best Marketing tells People what they Already Know. Or more precisely, it tells them what they already know but may not have really thought about, or thought about lately. One of the most important things that a marketer can do is to understand the needs and motivations of the customer, and then speak to those things. This makes the customer feel understood, and builds affinity. In the end, this sense of shared understanding is what motivates consumers more than anything else. Beverages are a good category to illustrate this. Think about the differences between Budweiser, Coors, and Samuel Adams beers in the U.S. They represent different value systems, different world views, different customer mind-sets -- even more than they represent different formulations of beverage. This principle illustrates the importance of brands. Coca-Cola is a refreshing drink that brings people together. People know and understand this. How effective would it be if their marketing suddenly began to tout health benefits of Coke and the fact that it is fat-free? That would be a big change in the world view of Coke, and as consumers, we wouldn’t know how to process the information. The best marketing speaks to the real motivations of the customer, and stays close to the identity of the brand, building on the power of the brand at each step.

12. The Best Marketing gets People Involved – Talks “With” People and not “At” Them. This one has always been true, but the methods to get customers involved with our marketing are changing rapidly. Traditionally, this has been a question about the nature of advertising. Does it intrigue? Does it make the customer think? Does it connect with their beliefs, as discussed above? Still today, when I look at advertising, I challenge my teams to make sure it talks “With” and not “At” the customer. But in the 21st century, consumers are more cynical of all mass media. It is much harder to draw people in. The Internet has taught us that we can be PART of the story, that we can CONTRIBUTE to it. It’s not as simple as doing a viral video and expecting everyone to pass it along for free, as many CEO’s are challenging their marketing teams to do. “Go viral, because I’ve cut your budget!”. “Going Viral” is incredibly hard, and it doesn’t work for every product category. There is a measure of art and luck involved. But if you can find a way to get the most involved consumers even more involved, and then find a mechanism to give their contributions real reach and frequency with the mass consumer, it can be very powerful.

13. The most Profitable Products are “Famous For” Something that Customers Value. I have noticed that in the tech industry, we often default to a very imprecise marketing practice. Rather than figuring out the most important benefit of our offer, and then aligning the communications to support that one benefit, we come up with a list of three (and strangely, it is almost always three?!) pillars to support any offer. This is very specific to tech, and I have noticed the trend at several different companies. This just isn’t how good marketing is done. So I ask marketing people this question: If you had just one sentence fragment to express it, what would you want your product to be Famous For? Figure out the essence of what makes your product special, express it as one simple benefit, and then align the rest of the communications for that product to support and augment that promise. BMW is famous for being a driver’s car – “the Ultimate Driving Machine”. Las Vegas is famous for unlocking your sinful side – “What happens in Vegas...” Don’t commit the “sin” of imprecise marketing, or your product will surely be famous for nothing.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

It's the Software, Stupid.

Apple made its name in music on the success of iTunes, not iPod.

I’ve worked in the technology industry for quite a few years.  And I’ve come to a pretty basic conclusion:  most hardware companies just don’t get software, and worse, they don’t GET that they don’t get software.  This posting gives just one example.

It is conventional (but somewhat flawed) wisdom in the computing industry that Apple gained its current momentum in Mac’s on the back of iPod’s success.  The often-told story goes like this:  Apple introduced the iPod into a relatively lazy mp3 market, and the iPod had such a gorgeous design and such great features that it eventually cornered the mp3 market, which served to reintroduce people to Apple products overall.  Hence, Mac’s share growth.

There are a bunch of problems with the above assertion.  But the main one is that the iPod’s design and features are what caused its share growth.  Not in my opinion.   

The simple truth is that iTunes is what caused the dominance of iPods, and iTunes was also one of the top-3 contributors to the share growth of Mac’s (what are the other top Mac growth factors, you ask?  That’s for another post…).  It was iTunes, not iPod.

The fact is, there were several cool-ish mp3’s on the market during the early days of iPod.  I owned one by Creative, and it was quite a good player.  Most of the mp3 offerings at that time (2003-ish) made it pretty simple to select songs by artist, album, song name, etc.  Most had fairly easy-to-understand hardware controls.  Some (but not most) even had decent industrial design.  But none of them had iTunes, which offered an elegant integration of hardware and software, and respected a few basic consumer insights.  (screenshot of iTunes 4 from

Sometime around late October 2003 or early November 2003, in the first week after it was introduced to Windows, I downloaded iTunes onto my Windows PC.  Overnight, my music world was transformed.   Previously, I had been alternating between Windows Media Player, Napster, and other applications, and using them with various players.  Suddenly, I had a simpler solution for overall management of my music, an easier way to add to my library (iTunes store), and a great application for music synching and playback. 

Early versions of iTunes got a few really critical consumer insights right.  Making playlists very easy to compile, and then later find and play, was one of the big ones.  Afterall, playlists were one of the early “killer apps” of the digital music era.  Suddenly, I could mix-up my music in new ways.  Playlists were highly prominent in the user interface (see above photo of iTunes 4, the version in place during iTunes/iPod's rise to dominance).  Other applications supported playlists, of course.  Windows Media player has playlists, but in the early days, they just didn’t make playlists as easy, or as prominent in the UI.  Ripping CD’s was more intuitive with iTunes too.  And so was synching the portable device.  Before iTunes, I experienced a variety of synch fails, and had learned to overcome them by geeking my way through.  The iTunes software had a simple elegance that made buying, organizing, and playing music fun and interesting.  That’s the main reason Apple wound up on top in music, in my opinion.

New job, same interests. And check out my new ThinkPad.

I've been away from this blog for a while, busy selling my company Switchbox Labs to Lenovo and starting a new global job at Lenovo, where I'm serving as SVP and CMO.

So far, it has just been a couple of weeks since I joined the company full-time, along with my Switchbox co-founders Bob Dickinson and Blake Ramsdell.  I have been incredibly impressed with both the people and the products.  I have so much to learn, and so many people yet to meet.  

I can't make too many promises, but I hope to continue this blog, and mix my consumer technology observations with some commentary on what's going on in the technology industry itself, from the perspective of someone working at one of the big companies in it.

Yes, they are paying me a salary.  But right now, I think I'd work just for this sweet little number in my lap (I'm talking about the computer, just to be clear).  I'm typing this on my new Thinkpad x301, which is just about the best notebook I have ever laid my hands on.  I can't believe CNET gave this thing an 8.3, which is pretty-much robbery.

It is incredibly thin, and light, has the best keyboard of any small computer I've ever touched (don't let anyone fool you, keyboards REALLY MATTER and they aren't all equal).  Maybe most exciting, I'm gettting (seriously) nearly six hours of active usage out of it, partly because my model is all SSD-based (good-bye, hard drives), and I took out the DVD player and put in the optional extra battery in that slot (in case you weren't aware, dvd drives in computers are pretty much obsolete).

When this form-factor was first introduced with the x300 last year, a little video made its way to the web, which tells the story of this product's innovation pretty well.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Slingplayer for iPhone coming soon, but when?

Last week at MacWorld, Sling Media finally demonstrated the SlingPlayer Mobile for iPhone and it looks very good. They have a good demo running on their website now, but little to say about when it will be released. The site says they will submit for certification with Apple in 1Q.

I suspect this media push is a strategy to get Apple motivated to approve the player. I spoke with Blake Krikorian, the recently departed founder of Sling, last fall. He told me back then that the app was nearly complete, but that they were facing resistance and foot-dragging from Apple. We sometimes forget that the iPhone isn't an open platform. If for some reason Apple doesn't like your app, even if that reason is that they feel threatened by it, they can refuse to release it. So we'll all have to see what happens, and how quickly.

Meantime, I continue to use Orb, which provides me with a pretty good mobile TV solution, as I described in a previous posting. I have experienced intermittent problems with it since my last posting, but I have it working fairly reliably. I stand by my comment that while cool, Orb isn't yet mass-consumer ready.

My son uses the AT&T Mobile TV service on his Samsung Eternity. This is a surprisingly good live TV service. The feature I like best is almost instant channel-changing. The quality is good, and the interface is surprisingly good. I wish there was a broader channel line-up, and I wish it didn't cost $15/month. Bring on the Sling!