Technology

The Best Way to Shop, Bar None

It’s not just mobile devices that are increasingly “smart” – they’ve earned their sobriquet by greatly boosting their owners’ intelligence as well. Consider how they’ve broken the bar code, that series of thick and thin vertical lines attached to a product that contains price information and helps vendors track inventory. Now your clever little hand held friend can scan it and track down the best price, wherever it may be. You may only need you to type or speak the name (or even just description) of your object of desire. And shazaam: the best deals, online and in stores. Retailers have grown afraid of these ruthless new competitors residing in the pockets of their erstwhile customers. But not nearly enough.
Almost half (45 percent) of shoppers with smartphones use them to do on-the-spot price checks, according to consulting firm IDC Retail Insights, putting huge pressure on retailers to compete on price – on everything, all the time.
The big box has become a big sponge, letting all sorts of precious, valuable information in and out. “The four walls of the store have become porous,” Greg Girard of IDC told The Wall Street Journal. “The retailer’s advantage has been eroded.” [WSJ, 12/16/10] That leaves the salesman with less and less to do. Almost three quarters (73 percent) of shoppers with smartphones preferred to consult their mobiles rather than an appliance jockey on the floor, according to a 10-nation study in 2010 conducted by the big management consultancy Accenture. The casualties are already mounting. Best Buy, the nation’s largest electronics chain, saw its stock plunge before Christmas 2010 (typically its most lucrative period) after it conceded it was losing market share, which analysts said was due at least in part to mobile-equipped bargain shoppers. On the day retailers traditionally go “into the black” for the year (dubbed “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving), 5.6 percent of shoppers used a mobile device to access retail sites in 2010 – a 56-fold increase in one year, according to Coremetrics, an IBM division that measures e-commerce activity. [WSJ, 12/16/10] Soon enough it will be the percentage of those not shopping with their mobiles that will be in the single digits. There are ways for retailers to suck it up and make lemonade from the new reality. Beleaguered Best Buy, for instance, has partnered with TheFind (which was downloaded 400,000 in its debut month) to target consumers with ads while they’re in the store – or at a competitor’s like WalMart. “That is an opportunity to steal a sale right when someone is in the throes of making a decision,” Barry Judge, Best Buy’s chief marketing officer, told The Wall Street Journal. “That is what makes mobile so powerful.” And shameless. Siva Kumar, chief executive of TheFind, is unapologetic of playing both sides of the transaction. “It is not a consumer-only game,” he told the Journal. “Retailers can use it to their advantage.” Nobody said war was pretty, but competing strictly on price is a losing battle, especially with the high upkeep of physical stores. More promising survival tactics would include:
  • Selling merchandise that customers can’t get anywhere else
  • Bundling special services with products
  • Removing or encrypting bar codes to stymie deal-seeking mobile customers
No matter how retailers adjust to the mobile age, it seems clear there will be less need for so many or such large retail showrooms, especially those selling commoditized merchandise or stuff readily available on the web. You have to wonder what’s going to happen to the commercial real estate market when this realization really sinks in.

Mobile Just Smote the Remote

Forget about rooting around in the sofa cushions for your remote control. Just reach for your mobile. It’s soon all you’ll need to navigate your life – not just on Facebook or Mapquest but among the ever-expanding choices you’ll have on internet-fed TV. A number of companies already make apps designed to task your mobile device as a remote control. Google’s TV app runs on Android or iOS (iPhone, iPad); Apple’s TV app only on Apple’s own iOS devices. Google’s has voice search; the Apple Remote app lets you control your Apple TV as you would your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. http://rww.to/eJ1Dcm
Not known as speedy technology adopters, pay TV distributors are also in the game of enabling mobile devices to serve as remote controls and program navigators. Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Dish Network, Verizon and others have apps for iOS and Android devices. http://bit.ly/dK55Dw
Verizon’s FiOS Mobile Remote app lets customers change channels, manage parental controls, pause, rewind and fast forward or record a TV show.  Customers can also click on the video on demand (VOD) button or switch to live TV. And here’s an interesting bonus: customers can transfer apps from the mobile device to the TV. http://rww.to/eJ1Dcm Certainly viewers crave new ways to search and discover content, to escape the up-down-left-right “grid” that has displayed program line-ups for decades. Universal remotes have tried to solve the problem of choice but they’re too big or too complicated. If we’ve learned one thing about consumer electronics it’s this: it has to be easy to appeal to the masses. The remote control even as it is still plays a crucial function. Its real estate is consequently highly valuable. Television will feature more apps as it becomes an appliance of the Internet, and those apps will compete for viewers’ attention. No wonder streaming movie provider Netflix has struck deals with TV manufacturers to feature a Netflix button on next-generation remote controls (yes, even before they become an app on your mobile). [ http://on.wsj.com/icYxJY] With Amazon, Apple, Hollywood, and the cable companies gearing up to keep Netflix from extending its lead in movie exhibition, you can’t blame the scrappy company from thinking ahead. Which is the lesson for all of us in the rapidly moving tech-dominated world: think and act strategically or get buried under someone’s backside.

Forecast Calls for Cloudy Skies

Once we called upon Zeus and Horus. Then we created machines to serve and rule us. Now we cast our eyes anew to the heavens to conjure up what we want. What fresh magic is this? It's cloud computing, shifting software from your office, desktop, lap, and pocket to remote data centers that you access through the Internet. Setting you free in one sense, yet also making it more difficult to escape the reach and watch of technology.
Discs are as dead as the Victrola: increasingly you'll go to the cloud to download apps for your limited purpose, stream a movie, or look for extra server space.
It may sound a little nebulous, but one thing is clear: it’s clearly getting more overcast all the time. The worldwide market for cloud services is likely to grow to $148.8 billion in 2014 from $58.6 billion in 2009, according to Gartner Research. “The last time companies saw this big a shift in computing was when PCs entered the workplace over 20 years ago,” says Ben Pring, a senior research analyst at Gartner. In the next five years, companies will spend $112 billion cumulatively on software delivered over the Internet (a.k.a., “software as a service”) and comparable services, according to Gartner. By November 2009, about 100,000 companies used cloud applications, according to Bruce Richardson, former chief research officer at AMR Research. In a May 2008 report, Merrill Lynch estimated that 12 percent of the worldwide software market would go to the cloud by 2013 and be worth $95 billion.  [Source: BusinessWeek, http://bit.ly/fUudod. Check out the article for good examples of companies saving money with the cloud.] Cloud computing isn’t new -- Gmail, Flicker, Picasa, Dropbox, and streaming media are all cloud-based services. But storms are brewing as big players like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Salesforce compete for your business. Security is an issue -- personal data stored in the cloud is under constant hacker assault, although security experts say having remote tech experts guarding their servers (and your information) is safer than you doing the job yourself. Data ownership could also be a problem if the owner of the server you’re using changes the rules and decides it can sell your uploaded photos, for instance. Whatever happens, look for your PC and its operating system to be gone with the wind before long. Gone will be the hassles that long marked our days: installing software, protecting it from viruses, remembering where you stored information, losing everything when you forgot to back it up. You’ll continue to need access to electrical power (and long battery life), but much of what you thought you knew about computing is changing.

Of Laughter and Never Forgetting

Time magazine is about to name its “Man of the Year,” the person who has made the greatest impression on the previous 12 months. From A to Z, Julian Assange to Mark Zuckerberg nicely bookend the short list and frame one of the great struggles of our epoch: privacy vs. transparency. The WikiLeaker from Down Under is likely to get the nod for publicizing information from U.S. classified documents. To his way of thinking, candid assessments written for a limited group of decision makers must be exposed as perfidious. Thus, WikiLeaks has informed the world that State Department functionaries think Hamid Karzai is a crook and Italy’s Berlusconi is “feckless, vain, and ineffective.” Uh, tell us something we don’t know.
At the other end of the alphabet, Zuckerberg schemed to tell Facebook’s corporate partners many things they didn’t know about users of his site. He seemed baffled why anyone would want to hold back their personal profiles from the world at large. What are these people afraid of?
For one thing, people don’t want to be commodities to be bought and sold (although that battle is probably already lost). More than that, people instinctively want to be able to control their reputations, which they can’t when information about them is (a) false or (b) once true, but no longer or out of context. People cling to the idea that they can have separate lives: one for home, one for work, one for friends, and so forth. They also want to be able to reinvent themselves at will – which requires moving on from the past, forgetting, amongst other things, indiscretions that seemed amusing at the time. Yet how can we drop this baggage when the Internet shackles us to every comment or image associated with us? “A humane society values privacy because it allows people to cultivate different aspects of their personalities in different contexts,” writes Jeffrey Rosen in his outstanding article in the New York Times Magazine in July. “At the moment, the enforced merging of identities that used to be separate is leaving many casualties in its wake.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25privacy-t2.html?hp It’s not a theoretical issue. Three-quarters of U.S. companies conduct online research on job candidates, according to Microsoft, and seven of ten recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of discovered photos, discussion-board conversations, or membership in controversial groups. There’s plenty of grist for the investigator’s mill. Facebook has nearly 500 million members, 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Its users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be permanently house the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.
Now advancing facial recognition technology promises (or threatens) to locate photos of people you’re looking for on the web, even if not identified (“tagged”) in the photo. Social-network aggregator search engines will be combining data from various sources to rank people’s public and private reputations. Then there’s the new web site Unvarnished, where people can write anonymous reviews about anyone. People are already rated on their creditworthiness. Soon they may be judged and ranked on the reputation as parents, dates, employees, neighbors.
By “erasing external memories our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior,” writes Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in his recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.” The limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. He says “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.” Here’s the irony: the internet was until recently seen as the great liberator. Hilary Clinton, now on the warpath against WikiLeaks, praised Google for empowering Chinese citizens with information about their government. Remember that New Yorker cartoon from the early 1990s: “On the Internet they don’t know if you’re a dog.” Now the leash is back. We know who and where and what you are, Rover. And we’re never going to let you forget it. The remedies range from legal maneuvers of dubious value (such as lawsuits to force removal of slanderous information or “Twittergation”) to technological innovations – such as built-in expiration dates for data, controlled by the user. Or just being prudent to the point of paranoia. Supposedly cavalier about over-sharing, the young are catching up to their elders in matters of privacy. A UC Berkeley study this year found that 88 percent of people between 18 and 22 believe websites should be legally required to delete all stored information about individuals. Facebook could implement expiration dates. If it wanted to. It doesn’t, apparently. Bad information, like bad news, has a greater impact, as any behavioral psychologist or journalist or PR rep will tell you. So a new industry has arisen to buried the bad news that can’t be actually eliminated. Companies like ReputationDefender flood the Web with positive or neutral information about their customers to rig Google search rankings, pushing the negative links to the bottom. Whether Time chooses Julian, Mark (or even Sarah) as its emblem of 2010, the bigger story is that technology is rapidly moving us through numbered versions of the world. We’ve left the user-generated content world of web 2.0, and we’re being shoved into 3.0. Welcome to it.

Making Pate from the Golden Goose

Where would Google be without people scouring the neighborhood and the world for news and information, writing and editing and packaging that information at great expense, so Google could then share it for free and score billions in ad revenue? But just because Google gutted journalism as a business doesn’t mean it wants to kill the golden goose. It wants the old bird to evolve. Google says “it’s crucial to encourage innovation at the grassroots level.” So the multi-billion dollar goliath is donating $5 million to help nonprofits develop “new approaches to journalism in the digital age” – $2 million to the Knight Foundation, and $3 million will go to unspecified journalism projects outside of the U.S. All Things Digital called it Google’s $5 million “Get Well Soon” card to media, noting that Google had net profits last quarter of $2.17 billion. Google closed out its blog post announcing the grants with a few words from that old innovation standby, Thomas Edison: “Stop experimenting and you go backward.” Look for publishers to experiment with Google Maps and YouTube Direct to make news websites more engaging for readers.
%d bloggers like this: