Monday, August 31, 2009

The sliver bullet

As I said earlier, it is nearly impossible to make products without some problems. The more products you connect together, the farther away the time sensitive data has to travel, the more data being transported and the higher the quality has to be, the more problems you are going to run into. In this case, we are talking about high definition TV in a home network which means a lot of data which has to be transported flawlessly or the average consumer can see the glitch. Also, add to this the fact that the DLNA solution is a consumer retail solution and you have to do everything well at a very low price.

It is too early to declare DLNA a failure, but I would not be surprised to see them fizzle. In my mind, the problem is with the channel. You can not start out with something this complicate by going retail, selling to the guy and gal who could barely program their VCR. You need to start this sort of thing by selling to the professional home network installer.

The professional installer is trained on systems, skilled at workarounds, technical and they will find the products that work together and only use those products. They do not randomly go to Wal-Mart and pick up a Colby this to work with an Apex that. Retail is an interoperability nightmare for anything complicated. Installers find what works and stick with it as much as they can.

Once they install a system, their customer is asking for a service call if they tinker with it. This is totally different than a system the customer buys at the store and installs by themselves. The silver bullet for HD home networking is to go through a professional until you know what you are doing. Then enter retail with a few products and grow the market from there. DLNA tried to rush into retail with dozens of products from dozens of companies. You just can not test for everything that will happen once the product leaves the store.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Competiton Slips

Ethernet was never intended to carry time sensitive data, such as video. With video, every frame needs to make it to the TV screen on time or the results are unacceptable. DLNA had to do a total rework of Ethernet. The result is a new technology based on Ethernet but one that will not work with traditional Ethernet products.

1394, on the other hand, was developed to carry time sensitive data and to prevent collisions.

All this left me wondering why they would do a massive rework of an ancient technology (Ethernet), then rebrand it as “DLNA” so that only “DLNA” products would be expected to work together (and no Ethernet products). It would have been faster to have added a few features to 1394 and called it “HANA” (for example) and then built expectations that HANA products would work with HANA products. The nonsense of their logic was stunning.

Two years ago, the DLNA group hired a full time person to oversee their compliance program. However, even with this level of effort to assure interoperability, their product introduction failed. Earlier this year, retail giant Best Buy rejected DLNA claims to interoperability after problems surfaced in their own private tests. Several DLNA participants admitted in the press that the group had failed to deliver as promised.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Samsung...exit stage left

Home networking over 1394 seemed like it should be a slam dunk. However, several notable companies and organizations had already tried and failed. Currently, there is one last attempt being developed, but the outlook is bleak. If 1394 home networking has so much promise, why can it not gain any traction?

The interoperability issues are a big problem. Samsung decided to abandon their 1394 home networking effort because old 1394 devices, when connected to a 1394 network, will cause bus reset storms, locking up the system. They were worrying about products that were made 10 years ago, most of which are no longer being used. I encouraged them to establish a strong compliance testing program and only guarantee their products to work with products that passed the certification tests. But their response was that they were afraid that customers would see the 1394 port and try to connect the old devices anyway.

Large consumer A/V companies can be frustratingly paranoid to deal with, being painfully slow to adopt new technologies. You have to make them worry that they are being left behind by the competition before most of them will inch forward.

Surprisingly, after backing away from 1394 for networks, Samsung threw their effort into an Ethernet based home networking initiative called “DLNA”. They went straight from the frying pan into the fire.
Ethernet was developed for mainframe computers in the early 70s (patented in 1975). It was developed to connect every device that wanted to gain access to the network. When everything is connected with equal access to the network, bad things happen. Fully loaded networks can get very busy and very slow. If you’ve ever worked in an office with a shared printer accessible through a network, you’ve heard the printer pause for a second or two as it waits for the next packet of data to come across the busy network. Ethernet will not prevent data from colliding on the network. It manages the collisions. Sometimes this requires data to be sent again. Not a big deal when printing a document. A few pauses along the way will not seriously slow down the print job. But imagine watching a bowl game with the TV screen pausing two seconds each time the network gets busy. The store returns on such a product would be record breaking.

Despite a rapidly growing list of member companies joining their trade association, storm clouds were forming across the DLNA landscape...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Another Year, Another Revolution... that fizzled

Retail home networking is price sensitive, but professionally installed home networking is not nearly so price sensitive. I see HDMI 4X4 matrixes selling on-line for $1,000. They have very little inside and do very little. With FireWire’s capabilities, a home network could transport five different streams of high-def video (with Dolby audio) to five HDTVs across one single Coax or CAT5 cable, moving video in both directions and be controlled by a graphical user interface sending control signals across the same wire.

I should repeat that again slowly because that is a lot to take in. Imagine five different devices, such as an HD Cable Box, a Blu-Ray player, a Digital Video Recorder (a TiVO like device), a central media controller with on-line access to Netflix, and a computer connected to the internet with family photos and home movies on it. That is five different video sources at a minimum. If the HD Cable Box had two tuners in it, then it would be able to provide two different HD channels at the same time…making it essentially two video sources. If it also had a PVR inside, that could provide an additional option for video content. Now imagine sitting in front of an HDTV in your living room, hitting a button on a simple remote control (power, menu, up arrow, down arrow, select). Select “menu” and a menu comes up showing all the video sources connected to the network. Select one, HD cable box (for example) and you can pull up a new menu to show you a full program guide or you can select the PVR and see everything that has been recorded on the PVR. Hit “menu” again and you can see what DVD is in the Blu-Ray player or what videos have been stored on the Digital Video Recorder and select anything you want to watch. All this with a five button remote. You have access to all the content in your home available to any TV in the living room, kitchen, bedroom, media room, pool, garage, or any place you care to run a cable. Not just one TV, but five TVs can play any video stream they want at the same time.

At a $1,200 - $2,000 price point ($1,000 for the full function media server with a $200 access box at each TV), a feature rich network like this would sell well in retail and would revolutionize the professional installer industry.

Why have we not seen this, because a device like this was developed and withered due to lack of interest? It fizzled for four reasons. Reason number four was the current economic downturn that dried up investment dollars and made companies reluctant to branch out in bold new directions. The other three reasons will be covered in my next installment.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our Strength was our Weakness

I was discussing the incredible business opportunity I see in home networking over 1394 with a German 1394 enthusiast when his comments brought me up short. This is a person who has built a company doing large professional networks with 1394. Originally he was trying to use Ethernet but found the limitations of Ethernet made it unsuitable for large networks carrying real-time data such as professional recording studios or high definition video distribution. He was increasing buffers and creating sub-nets and all sorts of other things to get Ethernet to work. The so called “inexpensive Ethernet solution” so commonly referenced in networking discussion was costing a fortune to debug. He switched to 1394 and found that 90% of his problems went away. The chipsets were more expensive but his ability to do what he needed to do without taking heroic measures made 1394 a cheaper solution.

I expected him to embrace this new and growing market; home networking. To my astonishment, he indicated that 1394 was not good for cost sensitive solutions.

The fact that 1394 is better suited to complex applications is also its limitation. 1394 is much more capable than USB, Ethernet, HDMI, and a whole host of other choices. In reality, it does not cost that much more to make. I have heard, for example, that a USB cable costs around 75 cents to make and a FireWire cable around a dollar and HDMI just over a dollar. That should cause you some irritation the next time you pick up a cable at Best Buy, but there are a lot of things that go into setting the retail price than simply the cost of making the product.

The issue is not so much the cost of 1394 as much as it is the cost of developing the solution that needs 1394. You do not need 1394 in a mouse or keyboard. Even USB is overkill for those devices and since it is a few cents cheaper, USB wins that socket. When it comes to printers and scanners, the same holds true. USB is adequate for so many things, and being a few cents cheaper makes it the preferred solution.

The system being developed needs to be very complex before it will require the capabilities of 1394. Those systems are expensive to make. It is not the price of 1394 that makes it expensive. It is the capabilities of 1394 that make it only suitable for expensive solutions. In audio equipment, for example, the cheap consumer products use USB for a point-to-point connection to a computer. For professional systems with multiple streams of audio going between equipment along with command-and-control being transported back and forth, 1394 wins the socket.

This was a novel idea to me. I’d always promoted FireWire as a better all around solution, able to do everything, never realizing that our strength was also our weakness.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Doing it right and still not working...

Problems will emerge when making a product no matter how big you are or how long you have been in the business. Once a company realizes they have a problem with the FireWire port on a device, they are not going to publicize it. They will make sure that all their products work together and then hope for the best. Compliance testing, it was feared, would only make it obvious that Company A was having design issues. To remove the stigma of being one of the few companies testing products, the 1394TA worked with member companies to get everyone to start testing products once the tests were available. However, the feedback from major companies was that they were not getting significant returns due to FireWire bugs. Additionally, to start compliance testing 7 – 8 years after products started shipping could only serve to raise concerns. It was speculated that customers would assume that significant problems had only recently been discovered and suddenly the whole industry was franticly testing products. The whole effort was sunk from the beginning.

But there was an additional issue which caused fully compliant products to fail when connected over FireWire. The 1394TA standards included a few mandatory features and a long list of optional features. If Sony decided to support optional feature X and Panasonic chose to not support that option, then feature X would not work between the two products. Imagine a dozen features that may or may not be supported on all the products in your home and you can see the problem.

Compliance testing would do nothing to remedy this problem.

1394/FireWire was not alone in this. Recently, retail giant Best Buy failed products using a competing technology (DLNA) largely due to the “too many optional features” problem. To find an article on this issue, simply Google “Best Buy DLNA”.

In the computer world, these problems were largely transparent to the user. The operating systems from both Apple and Microsoft mask most problems. The software simply included 100s of work-arounds to prevent the products from failing. Once again, 1394 is not alone in this. USB developers have frequently stated to me that 1,000s of bug fixes are in the operating systems from MS and Apple to keep USB working. Those who are not mouthpieces for the industries making money off of USB (i.e. people not selling USB silicon or cables) decry the poor quality of the USB technology and the millions of man hours required to get it working and keep it working. But it works “good enough” and that is all the consumer knows.

There is a lot to be said about “good enough”. 1394 could have learned a lesson there as I will cover in the next installment.

Home Networking...the plot thickens

In addition to intentional judgment calls that lead to inconsistencies between products, there are myriad tiny design mistakes which are legion with 1394 products. Even among household names, dozens of common design mistakes are all too common.

For example, if your board layout includes differential traces which are different lengths, you can introduce skew. I.E. if the board in your product with the computer chips on it uses wires of different lengths, you can cause some of the audio, video, or data to arrive a little bit late.

Even more shocking (pun intended), many manufactures do not design their product to accommodate the right electrical current carried by the FireWire wire. Hook up a device providing the full FireWire electrical current and the poorly designed product will not be able to withstand the current coming over the FireWire cable.

The power problem would produce a more obvious failure than the board layout problem. Most of the common design mistakes are not so obvious. For example, manufactures sometime do not understand some of the information their product needs to provide when communicating with other products over 1394. They will leave information out or duplicate information in all their products causing significant confusion and poor performance.

These problems could have been significantly reduced if the 1394TA had a strong compliance program. That is great in theory, but difficult in reality. The first 1394 product emerged in 1995 but the first meeting to discuss a compliance program did not take place until 1998. Meaningful work did not start on a compliance standard until 2002. After 7 years of products shipping, the sense of urgency for testing products was very low and the TA was powerless to do anything about it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Home Networking...fallen and can't get up

After a great start, home networking over 1394 fizzled…repeatedly. After several years of analysis, some answers emerged.

For one thing, companies tend to follow standards imprecisely. A standard needs to be precise enough to assure that products will work together but you can not cover everything. If you even try, you end up with a standard that takes more years to write than the useful lifecycle of the technology. In the world of technology, the better mouse trap is constantly being introduced and if the mouse trap gains market acceptance, all old versions quickly become obsolete.

Therefore, there are subtle differences that can be introduced by well intentioned product designers when they use their best judgment about what makes sense when the standard is not specific. These judgment calls can make a Sony product fail intermittently when used with non-Sony products.

I mention Sony because they got a bad name in the industry for going their own way and deviating from the standard when the standard did not meet their need. Even worse, they were accused of intentionally introducing subtle differences in their products to encourage customers to buy all Sony products instead of buying products from multiple vendors.

Admittedly, Sony did deviate from the standard as they did when they introduced the 4-pin connector however; it is my opinion that they did not introduce subtle flaws to intentionally make their product work poorly with those of their competitors. Such a strategy would be too dangerous for the reputation conscious Sony I know. The customer could just as easily blame the Sony product for the failure as he could a non-Sony product. Additionally, I am aware of work Sony and Panasonic did with their competitors to make sure that Japanese products worked well together.

Sony was the leader in 1394 products by a large margin. As with any leader, when things go wrong, they were an easy target for cheap shots, paranoia, and conspiracy theories. I think this was simply a case of Sony making their best judgment call and simply not meshing on every point with the competition.

However, there was a more obvious problem which led to incompatibilities and the problem came straight from the standards written by the 1394TA.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Home Networking

About 5 years ago, the 1394TA marketing working group chairman and I decided that we needed to position 1394 as a unique solution, able to do something that nothing else can do. This is consistent with item two in my “Apple formula for success” list. We selected Home Networking. USB can’t do it. HDMI can’t do it. At the time, DLNA was not around, so Ethernet could not do it. Home computers had 1394 as did digital STBs, Digital VHS tape decks, and a growing number of HDTVs.

The idea of using 1394 for home networking had been around for years. Gary Hoffman (first chairman of the 1394TA) presented 1394 as a home network at the first 1394 Developers Conference on July 28, 1997. VESA Home Networks (now the DisplayPort people) announced a “proof of concept” using 1394 on April 1, 1998. CEA showed the Virtual Home Network (VHN) based on 1394 at CES on January 8, 2001. When USTec announced tecStream with 1394 in April of 2005, things looked good, but they pulled the product about a year later due to “interoperability problems working with 1394 products in the field.” No VESA network, no VHN network, no tecStream network…

What happened?

And what is happening now?

More to come....

Friday, July 17, 2009

Marketing Primer: Step Six, Public Speaking…On the Job Training

I was toward the end of the program and kept track of how many more speakers were left before I got up. I was trying to pick up pointers from each speaker. The Sony America guy got up and said something in Japanese. “Konichi…something” Showoff…but the audience liked it…learn to say something in Japanese for the future… The Adaptec guy just read his speech…don’t do that. The Symbios Logic guy shook his laser pointer all over the screen so you could never tell exactly what he was trying to draw your attention to…and it gave me motion sickness. The Molex guy was loud, spoke slowly, paused frequently and naturally, and enunciated clearly…try to do that.

Drat! Two more guys and then I am up.

I’d been in a lot of meetings with the next speaker. He was always calm, collected, unflappable, and always gave the impression that he was quietly confident that he was always right. To my astonishment, and I am ashamed to say, amusement, he was petrified. This was not the same dismissive, confident guy I knew. He could barely get his words out. I was on the front row and I could barely hear him. His face was inches away from his notes and he was reading them word for word. His hands were visibly shaking and I could hear the paper rustling. He was, without a doubt, the worst presentation of the day. I felt a wave of relief. I could be no worse than he. I do not recall who got up next or how they did. I was basking in the relief.

When it came to my turn, I was feeling a lot better. I could do this. I spoke my first words slowly and clearly and paused after the first sentence. All over the room I could hear tiny speakers in 300 tiny earpieces repeating my words in Japanese. I said my second sentence and could hear the 300 tiny earpieces echoing my words in Japanese. The sensation was similar to a bad cell phone connection where your words are echoed back to you a second after you speak them. It is disorienting. I was pausing until the echo stopped which was dragging my presentation out too long. I could see people shifting their weight. I was boring them. I picked up my pace but the echo kept causing me to stumble. I was forcing myself to ignore the echo and to keep talking. Our Japanese host caught my attention, “Cat-san, a little slower please.” I forced myself to doggedly plod through my presentation slowly but not stopping. I had to get it over and sit down.

As I headed back to my seat with sweat making the inside of my suit coat feel clammy, I caught a glimpse of the petrified, shaky speaker who had given his presentation shortly before me. On his face, I saw a look of relief. Looks like I'd returned the favor.

There is only so much you can learn by watching. In the end, you have to learn by doing.

As years have passed, I have worked with a dozen interpreters and have trained my mind to ignore the echo while keeping my pace, pausing instinctively when I get too far ahead, and keeping my energy level up when giving a presentation in slow motion. But there is always a new challenge that will throw you off your game the first time or two you encounter it. You learn to expect that and accept it. It's how you learn.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Marketing Primer: Step Five, Public Speaking…working with interpreters

When the day arrived for my dreaded presentation, I was fully prepared with a presentation my boss had dictated to me. I knew the presentation word for word but none of it made any sense to me. It was just words.

The conference room at Sony was large and well appointed. It was as upscale, modern and "efficient" looking as anything I’d ever seen. And, it was filling up with of a sea of middle-aged Japanese men in dark suits and boring ties.

I’d been told that Sony was providing an interpreter which I assumed would be a faceless voice in a hidden room. However, I was informed that I needed to meet with my interpreter to go over my presentation ahead of time. That was painless enough. A pleasant Japanese woman asked me a few questions and jotted down some notes, thanked me and that was it. That was deceptively easy. It went downhill from there.

I was unaware of the disorienting effect that working with an interpreter has. Once the presentations started, our Japanese host had to ask the speakers repeatedly to slow down a little and pause to give the interpreter a chance to keep up. You could see guys thrown off their stride, losing energy, losing expression, and eventually becoming a dull droning voice. You could tell from their opening comments that some of these guys were really good speakers, but working with the interpreter took the life out of their presentation. I kept thinking, “Boring is OK. The interpreter just lowered the bar. You can do this.”

My turn in the barrel would come soon enough.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Marketing Primer: Step Four, Public Speaking…getting bigger

I got to where I was actually enjoying talking to small groups. I’d made some mistakes and learned things that did not work. For example, everyone tells you to start with a joke. I do not tell jokes well. That always failed for me and often irritated the audience. I did find examples that clarified and amused the audience. I found side comments that made them smile. I also developed a feeling for how to let a spontaneous comment slip out. I found that the funny things that just popped out of my mouth were much more amusing than prepared comments. This was all part of learning to be an outgoing, affable, likable person and learning what worked for me. I was honing a skill and that was very enjoyable.

But then there came a day when I was asked to fly to Japan and speak to an audience of 300 Japanese executives. Also in the audience would be everyone I knew in the world of 1394. That cold panic came back. I was afraid to speak to this crowd.

Sony was hosting the first non-US meeting of the 1394 Trade Association at their corporate headquarters in the Shinagawa section of Tokyo. They invited about 20 companies to deliver short presentations to a crowd of 300 executives from all their competitors. Sony wanted the industry to adopt 1394. It is impossible to be a leader if no one is following and Sony was way out front with 1394. I was picked by my boss to give the presentation for our company.

I’d only recently gotten comfortable with speaking to small crowds and I was fighting the urge to panic at the prospect of speaking in Tokyo. I was amazed that this opportunity came to me but with that feeling of being honored also came the huge burden to not screw it up.

The flight over was excellent. Business was good in those days and I was flying “Business Class”. My first trip to Japan. My first international trip on company money. And the first time I’d ever flown in comfort. I’d flown internationally before but in coach, even as a college kid, the seats that started out feeling OK ended up feeling like a park bench by the end of the flight. Business class was great…but I still had that little problem of delivering that speech. Relief from my fear came from an unexpected source.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Marketing Primer: Step Three, Public Speaking…starting small

As we all know, one of the greatest fears is speaking in front of a crowd. How does one get over that? I’d done some acting in the high school drama club and I was comfortable with small groups cutting up and clowning around, so I was not a complete wallflower, but when I got in front of a group to give a speech, I had all the symptoms. Sweaty palms, racing heart, shortness of breath, dry mouth, and a suffocating feeling of panic.

Step one was to be a different person. This is what I did when I was acting in a high school play. I stopped thinking about being me on the stage but it was “Antonio” or “Earnest” on stage, saying prepared lines and doing pre-planned things. That carried me through doing sales presentations to small groups. I was giving my prepared speech and talking to slides I’d seen a dozen times before. I was that generic 1394 marketing guy…old “whatsisname”… a character on a stage. After a few nervous presentations, I’d heard most of the questions and had ready answers. Besides, these were one-shot presentations mostly. You speak to a group of 5 – 10 engineers and marketers and never see them again.

Step two was to make the crowd a friendly crowd. Get them on your side by using the persona you’d developed to get a person to respond favorably to you quickly. It is easier to talk to a friendly crowd of strangers.

Step three was to learn to “get over it.” Learn to just shake off things. You say something stupid, just get over it. You have another presentation in two hours. Do better next time. As a marketer, you are not going to be judged for one bad presentation. A presentation is normally about as significant as turning in a homework assignment was in school. There are going to be a lot of assignments turned in and each one will only count a tiny bit towards your final grade. Get over the smarty know-it-all engineer who delights in asking you questions you do not know. He is not going to be in the next meeting. In the end, you will have more good experiences than bad ones.

That was OK when speaking to small groups of strangers. It got a bit tougher when the crowds got larger, the stakes got higher, and people who knew me were in the audience.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Marketing Primer: Step Two, Learn to be a person again

As a marketer, I had to learn to be a person again. And not just a person, but an outgoing, affable, likable person. Best of all, I had to learn what worked for me. Was I the backslapping, loud, confident guy? Was I the attentive, smiling, polite politician guy? Was I the funny, interesting entertainer guy? It did not matter what I had been in high school or college. It did not matter so much who I was when I was with my family or old friends. What mattered was what persona I could adopt that made people respond favorably to me immediately and then how to shift to a compatible persona that could close the deal. People have to like you before you can get your foot in the door but they have to respect you before they will buy what you are selling.

You don’t become a different person or put on a phony
facade. You discover what aspect of your personality works best in the environment you are functioning in. You do stress certain facets of your personality which would not normally be dominant, so in sense, you are faking it a bit. Only truly disagreeable and worthlessly self-focused people are honest all the time. Who tells a new parent that their baby girl looks like William Frawley (Fred Mertz from the old “I Love Lucy” TV show) or that a carefully prepared meal is terrible?

As a marketer, I learned to be more up-beat, more positive, and more ready to shake-off insults and get right back at the job of making 1394 a success. I had
FireWire in my blood and that made it easier to change. I had a goal in mind, and I needed to be a different person to achieve that goal.

And then there was “Public Speaking.” I was always the guy shaking so hard in front of a crowd that I could not read my notes. How was I ever going to overcome that fear?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Marketing Primer: Step One, unlearn being an “Engineer”

Let me diverge a bit from my “History of FireWire from a Marketing Perspective” to say a few words about becoming a marketer. The move from test engineering to marketing was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. It turned my life upside-down and my life needed turning.

As a test engineer, working on a secret missile project, I had to keep a low profile. When anyone asked what I did for a living, I just said “Test Engineer” and little more. Your whole professional existence was supposed to be invisible.

As a marketer, however, the goal was to be as visible as possible. I went from the euphoria of being quoted in EETimes to plotting how to get more quotes than my competitors. It was not ego. It was my job. My employer even sent me to a class where they trained you on how to talk to the press and get your message in print.

As a test engineer, I spent all day, every day in front of a computer monitor. If I was talking to someone, and it was not about a design issue, I was wasting time and my employer’s money. My corner of the cubical was my cell in solitary confinement. I’ve heard others who were working at the same facility comment that once they left their car and started walking towards the building, they could feel their soul being sucked out of them with each step. Once they scanned their badge and starting walking down the endlessly long hallways (called “spines” by my employer), they had morphed from a person into an engineering zombie.

As a marketer, I had to learn to be a person again.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Stealth Marketing…my version part 7

For one thing, cell phones started becoming more common. Once the guys in suits stopped lining up to use the pay phones, my whole plan become ineffective. I recall one Intel Developer’s Forum were a brave marketer brought stacks of an article written by Maury Wright which was very critical of USB and cast doubts on the success of the upcoming USB 2.0. These reprints were scattered all around the phone banks but very few of them went home with people. No one was using the pay phones.

In retrospect, if I had been executing the same scheme, I would have placed guerrilla marketers all over the auditorium right before the keynote speech with a thick stack of these “anti USB” reprints. Everyone attended the keynotes. As soon as the keynote speaker started to talk, the guerrilla marketers would start passing the stacks of papers down the row. At the time, it was not at all uncommon for last minute announcements to be distributed during a keynote. The guerrilla marketers would take a reprint and pass the stack down as if they had nothing to do with it.

One thing I have learned from being involved in a number of seminars is that the people running the show are so busy, they cannot catch everything. The people who are participating do not question much. They just participate assuming it is OK with the people in charge or it is not their problem. If you spring something that people are not expecting, you can get away with it.

However, as the years have gone by, seminar and show organizers have started expecting the unexpected and have put safeguards in place to control things better. For one thing, they are losing money. I had a competitor ask me about handing out the notepads at pay phones. He asked me how much I paid for that sponsorship. I told him that there was no sponsorship. I just did it. I have noticed since then that more and more things have been brought under the umbrella of sponsorships that people need to pay big bucks to buy the rights to do.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Stealth Marketing…my version part 6

On the trade show floor, a pen and a notepad are valued in terms of future usefulness; theoretic usefulness. This is something that they might be able to use in the future. They have a lot of paper and pens back in the office, so it is less likely that they will use the trade show pen or pad than, for example, Chapstik. Chapstik sounds like a horrible giveaway unless you have spent a few days on the show floor in Las Vegas. Chapstik becomes the most excellent giveaway (trade show giveaways are also called SWAG or chotsky) in the history of trade shows! You need it now...desperately!

I developed a theory similar to the “Time Value of Money” model I'd learned about in Finance class where a dollar given to me today has more value to me than a dollar given to me a year from now, but I will not bore you with it.

Essentially, give a guy a notepad on the trade show floor and it just becomes more SWAG to carry home and once he gets home, no one wants it. It is just ballast in his suitcase which he jettisons in the hotel room before heading home.

Put a notepad next to a phone and it becomes an essential business tool which he takes away with him because he found it useful in a time when he really needed it. He will use the same notepad when he makes his next round of calls, keeping all his notes together in one place. It goes back to the office with him for use in writing trip reports or following up on phone calls. If you have designed the notepad to be a good business tool (not flimsy or too small or covered in distracting text and with enough sheets of paper to last him a week or two) then he will use it in the office. It has become a part of his efforts to stay productive.

We were in the office and the decision maker was helping us spread our message among his subordinates and peers.

My competitors took note and tried to duplicate my success, but they lacked a few key components.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stealth Marketing…my version part 5

I had two thoughts. My first thought was that people like to take things that are not exactly offered to them. The notepad and pen were there to be used while the person was on the phone. If that person took either or both, he got something for nothing that he may or may not have been entitled to. It was unclear if the pad was placed there with the expectation that it would remain there for others to use. The person taking the notepad with them had the subtle thought in the back of their head that they were getting away with something. If you hand a notepad to someone as if you are giving them a small gift (as you would at a trade show), then they are not getting away with something and they are a little insulted that you are giving them something so trivial, cheap, and bland. That was theory one.

My second theory was more accurate, I think. My success resulted from effectively executing one of the four “Ps” of the traditional Marketing Mix (Product, Price, Place, Promotion); Place. I put my product where people needed it. Example: you can sell more bait at the marina than you can at the auto parts store. People at the lake have a greater need for fishing bait than the guy getting ready to tune up his car.

Essentially, I put a tool in the hands of decision makers at the moment and in the location where they needed it most.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Stealth Marketing…my version part 4

As you have probably guessed by now, what I did was take my notepads and pens and put them next to the pay phones in the convention center. I didn’t ask anyone first. I just did it. There were around 20 pay phones in the convention center and I would go to each one about once every 2 hours between seminars. I would put 5-10 pads and pens at each phone. At first, they were all gone. Even by the end of the seminar, most of them would be gone each time I made the circuit to restock. I worried at first that the seminar organizers were throwing them away because no one had authorized the distribution of pens and pads at the pay phones. I would watch when I saw the janitorial staff headed in the direction of the banks of pay phones, but never did I see anyone collecting the pens and pads and throwing them away. What I did see was people taking notes on the pads and clicking the pens to see what the five messages were that popped up in the window.

It turned out to be a great success. People were taking notepads/pens and taking them at a rate of 50-100 an hour. We never handed out that many of any giveaway at a trade show unless it was something “over the top cool” and it was always hard to find the next new cool thing that everyone wanted….and expensive.

So why did people take this boring giveaway that no one wanted if you offered it to them on a tradeshow floor?

I had two theories.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Stealth Marketing…my version part 3

What I said next almost won me a spot in the Marketers Hall of Shame, most unimaginative category. The second item I wanted was notepads.

I’d collected a number of notepads from seminars and shows. My biggest complaint was that they were not useful. They were too small and 50% of the surface was covered with text and a logo. I may as well use the margin of a handout or a scrap of paper.

What I wanted was a notepad large enough to be useful but small enough that people would take them. I settled on a notepad which was about half the size of a standard piece of paper.

Rather than cover the face of the page with promotional blah blah blah, I kept it short. Company name, logo, and a three word positioning statement “1394 Silicon Leaders.” You knew who we were, what we sold, and why you should be talking to us.

But what about all the other things people needed to know? My theory was that if you get people interested and make it easy for them to get more information, they will get it themselves. I did not want to clutter the message with too much information. This was an item that should be a useful thing that goes back to the office. Once it is used in the office it spreads your short, to the point, message around the office. If I filled 50% of the page with product information, the look of the pad was unattractive and the usefulness of the pad was cut in half. It would go in the trash before it made it to the office. My pad had lots of white space, good quality paper, stiff back and would get used after the seminar was over. As a matter of fact, I had customers ask me if I had more. They liked them so much they wanted me to bring more with me when I visited them.

As far as getting more information, well, there was this thing called the Internet that was starting to show promise. My company was one of the first in the world to have a web page. I banked on the hunch that people would start going to company web pages for all their information. I simply added a URL that took the prospect directly to the 1394 information on the company web page.

Step three in the process, how to get the pen and notepad in the hands of people? No one standing in your booth wants another pen and they certainly do not want more paper to carry around. And, even more perplexing, this was a seminar. We had no booth. We had no way of getting these items distributed.

The solution was simple. It involved partnering our distribution method with the habits of the average person. We used what people do subconsciously to get our items in their pockets and brief cases.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stealth Marketing…my version part 2

15 years ago, cell phones were not very common. Everyone knew someone who had one but the plans were still pretty expensive and most people used them in a very limited capacity. At a large event like a tech seminar or tradeshow, people would line up to use pay phones to call back to the office, check voicemail, or call clients.

I noticed two things. It was the guys in suits who made up most of people standing in line. These were either management or marketing/sales people. While on the phone, these guys were frequently fishing around in their pocket for a pen and scratching notes on scraps of paper or in the margin on a handout.

What I asked my boss to fund was a bunch of pens. Pretty cool pens but nothing over the top. The pens had a window in them that would show a different message each time you clicked the pen. I had six short sentences to get my message across. Four of the messages promoted FireWire and two of them promoted my company. You see, we were winning the battle with the engineers. They loved FireWire because it was (and still is) a killer technology. Where we were missing the boat was with management and product marketers; the guys who controlled the purse strings and who decided what technology was designed into new products. I’d just put 6 sentences in their pockets to convince them to come to us for more information on FireWire. All this at 5% the cost of running a print ad.

My boss was stunned. Pens. The single most common giveaway. Everyone had a pen from a seminar, trade show, or salesman sitting in their desk drying out. Why not just give out rubber bands and paper clips or little notepads? What could be more boring?

But that was only one third of my plan…. and it got worse before it got better. What I said next almost had him in tears.

FireWire YouTube Videos by Jeff Cat

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stealth Marketing…in my own small way

Stealth Marketing has been around for years; maybe forever. The “publicity stunt” is one example. Do something outrageous to get people to start talking about you, a product, or an event. You have to wonder if some celebrity meltdowns are publicity stunts gone bad. That is always a risk when trying to generate a rapid increase in interest using non-standard methods.

Admittedly, methods of non-traditional marketing tend blur together with terms such as guerrilla marketing, buzz marketing, undercover marketing and viral marketing being variants of the same general thing.

Apple has to be the best at getting consumers to willingly market their products for them and they seldom (if ever) resort to trickery to do it. You can not exactly call it “guerrilla marketing” when Apple makes white ear buds so closely associated with the iPod that every time you see them dangling from a person’s ears, you assume they are listening to an iPod. And, even more amazing, most of the time, the person would like for you to assume they are: iPods are cool!

I earned a reputation among 1394 marketers for my own brand of “stealth marketing” but it pales (of course) when compared to the geniuses at the “Fruit Company”.

15 years ago, when you went to a seminar, the opportunities for marketing your product were limited. You could be a sponsor and get your logo on signs and on the cover of the massive binder participants took home with them, but it was rare to see company logos on lanyards or on a cart giving away free lattes.

I saw a need at seminars that was going unmet and decided to meet that need with a very basic item. When I asked my boss to fund my idea, his face fell. His marketing guy had lost his edge. His only marketing guy was talking like an “engineer turned marketer” and making boring suggestions.
I asked him to trust my instinct. With grave doubts he did. What happened next became a small legend and inspired copy cat marketing stunts among our small group of competitors.

FireWire YouTube Videos by Jeff Cat

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Solution Looking for a Problem, part 7

The “Be the Cowboy not the Cow” idea was not ground breaking. It was not brilliant but it was a big step in the right direction. Do something that stands out. The message was lost on almost everyone. Our Asian counterparts did not understand it at all. They changed the headline to “One World, One Cable.” To our European associates, the message came across as “Be a Redneck…” They shrugged their shoulders and swallowed their embarrassment.

Our competitors Photoshopped the ad and changed the headline to read, “Where there are cows and cowboys, there is always a lot of fertilizer…”

In the end, the ad failed for a number of reasons. Chiefly, I made a mistake by leaving the ad in the hands of the junior marketers and ad agency. The image was good. The headline was attention getting. What failed was the body copy. It never built on the “Cowboy-Cow” concept. What the ad agency provided and the junior marketers accepted was generic “meaningless, highfalutin, marketing drivel” which could have been on an ad with a checkered flag made out of computer chips…

However, this did mark a turning point. The team started to get the idea that they did not have to go with the same old boring stuff. It was time to get creative. I finally succeeded in killing ads and we turned our attention to some of the most creative marketing being done in the industry.

FireWire YouTube Videos by Jeff Cat

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Solution Looking for a Problem, part 6

Eventually we were provided with a team of ad designers who tried to be a little creative. After showing us several ad concepts which were marginally better than previous efforts, they pulled out one last mock-up. It was an image of a 1394 cable lassoing the world. The headline was “Be the Cowboy, Not the Cow”.

I liked it. I did not love it, but I at least felt like we were doing something different. Something that would stand out. Something that would get attention. Something with some punch. Be the leader not the lead. Be the one making things happen, not the one to whom things are happening. You have a choice, you can lead and be at the top of the food chain or you can be passive, not make a decisive step to add 1394, become part of the herd and eventually get eaten. The idea was growing on me. It was quirky and a little risky (the message was a little convoluted) but it was a far cry from “the same ol’ same ol’.”

My boss and I said almost in unison, “I like that one.”

The ad agency responded, “We were not serious. You wanted something ‘out there’ so we brought this as a joke.”

But we wanted and we got it.

FireWire YouTube Videos by Jeff Cat

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Solution Looking for a Problem, part 5

Worst than anything else, for me, the ads that we ran were boring. They looked exactly like everyone else’s, included way too many words that said nothing, and did nothing more than say “We sell 1394 chips.” Now combine the worst aspects of ads that look like everyone else’s with no problem in mind that can be fixed by an ad and you have a total waste of time and money.

I recall one ad we were shown where the image was a checkered flag like you see used at car races to signify the winner. The black squares were replaced with little black computer chips and the headline read, “Go with a winner. Go with TI.” I was stunned. To my astonishment, the marketing team was pouring over this ad and other similar ads deciding which one they liked the best. It was a classic example of “group think”. Maybe it was because I was against the idea of running ads in the first place, but after a few minutes I stated bluntly that I did not like any of the ideas and wanted the ad agency to try again and the next time, bring us something creative and interesting. The group stopped what they were doing and looked at me with bewilderment like it never occurred to them they could say, “No, all of these are terrible. Bring me something good.” My boss chimed in, with a note of relief in his voice and said, “I agree. None of these will do.”

The ad agency was equally bewildered and a little offended. However, I knew that these were creative people and would probably be glad in the long run. They were the official ad agency for my company and had probably gotten used to developing college freshman quality ads knowing that “engineers turned marketers” were not comfortable with anything creative. Surely they would find it a breath of fresh air to do what they had gone into advertising to do and dream up a few ad concepts that were ground breaking or at least interesting.

A few weeks later, they came back with a stack of equally boring ideas to which my boss flat stated, “These are worse than the last ones. I do not think we can do business with you.” At that point I realized that there is a place for advertising majors who have no spark of creativity and that is serving clients with no spark of imagination. Unfortunately for this agency, they ran across a client who didn’t know any better and had the arrogance to tell them that their work was no good.

We asked our MarCom team to find us another agency to work with.

FireWire YouTube Videos by Jeff Cat

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Solution Looking for a Problem, part 4

So, according to the marketing team, we ran ads “to build awareness.” I would have signed on if we’d intended to build awareness of why 1394 was great. 1394 was losing some steam, being out marketed by inferior technologies. We needed someone out there promoting the virtues of 1394 in the mass market, however, we had two problems. Management was not willing to fund a generic ad to promote a technology. That is understandable and we could have worked with that. The second problem was that our “engineers turned marketers” could not enunciate why 1394 was great. They could tell you all the features of 1394 and get an engineer interested in 1394 but they could not tell upper management anything that would excite them. They fell back on a series of platitudes generated by the advertising agency. 200 words in tiny print that said almost nothing. The ad agency had learned long ago that “engineers turned marketers” could not come up with body copy for an ad and that they liked meaningless, highfalutin, marketing drivel and that is what they gave us.

The only meaningful message from the ads could be summed up in one sentence, “We sell 1394 silicon.”

Within a week of running an ad, our sales reps from around the country would start calling to complain that the ads were generating dozens of phone calls from small design shops. We built awareness alright. The Sonys, Dells and HPs of the world already knew who to go to for 1394 silicon. The XYZ corporations of the world were not sure. Sony will buy a million chips. XYZ will buy 100. If you are a salesman, you are wasting your time returning phone calls to XYZ and wasted time hurts your ability to make your sales objectives.

We succeeded in hurting the front line on which our success was so critical.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Solution Looking for a Problem, part 3

That brings me to my first point. So called “Technology Marketers” run ads with no idea why they are running ads. They have no problem in mind they want to fix. They simply want to run an ad because it is exciting (remember what I said about technology marketers being engineers who think marketing sounds like fun). That is a poor use of money. Ads are a solution to specific problems and if you have no problem you want to fix, you should not run an ad.

For the sister organization I mentioned in part 1, they wanted to increase traffic to their trade show booth, i.e. build awareness. They had a problem in mind so that put them ahead of most technology marketers, however, it is arguable if they met this objective with an ad that was so similar to everyone else’s that it was almost invisible.

With my own employer, ads were being considered with no clear objective in mind. When asked, the marketers would respond, “We want to build awareness.” To which I would ask, “Awareness among whom? We are dominant in our market with a 70% market share. Which of our tier one customers do not know about our products? Would it not be cheaper and more effective to provide our sales staff with overview materials on our products?”

That did not go over well. Product overview materials are drudgery. Ads are fun and exciting and make people feel like they have reached the big time. In the end, we ran ads because it made the marketers feel important.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Solution Looking for a Problem, part 2

To some extent, the “there must be a correct solution that can be measured in some respect” is a problem that plagues all companies. Dollars are being spent and some “Return on Investment” must be provided to justify that expenditure. After all, eventually, the spreadsheet is going to reach someone in corporate who does not know you and will want to know why you were authorized to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Because it felt right” does not go very far with the CFO of most major corporations.

When I was working on my M.B.A., I took an Advertising class. From the first night, the room was divided into two types of people. “Business Major Types” and “Creative Types”. The M.B.A. people were dressed in Dockers or slacks with a starched cotton shirt; with or without a loosened silk tie. The Advertising Majors were dressed in shorts and t-shirts with visible tattoos and things pierced that your Grandparents never imagined could be pierced.

The professor commented that he could tell a person’s major by the focus of their term assignments. The business majors were focused on ROI, spreadsheets, how to measure success, and business justification…with very boring ad campaigns. The advertising majors spent almost no time on numbers and gave all their attention to outlandish, entertaining, and very creative ads.

That was my introduction to the Ying-and-Yang of the business world. “Creative” and “Business” will always be at odds. Each one contributing what is required to keep the company going but always in conflict. In the business world of technology, Ying-and-Yang are not in balance which leads to problems which are masked by growing markets.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Solution Looking for a Problem, part 1

I’d like to look at the problem with marketing at high tech companies. The problem is, most of the marketers are engineers who think “marketing” sounds like fun. They are not genetic marketers. In many cases, they do not even have a “recessive marketing gene.” These are the people who make up the marketing organizations at most technology companies (Apple being a notable exception) and the marketing working groups of most technology trade groups.

About three years ago, I was working with a sister organization who wanted to co-market 1394 with the 1394TA. They wanted to run an ad in a tradeshow magazine to build traffic to their booth. They looked at a bunch of concepts from the creative company they’d hired to develop print ads and migrated as a body to the least interesting ads presented. Anything truly creative made them uncomfortable. Their “engineering mind” kept raising doubts. They were second-guessing themselves to death.

In the end, they selected the one concept that looked the most like all other ads in the magazine. Literally, when I picked up the magazine at the show to look for the ad, I flipped past it twice before I found it. It looked so much like every other ad, it was almost camouflaged.

It was at that moment that I had an epiphany. One reason why engineers make such poor marketers is because they are looking for the “correct” solution. It has to be something that can be measured in some respect. The solution cannot be one that just feels right. It cannot be something that you just know is right but cannot explain why it is right. That “correct” solution must be the one that everyone else is doing. That is the criteria by which print ads are so often measured and what makes them so ineffective.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mickey Mouse hates FireWire, Part Four

The 1394 community adopted a copy protection technology called DTCP which provides for several levels of copy protection, from Copy Never, to Copy Once, to Copy Freely. This is on top of the copy protection already on DVDs and other devices. This was in line with FCC requirements which indicated that Hollywood must permit consumers to make copies of video they paid for (HBO) or paid for by by others (movies shown on network TV). DVDs remained another matter as no copies were permitted. However, after extensive negotiations with the DVD CCA (DVD Copy Control Association), it appeared that 1394 would be an accepted output from DVD, Blu-Ray, and HD-DVD drives. Video would be permitted to travel over 1394 to a display. It was agreed that the video could be transported over long distance 1394 (1394b) as long as the “copy never” flag was set. Everything was progressing until someone inside the MPAA heard about the progress being made in transporting data on the internet over longer distances at faster speeds. Suddenly fear emerged that devices could send video between themselves over long distances via the Internet. Consumers would be sharing their videos with their neighbors next door, friends across town, family a state away, etc. Visions of Napster emerged and Hollywood initiated a lockdown on 1394. Hollywood wanted a guarantee that the device sending the video was in the same house as the device displaying the video. This was called “localization.”

The MPAA has entertained a number of anti-piracy solutions which would appear more than a little strange to the average consumer. When it came to establishing localization, a proposal I heard discussed by a senior MPAA attorney in March of 2006 was to require all Audio/Video products to include a GPS (Global Positioning System) device so it could be determined if two devices trying to communicate with each other were in close proximity. I stifled my response for a second to see if he was joking. He was dead serious.

Fortunately, a innovative engineer at Samsung determined that there was enough capability within DTCP copy protection to send a signal out to all devices connected over 1394, measure the roundtrip time, and determine if everything was reasonably close. The localization procedure was adopted by the DTCP group with the necessary acceptance by both the MPAA and the DVD CCA.

Sometimes it is amazing that anything gets done.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Mickey Mouse hates FireWire, Part Three

"In 2003, Roy E. Disney, the son of Disney co-founder Roy O. Disney and nephew of Walt Disney, resigned from his positions as Disney vice chairman and chairman of Walt Disney Feature Animation, accusing Eisner of … turning the Walt Disney Company into a "rapacious, soul-less" company…"

Eisner’s approach to protecting his movies was just short of rapacious. Using a gifted and aggressive legal team at the MPAA and exerting enormous influence with members of congress such as Senator Hollings and Congressman Tauzin, it appeared that consumer rights would take a backseat to Hollywood profits.

As an aside, Tauzin of Louisiana was offered Jack Valenti’s job when Valenti retired as President of the MPAA and as the most influential pro-copyright lobbyist in the world. …I am not really seeing a Louisiana-Hollywood connection… Tauzin turned down the job which then went to Congressman Glickman… Oh, I see! It is a Washington-Hollywood connection. Anyone besides me feeling a little nervous?

The MPAA is paid by the studios and they never forget who their client is. Their job is not to be reasonable. Their job it to protect the ability of Hollywood to make lots of money. As far as they are concerned, no one should ever be permitted to view a movie they have not paid for. If you want to watch a movie, buy the DVD. If you want to watch the same movie in your car, bring the DVD from home or buy a second DVD. If you want to watch it on your computer while you travel…bring the DVD from home or buy another DVD. Copy a movie you bought for your personal use…Never!

Evidently the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was not as effective as the MPAA since consumers can legally copy a recording for their own personal use. It is easy to rip a CD onto a computer then burn it on an MP3 player. Not so easy to do that with a DVD.

The problem with 1394/FireWire is that it was developed by the Audio/Video industry with an interest in selling consumer A/V equipment. Following the RIAA model (which also applies to VCRs), it was assumed that consumers would be permitted to make recordings for their own personal use. We were about to run into a brick wall and it would take 12 years of negotiation to open a door in that wall.