Not wanting to let Amazon have all the fun…

About Google Print (BETA)

“What exactly is Google Print (BETA)?

“Google’s mission is to provide access to all the world’s information and make it universally useful and accessible. It turns out that not all the world’s information is already on the Internet, so Google has been experimenting with a number of publishers to test their content online. During this trial, publishers’ content is hosted by Google and is ranked in our search results according to the same technology we use to evaluate websites.

“On Google Print pages, we provide links to some popular book sellers that may offer the full versions of these publications for sale. Book seller links are not paid for by those sites, nor does Google benefit if you make a purchase from one of these retailers. In addition, these pages show contextually-targeted AdWords ads that are served through the Google AdSense program. During the initial phase of this beta test, advertisers will not be charged for clicks they receive on these pages, and neither Google nor the publishers with whom we work profit from these ads.”

Thanks, no doubt, to The Judy

Williams-Sonoma’s business is growing like crazy, up 27.5% in Q3 ’03 over Q3 ’02. But their ecommerce sales are up a whopping 71.4%.

Anyone who knows The Judy knows all this is her doing. It’s about the customer service, people. Well, that, and having a really good website. But I find it deeply odd that the back-end technologies, navigation, and other aspects of the WS, Pottery Barn, and Chambers sites are so different. I find that it really discourages selling across the “concepts.” I expect the experience to be similar, if not identical.

Deregulation sucks

Deregulation: brought to popularity by two decades ago Reagan, Thatcher and converted into a religion by their successors, has failed. Sure, in a free and efficient market, deregulation should bring better results at lower costs to the consumer. But has this ever happened? Deregulation revolutionized the airline industry and brought cheap flights to all, but are we better off flying today than we were ten years ago? Will the airline industry survive ten years from now? The only other “success” story I can think of is the telephone industry.

The problem, of course, is rooted in the mythical efficient market. It seems that the biggest proponents of deregulation are the least likely to set the conditions necessary for it to succeed: true competition, liquid markets, and available information. The UK railroads was the first large-scale example of this I saw. How can you have competition when only one company is allowed to run trains in a specific region? Predictably, deregulation of the UK rail industry was a total failure, and led to wide-scale deterioration of the infrastructure and several deadly accidents.

On a smaller scale, I was astounded to learn that here in Seattle, only one cable company serves any one house. At our new place, we can only get Millennium; at my last place it was Comcast or nothing. Where is the competition? No wonder cable costs so much.

Check out this article on the effects of deregulation on the energy industry. Not only did the legislators that oversight and maintenance of large-scale public infrastructure, with so few players, could ever represent an efficient market, they ignored the basic physical design of the network and designed rules guaranteed to overstress the hardware. Despite the warnings of engineers and physicists, deregulation of the electricity market in the US was practically guaranteed to result in poorer service from widespread blackouts.

The fundamental problem is that deregulation requires all the generators to be linked together so that they can trade electricity, basically linking the entire grid into one big machine. So when a problem occurs in one area, it spreads widely. You’d think the solution would be to return to the old ways, where energy was generated regionally, without these interdependencies, right? Wrong. The FERC advocates increasing cross-country transmission, and is willing to spend billions and undermine environmental legislation to allow utilities to continue to trade electricity in support of this mythical free market. And who’s going to pay for all of this? From the article:

To pay the extensive costs, the utilities and the DOE advocate increases in utility rates. “The people who benefit from the system have to be part of the solution here,” Energy Secretary Spencer Abrams said during a television interview. “That means the ratepayers are going to have to contribute.” The costs involved would certainly be in the tens of billions of dollars. Thus, deregulation would result in large cost increases to consumers, not the savings once promised.

So let me get this straight. Deregulation was supposed to make electricity cheaper and more reliable for the consumer. It didn’t work. So now, we’re going to make the consumer pay to get the benefits promised in the first place?

Deregulation sucks.

Coke tracks rugby promo winners by satellite

In one of the weirder promos of the year, Coke is apparently using satellite tracking technology to identify the winners in its Thrill Seeker promotion for the Rugby World Cup to be held in Australia next month. Opening a winning bottle will trigger a device in the lid that is trackable by satellite, and a Coca Cola representative will travel to the winner immediately to deliver prizes ranging from finals tickets to a Peugeot.

The story is a little sketchy on the tech details, but obviously Coke is confident the system will work. It seems that Australia is a good test-bed for marketing technologies, but this one raises the question… what if the winner is in some godforsaken patch of the Outback? It could take quite a while to reach them. On the other hand, if the winner is in a Sydney apartment block, that 10-meter radius could include several apartments. I’ll keep tracking this one.

What makes America great

OK, at the risk of sounding jingoistic, I want to share a story that really does make me proud. Sure, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well elsewhere, but come on: where else could a baggage handler come up with an industry-leading in-flight entertainment system in his spare time? I love it.

This guy is a college dropout, working like three jobs, and managed to create a great solution for something that has vexed airlines and travelers alike. This guy who has spent 16 years slinging bags in Seattle for Alaska Airlines has invented and perfected a light and inexpensive system that stores and plays movies, music, and more. To top it all off, he convinced major content owners like 20th Century Fox that the box was secure enough to protect their IP–no mean feat.

No bitching about high taxes or barriers to small business from this guy– he just busted his ass and did it. What an inspiration.

Oh, and at the same conference in Seattle this week where he launched the “digEplayer” (OK, he needs some branding help) he also announced a system that lets passengers buy drinks from the cart with their credit cards. As someone who has more than once boarded a flight in desperate need of a drink with no cash in wallet, this may be the best news of all.

Surowiecki on Patent Insanity

Jamie Surowiecki, who writes “The Financial Page” column for The New Yorker, is absolutely my favorite business writer. This week’s installment is no exception, as he writes about a topic that really gets the legal geek in me going: the ever-expanding scope of patent law that threatens innovation in almost every field of endeavor. To wit:

American corporations have thrived on innovative ideas and new business methods, without owning them, for two centuries. In the past decade, the balance has been upset. The scope of patents has been expanded, copyrights have been extended, trademarks have been subjected to bizarre interpretations.

Specifically, he’s writing about “business-process patents” that cover the very idea of, say “one-click purchasing” on a web site. Not the code that makes this happen, just the idea of doing it. Read the article to see where this is getting us, and to see how persuasive Surowiecki is in cutting through to the absurdity of the issue.

I hate Reebok

I always have– this is not just a side effect of Nike being a client of mine.

This new Reebok ad reminds me why. Basically, it takes the trend of signing ever-younger sports prodigies to (one hopes, lest there are fetuses out there with hoop dreams) its limit. If it were a parody of Nike’s recent signings of young stars, it would almost be acceptible (though it would taste of sour grapes, as Lebron James chose Nike even though Reebok offered more money.)

Rob Walker’s analysis of the ad for Slate is, as usual, dead-on:

A 3-year-old saying “I am Reebok” strikes me as just about the creepiest and most disheartening image that a company could possibly offer to society. But I suspect that many viewers will have a different reaction– more along the lines of, “I want in on that. My boy can be Reebok, too.”

Eww.

Amazing Honda ad

Everyone has seen this, right? It’s a simply amazing Honda ad produced by the London office of Wieden & Kennedy. Without any computer animation. Requiring 606 takes and costing as much a $6 million to shoot.

Money. Well. Spent.

Unbearable rebranding: Snuggle gets hip

Just when you thought consumer product companies couldn’t get any weirder than the animated grannies who quilt every square of Quilted Northern toilet tissue, now we discover that Snuggle fabric softener’s mascot teddy bear Snuggle is getting a makeover

I can’t make shit like this up. Stuart Elliott manages to report on it with an (almost) straight face. “With a blissful demeanor, squeaky voice and high-pitch giggle, Snuggle, the longtime spokescreature for the Snuggle brand of fabric softener, used to behave like a Care Bear. Now cuddly Snuggle is getting an image update, becoming a devil-may-care bear, complete with sunglasses à la Tom Cruise, dates with models and knowing winks to the audience. What next? Mr. Peanut pitching Viagra?”

OK. So not so much of a straight face.

“We’re making the bear a little more smooth, a little more suave, a little more smart, a little more hip,” says the agency guy I hope I never sound like.

Lest you think this is too sudden a shift for the little bear:

Snuggle envy. For the record, the idea of a grown man talking about the “Snuggle touch” makes me never want to have children, or at least give my children any teddy bears. Eww.