Amazon Showrooms

Amazon caught a lot of heat over this past holiday season over some improvements to its shopping app.  It made it easier than ever to find out that you probably don’t need to buy that blender at Sears, when you can get it for 30% less on Amazon and don’t even have to carry it home.  There were cries that small businesses can’t compete with this and would all be dead soon.

There is nothing at Best Buy or Barnes & Noble that you can’t get on Amazon (or many other online stores).  It’s rare that it will not be cheaper online, even during a sale (which typically just brings the price down to a normal online price).  Is it sustainable to have a store where I can go and hold something, and then order it from somewhere else?  No.  Should we feel bad for the big box stores?  No.  Should we feel bad for the shopkeeper who sells a particular niche at a high markup without adding value?  No.

Stores that only sell commodity products are a recent innovation to take advantage of a temporary imbalance.  They will eventually go the way of dodos, video rental stores, and record labels.  We’re still going to have a few, because there are enough “need it now” purchases to sustain the Targets and Wal-Marts, and we’ll probably still have a few high-end ones where excellent service matters like Nordstrom, but most of the stores out there are turning into showrooms.

What if Amazon bought BJs?

(BJs is a consumer warehouse/bulk goods store, like Costco and others).  My Prime membership takes the place of my BJs membership.  Instead of walking around with a giant shopping cart and driving home with mass quantities of things, I simply browse the aisles for products I like.   When I see one, I scan it with my phone, and it’s on my doorstep the next day.  There are a few people on staff that might help, and there’s a hotline to specialists that understand the products and can answer my questions.  No need for a massive loading-dock infrastructure, or inventory control, or 50′ tall ceilings to heat, or many of the other overhead expenses that yield the current retail markups.

What about the little guy?

I’d like to see our shops go back to actually making things and/or adding value.  Custom products, not “regional dealers”.  There will definitely be less of them, but this will make more space and lower rents for the people who just want a spot where they can sell their craft, or for people to provide useful services instead of distribution.

Palm Pre

Palm PreI was impressed with the iPhone when it came out, but not enough to warrant the expense of the device and the overpriced service plan and dealing with switching carriers (especially to AT&T). I had the Spring PPC-6700 at the time, which was decent and got me hooked on having a mobile calendar and contact database without carrying a PDA. When Palm announced the Pre, I decided I would wait for it, and if it wasn’t up to snuff, I’d cave and buy an iPhone.

Luckily, the Pre is a fantastic device. I haven’t spent enough time with the iPhone to compare it honestly, but it seems like a much more polished experience. It automatically syncs my Google calendar, my girlfriend’s calendar, my work calendar, the Red Sox schedule. It easily unifies contacts from Facebook, Google, AIM, etc. I can send someone an IM, they can respond by SMS, it all goes into a common stream. It comes with both Sprint GPS and Google Maps.

Hardware-wise, it’s a little thicker, and a little shorter than an iPhone, more along the lines of a conventional phone. The screen is fantastic, it works in the sun and is crystal clear. The touch screen is well designed even for my round fingers, it seems to intuitively know what I meant to click on. The keyboard is small, but effective.

Minor issues so far: A bug in the instant messaging client that chews through an entire battery in 6-8 hours. I disabled it and it now goes 2-3 days with light internet usage. Supposedly this will be fixed via software update. Charging uses a tiny USB connector and a cover that doesn’t feel very durable once opened (but very durable when closed). I didn’t get a touchstone (the new induction charger) yet, but I probably will, which should remedy that. The fact that it doesn’t do video is not really an issue for me, my other phone did it and I think I used it once in 2.5 years.

My major problem with now is that for some reason, Palm has not released the SDK to the public yet, and has not accepted my application. This means they missing really useful features like an RSS reader or the hundreds of other standard apps out there. There are only 30 applications to download right now, the iPhone has 50,000. Even if 99% of those are total crap, that’s still alot more than Palm is offering. They really need to open this up soon, while they’ve got some shininess.

The Mobile Revolution Begins! (and 3 years later the iPhone comes out)

I find the whole iPhone phenomenon interesting because people are seeing it as a technology advance when it’s really a textbook marketing/branding success (revolution?) in the making. Apple essentially tricked the entire media landscape into doing amazing PR, even “independent” sources like blogs and NPR.

Let’s be clear, the $500+ phone isn’t new. The phone with a google map that you can drag around with your finger isn’t new. Neither is one that can play gigs of mp3s, has a real address book, a real web browser, real email, etc. Having the option from a text message to reply or voice call the person back isn’t new. These things have existed for years, I know because I have it. Oh and mine lets you build/install apps, the sticking point many techies complain about for the iPhone, but very few of these apps have seen any success. It’s also available for any network, uses EVDO, has wi-fi and bluetooth, has handwriting recognition, serves as internet conduit, a real keyboard, etc. The reason nobody had to camp out for my phone, the reason I don’t pimp it to everyone I meet? It’s running a Microsoft OS, ho hum. So from a technology/feature standpoint, the iPhone is nothing new, but even well-informed tech people seem to have fallen for the slick ads, the expert PR “reviews”, and the general fanfare.

People are opining that this was Steve Jobs’/Apple’s greatest risk, which I disagree with, because they weren’t really taking a risk because they weren’t doing anything new. They’ve added that Apple shine to devices that have existed for years, that they’ve been able to watch people use, and they’ve fixed the mistakes. They’ve made the interface sexy with effects and constraints, a skill they’ve honed for even longer. They’ve used all their fanboys to turn a device into the Beatles.

I’ve done enough software to know how important (and potentially misleading, though that’s not the case here as far as I know) a well-executed interface is to adoption. I once co-wrote a CMS that was effectively ignored by everyone but its authors, but then I spent a day adding some logos, gradients, and javascript UI effects, and people were immediately scheduling meetings with me just to get a peek at it. Where Jobs & Co. deserve credit is that all of the “news” coverage their product is getting is lauding a revolution, instead of saying “Apple’s new iPhone is almost as capable as a 3-year-old Windows Mobile phone, but they executed the interface much better.” For more information, see the next edition of most marketing/branding books.