- Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group – He’s my kind of billionaire: irreverent, playful and working for the public good.
- Steve Case, co-founder of AOL – No one person did more to bring Americans online than Steve. I was using Quantum Link on my Commodore 64 more than 20 years ago. Steve also happens to own much of my favorite island.
- Stephen Colbert, right-wing talk show host – A brilliant satirist who has helped shape politics and used new technologies to engage his audience with stunts like the Green Screen Challenge. His portrait deserved to hang at the National Portrait Gallery.
- Don Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Co. – washingtonpost.com was an early leader in the online news business and remains one of the most innovative. I’m not very optimistic about the future of the industry, but the Post Co. is likely to be one of the survivors.
- Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos - I heard him speak this year at SXSW (mp3 podcast). His passion for delivering excellent customer service is practically unheard of these days. Among other things, Zappos offers employees $2,000 to quit after they’ve been through training. The offer weeds out those who aren’t committed.
- Jason Kilar, CEO of hulu – Jason and his consumer-obsessed team built my favorite product of 2008, beating out the DVR. I just hope that his phenomenal success in giving consumers what they want isn’t a death sentence.
- Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo – It’s great to see an Indian woman at the helm of a major American company and the puveyor of my drug of choice. She’s doing a lot better than the other Indian CEO who’s been in the news lately.
- Larry Page, co-founder of Google – Catch up with a high school classmate and hear how it all happened. He talked about googol all through high school.
- Gwyneth Paltrow, actress - I’ve been a big fan since Shakespeare in Love. I had the chance to talk to her on a plane once and she was so friendly and sweet.
- Mary-Louise Parker, actress – I love Weeds.
- Robert Reich, economist and Clinton labor secretary - His perspectives are always interesting. I’m also curious to hear how he dealt with the challenges of being short.
- Jon Stewart, comedian and satirist – There’s a reason more people are getting their news from The Daily Show: he doesn’t believe in the fake balance that results in distortion.
- Biz Stone and Ev Williams, co-founders of Twitter - Hear the story of how something that shouldn’t work became so big and share some of my ideas for making money off Twitter.
- Glen Tilton, CEO of United Airlines – To tell him how much his short-sighted bean counters are costing him in long term business, especially when he has rivals like Virgin America on some of his key routes. If only Hsieh and Tilton had dinner together, maybe flying United wouldn’t be such a miserable experience. Either that or the universe would implode.
March 21, 2009
March 19, 2009
March 16, 2009
This picture should send shivers down the spines of executives at USA Today headquarters in McLean, Va.
For at least as long as I’ve been traveling for business (13 years and counting), a USA Today in front of the hotel room door in the morning has been a given. It just shows up. There’s fine print in the check in folder that says that USA Today will be delivered and if I don’t want it, I can tell the front desk and get a credit of 75 cents a day. Because I do what most people do — nothing — USA Today gets to count me as paid circulation.
At least 60% of the time, the only people who see that USA Today are the person who drops it off in front of my room and the maid who throws it away. I’ve already gotten my news from my laptop and from the TV that was showing CNN while I was getting ready.
I’m surely not the only one, and hotels are catching on.
Hotels have been steadily greening their practices while cutting costs: changing sheets only between guests, changing towels only when guests leave them on the floor, providing new toiletries only when guests have used up the previous batch.
Cutting back on newspaper delivery is the next step. This year I’ve started encountering hotels that ask me at check in whether I want a newspaper. The Four Seasons in Austin has gone a step further: if you want a newspaper, you have to put a hang tag on your door before 1 a.m. And you have to remember to do this every night of your stay.
As with Web defaults, you can guess what happens. Most people do what I do: nothing. On my floor early Sunday morning, I saw three newspaper hang tags (out of about 40 rooms). Not even a free copy of the Sunday New York Times enticed people. They were easily outnumbered by the “do not disturb” hang tags.
There are a number of unknowns: how many rooms were occupied, do the hotel’s demographics shift considerably during SXSW, etc.
But the fact that an increasing number of hotels no longer consider newspapers an essential part of their service is bad news for the newspaper industry.
See also: Who needs newspapers?
More on: newspapers.
March 15, 2009
I read two thought-provoking pieces this week on the decline of newspapers from voices outside the newspaper business and one Really Dumb Idea from a voice on the inside.
Author Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable:
When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.
ODP/DMOZ creator and veteran geek, Rich Skrenta, The news medium has a message: “Goodbye”:
Every so often there’s a story about about a technophobe executive so out of touch a secretary has to print out their email every morning so they can read it on paper and dictate replies.
That’s what the print newspaper is, of course. Why on earth would you print all that stuff out? Over a hundred pages, most of which you’re not going to read, with the crease down the middle of the front page photo, story jumps everywhere, a carbon-footprint disaster to produce, distribute and recycle. It’s absurd.
I once worked out some rough back-of-napkin estimates on the number of text bytes in the paper. It was only delivered once during the day, but if you average the bytes across the entire 24 hour period it came out to be about the rate of a 300 baud modem. The newspaper was the internet.
Both make essentially the same point: the newspaper is an accident of history whose time is just about up. Rather than try to figure out how to “fix” the newspaper problem, we should focus on what’s next.
A lot of the players in the news ecosystem have already done that. I’ve written before about how most newspapers are just repackagers of information.
Newspapers have long played to the middle, and not in a political sense. They put out essentially one product and hope that the average person finds enough of value in to subscribe. The cost of print means that you really can’t go into a lot of depth on a lot of topics. You can’t cover things that are extremely important to a few hundred people.
That worked when getting that depth was a difficult thing for readers. Now, infinite depth on just about any topic is a click away. For sports, finance and politics junkies, sites like ESPN.com, morningstar.com and huffingtonpost.com are much better ways to quench their appetites.
MediaNews has been working with a technology company — Mr. Vandevanter would not say which one — to develop a proprietary printer for a reader’s home. It would receive and print a subscriber’s customized newspaper — with targeted advertising.
You have to have a new printer to help cut their printing and delivery costs! Maybe you’ll even have to buy special paper and ink so you can get that full broadsheet experience and can get that genuine newspaper experience of having ink rub off on your fingers. For real authenticity, the registration will be off every once in a while so that the pictures don’t look right.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to scan a link on the printed page with your CueCat to go to a Web site you find interesting.
March 13, 2009
In the first part, I wrote about the fallacy of using people with thousands of followers to illustrate how you can get great results if you ask questions on Twitter.
In this part, I’ll focus on why the conversational nature of Twitter makes searching it effectively a hard problem.
Consider this exchange:
@CherylHaas: Celebrating my newly purchased iPhone. w00t!!! No longer a Luddite. App suggestions, please?
@rakeshlobster: yelp and shazam and Facebook
This is how people interact on Twitter. Partly because we’re lazy, partly because a lot of the interaction is done from mobile devices where typing is hard and partly because of the 140 character limit on tweets.
Between these two tweets, we have an answer to the query “iPhone app”. But Twitter Search treats these tweets independently. As a result, if you search for “iPhone app”, you’d get Cheryl’s question. Not very helpful.
If you search for “shazam,” you’ll get back my response. But there’s no context for it. The meaning of my response is lost without the context of Cheryl’s question. The question could have been “what apps are causing your iPhone to crash?” This happens in ordinary conversation on Twitter; when people are slow at responding and I get a “@rakeshlobster yes,” I’ll sometimes have forgotten the context.
This problem could be alleviated if Twitter presented threaded conversations. But then Google could just as easily index the conversation, as it does with Yahoo! Answers.
Another issue is that people don’t write for Twitter the way they write for search engines. Compare my tweet above with this post I wrote on my favorite iPhone applications. That was written with searchability in mind. There’s also a lot of shorthand on Twitter. @maryvale shortened “Nikon D80″ to “D80″ in her tweet discussing my last blog post.
That may change if searching Twitter takes off, but it would also change the nature of Twitter. I’ve been experimenting with adding more keywords in my tweets. For example, when I dropped my laptop, I originally wrote:
“laptop hinge broken. argh. it’s pretty, sleek and light. and extremely delicate.”
But then I added in the “toshiba portege r500 is”. It’s more searchable, but it makes the conversation sound stilted and robotic.
Another challenge with searching Twitter for information is that a lot of the value in Twitter is not in the tweets, but in what the tweets point too. With the extensive of URL shorteners like TinyURL and bit.ly, even the minimal keywords are lost.
Beyond the content difficulties in search, there are the related issues of search order and authority.
The results that you get back are sorted chronologically and are highly dependent on when you search. Although the “best” answer for a search can fluctuate over time (one of my criticisms of Google is that its algorithms don’t do enough to counter the effects of Web rot), for most searches it doesn’t vary dramatically over the course of a day or a week. A notable exception would be queries like “what’s a good party at SXSW right now?”
As with asking questions of the Twitterverse, searching Twitter doesn’t provide any guidance as to whose answers are better than others. Searching Twitter is in someways like stepping back 15 years in search technology, before search engines widely used off-page clues and link authority to rank results.
Some suggestions have revolved around developing authority rankings based on number of followers, number of tweets, etc. The problem with that is that no one person is an authority on everything. A search result from Om Malik (@Om) on telecom should be ranked much higher than a result from Om on migration patterns of birds in Africa. Review sites like Amazon and Yelp have devoted a lot of energy to helping people determine which results are valuable. Twitter will have to develop something similar.
Despite today’s issues, the immense amount of data that Twitter and Facebook are collecting could be used to build a better, more spam-resistant search engine. The marriage of search and social networks has the potential to get us better and more credible answers, while also increasing our connections to our friends.
Disclosure: I worked with several members of Twitter’s search team at AOL Search. While I don’t believe in the current hype in the blogosphere about Twitter as a Google killer with the current technology, the guys I know are very smart and I look forward to seeing what they do next.
March 8, 2009
March 3, 2009
For an industry that markets itself as catering to the whims of its guests, the hotel industry sure goes out of its way to make a bad final impression. I just had a wonderful stay at the Westin Resort & Spa in Whistler, B.C. A super comfortable Heavenly Bed. A great room with a fireplace and kitchenette. A location right next to the slopes. Friendly service.
Hotel policy doesn’t let you keep skis in your room. It makes sense: it keeps people from dragging wet gear through the hotel, keeps the hallways and rooms free of ski damage and reduces the hotel’s risk that someone trips and gets injured. What they don’t tell you is that they charge for it. Not when we checked in nor when we checked our skis.
When I complained at check out that the charge wasn’t disclosed, the woman at the front desk mentioned that they get that complaint regularly.
This is the latest in a long line of “gotcha” charges from this industry. Instead of being seen as valued guests, we’re seen as sources of “ancillary revenue.”
I’m not talking about the charges we’re all familiar with: anyone who uses the hotel phone for anything other than calling the front desk or concierge clearly doesn’t care about their (or their company’s) money, or minibar items that cost 5x-10x their retail value.
A few other gotchas that I’ve noticed recently:
- Dynamic currency conversion. In this scam, which applies when traveling abroad, the hotel will automatically convert the amount of your bill into U.S. dollars. (At a horrible exchange rate.) Never mind that they could charge you in the local currency and have your credit card company do the conversion. (At a much better rate.) The credit card companies, not wanting to miss out on their cut, are now tacking on fees even if the hotel does the conversion to dollars. Most of the big credit card companies such as Chase, Citi and Bank of America tack on 3% for most of their cards. (Of the major card issuers, CapitalOne is a rare exception.) Between the dynamic currency conversion and the credit card company, this can tack 8% or more on to your bill.
- “Guaranteed” U.S. dollar rates. This is a related scam that I encountered at the Sheraton Centro Historico in Mexico City. I was guaranteed a rate of USD $99 a night. But instead of charging my credit card in U.S. dollars, they converted the bill to Mexican Pesos. (At a horrible exchange rate.) The rate was about 5% worse than the credit card company rate. The hotel gets the benefit of protecting their revenue in a realtively stable currency while at the same time generating additional revenue by cheating people on the exchange. There’s really no reason that they couldn’t make the rate 15% worse or 50% worse.
- The hidden room service markup. Room service is expensive. OK, we all know that. At the W Seattle, they disclose the delivery charge of $4 and the service charge of 22%. Fair enough; someone has got to bring the stuff up from the kitchen. What they don’t tell you is that they’ve also raised the menu prices of items $4-$5 above what they charge in the restaurant.
In many cases these charges don’t show up until you get your bill. If you’re in a hurry, you might overlook these charges altogether or not have time to contest them.
At least 3/4 of my hotel bills have some sort of unexpected charge on them. Often the discrepancy is $5-$15 — just in the sweet spot where about half the time I don’t bother to challenge them.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the situation with these gotcha charges getting any better. Faced with low occupancy and declining room revenue, hotels will be looking at every opportunity to extract more ancillary revenue.
Maybe they’ll even do what Ryanair’s CEO has talked about.