Why So Many People Are Mourning The Passing Of Doug Engelbart

From my Forbes blog:

Much of the latest generation of tech startups, and probably two generations before that, must wonder what’s with all the eloquent eulogies about Doug Engelbart, who died July 2 at age 88. He’s often called the father of the computer mouse, but he introduced the world to so much more that it’s hard to believe the innovations came from the mind of one man (thought it must be said, since he was a seminal proponent of computer-driven collaboration, that many colleagues added their own thinking and engineering to his vision).

Technologies that we still use today–videoconferencing, bitmapped displays, screen windowing, real-time text editing, hypertext that prefigured the World Wide Web, and, of course, the mouse–all were shown at what’s known as “the mother of all demos” at a computer conference in San Francisco in 1968. Steve Jobs, whose Apple Computer would refine and popularize many, but not all, of these technologies, was still a 13-year-old student at Cupertino Junior High.

I was fortunate enough to cross Engelbart’s path at least a couple of times, most recently at an event at Stanford University in late 2008 commemorating the 40th anniversary of that demo. The 1968 video of the demo still gives me tingles for the amazing breadth of technologies he and his colleagues marshaled at a time when computing was still done with punch cards fed into room-sized computers. If you haven’t seen it already, spend a piece of your holiday weekend checking it out.

But I was also blessed to have had a chance to interview him in person in 2003 for a story I wrote about my search for the next big thing in technology. I drove across the Dumbarton Bridge in the southern San Francisco Bay to Logitech, the maker of computer mice and other peripherals that provided him with an office. He seemed a little out of place at a company bustling with people a third his age.

Speaking softly but still with an urgent energy, Engelbart was generous with his time. As he sketched his latest thinking on his longtime quest to augment intelligence and speed up innovation of all kinds, I was alternately entranced and a little confused. I simply couldn’t get my arms around his “bootstrapping” vision of how to turbocharge innovation and raise our collective intelligence. I could tell he was a little frustrated not only with my struggles to understand, but also with what he viewed as the limited scope of innovation in latter-day Silicon Valley that he felt would benefit greatly from his ideas.

At some point, he sensed that my attention was flagging from the cognitive overload and decided to wind down the interview, though he offered with his unfailing politeness to follow up with me later as I continued my quest. I still regret not managing to get his thoughts into the story.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t quite grok the fullness of his vision, and he never got much support to turn it into something with widespread practicality. As a close friend of his, futurist Paul Saffo, told me after I interviewed Engelbart and confessed I didn’t quite get what he was saying, it’s a curse to be 50 years ahead of your time. Whether that’s tragic, as Tom Foremski believes, I’m not sure. Engelbart certainly got the credit he deserved, at least later in his life, if not the riches that so many people who piggybacked on his ideas did.

We need more people like Engelbart who can stretch their minds beyond the here and now, who are brave enough to keep pushing even when they’re not understood. The upside of his overreaching is that perhaps we’ve still only scratched the surface of what Engelbart envisioned. I won’t be surprised if decades after his death, innovations that leverage his thinking will be continuing to transform the world.

Why Are TV Makers Pushing Cadillacs When We Really Want Ferraris?


Samsung shows off huge new TV (Photo: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)

Are TV makers going the way of Detroit in the 1960s? In what many, including those who didn’t bother to attend, are calling a boring Consumer Electronics Show, the star attractions seem to be leviathans such as Samsung’s and Sony’s new 84-inch TV sets. Even they apparently is not amazing enough, because Samsung is promising a 110-inch model later this year.

Size isn’t the only way they’re big, either. Those 84-inchers, which one Sony executive had the audacity to call “Ferraris,” costs $25,000, more than I will ever pay for a car, let alone a TV. And they have more pixels than my never-acute eyesight can ever process–even if there were content created for them, which there isn’t.

Seriously, guys, I’m not buying another TV for a very long time. The screen I’ve got is as big as I can fit in my living room, and that’s not going to change. Even if I did have a bigger living room, a big-ass 84-inch TV would feel faintly embarrassing, like tractor tires on a little pickup.

What’s more, not a single Smart TV feature, no matter how cool, is going to sway me to pony upwards of a thousand dollars for a new set to replace a perfectly fine screen. I’ve got TiVo, I’ve got Apple TV, I’ve got Roku, I’ve got Google TV, and probably there’s some other add-on device I can’t even remember. All of them offer more features and apps than I will ever use.

All of this makes me think of those road hogs of the late 1950s and early 1960s that Detroit insisted on manufacturing shortly before those cheap little imports ate their lunch. The fact is that more and more TV watching is occurring on much smaller screens, especially tablets. The sofa spuds of today don’t drive Cadillacs. We want Ferraris, or even Priuses. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

13 Questions For 2013 In The World Of Online Advertising

questionsCross-posted at my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For the past few years, I’ve offered predictions here and on The New Persuaders for what’s likely to come in the next year. This year, I’m going to shake it up and throw out a few questions instead. I think I know the answers to some of them, but if many won’t be answered definitively by year-end, they remain top of mind for me and probably for many others in online media and advertising.

So in this, the first full week of the new year, here are some questions to which I hope to start finding answers:

* Will image advertising finally take off online? I have to believe that as people spend more and more time online instead of reading print publications and watching TV, brand marketers will want and need to reach them there with ads that are aimed at creating consideration for later purchases, not just eliciting an immediate sale like Google’s search ads and too many banner ads. We’re already starting to see signs of such advertising with the early success of Facebook’s Sponsored StoriesTwitter’s Promoted Tweets, and YouTube’s TrueView ads–not to mention the explosion of tablets, which provide a lean-back experience more compatible with image advertising. This won’t be a sudden change, since brand marketers and agencies don’t move quickly, but you can’t tell me there aren’t going to be increasingly compelling ways for brands to influence people online.

* Can advertisers and publishers make ads more personal without scaring people? That’s the $64 billion question, and it likely won’t get answered in full this year. It’s easy for headline-hungry politicians to make a big deal out of Facebook’s latest privacy gaffe or the Wall Street Journal’s or the New York Times’ latest scare story about an ad that followed somebody all over the Web. That’s especially so since Facebook really does push the privacy envelope too far at times, and too many advertisers idiotically chase one more sales conversion at the cost of scaring off hundreds of others or inviting onerous legislation. But making ads more useful to each individual person is not only crucial to online commerce, it’s potentially better for most consumers as well–seriously, I don’t need to see another ad for a fitness center or a new credit card, but that ad for Camper van Beethoven’s new CD had me in a split-second. The answer lies in these two words, everyone: transparency and choice.

* Will mobile advertising work? Well, some of it already does, to hear Google and Facebook tell it. And while those already devalued digital dimes so far turn to pennies when it comes to ads on smartphones and tablets, this still feels more like growing pains than a crisis in online advertising. Sure, the screens are small and people don’t like to be interrupted in their mobile cocoons. So a different kind of advertising is probably needed–clearly, banners don’t cut it on a four-inch screen. But the value to advertisers of knowing your location and maybe the apps you’re using, coupled with knowledge of what your friends like–all with permission, of course–is huge. That permission may be really tough to earn. But if advertisers can offer tangible value, perhaps in the form of useful services related to what you’re doing or looking for or shopping for–and isn’t that the ultimate native ad?–people may loosen their hold on that information.

I have a lot more questions, but I’ve got to stop before too much of 2013 is gone.

Check out more questions at the full post.

The Mythical iTV: Steve Jobs’ Marketing Magic Is Still Alive And Well At Apple

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Image representing Steve Jobs as depicted in C...

Image via CrunchBase

Another day, another rumor that an Apple television may be coming.

Another recycled rumor, in fact. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that China’s Foxconn, a major Apple supplier, is helping Apple test some prototypes for a large-screen television set. That follows similar (OK, identical) rumors a couple of days ago, last August, last May, and last December saying that Apple was enlisting Chinese suppliers to create an Apple TV set.

No surprise here, given that Apple CEO Tim Cook managed to stoke the fires of speculation last week by saying the company has “intense interest” in television. Of course, Cook himself said the very same thing last May, too.

So don’t hold your breath for an Apple TV that goes beyond the current Apple TV hockey puck. Even longtime Apple television forecaster Gene Munster at Piper Jaffray now says it won’t come before next November. And even then, it’s debatable how important a product it will be, since it’s widely assumed that Apple can’t add much to the current TV experience without deals to get access to live TV shows, or at least win the right to revamp the TV user interface to encompass the full range of pay-TV and Internet content available today. And those deals are nowhere in sight just yet.

But the new flurries of interest in the mythical machine point up something that should reassure Apple investors, at least: Apple cofounder Steve Jobs’ famous marketing magic is still at work at the company more than a year after his death.

Some investors have been worried about whether Cook, by all accounts an ace operations guy but not a showman like Jobs (as no one else really is, honestly), can keep Apple’s brand as blindingly shiny as it has been for so many years now. It’s time to give Cook credit for faithfully following Jobs’ playbook: Let fans wax on about how desirable a new Apple product will be, building demand to a fever pitch so that whatever comes out is guaranteed to get unparalleled attention. Indeed, a recent survey says they’re already willing to pay considerably more for an Apple TV–whatever it turns out to be.

No, Cook doesn’t yet deserve to be considered a master marketer like Jobs. But he’s off to a pretty good start.

Apple CEO Tim Cook Is Blowing Smoke When He Dismisses Rival 7-Inch Tablets

Apple Introduces iPad Mini... and some new com...

Apple’s iPad mini

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

As a company that way more often than not comes out with superior products, Apple rarely appears defensive. Today was an exception.

On Apple’s fourth-quarter earnings call, CEO Tim Cook took repeated potshots at small tablets of the kind that–yes–Apple itself just debuted. The iPad mini is clearly aimed at blunting the appeal of seven-inch tablets such as Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire.

While I think Cook is probably right that the iPad will continue to dominate tablets, and even that it continues to make the best ones, his overenthusiastic criticism of seven-inch tablets struck me as surprisingly defensive. Saying Apple didn’t set out to build a “small, cheap tablet,” he called the competitors “compromised” products. “We would never make a seven-inch tablet,” he sniffed.

Why not? Because they’re too small, he said. The iPad mini is almost an inch larger, which means a 30% larger screen and 50% larger viewing area. I’ll grant that that is noticeable, and appealing.

But c’mon. These are all tablets you can hold in one hand, and acting as if the iPad mini is something utterly unique–“in a whole different league,” as he put it–comes off more than a bit desperate. Apple is clearly playing catch-up here, and trying to position the iPad mini as nothing like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire only serves to make us realize that Apple actually does feel threatened by these devices that beat it to what has turned out to be a real market. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Facebook’s Mobile App Install Ads Get Moving

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Exhortations to install apps are likely a significant chunk of Facebook’s advertising revenues, and now they’re poised to become an even bigger factor in the social network’s future. Today, two months after offering app install ads for mobile devices to a select group of app developers and their marketing partners, Facebook opened up the ads to anyone.

These ads appear right in people’s mobile news feeds, providing prime placement for games and other apps in Apple’s App Store for iPhones and iPads and Google’s Play store for Android devices. Not surprisingly, Facebook says in a blog post that mobile app install ads are already working:

In early results, beta partners like Kabam, Fab, TinyCo and Big Fish were able to reach a more relevant audience and efficiently drive installs. For example, TinyCo saw 50% higher CTRs and significantly higher conversion rates compared to their current mobile channels, as well as a significant increase in player engagement.

A select subset of Preferred Marketing Developers (PMDs) has been testing mobile app install ads and saw similarly positive results. For example, Nanigans’ clients efficiently achieved 8-10x the reach compared to other mobile ad buys. Ad Parlor saw consistent CTR’s from news feed of 1-2% from engaged users looking for iPhone and Android games that their friends were playing.

No doubt those numbers will come down as the novelty factor in any new ad or feature wears off. Still, even a fraction of those results would still be valuable to advertisers.

That’s assuming–and this is a fair assumption given Facebook’s wariness about ad overload–that the company doesn’t go over the top and overload people’s mobile news feeds with the ads. Avoiding overload is especially important for these ads because unlike many of Facebook’s marquee ads, they don’t have a social component, meaning they appear strictly in response to developers paying for them, not because a friend liked an app.

Too many of these ads that don’t have the appeal of a friend’s connection, and the dreaded banner blindness is likely to set in.

There also more coming to improve these ads, according to Facebook engineer Vijaye Raji:

In coming months, we’ll continue to make updates that improve the user experience and the performance of mobile app install ads. For example, you may be able to customize your ad unit based on your audience, ensure that your ads are only shown to people who have not installed your app on iOS or Android devices, and allow people to start installing your app without leaving Facebook.

How Steve Jobs’ Laughable Early Apple Ads Evolved Into Today’s Marketing Marvels

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

To look at Apple’s classic advertisements, from the stark, bold “Think Different” campaign to the playful “Get a Mac” series to those minimalist silhouetted iPod ads, you’d never guess that early Apple ads were so–not to put too fine a point on it–awful.

On the one-year anniversary of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs’ untimely death, we scrounged up a baker’s dozen of early Apple ads in the accompanying photo gallery for your amusement and edification. They’re print ads in particular, since it was pretty early days to be advertising computers on television. Still, most them wouldn’t be recognizable as Apple ads if not for the name and early logos.

They weren’t especially worse than other computer ads at the time. Maybe they were even marginally better. But they were anything but special, let alone cool.

What’s interesting is not just that Apple’s early ads look so depressingly conventional. It’s that a few of them revealed flashes of Jobs’ future marvels of marketing. Once Jobs got past the initial “speeds and feeds” marketing imperative during a time when Apple was really just one, albeit prominent, competitor in a sea of pre-Windows, pre-Mac personal computer makers, he began to develop an eye for brand marketing that few companies in technology or any other industry have since surpassed.

Take a close look at these early ads, and you can see that Apple’s evolution to the pinnacle of brand marketing happened not in a straight line, but in a sort of punctuated equilibrium that parallels the gradual maturing of computing itself. At first, PCs were for hobbyists interested in performance and features, and the ads reflected that. But as the machines began to sell into the millions, Apple’s ads began to emphasize how they were “the computer for the rest of us,” as the first Macintosh ads called them.

That first one for the Apple-1 in 1976, rivetingly entitled “A Balance of Features,” was appallingly amateurish. The ad, released only a few months after Jobs and Steve Wozniak showed the prototype at the Homebrew Computer Club in SiliconValley and incorporated their company, was stuffed full of technical features in a way that’s unimaginable today. For instance, the ad touted the ability to attach a keyboard and monitor to allow “the efficient entry and examination of programs in hexidecimal notation.” Who knew?

There was even a misspelling in the first line, a sign that Jobs’ famous perfectionism hadn’t quite kicked in yet. …

Read the complete post, including a photo gallery of the ads, at The New Persuaders.