October 09, 2012

Free Pen Winner

Today's starting off on a good note. I'm always looking for good equipment to use with my writing: laptops. notebooks, Moleskines, and yes -- pens. The old fashioned writing utensils that many have eschewed in favor or their digital counterparts, but which still maintain a die hard, rock-solid usability and have a loyal following, especially online.  To this end, I purchase and try out LOADS of new pens. Some make the cut and I keep them, adding them to the list of repeat purchases in my always full pen cups. Some don't, and are relegated as things I leave behind, give to others or simply throw out if they're really no good. I suspect it's the same with other pen aficionados. 

So, imagine my surprise this morning when I was notified by Tiger Pens that I had won their most recent pen giveway (http://www.tigerpens.co.uk/blog/august-giveaway-pentel-sterling-red-gel-pen-winner/comment-page-1/#comment-8307).  I'm happy, shocked, and just plain ready to try out another new pen. The Energels have always had a strong following, and with good reason: they're well made and the ink flows smoothly. I'm sure this one will be a pleasure, and since it's red, it will fit right in with both the upcoming Christmas season (yes, it's almost that time again) and with my writing and editing roles.

Thanks again Tiger Pens! I'll be sure to post my thoughts on how this pen performs when I get it.

September 13, 2012

Why I'm not wild about the iPhone 5

Yesterday morning there was wild speculation what the new iPhone would be like: what would it be named? What would it look like? What features would it have? And most importantly, what surprises did Apple have up it's sleeve that we didn't already know about?

The answer came later that day, in the form of the iPhone 5. And it quickly became clear that the answer was NONE. We had known it all for a while, certainly becoming clear in the two or three weeks leading up to the reveal. It turned out there was nothing new in the presentation, nothing we hadn't heard already, and so it became just a formality of sorts, to publicly announce this thing that everyone else had already figured out. To go back to the kids and Christmas analogy from yesterday, we the kids had already found the hiding spots, seen the receipts and thus knew what we were getting for Christmas. The only thing that remained was to open the package, knowing full well what was inside. "Oh, it's called the iPhone5, and it's, uh... taller. And it uses a different connector. Yeah, we knew that already. Thanks Apple."

Lack of surprises aside, what's fantastic and different about the iPhone 5? Nothing, as it turns out. They made it bigger. Gave it a slightly better camera and battery. Different maps. We've heard this mentioned in previous releases (iPhone 4 and 4S) but it bears repeating now: this isn't a revolutionary product; it's evolutionary. It merely advances the iPhone, building on what was there before but not significantly changing anything. You'll be able to do things a bit faster, take better pictures. But aside from being a little taller in your hands or pocket, it won't feel much different than the iPhone 4 or 4S you've had already.

Perhaps we're all being out of line here. Apple's iPhone is the most successful smartphone in history. To think that they would change things 100% is asking a lot. Businesses like to invent a winning formula, then keep it going. However as consumers we get bored, and we get tired, of the same old thing. And since it's been 6 iterations now, that tiredness has set in.

Everyone's looking for Apple to come up with something brand new. Take the iPhone and make a whole new design. To be fair, this must be tempered with a need to not alienate all the people who made this such a success and continue to use and rely on it every day. A balance that's hard to achieve, but if anyone can do it, I'd bet money that Apple could.

September 12, 2012

Why today's iPhone5 announcement matters

It's finally here.

For months the press has been beset by rumors, in bits and pieces. Speculation really. A small piece of news here, a new case with new dimensions and cutouts there. Hardly investigative journalism but tech blogs dutifully (and rabidly) gobbled it up and attempted to make a whole picture out of it. To determine the details of the new iPhone, like kids trying to find the hiding place of the Christmas presents before the big day.

But today's the day that matters. The day Apple formally and finally takes the wraps off the newest iPhone and reveals it to the world.

For months now pundits and bloggers have speculated on what the new phone would look like. In the beginning they said it would be rebuilt from the ground up, totally different. Time for a new design, we were told. 

Personally, I don't anticipate anything totally new or earth-shattering. No holographic display or keyboard (although I've seen mock-ups of a holographic keyboard that actually makes sense and looks SICK). However, in recent weeks the needle has fallen back closer to reality: it will mainly be thinner. Maybe a bit taller. And it will have a different dock connector.

So, everyone's eagerly anticipating today's unveiling. And why shouldn't they? For one, the iPhone is the most popular phone on the planet and has been since the first one was released. So this upgrade, and all the associated breakthroughs that will be unveiled along with it today, instantly affect those users, either now or when they inevitably upgrade. Second, just about everything Apple does in the mobile space is copied by others, be it Android, Windows Phone, Nokia, Samsung, LG, etc. Eventually some permutation of an idea Apple had will show up in someone else's device. Some historical data to back this up: complete touch screen phones were virtually non-existent before the iPhone. However, as soon as it was released, others followed suit. Now a complete touch screen phone is the norm, and we look at phones with keyboards as being quite quaint (looking at you here, Blackberry). The same thing happened with high-resolution screens, personal voice assistants (a la Siri), and the ubiquity of apps.  All pioneered by Apple, and copied by others.

So, today's iPhone 5 announcement really will be a bellwether for the mobile phone industry.
Who should care about what's announced today? Everyone.

March 01, 2012

It's Victo Spring!

Happy Victo Spring everybody! Today marks the day when we flip the calendar from the dark days of February into March, and thus begins our rush towards the official arrival of Spring. It's been a long uphill battle since the days when the winds first turned cold and the days got shorter.

Congratulations! You've made it!  

Tonight also marks the third annual Victo Spring celebration dinner. Pictures of the event will be posted here as they become available.

For more on what Victo Spring is all about, read about it here.

February 23, 2012

The Legend of Victo Spring

As a kid there were times of the year I loved. I loved the Spring and Summer, with the warm winds blowing and tons of outdoor opportunities. Perfect weather for a day-long bike ride, a leisurely walk or a family barbeque.

The Winter was another story. Since I lived in New York which got its fair share of snow, winter was the flip side of summer in every way. Outside activities consisted of trudging through snow and trying not to fall on the icy driveways and sidewalks. Exercise consisted of shoveling or snow blowing all that snow, with only the occasional bit of sleigh-riding to actually enjoy it.
The temperatures drop so low you gasp every time you step outside. You learned to combine trips outside to do more than one thing. Go outside to get the newspaper in the morning? No way. Better to wait and grab it later on your way out.

Yes, winter life can be harsh. But it's never harsher than the months of January to March. Those are the deadest months of all, that grey zone where there's not much going on and people all over are simply trying to hang on, to look forward, and wait. Wait until things warm up and thaw out. In short, they're waiting for Spring.

As a kid, I was no different. I was waiting for Spring more fervently than anything else. To me Spring meant a return to freedom. Freedom to go outside, have fun and get back on the bike. Get back in the pool. Get back to life. The life that seemed to get put on hold when the mercury dropped in November and the snow started flying.

However, there was a problem. The calenders seemed to mock me. I would open up my new calendar to January and see a snowy scene, maybe left over from the Holidays. Snow, ice, trees. Fine. I lived with that for a month. No big deal since the scene outside matched what was on the calendar. Then, a month later I'd flip the page to February. Another cold scene. This time it would usually be a house, village or person in a snowy, cold environment. The message? "It's February and it's STILL cold." I would grimace since my own situation had not changed.

Then, it happened. I reached the end of February. The very next day, March 1, I flipped the calendar page to March. Suddenly, like Dorothy opening up her black and white door into the technicolor world of Oz there it was: a beautiful Spring picture. A sunny sky and green grass framing some gorgeous scene. Sometimes it was a mountain, sometimes a family playing in the yard. It was beautiful. Warm. Inviting. 

I stared at it in disbelief. Surely these calendar makers weren't serious? Outside my window was still snow and ice. It hadn't gone away overnight despite the calendar transitioning from February to March. Spring hadn't suddenly arrived today just because the calendar page was flipped and we were suddenly in March, right?

And then it hit me: It should have.

Yes, in my teenage reasoning I came upon it: since the calendars all have a nice Spring scene on it for March, and since Spring really does arrive later in that month, we needed something to commemorate that in-between period. The disparity between what the calendar picture shows and what's really outside.

And thus I created my own holiday. Victo Spring.

To be fair I started out simply referring it to as "early spring" or "my spring", both of which drew curious stares from people who overheard it. Some offered to teach me about the lunar cycle and the seasons. Others just shook their heads. But the reality of it was this: Spring was imminent. We had taken the first step by making it into March and flipping that calendar page, whose picture revealed a change was taking place. Although not there yet on March 1, it nonetheless indicated that there was a big warmup heading our way.

Over the years I got older, got wiser, but never let go of my holiday which had now become known as Victo Spring. I carried it with me and little by little mentioned it to other people. I mentioned it to my wife who at first thought it was hilarious. She eventually warmed up to it when she realized I wouldn't let it go. When we had children I made sure they were indoctrined from a young age. It became a family tradition; sometimes mocked, sometimes applauded, and sometimes just a curiosity.

But then an interesting thing happened. It started to take hold. My wife and kids mentioned it to their friends. The network of people who knew about it started to grow exponentially. Other friends heard about it and began asking questions. I dutifully explained it all to them and they smiled. They all seemed to like it. They said that over the years they too had grown tired of waiting for Spring to arrive. They liked the idea of Victo Spring and they embraced it themselves.

Victo Spring became the preeminent way of heralding the imminent arrival of Spring. 

So much so that a few years ago they asked me, "How is it celebrated?"

And at first I had no clue. I had always just flipped the calendar on March 1st, performed a little Spring dance (it's not pretty) and went along my way. That was the earliest Victo Spring celebration.
But now people were asking to take it to the next level. Surely there must be something we can do to celebrate the arrival of March and Victo Spring?

And so three years ago we started our annual Victo Spring celebration dinner. It always occurs on March 1, which is of course the actual arrival of Victo Spring. We open it up to all, and we go out to a Hudson Valley restaurant, pretty much take it over completely, and have ourselves a great time. We have dinner, swap stories, get re-acquainted with friends we may not have seen in a while. It's a way to usher in Spring and get some social activity back in your life. Many people have told me that after a long, cold, possibly snowy winter, they love the idea of an annual initiation to Spring ceremony, almost as though we're holding it to invite the Spring winds and warmer weather to arrive. In short, it's just what some people need.

I invite you to embrace Victo Spring too. Embrace the fact that Winter is coming to an end and Spring is headed your way.  Consider this your  wake-up call: the Spring equinox is coming. And things are definitely heating up.

February 09, 2012

Picture This: No More Kodak Cameras

It was my first. I picked her up from a local store since I had heard good things and the price was right. I couldn't believe the concept: a camera that used no film and hooked up to a computer to show the pictures. It seemed like the whole Polaroid instant film concept taken dangerously far into the technology realm.

It was the Kodak DC-215. It was my first digital camera.

No, it wasn't the best I ever had. That honor still goes to my Olympus C740-UZ, with it's 10x zoom and amazing depth of field. The DC-215 wasn't even the most reliable, as anyone who had one back in the day can attest. It's one big weakness? The battery tray. It had a habit of not staying shut and popping open at the worst time, splaying your batteries all over the floor of wherever you were: your home, front lawn, Disney World, etc. However, it had the distinction of being the first, for me and I'm guessing for a fair number of people. It ushered me into the new world of digital photography, with better than average picture quality and a seemingly unlimited number of pictures.  And with that in mind it was perfect that the company that delivered this was Kodak, a company whose name was synonymous with photography. When you think cameras, Kodak comes to mind.

But no more. This is the year that Kodak will halt production on it's cameras. As in: it's not going to be in the camera business anymore. At all. Period. Oh, and did I mention that Kodak invented the entire concept of digital cameras? Well, it did. And now it shutting down because it can't compete in the industry it created.
Competition from other manufacturers, as well as modern-day camera integration into all cell phones, has battered this former industry leader. Unable to eke out a living in their own industry, they're shutting down.

Not to bemoan the subject, but what kind of a world is it where the Kodak company exists but doesn't make cameras and doesn't make film? A strange world indeed. Perhaps at some point it will come back as a niche or upscale offering, with a luxury camera that appeals to die-hard professionals or techies. But until then, since it can no longer compete in the consumer space, it's time to wave goodbye to the last of the Kodak cameras. By the end of this calendar year they'll be nothing more than a sizable piece of history. And hopefully, that history will contain pictures captured by Kodak cameras.

February 01, 2012

Why February is Cause for Optimism

Traditionally thought of as the darkest, coldest month, in fact February is one of the most positive months for change.  There's lots to like: the days get noticeably longer, with the sun staying around later in the day postponing sunset until a more reasonable hour. Think about it: during the dreaded January it's truly the dark days -- it's pitch black by 4:30 pm. 4:30 pm! That's the time for a coffee-break, not lights out. In February, whether people realize it or not (and usually we don't) much is done to rectify this.  Truthfully this started in mid- to late-January but it kicks in big time in February. Starting as early as Feb. 1, the days stretch out until at least 5 pm and that's just for starters, as each day another minute or two is added to the day. By the time the end of February hits, daylight doesn't end until a more respectable 5:45 pm, or shortly before most people are thinking about dinner.

Another good thing February has going for it: it's the last full month of Winter. February is what I call a Countdown Month, where it's 28 days of waiting for us to get to March and the imminent arrival of Spring. There is the sense among lots of people that they can survive X number of days to get to March. After all, they've survived this long, since November, then December and the arrival of the winter solstice on December 21. They rationalize they can probably make it 28 more days.  And, although Spring doesn't hit until March 20, there is some sense of relief when you flip the calendar to March. As if you're helping hasten the arrival of Spring. As if it's really coming. And so, February is the conduit, or countdown, to that. Don't believe me? Open almost any calendar and look at January. Snowy picture. Winter scene. Flip to February. Pretty much the same. Different location. More snow. More cold. Now brace yourself as you flip to March.  It's almost always a beautiful Spring scene. It's getting you ready. It's almost here.

This is the big pay off from February. And it's glorious. And starting today, it gets underway. Enjoy. Let the countdown begin.

January 31, 2012

RIM's Spiral to Oblivion

I can almost hear the announcer now: "Hang tight -- this is going to be a fast ride from this point on." While it may seem like this is referring to some theme-park ride in fact it's not. It's a ride of a different sort, and all of us have been on it for a while, but it's going downhill. Fast. 

We're talking of course about Research In Motion (RIM).  The company that helped create and usher in the modern smartphone device (I'd credit RIM and Palm with starting the whole movement collectively, and Apple for making it mainstream).  They really were first to market with the concept of an always-connected device. At that time it was a 2-way pager with a  keyboard. People could page or message you and you could send text messages back. Sound familiar? Kind of like what we do everyday with our cell phones and SMS text messages? Well in 1999 it wasn't so familiar. In fact it was new and novel. Emergency workers, doctors, and then IT professionals flocked to the device. CEOs and management-types too. It was the most-loved device in the world, and it carried that title proudly for years.  

Then came the challengers to the throne. Those that thought they could do what RIM did, but in a phone. Palm was first, initially with the Palm VII which had an antenna for two-way communication.  They then followed up with their expansion into cell phone/PDA combinations by introducing the Treo phones.  

None of this was especially good news for RIM, but in a competitive market you have to be ready for people trying to emulate your success and take your market share. Throughout all of Palm's advances, RIM held their own. There was something that the company had that others didn't: some form of coolness, of cachet, of being an innovator. It was very similar to what we now attribute to Apple. They quietly did their thing, coming out with new products, slightly new form factors, and proceeding cautiously and conservatively. This turned out to be a double-edged sword as it initially helped keep their established fan base but also proved to be it's undoing as others came out with new solutions, new products and better ways of doing things. 

And this is where Apple came in and changed everything with the introduction of their first iPhone in 2007. From that point on RIM was stuck trying to play catch up, as their industry-leading device and platform suddenly began to look very, very, old. Compared to the iPhone's usability and operating system, the Blackberry with it's non-touch screen and trackball looked either quite cute and old-fashioned or downright ancient. One by one users began to migrate to the iPhone. Then, as the iPhone began adding specific apps, corporations began to see how it could replace and even improve upon, the Blackberry. When Google introduced their Android operating system in 2007 it may as well have been one of the final nails in Blackberry's coffin. Now there were two major smartphone platforms, each significantly better and more robust than the Blackberry. 

Late in the game attempts to catch up weren't met with much success either. You have to give RIM points for the attempt, but with such product introductions as the Blackberry Storm, with it's problem-laden click-screen that you have to believe was rushed to market, then later with the Blackberry Playbook, a tablet device which didn't even have calendar and email functions, you have to see that they were floundering. The business version of thowing up your hands in despair and taking a few last hail mary shots, hoping one of them will stick. 

Hard to believe that only two and a half years ago, already battling both the iPhone and Android, in August 2009 Fortune Magazine named RIM as the fastest growing company in the world. If we had to put a definitive mark of demarcation on RIM's lifeline, it would have to be here.  It's decline from this point has been swift. But then again, that's what this whole technology sector is about, right? Change. Disruptive. Competitive. You blink and everything's change. And everything has indeed changed for RIM.

Which brings us to today. RIM, still alive but on life support, is still trying new strategies. They've recently shown their two CEOs to the door, and appointed a new one. While it remains to be seen what kind of life he can re-inject into the company, things aren't looking good. Not when you consider that everything that's done from this point on is being watched very closely for signs of further troubles or a miraculous turnaround.  The latest ad strategy doesn't seem to help very much.  Users want fresh, new devices. They want leading-edge applications. They want devices which are easy to use. And, while the world does indeed seem to love superheroes, I'm not sure this is the tactic RIM should be taking.

It remains to be seen if RIM can pull this off, but I have to say this PR campaign seems misguided.