Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Brand Rebuilding in the Computer Age

Things are tough all over. Tiger Woods was recently outed as a philandering, self-entitled cad whose cheated on his wife with dozens, perhaps hundreds of women. Meanwhile Toyota's cars have fallen prey to random bursts of acceleration that put the lives of their drivers and other motorists at risk. And the car manufacturer, it seems, has no clear ideas as to why.

Tiger has gone on TV recently with an apology speech. Toyota seems to be still flailing about without a definitive answer as to why there cars suddenly take off and fail to respond to the brakes or to drivers taking their feet of the gas pedals.

In spite of Tiger's assurances that he will be returning to the Buddhist principles that were apparently once his original core values and Toyota happily offering to shave an inch or so off the acceleration pedals on all affected models, both Tiger and Toyota, it would seem still have a long way to go to rebuild the public's trust in their respective brands.

In the computer world there are no brands who are currently under this kind of fire. However both Tiger and Toyota could perhaps learn a thing from Bill Gates and the good people of Microsoft.

PCs have long been branded with the tag of being cold and impersonal while the Apple Mac brand has been celebrated and practically adored for it's "user friendliness." Apple has the commercials with the uber-cool hipster, played by Justin Long as the Mac and the uptight nerd played by John Hodgman as the PC. Apple has Steve Jobs, the lovable, quirky ex-hippie, while Microsoft has Bill Gates, the computer nerd turned ultra-rich cyber tycoon. Never mind that Jobs is practically just as rich and the Gates Foundation is one of the most active and generous charitable foundations in the world. It's just conveniently easier to read Jobs as the fun loving "user friendly" cyber-hippie and Gates as some kind of cold heart computer capitalist.

It's a brand identification that has more or less endured since the earliest days of the Internet/Computer age. Along the way it's been reinforced by Apple introducing such ultra-cool, must have products as the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad and Microsoft introducing Vista, an operating system with features intended to restrict users from copying protected digital media. Talk about buzz kill!

So in what could be seen as an equivalent to Tiger Wood's apology speech or Toyota's recall, Microsoft has released Windows 7, a new operating system, which according to Gates himself is designed to be more, "user-centric."

Aided by a self-consciously irreverent ad campaign, that emphasizes the systems responsiveness to user demands, Windows 7 has been relatively well received overall. CNET awarded it 4.5 out of 5 stars and PC Magazine called it a "big improvement," over Vista. Windows 7 has also become the highest ever selling pre-order product on Amazon.com.

So it would seem that out of the gate, anyway, Windows 7 can be regarded as a success. Whether it will help to re-brand Microsoft as hip, cool or user friendly, of course remains to be seen.

If their current efforts to rebuild their existing brand names come up short, perhaps Tiger and Toyota could take a further cue from Gates and re-brand themselves altogether. Tiger Woods as no longer the smiling, wholesome, good boy but as an unshaven, strutting, Ed Hardy clad rogue who loves them and leaves them. And Toyota, as no longer the go to option for those seeking safe, practical and economically sound transportation, but as the car of choice for thrill seeking adventurers who like to take their lives into their own hands.

Hey, I'm not saying it's gonna work, but if Microsoft can seemingly succeed in putting itself forward as hip, irreverent and user-friendly, anything's possible.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Health Care Reform for Computers

The debate around health care has heated up in the week since the bill's passing, to a level that arguably surpasses that which was sustained during the bill's journey into law. Indeed opponents of the bill, much like same sex union supporters in California, seem to have waited until the bills' actual passage into law before unleashing their anger and frustration.

Angry, disparaging cries of "socialism" are raining down from all corners. However can a bill that merely mandates one to have health insurance of some kind really be any more socialist than the decades old California law that requires one to have automobile insurance?

In the case of computers, it's perhaps a little more straight forward. All Apple computer hardware, for instance, is covered by a one year limited warranty that includes 90 days of free telephone technical support. Beyond that, you're on your own. Unless of course, you subscribe to AppleCare.

The AppleCare Protection Plan can be regarded as a kind of health insurance for your computer. The basic AppleCare plan provides three years of hardware coverage and software support for your computer. Services include global access to telephone tech support, on-site repair for desktop computers and global repair coverage for any mishap that occurs.

Now there are certainly no laws that mandate one purchasing AppleCare, or any similar warranty plans available for PCs. However most computer stores, online and terrestrial, will strongly recommend that one do so. After all computers, much like the human body, do sometimes go astray despite our best efforts to care for them. Just like us they can fall victim to viruses, crashes or some faulty internal component. To spend several hundred or even a couple thousand on a new computer without also buying some kind of insurance would seem foolhardy. To careen through life without similar coverage on oneself would seem similarly so.

So while there is no government mandate telling us we need to go out and put our laptops and desktops under protective warranty, perhaps a law that instructs us to do so with our bodies is in our best interest after all. Because while it may be possible to recover one's hard drive after a system crash, in the real world there may not be any coming back from the blue screen of death.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

President Obama's long awaited health care reform bill was approved this week. Since then it's been criticized for being both too liberal and too conservative, depending on how's doing the criticizing. Although those who feel it's too liberal seem to be doing the loudest shouting.

Also released this week, and to altogether more unanimously positive reviews was the new Gateway NV7915u. A spiffy little laptop, the NV79 is designed to be a low cost desktop replacement and to that end it manages to deliver the goods. CNET called it's predecessor, the NV7820u one of last year's "best bang-for-your-buck retail laptops," and the new model offers several improvements including a faster processor and an even lower price.

The NV79 is stylish, with a black and silver honeycombed finish. It's lightweight and has an ergonomic keyboard. It's fast processor, versatility and low price liken it to a sporty subcompact car: quick, maneuverable and economical. Rather like the 1.5 liter Honda Fit.

Similarly affordable, the Fit offers many of the same features as the NV79. It's compact, portable, quick and stylish. Both are extremely economical with the NV79's estimated annual energy cost being $5.17 and the Fit averaging 33 mpg on the highway and 27 in the city.

The Fit and the NV79 are also both similarly responsive, the NV79 with it's recessed touch pad and quick travel keys, the Fit with it's torsion beam rear suspension and electric power rack and pinion steering. Officially classified by the EPA as a small station wagon, the Fit offers just about all the versatility one could reasonably ask for in a subcompact. It's nimble, economical, practical and relatively safe.

The NV79 also delivers as far as a low-cost desktop replacement. It's got 4GB of memory, a 2.13GHz Intel Core, a 500 GB hard drive and, arguably a better speaker system than the Fit.

So while it may take some time for everyone to agree on the health plan, it's clear that if you're looking for an affordable subcompact car or laptop, there are currently some good options to choose from.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Computers Enter the Age of the Hybrid

It's almost a bizarre scenario when you think about it. The automotive industry, the longstanding villain of the anti-global warming movement has gone into full ecological overdrive, producing hybrids as well as electric and more fuel efficient cars. While at the same time putting such icecap melting mega-brands as the Hummer to the sword. With other industries as many and varied as the moving and entertainment business also going green, it's odd that the tech world has been somewhat late to arrive to the party.

In the past, computers, like the one I'm writing this on and the one you are reading this on, have been blamed for causing as much global warming as the airline industry. Meanwhile, computer recycling, when it is practiced, is difficult at best and dangerous at worst. It is often conducted in third world countries by children who are then exposed to dangerous levels of lead and other toxic elements that go into the manufacture of today's computers.

As processor speed has increased, so has power consumption. To the point where many of today's computers are the digital equivalent of big, American gas guzzlers. A big, fast, portable laptop with eadded memory, wireless Internet that turns on a dime and increased processor speed can almost be compared to a GTO or Camaro that has been bored out and suped up for maximum velocity.

Similarly our big energy guzzling desk tops that cruise and turn smoothly on the web and through various other applications simultaneously are perhaps similar to driving giant 4-door Cadillacs or SUVs: big, comfortable, roomy and absolutely toxic for the environment.

Ironically the tech industry is widely considered to be quite progressive, liberal leaning and well informed on such matters as the environment. However only very recently have their been signs that industry is getting ready to put it's money where it's mouth is.

Last month IBM launched a new processor, the new Power 7 which is purported to perform twice as well as it's predecessor, the Power 6, while consuming less energy.

Elsewhere Dell Computer has announced a plan to become carbon neutral that includes everything from reducing emissions at Dell facilities to planting trees to offset the effects of business travel via car and airplane.

Elsewhere a group of industry goliaths that includes Yahoo, Google, Intel, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, announced a new partnership with the EPA and the World Wildlife Fund the stated purpose of which is to reduce computer energy consumption by 50%.

Babysteps, perhaps. But maybe the first signs that the tech world is getting ready to leave behind the era of muscle cars, luxury sedans and SUVs to enter the realm of the hybrid.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Achilles and the Blue Screen of Death

The athletic world received a shock this week as David Beckham, international soccer's golden boy, suffered a shock injury that ended his dream of competing in this summer's World Cup. Beckham had been burning the candle at both ends for a couple of years, playing his regular season with the Los Angeles Galaxy and spending the off-season in Italy, playing with AC Milan. In his mad-dash effort to keep himself at the highest international level of fitness and play, it's possible that Beckham may have brought about the very injury that will sideline him for the next six months: a torn achilles tendon.

In the computer world we also strive to compete at the highest level. That is to keep our computers running as optimally and effectively as possible. While star athletes like Beckham live in fear of a torn achilles or blown out knee, we live in fear of the dreaded blue screen of death, or worse.

The blue screen of death is usually thought to be the result of a faulty driver or bad software, often downloaded during a system update. System updates, ironically, are intended to keep our systems running optimally. So just as Beckham's quest for World Cup glory seems to have ended itself, our quest for maximum system optimization, may in fact be putting our computers at risk.

When it comes to updating one's system, this writer subscribes to the golden rule: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Some updates are necessary, even mandatory. Many however are not and some can actually impair your computers performance, or worse, result in the dreaded blue screen of death. It's important to be aware of what exactly your updating, and why. In one's rush to keep one's computer running on the edge of optimal performance one can easily suffer the computer equivalent of a torn achilles tendon. Thankfully, for us, a trip to the computer shop can usually remedy the problem. For poor David Beckham (words I never thought I'd utter!) the solution is not so simple.

His successful surgery in Finland behind him, Becks will now begin a slow recovery process that will see him celebrating his 35th birthday, missing this summer's World Cup, the end of AC Milan's season and the start of the LA Galaxy's before he returns to match fitness. Will be bounce back to play at a high level? Should he have pushed himself so hard in the first place? Perhaps only the man himself knows the answer.

Friday, March 12, 2010

When Computers and Cars Rebel

Do you ever get the feeling that sometimes inanimate objects are not quite as inanimate as they are purported to be? Case in point, yesterday I was dropping my wife off at work before heading to a meeting on the west side. As we were driving I mentioned that I was getting paid next week and maybe now would be a good time to buy plane tickets to Europe for our summer vacation. No sooner had I uttered the words when the "check engine" light illuminated on the dashboard and our '96 Volvo began to shudder violently as it idled.

It was as if our car was telling us, "Uh-uh, oh no you don't go buying plane tickets to Europe when Mamma needs a new pair of brakes." Needless to say one trip to the mechanics and several hundred dollars later, and plane tickets to Europe will have to wait.

Not to anthropomorphize too much but I also sometimes get the feeling my computer likes to mess with me. It seems to know when I'm stressed out, behind schedule or otherwise harried, and choose theses moments to slow down for no apparent reason. I'm scrambling to meet a 5pm deadline, trying to pull the necessary research up on the web and suddenly my web browser decides it wants to play like it's 1998. Back when you would click on a page, get up, make a cup of tea, come back and check to see if your page had loaded yet.

Now being a writer as well as someone who creates music, I realize I ask a lot of my computer. I expect it to be always at the ready, lean and ready to go, like a star soccer forward on the line, waiting for the whistle to blow. And while I ask a lot of my computer, it's arguable whether I do much in return for it.

Maybe just as a good soccer coach knows when to rest his star striker before a big match, I should know when to give my computer a rest. Finish work for the day, leave the social networks, soccer news and tech blogs alone and shut her down for the night.

And just as prime athletes get rub downs after a match, perhaps I need to do a rundown of the files taking up space on my drive and delete the ones that are simply, well. . .taking up space. For athletes to maintain optimal performance they need to be trained, rested and even pampered a little. Perhaps the same is true of inanimate objects in our life such as computers and cars.

So I guess the bottom line is that if you'd rather spend your money on plane tickets to Barcelona than new brakes or registry cleaning software, perhaps it's best to talk about it where your cars and computers can't hear you. They may be listening!