Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cameras That Make Us Better

Imagine a camera that only takes good pictures. If you combine a decent digital camera and a persistent person, it’s already reality.

Compared to the fast-receding days of traditional photography, where you had to wait until your film was developed to find that Aunt Betsy had her eyes closed in the family shot, digital cameras let you immediately see the image you just snapped. Bad image? Just erase and take it again. At the end of the day, you’ve got a memory card full of good pictures.

While this does not make you a master photographer, it increases the quality of your pictures in the same way that having multiple tries on every golf shot would lower your score.

But with photography, unlike golf, some shots don’t afford multiple tries. Your baby takes her first steps, cackling with delight at her conquest—oh, you snapped the picture just before the smile and got the grimace instead. That opportunity won’t come back again.

But wait. Recently hitting the market is the Casio Exilim EX-F1, a camera that can shoot up to 60 full-resolution images in a second. (This is not HDTV, where most of the images are compressed in a way that relies on the presence of adjacent images. Each image on the Casio is its own standalone high-resolution image.)

You can spread the camera’s maximum burst of 60 images across time—for example, 15 images per second for four seconds. You can also have it shoot continuously, only keeping the most recent 60 images. So, per our example of baby’s first steps, you could capture baby in 15-images-per-second continuous mode. When you see the smile, you can save the last four seconds and later choose the perfect image of beaming baby.

Folks, that is cool. It’s the next step in the world of cameras that only take good pictures—or more precisely, only keep good pictures.

Alas, the Casio Exilim EX-F1 is both expensive ($1,000) and, per David Pogue’s review in the New York Times, laden with tradeoffs. However, its special functionality will get less expensive, and the tradeoffs will be smoothed out. At some point, continuous, high-resolution shooting will be part of all digital cameras.

As a regular photographer of, as Pogue describes it, “wildlife (including children),” I look forward to that day.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When Stupid Isn’t: Product People Behind the Scenes

Long ago, I was a technology analyst. I tracked the technical and market development of new technologies in areas like artificial intelligence and digital video. The purpose was to forecast which technologies, companies, and products would be winners.

On a regular basis, I’d come across products where something was obviously wrong: nonsensical features, out-of-whack pricing, positioning for seemingly nonexistent audiences, and so on.

As consumers, when we see such things, we just shrug and move on. As a technology analyst, part of my job was to understand such anomalies. Were the people behind these products woefully misguided, or were they seeing something that others could not?

Over time, I met many product managers, product marketers, product evangelists, and the like. They were usually smart people who had reasons for why the seemingly wrong was right. Of course, those were judgment calls at the time; they were only right or wrong in retrospect. But most of the time, their perspectives were at least plausible, if not occasionally inspired.

This experience came to mind when I noticed Chris Anderson’s post about why the publisher Random House is not necessarily stupid. Author and prominent netizen Cory Doctorow had gone off on Random House’s Crown imprint for a limited-time free download of Scott Sigler’s Infected before its publication:

Publishers are schizophrenic and often end up acting really dumb in the service of trying to do something smart. Crown is putting Scott’s book online for free as a PDF, but they’re taking it down after only four days — presumably just in time to kill whatever momentum the downloads are generating....There’s no coherent explanation for a ticking-bomb download like this one; it’s like the hesitation marks on the wrists of a half-ass suicide.

Anderson contacted Crown and talked to Shawn Nicholls, Crown’s Online Marketing Manager, who provided a coherent explanation.

“We definitely subscribe to the believe that offering something online isn’t going to take away from sales,” says Nicholls. “The one thing I tried to do when we started this was to make a distinction between free music and free books. A MP3 can be a substitute for a CD, but we’re not at the place where a pdf is a substitute for a hard book.”

But Crown also believes in the concept of artificial scarcity: “Our goal was to create some buzz. Four days of availability gives a sense of urgency and makes it more of an event,” he says. And although Crown did take the book down from its official site, Nicholls said that they wouldn’t stop people from mirroring it elsewhere for as long as they want.

Nicholls also provided numbers that suggest the promotion worked.

Reading Nicholls’ comments, I not only recalled similar conversations but was glad to see such conversations are increasingly happening in the public (blogo)sphere. To take another example, here is Glenn Keels, Dell’s Sr. Manager, Commercial Products Team, responding to critiques that Dell’s Latitude XT tablet computer is overpriced:

Probably the most important thing to note about tablet PCs is that we are talking about cutting-edge technology here.  If we just released the exact same technology as our competitors, we would be missing opportunities to drive this market to the next level - and this is an opportunity we did not want to miss.  The result is that our product does carry a slight premium to our competition (emphasis on the word “slight”).

We believe that when you take a look at like-to-like configurations AND the incremental technology (that customers have overwhelming told us they want to have), the value equation for the Latitude XT far exceeds that of competitive systems.

Keels goes on to provide a table summarizing key feature differences with competitive models from Lenovo and HP. Although product people at those companies would likely have their own representations of the playing field, I say bring them on. If the conversation can be had at this level, rather than through glossy one-sheets and other marketing shellac, consumers will be the winners.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bill James Explains

My friend Bob Page spotted a great Q&A with one of the most interesting “numbers guys” around, Bill James. His specialty is baseball statistics, but what makes him special is a rare combination of quantitative depth and the ability to communicate that depth in accessible, interesting ways.

Bob’s blog post pulled a few choice quotes, which I won’t repeat here. However, I’ll add a few more:

People who think that they know when a manager should bunt and when a manager should pitch out and when a manager should make a pitching change are amateurs. People who have actually studied these issues know that the answer disappears in a cloud of untested variables.

On quantification of defense versus offense:

The interesting question is why defense is so much more difficult to quantify than offense in all sports. Perhaps defense by its nature involves more interaction between individuals than individual actions, and perhaps the way to get past that is to embrace the concept and measure combinations of players.

And finally here’s a quote from a recent article by James in Slate, about his theory for when a college basketball game is decided. It involves a percentage for how safe a team’s lead is, based on time left, point differential, and ball possession. A 100% safe lead is one that cannot be overcome.

The theory of a safe lead is that to overcome it requires a series of events so improbable as to be essentially impossible. If the “dead” team pulls back over the safety line, that just means that they got some part of the impossible sequence—not that they have a meaningful chance to run the whole thing.

That’s classic Bill James: explaining a theory of his own making, which involves a subtle statistical point, in two sentences that anyone can understand.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Tale of Two On/Off Switches

On the left is a baby monitor by Summer. On the right is a speaker by Logitech.

The baby monitor’s on/off switch is integrated with the volume dial. You click on the unit at zero volume, then dial up for higher volume. Thus, every time you turn on the unit, you need to reset the volume. For extra frustration, the dial has no indicator for the volume level.

With a baby monitor, finding the right volume is a delicate balance. You want the volume high enough to hear your child call or otherwise make significant noise. But you don’t want so much volume that you’re hearing ambient noise in the child’s room. It would be so much better to set the right volume once and leave it there.

Enter the Logitech speaker (part of the X-230 three-piece set), which gets this issue right. The power switch and volume knob are separate. When you turn on the unit, the volume is where you left it. This design probably costs slightly more than having a single knob/switch, but it is unremarkably right—that is, so natural you don’t notice it.