Jim Cramer makes another mistake in 1997


Scan originally appeared in Wired 05.11, November 1997.

James J. Cramer - The 'J' is for Wrong

In my earlier take on why bubbles happen, I forgot an important factor: Snake-oil salesmen.

For the sake of Jim Cramer, we should be glad that he's comfortable making mistakes - he must be one comfortable guy, I guess. Like when, in February 1999, he didn't see the Nasdaq would crash 10 days later, and encouraged everyone to stick to 10 tech-stock, which by 2009 were all dead, swallowed or trading at a fraction of the 1999-price. Or last year, when he didn't see the credit-crunch coming and subsequently got grilled by Jon Stewart (If you have any alcohol left in your moral compass, you'll find that interview tragic, not funny...). Or a few days ago when he completely misjudged the impact of the health care reform.

Personally, I think it's cool to have the guts to put yourself out there. Make your triumphs and mistakes in public - I even admire that. God knows, I make my own fair share of mistakes. I also think it's admirable to have a mission statement of making financial mumbo-jumbo accessible to everybody in an entertaining way.

What I have a major problem with is the encouragement that we should all be playing the stock-market like a Stradivarius when our skills only allow us to push the sound-effect button saying "Muhh".

The internet IS a series of tubes


Scan originally appeared in Wired 03.11, November 1995.

From back when two dedicated 2mbit lines were enough to support an entire video-on-demand business concept.

This ad is a nice reminder that the much-mocked former Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was only partially wrong when he famously said that the Internet is a series of tubes. There is a wonderful physicality of the Internet: Your g-mails are not floating around up in a cloud, they are firmly grounded on a field in Oklahoma. And for data to cross the ocean, it needs a tube - or submarine cable, if you want to be specific - from one coast to another. They weigh 10kg per meter (7 lb/ft), and the oceanic network looks something like this:

The longest one is 39.000km (pretty much a trip around the world) going from Germany to South Korea, with 39 landing points on its way.

The combined capacity of all trans-Atlantic cables is nearly 40T bits per second (Tbps), and even though it sounds like a lot, it's another reason why flat-rate Internet subscriptions might go up in price over the next years: These cables are reaching capacity, and it doesn't look like the current business-models support the investments needed.

New Scientist
The Guardian
PC World

Marching band eaten by a pack of ravenous wolves


Scan originally appeared in Wired 03.02, February 1995.

You may wonder what the headline has to do with an ad for Internet Shopping Network. Let me make the connection right away:

Amused, but still confused? Alright, from the top then:

Internet Shopping Network launched in 1995 as an online shopping portal for hardware and software. It was backed by Home Shopping Network, the nice guys and gals normally selling you stake-knives that can cut through shoes and other useful stuff.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, old-school retailer Fry’s Electronics pretty much had no idea what was going on. Interwebs, you say? Never heard of it.

ISN turned out to be way early to the game. After a modest success Home Shopping Network left the online space in 1998 and sold the 160.000 customers it had managed to scrape together to dotcom bad-boy Cyberian Outpost.

These guys had big plans, what with their Nasdaq shortname “COOL”, and ads like these:

And of course the one with the ravenous wolves. An ad that turned out to be ironic when considering Outpost’s own destiny. When the market crashed, their stock-price joined the race to the bottom. Fry’s Electronics had quietly watched these multiple failures from the sidelines and decided it was time to make their move. The wolves were unleashed, and Outposts assets and customer-base were acquired in 2001 at a bargain-price.

That’s what you do when you’re the incumbent. You wait for the right time to unleash the wolves. Let the newcomers make the mistakes, innovate, fight each other and fail. When the market is down, you buy the one with the most promise. People complaining about Microsoft’s lack of innovation need to remember this. It may be sexy to innovate, but if you have money in the bank, in-house innovation isn't necessarily better than buying your way in.

Flop-py disc camera


Scan originally appeared in Wired 05.09, October 1997.

Is that a floppy-disc in your camera, or are you just happy to see me?

Here's what I'm not getting: Since 1997, we've gone from 1.4MB to (at least) 32GB in portable storage. That's a 23.000x increase. Batteries have gone from 4-5 hours to 7-8 - you do the math on that one. Where's the meat!?

Iridium – the satellite phone always rings twice


Scan originally appeared in Wired 07.03, March 1999.

To an astro-buff / business strategist like me, Iridium is a fascinating story, and it’s only becoming better these days.

In the nineties, Iridium spent $5 billion of Motorolas and other investors money on developing and deploying a revolutionary satellite phone system: 72 satellites were put into Low Earth Orbit through 15 flawless rocket launches in a time-span of a little over a year in 1997-1998. The system was brilliant and worked exactly as designed. The only problem was that the design hadn’t taken into account the realities of Planet Earth below.

The phones were clunky and cost $3.000, they didn’t work indoors, the call-rates were astronomically high (as one would expect with a satellite system), and it basically turned out that all those high-powered business-men Iridium went for just weren’t interested. Much to no-ones surprise, these guys didn’t really spend their time in the deserts or on the North Pole, where Iridium had excellent coverage – they were more prone to be sitting in the hotel bar, indoors, with zeros signal-bars on their sat-phones.

Iridium became one of the most spectacular business failures ever seen. The bankruptcy hit in 1999, just a few months after this ad ran, and there was even crazy talk about sending the satellites head first into the atmosphere where they would burn up. In the end it was decided not to do that, and instead sell the assets to a group of investors for a mere $25 million. Compare that to the $5 billion invested.

Horrible, horrible. But – fast forward to today.

Turns out that the new investors have taken good care of their satellites (except the one that smashed into a defunct Russian satellite last year, of course).

In the years since the restructure of Iridium, the new owners have focused on the part of the business that actually made sense: Providing sat-phone coverage not to consumers, but to rescue-workers, humanitarian organizations, military, security, shipping-companies etc.

And now, they’ve launched a bold new plan: Iridium NEXT. A new fleet of satellites to replace the old in 2014, giving the network more bandwidth than ever. And no, it’s still not consumer-time. They go for Machine-to-Machine communication, a concept I can best translate into track-and-trace on drugs. Put your Iridium-thingy on whatever thingy you have that you want to keep track of, and so it shall be. Think containers, ships, ocean buoys, that kind of thing. And, who knows, they may also take a stab at proper wireless access on commercial airlines.

They still need to raise a lot of money to carry it out. Last year, they raised $250 million when going public (IRDM on Nasdaq), but that's not nearly enough. However, these guys are clever: They offer up to 50kg of extra payload on each satellite, if you help out with picking up a part of the tab for a launch. An excellent offer for climate scientists, for example, desperate to get their equipment into space and tell us exactly how fast that ice is melting.

I can't tell if that's a sign of desperation or brilliance - maybe both. In any case, I root for them: There's nothing like a comeback story. In space. Gotta love it!

Update: This post is being discussed on Reddit

Satnews Daily

Logitech Marble - Fake it 'till you make it


Scan originally appeared in Wired 03.11, November 1995.

"It fits the way I work. Which is shirtless. Since, unlike my mouse, my shirts need cleaning and you caught me at a really awkward moment, caressing my trackball."

Check the name on this dude – "Barrimore Zarsprach, automotive designer". Riiight – yet another automotive designer slash male model – I know so many of those!

The mouse itself is definitely not fake, though. In fact, it’s one of the more impressive products I’ve come across. Launched in 1995, the Logitech Trackman Marble is still alive and kicking today, although it’s been renamed Trackman Wheel.

The groundbreaking design got a following that lives on to this day. In fact, I spotted one on my colleagues desk. Quite rare he works without a shirt on, though...

We need highscreen, not widescreen


Scan originally appeared in Wired 03.09, September 1995.

So, this may not look smart, but I think it's quite clever.

What's the craze with widescreens, when what we need are high-screens? What was the last action you took right before reading this line? You scrolled down. It’s pretty obvious that what we need in 99% of our time on the web is more height, not width.

Oh, pivot-monitor of 1995 future, where art thou?


Here you are! :-) Ahh, gadget-world of 2010, thanks for fulfilling my dreams. And thanks, anonymous commentator, for pointing me to it!

Wall Street Journal - I feel so current!


Scan originally appeared in Wired 03.11, November 1995.

"Let me just go through my 2.50AM morning ritual of putting on an over-sized white blouse with elbow sleeves, part my hair in curtains and put on my Informer-inspired steel-rimmed circular glasses, so that I can get online and read the Wall Street Journal. GOD, I feel so CURRENT!"

Check out the print in this ad - it actually sounds like a pretty cool deal - apart from the auto-renewal and shipping fee (huh?).

While other old-school media have been back and forth over the years on the issue of paywalls, WSJ has always had one. Currently, they're even considering building their wall even higher and cutting out Google indexing of their site.

This is a heated debate, and there are loads of great articles on this subject right now (1 2, 3, for example). Personally, I’m not for or against paywalls, per se. My simple take is that if you have content worth paying for, you can consider charging for it. And if you charge for something not worth paying for, you’ll find out soon enough. We can’t all be barbers cutting each other's hair – those ads need to lead places with products you pay for. It's not a given that media has to be free and ad-based - timely and relevant information can easily be worth paying for. WSJ have been relatively successful with their paywall, since they are A) the leading voice in their field and B) speaking to a resourceful audience who's willing and able to pay. If I were New York Times, I'd be much more troubled with my chances of successfully erecting a paywall - and I don't think there's any quick-win formula for those guys.

Wired and Conde Nast recently said no to pay-walls, which must please Chris Anderson tremendously.

Oh, bonus video:

All-you-can-eat for the obese


Scan originally appeared in Wired 03.11, November 1995

"Oh deary me – who let the intern play with Photoshop 3 again…? Thank God he used drop-shadow, or we would have looked like complete amateurs!"

Horrible ad aside, Pipeline was a hugely successful ISP, with a snazzy point-and-click service. In the end, its customer-base ended up at Earthlink. Original subscribers can to this day still use their Pipeline email address - classic.

Pipeline was also one of the first to introduce flat-rate subscriptions. AOL quickly followed suit and introduced its flat-rate program in August 1996, instead of the old hourly fee.

Since then it’s been a growing headache for any ISP, as the business model is based on a courageous belief in current usage-patterns. The problem for the ISP is not the random crazy user who streams 20 tv-channels simultaneously 24/7 – that guy is taken care of with the small print in the contract. No, it’s when Mr. and Mrs. Bob start using cool services like Hulu, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Slingbox – this stuff has flat-rate killer written all over it. You might as well open an all-you-can-eat restaurant for obese people only.

As consumers, we love the idea of flat-rate, and that’s also why it’s not going away again. But don’t be surprised if you see price-hikes on flat-rate 3G subscriptions, as average usage goes up dramatically and network capacity struggles - ask any San Franciscan iPhone owner, or AT&T tech-employee, for that matter...

Why WordPerfect is better than Facebook


Scan originally appeared in Wired 01.05, November 1993.

We all know that WordPerfect was eclipsed by Microsoft Word in a big way, but back in 1993 it was top-dog. And who can blame consumers for wanting this nifty piece of word processing software, when it now includes liquid paper gone extreme? Yes, up to 8 previous actions are stored and can be undone – oh Data Processing Unit of the future, you make dreams come true! I love the way they put quotation-marks around the "Undo" - so it's not really undone, or what?

Makes me think that we’ve gone backwards on this one in recent years: Most SaaS products of today don't have an Undo feature. This was made painfully clear to me, when I messed up this blog's template through blogger.com yesterday and laid it bare for 10 minutes... Where's the Undo?!?

GMail introduced Undo a while back, but that's only because their mail-servers are so loaded that it takes more than 30 seconds to actually get the mail out the door anyway.

And where’s the undo feature in Facebook, when you’ve messed up your life? The internet is like pissing in a pool - once it's out there, it's damn hard to take it back.

PS: Notice how new feature #1, sound in documents, never caught on. When was the last time you received a Word document with sound effects in it? And how would I print that? Through my Alice Cooper endorsed Stereo?

Chronic Ironic Postergirl of the nineties


Scan originally appeared in Wired 03.11, November 1995.

What I find truly ironic about the 90's was that none of us teenagers back then had yet grasped the distinction between irony and sarcasm, thus we coined the phrase Chronic Ironic about our extensive use of sarcasm, unwittingly doing something incredibly ironic...

In any case, in the 90's we never really said what we actually liked. We only hinted at what things we didn't like, either by praising them, or - like the denim-clad postergirl above - sarcastically withholding our full endorsement.

Sounds complicated, I know, but once you mastered it, you had it made.

So, let's have a guess what this girl actually did like. The Cranberries? Nirvana? Ohh, I know: Alanis Morissette:

When AOL was Crack Cocaine


Scan originally appeared in Wired 01.02, May 1993.

The story on how AOL discs were bundled with frozen ham, just to give you that one little sip that got you hooked.

This insert from one of the very first Wired editions was the precursor of what was to become the largest carpet-bombing of a nation ever – with floppy discs.

By 1994, AOL had done the math. It turned out their product – dial-up access to the growing world wide web – was like crack cocaine: Once a customer logged in the first time, he/she would keep coming back, logging in, spending more and more time with their service. And this was dial-up charges, not the flat-rate hell (for ISPs) that was to come: AOL made a profit for every minute you were online. The math was clear: The lifetime value of an average customer was through the rough, meaning they could turn up their Customer Acquisition Cost dramatically and still make money.

Tell that to Marketing, and they’ll come up with some great ideas! Instead of buying big ol’ boring ads in magazines like the one above and lamely ask people to mail in for a disc, why not produce the floppy discs in ship-loads and bundle it with every other product imaginable? Doesn’t matter if most of those you hit don’t have a modem – or even a computer. If just some of them do, and just some of them tried out product, AOL would make a profit. So said the numbers - and so they hit the button: 300 million disc were produced and bundled with magazines, modems, flowers and frozen hams.

No, I’m not kidding – frozen hams.

With the disc, you got 2 hours of online access for free and you would be AOL’s forever – or at least until their service deteriorated.

The discs were so prolific they were nicknamed coasters, as in the thing you place under your cool beer. In the end there was a backlash and AOL stopped the carpet-bombing. But whether you liked the marketing or not, this strategy propelled them to no. 1, and enabled them to steal one of the biggest old-world media companies at the peak of the bubble (a book I can highly recommend, btw).

Oh, and the old joke about the discs: "The directions say 'install and run.' I'm too old to run... should I call the police?"

PS: If you’ve got one of these lying around, it might be worth something today.

The importance of celebrity endorsements


Scan originally appeared in Wired 01.05, November 1993.

So, yesterday, Wired Reread went viral, thanks to the same kind of celebrity endorsement that Fisher obviously went for in the above ad from 1993. In the last 24 hours, Wired Reread increased its readership with a couple of thousand percent, going from web anonymity to fast lane fame.

In my case, the celeb endorsement came from Xeni Jardin when she made the shout-out on Boing Boing. It was quickly followed by this tweet from Wired themselves:

"Everyone at @wired HQ is gonzo over www.wiredreread.com So simple, so embarrassing. (via @erikmalinowski)"

Score! Nothing like a bit of love from the mother-ship... Gizmodo followed suit, then Daring Fireball, and soon the blogs were all the twitter about Wired Reread. I thank you all!

Now, new reader, it’s your turn to pass on the word about Wired Reread. Tweet it, share it, fan it, tattoo it on the forehead of your kids (yes, post coming on that one soon!).

Get it out there and share the fun!

And now – back to the old news. A new (proper) post will appear shortly...

Dance like a white dude


Scan originally appeared in Wired 01.02, May 1993.

OK, yes, so you can record on a disc. But you’re clearly also dancing like a white dude, and can’t figure out to buy jeans with a suitable leg-length. So curb the enthusiasm, will you?

Anyway, the MiniDisc was one of the many storage formats that were cool (storing just around 1000 times more than the 1.2MB floppies we were carrying around back then) but just never really caught on in the consumer space - at least, not enough to displace CD/R's. I remember my cousin having one – I was quite envious...

Take the poll: Did you own a MiniDisc?

Before the iPad there was the MessagePad


Scan originally appeared in Wired 01.05, November 1993

Now that Apple yesterday released their advertising hounds, let's take a look back: Before the iPad, there was.... the MessagePad!

Yup, that was actually what it was called.

This baby was launched in 1993, ran on 4 AAA-batteries, giving it a ridiculously low battery-life, and sported the Newton operating system from Apple. It was highly anticipated, with hype going two years before the launch, which the actual product had a hard time catching up to. From Wired’s own recap of the product in the same issue as this ad was brought:

“Much like the original Macintosh 128K machine, the Newton has its share of flaws, bugs and limitations, but it’s still an amazing device that heralds a major revolution in personal computing”
Does this at all sound familiar to you?

In 1997, Apple followed up with the MessagePad 2000 (ahh, the golden age of millennium product names):

Scan from Wired May 1997

This 2k version was rather well received on the market, bringing in a bit of extra dough for Apple. This was in the struggling years, before the bubble and before the effects of the Second coming of Steve Jobs could be seen from the outside, when pretty much all stories about Apple was on the angle of when they would die.

Oh, and despite what you might think when reading the above, I totally believe in the success of the iPad. I've reserved a seat in my couch for it, and my moms next computer is going to be an iPad.

Ugly Websites Bonanza


Scan originally appeared in Wired 05.07, July 1997.

A colleague of mine introduced me to a saying: 'If the baby is ugly, let’s just say it’s ugly and get it over with'.

Oh, Geocities, your babies were ugly. Just look at the screenshot of the site used in the ad - if that's the posterboy, imagine what the rest of the sites looked like...

In 2009, the plug was finally pulled on this mainly Frontpage-'designed' bonanza of wall-to-wall ugly.

But hey, it was free and it got us what we all wanted in the 90’s: A home on the Infobahn.