The Alarm Clock is Dead, Long Live the Cellphone

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Gadgets, like software and services, often end up being used in ways the creator didn’t intend. But how many companies make the most of this opportunity?

Take the cellphone. More than a third of Brits use their mobile phone as an alarm clock, according to a survey by British hotel chain Travelodge (thanks textually.org):

Budget hotel chain Travelodge quizzed 3,000 respondents on waking up habits and 71% of UK adults claimed that alarm clocks are now obsolete. The faithful bedside companion has been cast off in favour of the modern must-have, a mobile phone. Sixteen million Brits (36%) now prefer using the latest ring tone to rouse them from sleep rather than the shrill bleeping of an alarm clock.

Why? The article doesn’t say, but the answers are pretty obvious:

  • Who wants to take an extra device with you when you travel?
  • Ever come across an alarm clock with a dozen different ring tones?
  • Ever tried to program an alarm clock you’re not familiar with?
  • Ever tried to rely on wake up services?
  • Most alarm clocks are badly designed.

This might even reveal itself in the Alarm Clock Law: if another device can handle the task of a dumber gadget, it will replace it. So does that mean that the alarm clock is dead?

Not exactly. The alarm clock performs a single function: wake the person up. But that has turned out not to be as easy as it looks. While the design of most alarm clocks have been outsourced to the brain-dead, other designers have recognised the potential of alarm clocks that don’t merely wake up the owner, but keep them awake long enough to get up.

This list, for example, illustrates the thriving world of alarm clock design (think Clocky, that has wheels and has wheels and . And in this post about Seth Godin last September there was a bunch of responses suggesting that in fact alarm clock designers have tried to add features to make the alarm clock relevant. As one of the commenters pointed out, the problem is that we’re just not ready to pay more for those features because alarm clocks have become a commodity.

I suspect it’s a bit more complicated than this. There may be other factors:

  • the decline of radio, and therefore the decline of alarm-clock-radios (34% of respondents wake up to the radio in the Travelodge survey);
  • We travel more and carry more gadgets with us, so something had to stay behind;
  • As home alarm clocks became more sophisticated (music, radio, mains-powered) so we were less likely to take them on the road with us;
  • Then there’s security: I know I stopped bringing an old-style ticking alarm clock with me because it made airport security professionals nervous.

Perhaps most important, we have developed a comfort level with our cellphone’s inner workings, and few of us would like to entrust a morning alarm to something or someone we don’t know.

Cellphone manufacturers, to their credit, seem to have acknowledged this new role: I tried to find the alarm function on a Nokia 6120 and did so in five seconds. I bet it would take me longer on any digital alarm clock. The process is quick and painless, and a little bell logo on the home screen reassuringly indicates it’s set. The alarm itself is cute and starts out unobtrusively but then gets louder until you’re up and about.

Or, more ominously, have thrown the phone across the room where it now sits in pieces. Maybe there is something to be said for keeping the alarm clock separate.

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Hotel Complaints, Blackmail and Bribery

Why is it that big chains in the service industry assume that when you write to them complaining about something that you’re just out for a freebie? The thinking seems to go: this person is trying to blackmail us. So bribe them.

Case in point: Just got back from a weekend at five-star hotel in central Java. I’ve been there plenty of times before; it’s a quality hotel, very well run and the only big name chain in the area. But while they’ve done a great job of creating a serene ambience — a view of a volcano as you enter the lobby, a gorgeous garden and golf course, the trickle of fountains mingling with the tinkling of Javanese gamelan along the walkways — they use a system of summoning drivers and taxis that is usually seen in a mall.

It’s basically a tannoy system, a request for a driver or taxi puncuated at beginning and end with a distorted xylophone scale, climbing and ascending like a man riddled with gout. It’s normal stuff in Indonesian office blocks, urban hotels and malls, where few people actually drive themselves, but thoroughly out of place in the paddies of central Java. If it was far from the hotel it would be bearable, but It’s sufficiently loud to be heard in at least a third of the hotel rooms, starting early in the morning until late at night.

So, we complained, quietly and reasonably, to the front desk and resisted their invitation to change rooms. Why should we when the solution was as simple as turning down the volume of the loudspeaker? Anyway, they promised to look into the problem, but of course it was never resolved, the xylophone rising and falling from early in the morning, so I fired off an email to the chain’s U.S. head-office. Nothing too harsh, but making it clear that it was undermining our confidence in the hotel that something so straightforward couldn’t be addressed — or a reason given as to why it couldn’t be fixed.

Upshot: an email from head office that didn’t address the source of our complaint at all. Instead:

I would like the opportunity to restore your faith in [hotel chain deleted] by offering you a complimentary one room upgrade the next time your travel plans include a [hotel chain deleted] hotel to compensate you for what you encountered. We ask that you make your future reservation for a standard room at the lowest rate you can find. Then contact the [hotel chain deleted] Customer Service office with the confirmation number, and we will upgrade you to the best available room that the hotel has to offer, based upon availability. Please let me know if you would like to accept my offer.

No mention of whether they’re looking into the problem we raised, or asking for more information about it. Just the simple assumption that an upgrade would shut us up. Sure, we’ll take the upgrade but why won’t you take our input seriously, at face value? Why is customer feedback considered a threat, assuaged by a freebie?

Lesson for today: Maybe feedback is just that. We customers want things to be better next time we stay; that’s why we let you know what’s right and what’s wrong. Not all of us are trying to blackmail you. We just want a nice place to stay.