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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How to Rip People Off Like Disney World

If you’ve ever visited Disney World, or some other overpriced resorts (last year I visited Warwick Castle and Legoland in the UK, both appallingly people-traps) you’ll have done what I did: vow never to come back. Of course, the companies running these places both know that and don’t care — which is why they are ripping you off royally while they can.

Seethu Seetharaman, an associate professor of management at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management, calls it a variety-seeking market and says it doesn’t just apply to tourist attractions:

Turns out that the resorts in Orlando are in a market where consumers want variety. Indeed, if a family is in Orlando for a week or more, there is little chance — at least if parents and children want to remain on speaking terms at vacation’s end — that they’ll do the exact same thing day after day. Instead, they’re likely to visit both Universal and Disney World and take in as many different rides and sights as possible; in other words, they’ll seek variety.

Seetharaman says that the same is true of people who are too lazy to shift brands: what he calls consumer inertia:

Using a mathematical model, Seetharaman, along with his research partner Hai Che, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California at Berkeley, was able to determine that the impact on price in both variety-seeking and inertial markets is similar. “The main point of the paper is that in markets where consumers seek variety, firms have an incentive to rip them off,” he says. “The surprise is that when markets are characterized by the opposite of inertia, the exact same incentive in terms of price competition that characterized inertial markets goes through as well.”

Basically, we’ll pay to go to Disney World whatever it costs, especially if we’ve already gone to Universal Studios or whatever else is within our daily trip radius. To that I’d add a couple more observations:

  • it pays to charge at least what rivals in the neighborhood are charging, because if a family has shelled out once, they’re likely to shell out again.
  • Secondly, customers may well equate price with the quality of experience; there’s no point in trying to undercut your rivals because that would imply the experience you’re offering is not as valuable as theirs.
  • This doesn’t seem to stop these kinds of resorts from trying to gain loyalty. There’ll always be some families who want to come back each year, so it makes sense to offer them a steep discount.
  • The only problem I see with all this is that while you want to have a boisterous, noisy crowd, if the queues are too long you may scare away some visitors from the whole concept. In that sense the companies are not rivals at all, but are partners in trying to lure more and more families into the idea of vacationing at these places. Which, as an afterthought, raises the question: should we be thinking cartels and price fixing?

Seetharaman concludes:

None of this comes as a big surprise to companies involved in a variety-seeking market. “The firms know this. They know this market is characterized by variety, so they know that they are going to eventually get their competitor’s previous customers,” says Seetharaman. “Knowing this they are actually trying to rip them off.”

Rice University | Explore Rice

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The Sleazy Practice of Internal Linking

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It’s a small bugbear but I find it increasingly irritating, and I think it reflects a cynical intent to mislead on the part of the people who do it, so I’m going to vent my spleen on it: websites which turn links in their content, not to the site itself, but to another page on their own website.

An example: TechCrunch reviews Helium, a directory of user-generated articles. But click on the word Helium, and it doesn’t take you, as you might reasonably expect, to the website Helium, but to a TechCrunch page about Helium. If you want to actually find a link to the Helium page, you need to go there first.

I find this misleading, annoying and cynical on the part of the websites that do this. First off, time-honored tradition of the net would dictate a website name which is linked to something would be to the website itself. Secondly, clearly TechCrunch and its ilk are trying to keep eyeballs by forcing readers to go to another internal page, with all the ads, before finding the link itself. Thirdly, because I’m a PersonalBrain user and I like to drag links into my plex (that’s what we PBers call it) it’s a pain.

Fourthly, it’s clearly a policy that even TechCrunch has trouble enforcing. In the case above, the original post had the word Helium directly linking to the website itself, but which was subsequently edited to link to the internal TechCrunch page (as noticed by a reader of the site). If you subscribe to the TechCrunch feed, that’s what you’ll still see:

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TechCrunch isn’t alone in this, by the way. StartupSquad does it (a particularly egregious example here of five links in a row which don’t link to the actual sites). For an example of how it should be done, check out Webware, which has the word linking to the site itself, and an internal review as a parenthetical link following. Like this, in Rafe Needleman’s look at companionship websites. Click on Hitchsters and you go to the site; click on ‘review’ and you go to a review.

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It’s a nuisance more than a crime, but to me it still undermines a central tenet of the web: links should be informative and not misleading. If you are linking to anything other than what your reader would expect, then you’re just messing around with them.

The Connections Our Buttons Make

CapOnce we create all that attention data, think of the whacky things we can do with it.

I’ve been banging on about attention data for a while now, and I apologise. (For an explanation and a bit of background, go here.) But I can’t help seeing stuff through that prism nowadays. Like this camera called Buttons that doesn’t take pictures but times, and then searches the Internet for photographs taken at that second:

It is a camera that will capture a moment at the press of a button. However, unlike a conventional analog or digital camera, this one doesn’t have any optical parts. It allows you to capture your moment but in doing so, it effectively seperates it from the subject. Instead, as you will memorize the moment, the camera memorizes only the time and starts to continuously search on the net for other photos that have been taken in the very same moment.

Basically the camera is a phone inside a sort of camera case. Press the button and the phone searches Flickr for photos taken at that moment. (Of course, this may take a little time.)

A lovely idea and a fascinating one. I seem to recall a photography project here where individuals were given cameras and told to take photos at the exact same moment around the city. Danged if I can remember what it was called. But as Tim O’Reilly points out in the comments on a post by Nikolaj Nyholm, it has even greater potential beyond the variable of time:

I imagine that with geolocation, you could potentially go one better. Imagine a camera that does take a picture, but also initiates a search for all other pictures taken at that same location (and optionally at the same time of day/year.)

Less poetic a vision than that of Sascha Pohflepp, creator of Buttons, but possibly more relevant to many users. I’d certainly love to see Google Earth etc use time more in their layers, so that it’s possible to get historical changes in a place (say 3D models of old buildings that no longer exist, or photos like those extraordinary collections created by the UNEP which depict changes in the environment.)

But the main idea here is to use the metadata embedded in attention streams (in this case, when or where a photo was taken) and match it with metadata from other streams. A bit like Last.fm, et al, where similarities are found between what music two quite separate people are listening to. The goal is as Sascha puts it, to subordinate the device to the bigger purpose of connecting people:

Even more so, it reduces the cameras to their networked buttons in order to create a link between two individuals.

The possibilities are endless, but it’s too early in the morning for me to think of any.

Mossberg

Ken Auletta writes about Walt Mossberg in the New Yorker:

clipped from www.newyorker.com

Eric Schmidt suggests that, while the Internet may yield enormous amounts of information, it is easy to drown in it. So consumers, Schmidt says, “go to brands they trust.” He adds, “Walt is a brand.”

Clock Shock

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For those of you who can’t get out of bed in the morning, the alarm clock that outwits you is finally here. I mentioned Clocky in a WSJ column more than a year ago in talking about the problems of ignored alarms:

Efforts to overcome this problem have been inventive, but rarely successful, says Gauri Nanda, a 26-year-old graduate student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. “Just last week a man told me he currently uses three alarm clocks and then asks his friends to hide them,” she says. Ms. Nanda’s solution: an alarm clock called Clocky equipped with outsize wheels and shockproof covering (early prototypes are wrapped in brown shag), that goes off and then, when its snooze button is pressed, skedaddles across the room and hides, requiring owners to get out of bed and find it. By the time they have, the thinking goes, Clocky has done its job because they’re out of bed and wide awake, if a little frustrated.

Gauri tells me the clock is now out and about, although it’s dropped the shaggy pile in favor of robust rubber and plastic, leaping off your nightstand and running erratically around the room making an annoying, R2D2–like noise. (see a video here.)

 I think it’s a great idea, although it’s not the only annoying alarm clock on the market. Uberreview lists some others, including:

Traffic Part II: Rules That Don’t Work

Traffic is all about rules. But which rules work, and which don’t?

Mrtarrows1A smart planner will always be observing rules and seeing how they might work better. Lifts, for example, have never been optimized for how people organise themselves inside the lift. Buildings will often arrange lines for getting into a lift, but not for what goes on inside the lift.

Watch how people get in and out of lifts. Do those who get in first move to the back of the lift, or do they sidle up to the controls and wedge themselves there like some amateur lift operator? If they do, do they look around to see whether other people in the lift have pressed for their floor, or do they make it hard for them to reach the buttons? Do people try to position themselves in the lift according to the floor they’re going to? Lifts are rarely self-organised systems, for some reason. A smart planner would organise lifts lines so that these kinds of issues were optimized. But I’ve never seen it done properly.

Indeed, even in a highly sophisticated city like Hong Kong there are rules that don’t, in my view, work.  On subways there are two lines drawn on the platform on either side of the carriage door so passengers can wait for others to alight between them before boarding. This system seems like it should work, but it doesn’t, because there’s no benefit for each side to hold back and wait for all passengers to alight.

What happens is that individuals on one side of the doorway will start to edge forwards, pushing the alighting passengers towards the other line, and preventing them from alighting. By the time the passengers have all alighted, the pushy line is already aboard and have taken the best positions, leaving the other line to scramble for seats. There’s no advantage for following the rules, and no point in the two lines collaborating. I’ve never seen the system work properly. Planners should allocate a single line on one side of the door, with passengers alighting on the left and boarding passengers queuing on the right.

Planners won’t figure this out, of course, if they’re not using the system they’ve designed. If they do, they would have spotted this problem on day one.

How to Poison Someone on the Cheap

Intrigued and disturbed by reports that the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko may have been killed by radiation poisoning, I couldn’t help wondering how something like that was done? How easy would it be to get your hands on Polonium-210, the chemical element? Quite easy, it turns out.

If you’re in the U.S., or have someone with a U.S. PayPal account you could shell out $70 and buy it online at United Nuclear (“Supplying the science hobbyist, industry, government, schools & universities since 1998”), a New Mexico company with a fun attitude (“If you’re looking for a clean, accurate, certified radiation sources, here they are…”).

If you don’t want to wait that long, head down to your local photography store and buy a  StaticMaster Anti-Static Brush – 3″, whose ionizer is powered by alpha-energy from Polonium-210 ion sources. Cost: about $40. In fact you don’t need to buy the whole brush; you could just buy a replacement Polonium cartridge. According to this article, hold a StaticMaster against any glow-in-the-dark toy and you can see the polonium inside the cartridge glow.  

I don’t know enough about this kind of thing to say how you would then use this stuff to poison people, and perhaps the quantities aren’t enough. But while the StaticMaster is supposedly safe and that Polonium 210 has been used safely for decades, this may be because it’s sealed: The later website, AngelFire warns: Whatever you do, DO NOT abuse the physical integrity of the sealed sources. Po-210 is a dangerous inhalation and ingestion hazard!

It sounds as if getting your hands on Po-210 isn’t quite as tricky as it sounds. How you would then administer it, I don’t know.

Your Watch Is Ringing

Jiji Press of Japan is reporting (can’t find any link for this) that Seiko Instruments “has developed a prototype of a wristwatch that alerts the wearer to mobile phone calls.” The watch uses Bluetooth to monitor a cell phone and vibrates or sounds an alarm when a call comes in. Useful, I guess, if you don’t want to take your phone out of your pocket. Expect to see something in the shops next year.  

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For whom the Bluetooth tolls